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Jessica Baños (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)

Fundamentalist assumptions in political philosophy?


In recent years, important and influential thinkers in political philosophy have assumed and incorporated in their theoretical developments some premises of cultural relativism and used the category of culture as the bases of a prolific debate. Whether we cannot place in the same position the works of communitarian authors like Michael Sandel or Alasdair MacIntyre, for whom culture precedes the self and determines his autonomy, to those of Michael Walzer or Will Kymlicka, who seek to make communitarianism more compatible with the principles of liberalism; all them and even the latest works of John Rawls have endorsed the analytical category of culture as the bases of a philosophical development that pretends to give responses to the fact of pluralism.

            The concern that has guided the work of these authors has been to find principles of accommodation among cultures with different conceptions of what is just or democratic and to widen our understanding and be tolerant to those differences. Their value rests, in this sense, in proposing answers to questions about the principles that should guide the construction of institutions that are tolerant and promote mutual understanding among different cultures. Notwithstanding, the assumption of the analytical category of culture as the basis for understanding other societies had enclosed philosophy into a universalism / particularism dichotomy, which is frequently in tension with humanism and may promote dangerous misunderstandings.

            In this paper, some tensions and problems following from adopting the universalism / particularism division will be debated. I will take some aspects of the latest works of Michael Walzer and John Rawls, considering them to represent two of the most flexible and reasonable views to confront the problems opened from the adoption of some premises of relativism. Nevertheless, their works will be critically assessed considering that beginning from the category of culture as the basis for exploring the differences among societies, takes us into serious problems of misunderstanding and into the adoption of anticipated solutions that endangers humanism. Also their theories will be critically reviewed from a consequentialist perspective.


Thick and thin moralities?


In Thin and Thick Morality and The Law of Peoples, Walzer and Rawls agree that all societies and their political institutions, as well as the conceptions of what is good for those societies and institutions are culturally determined. Rawls accepts Walzer's arguments that the conceptions of good and justice are relative to the particular social meanings of each society, which are historically and culturally constructed or negotiated by the community. "There is an infinite number of possible ways of life, created by an infinite number of cultures, religions, political systems and geographical conditions" that affect the conceptions people hold about political values, democracy and other social goods and institutions that are in the interest of each society, argues Walzer[i]. In the same way, in The Law of Peoples, Rawls asserts that "the fundamental interests of each people are specified by their own conception of justice"[ii], which is particular to the historically constructed community, being a variety of institutional forms to promote such conceptions and interests.

            So, both authors agree that if we believe that it is legitimate that peoples have their own dense moralities, and if we accept the equality of peoples to self-determination and self-government, in the elaboration of an international morality, we cannot impose to other peoples our own conceptions and institutional arrangements concerning democracy, justice or the group of political and social goods that we want, because they refer to our own particular cultural context. These conceptions are dense, culturally determined and thus, in their view, only a thin universal morality that permits accommodation to the variety of "tribalisms", understood as the compromise peoples hold about their own history, culture, institutions and identity applies.[iii] Even when there are limits to certain political and cultural practices and tyranny would not be accepted, both argue that in the international realm the adoption of a thin morality, that does not impose dense and particular values as universal, is the only possible agreement that could be reached among different cultures.

            And, although the difference between Rawls and Walzer is that while the former proposes a series of principles that should guide the international morality pretending that they would be accepted in a second original position among liberal and non-liberal peoples, Walzer believes that we should not accept as correct any aprioristic solution that has not been first decided by intercultural dialogue, it seems that the principles and rights that they consider appropriate in their theoretical frameworks point towards the same direction. Walzer proposes a guiding principle as an expression of the thin morality that may apply in international politics, which is the principle of self-determination. This principle institutionalise "the exigency of democratic rights"[iv], but it also leaves space to all tribes and all particular versions of justice and democracy. Thus, it is an example of the principles that would be considered appropriate and acceptable to the establishment of a universal morality.

            For Rawls, as well, there are different conceptions of justice among peoples which are irreducible.[v] He defines peoples as societies with comprehensive doctrines, closed and self-sufficient,[vi] and, following that, he argues that if a social contract among peoples takes place under the veil of ignorance, those peoples would agree in selecting only principles with a thin content, such as in Walzer. Among these principles he proposes the principle of equality among peoples; the right to independence and self-determination; the observation of some international obligations, such as the respect for agreements and the duty of assistance to societies in unfavourable conditions; and the universal respect for some very basic human rights. Dictatorial and tyrannical regimes are considered outlaw states and could be intervened, as in Walzer[vii]. But the conceptions and practices of societies with hierarchical cultures that do not value all people equally may be accepted and legitimised in international law, if they comply with some requisites that make them decent. These are an associational form of democratic representation and the respect for some very basic human rights.

