Political liberalism, autonomy and gender equality

This paper considers the tension between political liberalism and gender equality in the light of social construction and multiculturalism. The tension is exemplified by the work of Martha Nussbaum, who tries to reconcile a belief in the universality of certain liberal values such as gender equality with a political liberal tolerance for cultural practices that violate gender equality. The paper distinguishes between first- and second-order conceptions of autonomy, and shows that political liberals mistakenly prioritise second-order autonomy. This prioritisation leads political liberals to seek to limit state interference in individuals’ choices. However, the paper argues that if options, choices and the preferences which lead to them are socially influenced or constructed, it is no longer clear that state noninterference secures autonomy. Instead, it becomes a matter of justice what the content of the social or state influence is, which options are open to people, and political liberalism cannot deal with many forms of injustice. Rather than emphasising state neutrality, liberals should endorse state prohibition of practices which cause significant harm to those who choose them, if they are chosen only in response to unjust norms.
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