Kaveh Pourvand (University of Arizona), "The Possibility of Social Unity in the Liberal Democratic State"
Forthcoming in Journal of Social Philosophy
It is widely held that liberal democratic societies will be stable only if their citizens are prepared to sacrifice for one another. Such “sacrificial acts” could range from a willingness to redistribute one’s own resources to the lesser advantaged to potentially giving up one’s life for national defence. We can express this idea slightly more formally by saying that citizens need to attain a congruence between their personal commitments and goals on the one hand, and the demands of political justice on the other.
However, contemporary liberal democracies are growing ever more diverse across a variety of dimensions. There is diversity with respect to religious and metaphysical beliefs, economic views, ethnicity, ways of life and, of course, the old dividing line of social class – to mention just some salient forms of diversity.
Many fear that diversity threatens the political stability of liberal democracies. This worry is embodied in what we might call the extra-political ties account of congruence. This holds that citizens will be prepared to sacrifice for one another only if they have common ties and bonds over and beyond being citizens of the same state. Such ties could be derived from shared religion or ethnicity, but they could also be derived from a shared national culture. A charitable interpretation of conservative anxiety about immigration and other kinds of cultural change is that they undermine the common bonds that any liberal democracy needs to endure.
However, many liberals and progressives fear that maintain stability through enforced commonality is objectionably exclusionary of minorities at home and would-be immigrants from abroad. They hope that stability and diversity could be reconcilable if political cooperation were sufficient by itself to generate solidarity between citizens. As Jurgen Habermas puts it, liberal democratic political values could “stand on their own feet” without needing extra help, as it were, from shared cultural or ethnic ties to motivate compliance.
This raises the question of how such “constitutional patriotism” might work in practice. In my paper, I look at a detailed proposal of John Rawls in the last third of his Theory of Justice. Rawls offers three arguments as to how citizens could achieve congruence between their personal good and political justice in the absence of extra-political ties. I argue that these three arguments fail because they are epistemically defective. They require citizens to have knowledge of one another that is implausible to expect in impersonal settings.
The social union argument holds that each citizen can take pride in knowing that their sacrifices for political justice, such as paying their taxes, helped make possible the achievements of other citizens, whether in arts, sports or (I daresay) philosophy. To the extent that we gain pleasure from enabling the achievements of others in this way, we will be motivated to keep complying with political justice. This argument fails because, in a complex society, the link between one citizen’s sacrifice for political justice and the achievements of another is opaque and so the former’s sense of having enabled those achievements would be commensurately attenuated.
The argument from the intrinsic good of political justice holds that we gain intrinsic satisfaction from expressing our capacity for justice and so we would enjoy promoting justice through large-scale political activity. On Rawls’ own account however, we enjoy expressing our capacity for justice because it calls upon us to interpret the wants, desires and needs of others, and adjust our own behaviour in response. That is, we enjoy the skill of undertaking such “interpretive labour.” Yet this implies that we would enjoy expressing our capacity for justice principally in small-scale, intimate associations where it is feasible to gain detailed knowledge of the wants and needs of our peers. By contrast, in large-scale politics the mass of our fellow citizens are more like strangers to us.
The civic friendship argument holds that if a citizen votes with the intention of promoting the common good rather than their own personal, partisan interest, this engenders feelings of good will among other citizens who will then be motivated to reciprocate. The trouble here is that we cannot directly infer intention from the bare fact of a voting decision. Citizens can vote for a party or candidate with a variety of intentions. Consider how even today we are still debating why many British voters opted for Brexit or American voters for Trump. It is thus difficult to establish why fellow citizens vote the way they do and, by extension, whether they act with good will or not.
My argument suggests, then, that one plausible attempt at reconciling diversity with stability by a leading liberal philosopher fails. This is indicative proof that such a reconciliation might not be possible. If so, one option is to fall back on the extra-political ties view. But an alternative would be to ask whether we can live with more political instability and institutional change than we might think. I plan on exploring the alternative in future work.
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