            It is arriving at this point where Walzer and Rawls theories appear wrong and contested. Although it is right that the principle of self-determination is important to other societies, because it gives content to the principle of self-government and democracy at the level of political community, it is not clear why our authors' cultural assumptions should take us automatically to agree on a thin international morality with these characteristics. On the other hand, when observing the pretended division between the model of democracy and decency applying for liberal and non-liberal societies and the abandonment of the kantian principles that Rawls formerly embraced in his A Theory of Justice, to conclude that for the elaboration of a universal morality, an idea of democracy and rights should not arise from the assumption of the equal moral value among all persons, because this principle corresponds to "a particular comprehensive moral doctrine"[viii], one questions the democratic authenticity of these theories, either in the sense of their acceptability by other cultures, or as the way to promote self-government and democracy for each society.

            This is why it is necessary to question if these thin principles of accommodation are the kind of principles that would really be accepted by representatives of other cultures. It is correct that there are other peoples, or, I prefer to call them societies, that claim for recognition of their cultural identity and, following that, they refuse to embrace some universal principles or human rights. Nevertheless, that after assuming the universalism/particularism division, we all accept a thin morality that legitimates the inequality of value and rights of some persons considered under a category, not only could lead us into serious misunderstandings about other societies, but could also result very dangerous, as contributing to perpetuate and legitimise oppression in international law. Dense principles about liberty or equality are discredited, because these authors believe that they would not be accepted by other cultures. But, is it true that other cultures are so different? Moreover, do we really believe that other persons do not value or do not need liberties and thick principles to guarantee their self-determination and end oppression?  I will examine first the fallacies contained in the culturalist model, because I think this is the essential problem with Walzer's and Rawls' theories.


The cultural category under critique


The basic problem arising from the thin universal morality that follows cultural relativistic premises, even in its more flexible forms, is that it obscures many of the real demands, problems and realities existing within and among societies, pretending that other cultures have moral claims different to those of the west. There are multiple problems within and among societies which are political, rather than cultural, and to understand other societies as equal groups holding completely different cultural identities creates serious misrepresentations as it does not consider the historical development of other societies and their divisions. It is true that some groups have claims and, in those cases, we must be flexible enough to find solutions. Nevertheless, to begin an elaboration of a universal morality understanding cultures as if each society with a shared history has thick shared moralities, and to assume societies as if they have closed and homogenous cultures, creates a dangerous dynamic of separation between we - liberal / them - non-liberal, that produces miscomprehension and encloses people into oppressive categories and identities.

It is frequently forgotten that in the Third World the experience of colonialism and imperialism extended to the most remote places on earth the influence of Enlightenment and the creation of universities. These facts disseminated thick ideas about liberty and equality, in the same token as those of self-determination. Benedict Anderson, who has profoundly studied the origins of nationalisms, explains that the extension of the literary markets in vernacular languages in the XVIII and XIX centuries disseminated the Enlightenment's scientific, technological, religious and philosophical knowledge to all European colonies. Enlightenment knowledge and values were introduced in remote societies and communities and, eventually, they were in the origins of colonial resistance, because they were contradictory to the colonial practices. [ix]

            So, in most cultures we find Enlightenment's inherited values that could not be claimed now as being particular of the west. Moreover, these inherited values had promoted internal dissents and, eventually, important political changes. Instead of having homogenous moral values, when we come closer to today's real societies, what we found are societies with many conflicts and equal number of differences concerning values and points of view about what is good for the community. The Third World is more characterised by a multiplication of conflicts among different conceptions of the good and justice, and about the path that the political community should follow, being the predominant or most powerful views which are imposed, rather than a homogeneity of values that allow basic consensus for the recognition of one conception.

            Precisely due to national histories filled with interventions, interferences, cultural convergence and exchanges, there are multiple differences within societies over the content of the values that should be promoted. Important sectors of each society have thick moral values that can be the same as in other societies, being more possible to find communication among some fundamentalist sectors of some societies with the catholic right of the western world, than among them and their opponents in their societies. Given that, to understand cultures as if they contain one own conception of the good and categorise people following that, takes us into losing understanding and enclosing people in predetermined and oppressive destinies. I think we should reject from the beginning any category that prejudices certain persons. It loses the point of finding a solution to the plurality of views that characterises our world -in which post-modern thought always insisted-, and it also loses understanding about the specific problems that are suffered by other societies. Additionally, another consequence of beginning from the category of culture in a universal morality is that it may paralyse political change from within, when inequalities among categories of persons are allowed to be legitimised by law. I think philosophy is taking an incorrect and dangerous path if it doesn't take dissent and rights in each society seriously, which is what commonly preclude political change and political action.

