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Accommodating Pluralism: Liberal Neutrality and Compulsory Education

Satisfactory Essays
Accommodating Pluralism: Liberal Neutrality and Compulsory Education

ABSTRACT: This paper examines the general neutrality principle of Rawls’ liberalism and then tests that principle against accommodationist intuitions and sympathies in cases concerning the non-neutral effects of a system of compulsory education on particular social groups.

Various neutrality principles have long been associated with liberalism. Today I want to examine the general neutrality principle Rawls associates with his own liberalism.(1) I want to begin by getting clear on just what that principle is. Then I want to test it in the context of compulsory education.

Let us begin by noting that any basic social structure faithful to liberal principles of political justice will inevitably prove nonneutral in its effects on many comprehensive doctrines and ways of life. This will be true for politically unreasonable doctrines and ways of life (militantly theocratic doctrines, or ways of life centered on violating the basic rights of others). But it may also prove true for comprehensive doctrines and ways of life more or less unopposed to most liberal political values (perhaps the doctrines or ways of life of certain traditional or anti-modern religious sects).

Liberalism, Rawls tells us, cannot and should not promise neutrality of effects. But this should not count against it. Every basic social structure faithful to some conception of justice, liberal or nonliberal, will prove nonneutral in its effects on some comprehensive doctrines or ways of life.

Here one might think Rawls has missed the point. For what is problematic about his liberalism, it might be argued, is that it will prove non-neutral in its effects on doctrines and ways of life permissible on its own account of political justice. But Rawls has not missed the point. Rawls’s liberalism does not rest on a commitment to the value of, nor does it require, a social world maximally diverse with respect to comprehensive doctrines or ways of life willing more or less to accept liberal principles of political justice. Of course, Rawls’s liberalism would be in serious trouble were it to lead to a social world only weakly diverse. But so long as Rawls’s liberalism permits a healthy degree of diversity, to claim that its non-neutral effect on some comprehensive doctrine or way of life is unfair is to presuppose rather than establish the correctness of some competing conception of justice.

Liberalism cannot and should not promise neutrality of effects, but it can and should promise what Rawls calls neutrality of aim.
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