Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice

Rawls Redeemed?

In The Law of Peoples Rawls suggests that a society need not be liberal to be just—even going so far as to acknowledge that liberalism may be ill-suited to some particular contexts and circumstances. Accordingly, for the sake of minimizing war and other instability/suffering, and for promoting self-determination and the exercise of public reason—Rawls holds that illiberal societies should be tolerated by the international community, provided they are “decent” (Rawls 2010); a society can meet this threshold insofar as it is “well-ordered” to promote the public good, as understood within its specific socio-cultural context.

Nussbaum offers no such concession. In fact, like Raz, she supports suppressing or destroying templates which are incompatible with her “capabilities approach” to social justice,  going so far as to endorse the dismantling of entire civilizations if needed on the grounds that  “cultures are not like museum pieces which must be preserved at all costs” (Nussbaum 2000: 37). Of course, it is perplexing that in the same breath Nussbaum acknowledges the responsibility to protect and preserve cultural artifacts (which are what we generally store in museums), she also argues that the international community may have an obligation to mutilate many of the very cultures from whence such articles are derived. But let us sidestep her ill-formed analogy to address a more substantive incoherence:

In justifying these moral interventions, Nussbaum argues that the tolerance encouraged by Rawls and others is essentially condescending, and therefore, disrespectful. However, Rawls is very upfront about this himself. He implies that toleration is necessary due to the “regressive” nature of some cultures: they are in a sense, defective or deficient—it is not that they merely seem that way from the perspective of Westerners. But there may be situations in which the “cure” is, for various reasons, worse than the “disease.”  In short, Rawls would likely respond to Nussbaum’s charge of condescension by simply acknowledging it as true, but offering that the primary alternatives seem worse (including her own).

The irony is that Nussbaum’s “solution” is no-less condescending: it is entirely patronizing to crusade on the grounds of “liberating” people from their “backwardness.” In order to even hold this view, the patrum must feel a certain superiority over those they wish to guide (Easterly 2006). Accordingly, it seems strange to instantiate liberalism through paternalistic intervention, especially if coercive, given that “equal respect” is supposed to serve as the very foundation of the ideology on Nussbaum’s account. Again, she herself acknowledges the condescension implied by paternalism in her arguments against perfectionists; concerns for this sort of disrespect and its second-order effects informed her calls for governments to be equivocal between CDs and LPs, even for positions which seem (theoretically) unreasonable.[11]

Nussbaum’s entire argument for political liberalism hinges on respecting people over their doctrines—and, in turn, respecting aforementioned doctrines on the basis of respect for peoples. And yet, by Nussbaum’s interpretation of political liberalism, large classes of people, much of the world (perhaps the majority of human beings) would be marginalized from political discourse and/or full participation in virtue of their doctrines insofar as they reject liberal values or institutions. More than that, these populations may actually have liberal systems/institutions forced upon them against their will, and likely against their interests. This is because, like Raz, Nussbaum’s commitment to pluralism is contingent: acceptable only within the parameters of her capabilities approach.



While Nussbaum insists that societies can and should tolerate illiberal views, this applies only insofar as the beliefs in question are personal and not political. But presupposing this line can be drawn is itself question-begging. For instance, if one believed, as perhaps most of the world’s population does in fact believe, that ethics (and accordingly, politics) cannot and should not be authentically separated from theology—there is no way to hold such a belief in a non-political way (it rejects the very distinction, which is secular). It is disingenuous to “allow” adherents to do something which is, in fact, impossible (such as holding a political view apolitically).

Similarly with views about relations between the sexes, proper sovereignty/ legitimacy, etc.—these are social (rather than “personal”) positions. And in virtue of being sincerely-held beliefs, they should guide one’s actions and interactions “in the world;” this may be all beliefs are in the first place. For instance, Wittgenstein (2009) argued that beliefs are not something “in the head”–they merely denote dispositions to act a particular way in certain contexts. One’s beliefs are defined by how one acts in the world (Hadot 1995), not by means of words (or therefore, conscious thoughts).

In short, Nussbaum’s claim that someone can hold social and ethical views in a strictly personal and non-political way seems dubious and fails to acknowledge or respect the scope and demands of the ideologies in question: if one is forbidden from promoting, working to instantiate, or otherwise meaningfully acting on these convictions—one is not really free to hold said belief(s) at all.

In fact, Nussbaum proposes that constitutions should be drawn up in order to render illiberal policies impossible (again, with the international community resorting to coercion, as needed, to establish and enforce these norms). Regardless of whether a plurality, a majority, or even the totality of a given public or their representatives supports policies or institutions which run contrary to Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach,” she believes they should be prevented from enacting them.

And so even if illiberals were permitted to promote their views in the “background culture,” her exclusionary proviso would hollow out the whole principle of “free expression”—the point of which is not just to scream into a vacuum, but to influence the trajectory of one’s society, impacting policy in a meaningful way. In societies where most, if not all, of the public subscribes to views which run contrary to Nussbaum’s interpretation of Kant, the entire democratic process would become farcical insofar as her proviso was enacted: people would have the option of choosing between several options they find to be morally inadequate or outright immoral, and would be forbidden from enacting policies based on their values. It would be a misnomer to call such a situation a “free choice.”

In fact, Nussbaum and her interlocutors (Raz, Rawls) are in agreement on this point, insisting that a public has to be given an adequate range of options in order for choice to be meaningful–and that a range of options cannot be considered adequate insofar as it presents people with paradigms they find to be worthless, repugnant or even harmful.  And so, just as Nussbaum’s greater “tolerance” proves to be almost purely semantic, her interpretation of pluralism lacks the robustness to realize her stated aspirations. However, mutatis mutandis, Rawls’ position on illiberal societies may provide a way out:

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