Monday, April 6, 2015

Modern Liberalism and the Challenge from Communitarianism

(Public Lecture, World Philosophy Day, University of San Carlos, 2014)

The role of political philosophy in contemporary times has remained intact, and it is to address the most important political question known to man since the ancient times: What is the meaning of justice? The socialism we find in Marxism is a philosophy not just of protest or criticism, but a moral philosophy of detailing the struggle for equality that seeks to transform political structures. Liberal democracy right now may or may not provide the answer. But this is only because there is really no fool-proof moral prescription to the problem of social justice.

Modern Liberalism 

Two schools of thought compete in modern political theory. The first is rooted in the tradition of liberalism and the other comes from the challenge of communitarianism. Modern liberalism is founded in the dual commitment to freedom and equality. Rawls is asking what sort of political arrangement will allow people to pursue their life plans without sacrificing their basic liberties and at the same time, enable the worst off to have opportunities for self-improvement. Liberal equality does not mean “the removal of all inequalities, but only those that do not benefit the worst off.” (Kymlicka 2007, 55)

The Rawlsian theory of justice is grounded in the contractarian argument. The original position that the parties to the agreement have placed themselves into is imagined or hypothetical. The main role of the social contract is the establishment of the state as a political community where people can pursue things, develop relations and fulfill their obligations toward each other. For Rawls, justice is realized in the basic structure. The basic structure is concerned with the division of advantages or benefits in society and the obligations arising from the same.

The desire to benefit or gain from social cooperation comes from what Hume calls the “circumstances of justice.” The circumstances of justice refer to the usefulness of the virtue of justice. Justice is seen as instrumental in advancing the interests of the individual. Justice performs some specific function and that is to be able to give to citizens the advantages that they expect from social cooperation. In the absence of such, the parties will not enjoin themselves in the social contract. 

Rawls's original position as a device is to be entered into between rational [thinking according to one’s best interests] and equal persons. It is founded in the principle of impartiality where people choose the principles of justice on fair terms. Impartiality deems that the rules or procedures are not to anyone’s favor or advantage. This is done under a veil of ignorance where one does not know his status or position in an initial position of equality. As such, justice comes as a result of a just procedure.

For Rawls, all individuals possess inviolable rights that cannot be sacrificed for the benefit of the many. Rawls writes in A Theory of Justice that “justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others,” and for this reason, “it does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many.” (Rawls 1971, 3) This position is rooted in the Kantian ideal of the individual as an end in itself.

The Challenge from Communitarianism 

As a critique to modern liberalism, a reworking of liberalism comes from Will Kymlicka. Kymlicka advocates for the right to self-representation in the issue of minority rights. Minority groups are disadvantaged because influential power players, as found in the social, economic, and political hierarchy, deny their members access to broader social, political and economic rights. Structural reform in the basic structure of society requires leveling the playing field by giving minority groups greater autonomy so that the distribution of social primary goods becomes more equitable.

Due the oppressive political conditions that marginalized people are forced into, state-centric rights to representation fail to consider the widespread structural exclusion which has resulted to political violence. Given decades-long neglect, the right thing to do is to give to the minority the power to make decisions for themselves so that they will be able to fully develop their society. This includes the recognition of a people’s distinct way of life, which must be protected by the state. In order to realize this, Kymlicka proposes what he calls a "societal culture" under a liberal state. 

Response to Communitarianism

As a response, Rawls presents the idea of the "freedom of conscience." Liberalism is founded on human liberty. Freedom of conscience allows people to have autonomous choices in terms of their conception of the good. Liberalism does not impose a singular way of life, but gives the individual the option to choose a way of life based on the individual's autonomous will. The liberal state, in this regard, is not paternalistic. To value human freedom, in this sense, deems that the state recognize the choices people make in terms of religious belief and the good life as they see fit.

What political liberalism entails is the due regard for public interest. The concept of public interest is grounded in constitutional essentials. For liberalism, public values inform the content of public interest. In promoting the interest of the public, Rawls maintains that the power of the state is enshrined in the legislature, which determines the laws that must be passed in order to realize the general welfare of the people.


A reaction to Rawls's A Theory of Justice comes from Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia. Nozick says that liberty is the basis of political morality. Libertarians think that the power of the state should be reduced into a mere night watchman. His minimalist view of the state is one that is restricted to the protection of the right of the individual to life, property and liberty. Nozick supports what he calls the free exchange of goods. The duty of the state, for him, includes the enforcement of contracts in order to protect this economic norm. But he opposes taxing the rich in order to give to the poor. Doing so, according to him, is some kind of state coercion which violates the right of the individual to what he owns. 

