Liberalism, abstract individualism, and the problem of particular obligations

Res Publica 11 (4):371-401 (2005)
In the following I take issue with the allegation that liberalism must inevitably be guilty of ‘abstract individualism’. I treat Michael Sandel’s well-known claim that there are ‘loyalties and convictions whose moral force consists partly in the fact that living by them is inseparable from understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are’ as representative of this widely held view. Specifically, I argue: (i) that Sandel’s account of the manner in which ‘constitutive’ loyalties function as reasons for action presupposes the possibility of there being (what I call) ‘underivable particular obligations’, but that such obligations are, in fact, a logical impossibility; and (ii) that Sandel’s account of the self as necessarily ‘encumbered’ presupposes an account of personal identity which confuses identification with definition, and which is, therefore, fundamentally flawed.
Keywords abstract individualism  communitarianism  liberalism  Rawls  Sandel
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