Civic respect, political liberalism, and non-liberal societies

Politics, Philosophy and Economics 4 (3):275-299 (2005)

Blain Neufeld
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
One prominent criticism of John Rawls’s The Law of Peoples is that it treats certain non-liberal societies, what Rawls calls ‘decent hierarchical societies’, as equal participants in a just international system. Rawls claims that these non-liberal societies should be respected as equals by liberal democratic societies, even though they do not grant their citizens the basic rights of democratic citizenship. This is presented by Rawls as a consequence of liberalism’s commitment to the principle of toleration. A number of critics have claimed that Rawls’s treatment of these non-liberal societies is symptomatic of a more general problem with political liberalism, namely, its reliance on toleration as its ‘fundamental principle’. Against this view, I argue that the principle of toleration should not be understood as political liberalism’s ‘fundamental principle’. This is revealed through a consideration of the normative basis of what Rawls calls the ‘Liberal Principle of Legitimacy’. A correct understanding of political liberalism’s ‘fundamental principle’, which I claim is a principle of equal ‘civic respect’ for citizens, shows that Rawls’s toleration of non-liberal societies is in fact a misapplication of political liberalism to the global domain. Moreover, I explain that political liberalism must assert that the principle of equal civic respect for citizens is the correct principle to govern the public political relations of citizens in all pluralist societies, and that most ‘decent hierarchical societies’ are pluralist in nature. Identifying political liberalism’s fundamental principle as that of equal civic respect for citizens helps to render political liberalism, in both the domestic and international domains, a more coherent and compelling approach to thinking about fundamental political issues. Key Words: civic respect • international relations • justice • political liberalism • Rawls • toleration.
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DOI 10.1177/1470594X05056603
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