Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice

Conclusion: From Political Liberalism to Para-Liberalism

In “Perfectionist Liberalism and Political Liberalism” Nussbaum demonstrated that both perfectionist and political strains of liberalism are unduly parochial insofar as they rely on dubious and, ultimately, superfluous criteria of “reasonableness.”  By streamlining these criteria to focus exclusively on ethical (rather than theoretical) considerations, she hoped to enrich and expand the range of comprehensive doctrines and life plans which would fall within the parameters of political liberalism.

We have demonstrated that Nussbaum’s reformulation fails to achieve its stated aim because it fails to adhere to its guiding principle: the “method of avoidance.” In particular, Nussbaum seems to privilege as objectively-correct her culturally-informed and somewhat idiosyncratic conceptions “respect,” “justice” and “equality.” As a corrective, political liberals can embrace strong epistemological pluralism, recognizing the reality and legitimacy of multiple conceptions of “respect” (and related core ethical principles).

However, given their other commitments, an embrace of strong epistemological pluralism may compel political liberals to accept a wide range of social arrangements derived from these alternative conceptions—many of which will not be liberal, but may nonetheless be demonstrably “reasonable” (Youngs 2015)—likely expanding the sphere of protected beliefs, practices and forms of social arrangement far beyond Nussbaum’s original intention.

The good news for Nussbaum is that because contemporary Western notions of respect tend to be intimately tied to liberalism, within Western societies there would still be grounds for rejecting many of the views she would want to decry as “unreasonable.” In fact, in non-Western contexts, many practices Western liberals may want to abolish could be defined as “unreasonable” even relative to indigenous conceptions. Consensus is possible on many issues—even to the point that some rival conceptions of core ethical notions may be more-or-less reconcilable through good-faith cross-cultural negotiation and exchange.[15]

However, in the event of persistent differences, provided that a given practice, system or institution is “ethically reasonable” relative to the socio-cultural context in which it exists, liberals must not only tolerate but respect these disparities, however radical they may be. This embrace of comprehensive doctrines, life plans, and systems of social organization strictly on the basis of their (contextualized) ethical reasonableness—without regard for conformance to Western-liberal norms or expectations–can be described as para-liberalism.



The author would like to thank Dr. Steven Wall (University of Arizona, Department of Philosophy) for his generous guidance and support in formulating the initial draft. He is also indebted to the anonymous peer reviewers at Comparative Philosophy, whose insightful questions and constructive criticism were invaluable in refining this essay.

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