This is why it may be better, as the Spanish thinker Rafael Del Águila proposes, to think more malleably about cultures abandoning the pretensions of founding our theories in a thick cultural premise, and adopting a more fluid way of understanding other cultures and their internal differences, more or less as the right and left divide.[x] The other way, as closed and homogenous cultures, and as if societies were alien and isolated, only obscures the specific problems that each society has, its internal dynamics of power and domination, as well as the frustrations, fears, resentments, and sentiments of impotence and lack of hope that the newspapers reflect everyday in most parts of the world.[xi]

If we don't want philosophy to lose common sense, it is necessary to reject views that promote misunderstandings and incorrect judgements about persons from other cultures. Instead of accepting a thin morality as a solution, shall it not be better to understand the realities of other peoples and to hear them before discarding important principles and arrangements that already exist? Is it convincing to accept some of Enlightenment's values, such as self-determination, but to reject others such as liberty or equality, or an emancipatory project?


Human dignity and common sense


If the cultural fallacies contained in Rawls' thin morality appear dangerous and non-democratic as not taking seriously common dialogue where the other's point of view is listened as the basis for establishing the principles that norm our common life, his deterministic view about the kind of human rights that he thinks would be selected by an overlapping consensus among cultures, calls for definitely abandoning the universalism / particularism division. Rawls considered that the only human rights that would be selected and imposed by consensus in international law are: the right to life (to the means of subsistence and to security); the right to property; to equal justice (understood so that similar categories of persons are treated equally); the right to liberty from slavery, serfdom and forced occupation and to a sufficient measure of liberty of conscience to ensure freedom of religion and thought, although "this liberty may not be extended equally to all members of society".[xii] On the other hand, the kind of representation that is accepted to validate other cultural conceptions of democracy is an associationist form that aggregates the interests of persons considered within the same category so that only by group representation do they have access to political participation.

            The problem with that is that if we assume hierarchical regimes which do not give equal access to liberty of conscience, expression and political participation, we could be accepting determinism, defenceless and lack of critical judgement by some groups, which not only impedes an authentic democracy, but could also precede totalitarianism. The liberty of the person to act in politics, as the first condition of citizenship and human condition, is necessary in Hannah Arendt's thought for not compromising human dignity, because it gives the person the right of defence against oppression. Is the action in the public sphere, as proposed by Arendt, the activity with which political differences appear and the liberty for them to appear is what guarantees the possibility to maintain the spaces for citizenship and participation in politics. Without the liberty to appear, the human condition becomes endangered, because after excluding certain persons from political action, they are left defenceless.[xiii]

            John Stuart Mill also have this in mind when he observed that certain individual liberties are necessary to guarantee the struggle against oppression, because they question the beliefs that we hold.[xiv] Without liberty of conscience and the expression of differences, people may become uncritical about undignified situations. At the same time, it closes the possibility of political change that arises from the capacity to critique and to act in common. Critical judgement and the liberties to think and express have precluded historical and political change and the transformation of oppressive institutions, either in the east or in the west, as so different authors as Hannah Arendt, Amartya Sen or Amin Malouf have observed.

            This is why when analysing Rawls and Walzer's thin universal proposals from a consequentialist perspective, it is worrying that what appears is a reduction of human rights that are already recognised, as well as ratified, in most cases, by more than 150 countries. So, an important amount of persons would be disentitled from civil, political, economic, and social rights that are currently recognised, that are morally thick, and that are used to justify struggles and movements against oppressive relations and regimes, as against inequality. Currently, human rights conventions, adopted in various generations, recognise a wide and dense range of rights, which have been negotiated and adopted by consensus between persons from different peoples and cultures. They recognise among others, the right of every person to liberty of conscience, of expression, of association and participation, not to be tortured, as well as political self-determination from exercising those rights.[xv] Another convention recognises the right to living with dignity, beyond subsistence to autonomy, through positive and abilitating rights, such as the right of access to education, health, to a basic income, social security and housing.[xvi] Other conventions guarantee equal political participation of women, to not be object of discrimination from their sex condition and promote the adoption of institutional arrangements and the critique of some conventions to end limitation of their rights and basic opportunities.[xvii]

