Respect for persons and perfectionist politics

Philosophy and Public Affairs 30 (4):417–442 (2001)
Abstract
Can a state seek to promote a thick conception of the good (such as fostering a kind of meaning or excellence in people's lives) without treating its citizens disrespectfully? The predominant answer among friends of the principle of respect for persons is "no." The most powerful Kantian objection to non-liberalism or perfectionism is the claim that citizens who do not share the state's conception of the good would be wronged in that the state would treat a certain way of life as more important than its citizens' capacities to choose their own ways of life. I sketch a new non-liberal principle for political decision-making and show that, unlike other forms of non-liberalism, it is not vulnerable to this major respect-based objection. 'Open perfectionism' is the view that state enforcement of a conception of the good favoured by the majority is permissible if and only if the minority has the substantial ability to avoid the territory in which the conception of the good is enforced. I argue that it is a realistic possibility for some non-liberal states to provide a fair opportunity to their dissenters to avoid the imposition of non-liberal policies and that the Kantian liberal's central complaint would not apply to non-liberal states if they were to provide such an opportunity. The principle of respect for persons grounds the most influential argument for liberalism, and so showing that open perfectionism is consistent with liberal intuitions about free choice promises to help to transcend the long-standing conflict between non-liberalism and Kantian liberalism.
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