Rawls's notion of modern liberalism seeks to reconcile freedom and equality. It is a mixture of socialism and liberalism. On one hand, the sacrifice freedom for the sake of equality would defeat the very ability of each individual to pursue the fruits of his talents. On the other hand, the libertarian over-emphasis on freedom without a sense of social obligation to others on matters like education may undermine the welfare of those who do not deserve their disadvantaged position. Justice as fairness therefore advocates a dual commitment. It argues for a theory of justice that protects the basic liberty of each and at the same time, it also seeks to redistribute the primary social goods in society by means of the difference principle in order to allow the poor to improve their lives. The state is tasked to insure that the worst off in society will not be cheated of their equal or fair share.

Cosmopolitan Critique

World poverty is the background condition of Thomas Pogge's cosmopolitan critique of Rawls's theory. Pogge traces the root cause of world poverty to unjust global structures which have a deep debilitating effect, thereby seriously aggravating massive global inequalities. In this sense, he argues that the global poor possess the economic rights in terms of access to the resources available in the first world. Pogge questions the moral propriety as regard to how rich countries have acquired their vast holdings. He mentions, as an example, unjust historical acquisitions and the exploitation of the natural resources in the Third World. Pogge's argues for some kind of historical compensation.  

What Pogge is saying is that the global rich have no absolute right to their wealth. Powerful nations and multinational corporations, use oppressive policies which take advantage of the weak internal structures in poor societies. Pogge argues that rich countries have the negative duty not to harm the poor. He says that duties of assistance are not enough and that affluent countries have failed to deliver their development pledges. To realize justice in the world, Pogge advocates for a global difference principle which extends the Rawlsian principle of distributive justice to the global poor. 

Equality and Parfit's Priority View 

Another challenge to Rawls comes from David Parfit. We might ask, for instance - Is inequality essentially bad? Telic egalitarians think that equality is good and inequality is evil. Telic egalitarians say that morality proceeds from consequences. The basis of judging what is morally acceptable is equality of outcomes [utilitarian]. Parfit says that “if we are telic egalitarians, we would say that while it is good that people are on average better off, it is bad if some people are worse off than others.” (Parfit 1997, 206) 

Meanwhile, deontic egalitarians say that inequality is not in itself bad if some people are worse off than others. (Ibid., 207) The deontic view suggests that people should not be treated differently. It is therefore unjust if some people are well-provided whereas others are denied of their fair share. Parfit says that in this view, “fairness may require that, if certain goods are given to some, they should be given to all.” (Ibid.) Parfit rejects both notions on the basis of his priority view. He describes the priority view: “benefiting people matters more the worse off these people are.” (Ibid., 213) 

On this view, benefits to a person because he is worse off matters more. (Ibid.) It is important to benefit some person more than another because of his condition. For Parfit, “the greater urgency of benefiting the worse off does not depend on his relation to another person, but only on his lower absolute level.” (Ibid., 214) Parfit cites the leveling down objection. One cannot make a situation better by taking one eye from another in order to give it to those who are blind. What is important is that one does something that will prevent the worse off to be in an undeserved worse position. In this sense, what is more pressing or more urgent is to help the worst off. Parfit describes the leveling down objection:
If inequality is bad, its disappearance must be in one way a change for the better, however this change occurs. Suppose that, in some natural disaster, those who are better off lose all their extra resources, and become badly off as everyone else. Since this change would remove the inequality, it must be in one way welcome, on the telic view. Though this disaster would be worse for some people, and better for no one, it must be, in one way, a change for the better. Similarly, it would not be in one way an improvement if we destroyed the eyes of the sighted to benefit the blind, but only to make the sighted blinded. These implications can be more plausibly regarded as monstrous, or absurd. (Ibid., 210

If society is defined by homogeneity, or meaning to say, if there were no differences in talents, then people would look the same and will no longer strive for creativity. If all talents are equal, there is a natural restriction on people in so far as they would become unimaginative. Social and natural contingencies affect the outcomes of the lives of people. But without these varying differences in people, society will not flourish. If people are forced to have equal income levels, then no one would aspire for something entrepreneurial. In this regard, society’s wealth would not grow. Equality cannot be an end in itself in this regard. 


Political existence is always paradoxical. While people value the moral good, it is also undeniable that they are lured by material riches and the corresponding comfort these bring. Systemic injustices are a result of decades old biases and the power dynamics that determine the kind of politics people practice in their societies. Indeed, the above theories show forth the debate regarding the meaning of justice. In the end, justice is intended to address the inequalities no single person deserves, however poor he might be. In this sense, it matters that people value human life, their family and their country, and the person as person for fundamentally if such becomes the basis of human action, then society shall have cared for the dignity of each.


Will Kymlicka. 2007. Contemporary Political Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

John Rawls. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

John Rawls. 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia.

Derek Parfit. 1997. “Equality and Priority”. In Ratio (December).

Thomas Pogge. 2002. World Poverty and Human Rights. Malden: Blackwell Publishers.

Charles Taylor. 1994. "The Politics of Recognition." In Amy Gutmann, Editor. Multiculturamism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.