            In this sense, many of these rights do not only recognise negative rights of respect and non-intervention, but also other positive rights and thick institutional arrangements that are necessary for guaranteeing human dignity at the level of the political community.[xviii]  We should then accept that nobody would dissent if this radical diminution of rights takes place? Aren't we legitimising the path to oppression? In consonance with the internal dissents that were mentioned before and the facts that critique and political judgement are universal, today, many organisations and movements use the universal recognition of these rights as means to legitimise and give voice to their internal struggles against oppression and inequality. In these cases, if the thin morality in human rights were followed, these rights would be retired, leaving persons in most vulnerable situations. We could suppose, in this sense, that it will be disagreement if they were consulted in an ideal habermasian position. As Arendt noticed, "we have the right to have rights", because "the first essential step in the path towards domination is to kill in the human being the juridical person placing some categories of persons out of the protection of law".[xix] After that, human dignity, which is sustained by the human capacity to dissent, demand and construct the political community, is placed at risk. On the other hand, as the Spanish philosopher Javier Muguerza has observed, to take seriously the right of each individual to have rights means to take seriously that each human right is open to aspiration by other human beings once it is recognised. And if we consider this, as well as the fact that dissent and common action between intercultural groups made possible the recognition of different generations of universal rights, then any reduction of rights is always oppressive.[xx]

            So it seems very irresponsible that philosophy conduce to a reduction of rights following a fundamentalist or dogmatic universalism / particularism division. We should abandon theories that impose culturally or historically deterministic models and, instead, get immersed in the real world, participating as citizens and listening to what other voices have to tell, as the only possible manner to fight against injustice. It seems that it happens with philosophy something that Arendt criticised in the philosophy of her time, which is the isolation of the philosopher from reality and, therefore, their incapacity to use common sense and a responsible critical judgement. This judgement arises when we judge things politically without being isolated from the world, seeing us as citizens, looking at the consequences of what we propose, and adopting an opinion after considering a subject from different points of view. And, if it is true that we do not have the conditions for an ideal habermasian dialogue, we have at least to follow Arendt when she proposed to use the idea of common sense, observing and representing the views of plural and unique actors, all of them diverse. This does not lead to closed solutions, but to more pragmatic ones, that take into account the consequences of our actions and realise that we -philosophers- are participants of the process of the construction and guaranteeing of those rights.

As some pragmatic philosophers have asserted, the philosopher should feel and act himself first and foremost as a citizen, and, thus, equilibrate the exigencies of thinking with the exigencies of judging in the city, not losing civil compromise to attend the needs of philosophy, and reviewing the consequences of his political action in the public sphere that is common and that we all construct.[xxi] In this sense, it could be useful to not forget what John Maynard Keynes sometime observed, that "the ideas of economist and political philosophers, both when they are right or when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood".



[i] Walzer, M., 1983, Spheres of Justice, p. 312-313.

[ii] Rawls, J., 1999, The Law of Peoples, p. 40.

[iii] Walzer, M., 1994, Thin and Thick Morality.

[iv] Walzer, M., 1994, Thin and Thick Morality.

[v] McCarthy, T., 1997, "On the idea of a reasonable Law of Peoples", p. 208.

[vi] Rawls, J., 1993, "The Law of Peoples", p. 44.

[vii] Walzer, M., 1977, Just and Unjust Wars.

[viii] Rawls, J., 1993, "The Law of Peoples", p. 68.

[ix] Anderson, B., 1991, Imagined Communities.

[x] Del Águila, R., 2004, "El multiculturalismo en su laberinto".

[xi] The Argentinean writer Juan José Sebreli makes another important point against the artificial idea of separated and irreducible cultures considering the ways that syncretism has taken place in many parts of the world. He asserts that any civilization has never been completely isolated and even in religion where moralities are denser, the contribution of other cultures is important. There have never been irreducible principles among cultures. See Sebreli, 1992, El asedio a la modernidad, p. 44.

[xii] Rawls, J., 1999, The Law of Peoples, p. 65, underlined is mine.

[xiii] Arendt, H., 1966, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and 1999, The Human Condition.

[xiv] Mill, J. S., 1975, On Liberty.

[xv] International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and Convention against Torture (1985).

[xvi] International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966).

[xvii] Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979).

[xviii] Rawls argues interestingly that the rights and opportunities of women should be in every case  guaranteed.

[xix] Arendt, H., 1987, Los Orígenes del Totalitarismo, p. 665.

[xx] Muguerza, J., 1998, Ética, disenso y derechos humanos.

[xxi] Del Águila, R., 2004, Sócrates Furioso, el pensador y la ciudad.





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