The diversity of comprehensive liberalisms

The distinction between ‘comprehensive’ and ‘political’ liberalisms, explored in the previous chapter, has become central to contemporary political theory. My aim in this chapter is to examine various ‘comprehensive’ liberalisms, with particular care to identifying in what sense they are comprehensive. As I have argued elsewhere (Gaus, 2003: chap. 7), the distinction between political and comprehensive liberalisms is elusive. Rawls repeatedly describes as ‘comprehensive’ ‘philosophical’, ‘moral’ and ‘religious’ ‘doctrines’ (1996: xxv, 4, 36, 38, 160) or ‘beliefs’ (1996: 63). Indeed, so often does Rawls characterize comprehensiveness in terms of moral, religious and philosophical doctrines or beliefs that a reader may be tempted to conclude that doctrine C is comprehensive if and only if it is a moral, religious or philosophical doctrine or belief. But though it is tempting to understand ‘comprehensive conceptions’ in this way, it would be wrong. Rawls is clear that ‘the distinction between the political conception and other moral conceptions is a matter of scope; that is, the range of subjects, to which a conception applies and the content a wider range requires’ (1996: 13). Comprehensive and general doctrines cover a wide range of topics, values and ideals applicable to various areas of life. Even given the terms of Rawls’s own analyses, rather than conceiving of comprehensive liberalisms as all relying on a fully comprehensive doctrine, it is better to conceive of them in terms of a spectrum of theories, from those that rely on something like a fully comprehensive view to those that rely on, say, only a general theory of the right. In this chapter I shall focus on the following versions of comprehensive liberalism
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