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Jeremy Waldron on Liberalism - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 89
Liberalism/Waldron: The modern distinction between ‘political’ and ‘comprehensive’ versions of liberalism arises in connection with a serious problem about the basis of justification for liberal principles in a pluralistic society. The problem arises as follows.
Liberals envisage a tolerant, inclusive society, populated by people adhering to a variety of belief systems. Many modern societies in which liberalism flourishes as a political ideal already have this character: they are religiously pluralist and multicultural societies (...).
But a pluralist society also faces an additional agenda. Where different faiths and cultures rub shoulders, there is likely to be friction and offence: one group’s worship or festivities might seem like a reproach or an attack on another group, and as values and philosophies compete in the marketplace of ideas, the competition will often seem disrespectful as each creed tries to discredit its opponents and gain adherents for itself. It is not easy to define the duty of mutual toleration under these circumstances, or to sustain the distinction between harm and offence that a pluralistic regime requires. >Pluralism/Waldron.
Gaus I 90
Toleration/pluralism/liberalism/Problem: (...) by elaborating and defending liberal principles and liberal solutions to the problems of social life on this sort of basis, we seem to be taking sides in the midst of cultural and ethical plurality. We seem to be picking and choosing among the variety of ethical, philosophical and religious traditions in the world, privileging some as foundational and marginalizing others. >Toleration/Waldron.
Gaus I 91
Def Political liberalism/Waldron: Two political liberals may therefore be distinguished from one another by their different positions and their different conceptions. But what they will have in common – as political liberals – is their insistence on a distinction between the principles and ideals that (in their respective views) define a liberal order for society, and the deeper values and commitments associated with particular philosophical outlooks.
Def Comprehensive liberalism/Waldron: The political liberal insists that the articulation and defence of a given set of liberal commitments for a society should not depend on any particular theory of what gives value or meaning to a human life. A comprehensive liberal denies this. He maintains that it is impossible adequately to defend or elaborate liberal commitments except by invoking the deeper values and commitments associated with some overall or ‘comprehensive’ philosophy.
Political liberalism: There may also be a second layer of difference among political liberals. Whether or not the substance of their liberal commitment is the same, two political liberals may differ in the justificatory strategies they adopt as political liberals. >Consensus/Waldron. ((s) Cf. >Agreement/Habermas).
Comprehensive liberalism: obviously there are important differences, also, among comprehensive liberals. Two comprehensive liberals may have different liberal commitments: one may be a left liberal and the other a libertarian liberal. A second layer of difference has to do with the content of the comprehensive outlooks on which their liberal commitments are based. John Locke’s Christian foundations are not the same as Immanuel Kant’s (1991)(1) theory of autonomy, and none of those is the same as the hedonistic foundation of Jeremy Bentham’s (1982)(2) utilitarianism. >Autonomy/Kant, >Utilitarianism.
Gaus I 92
Problems: (VsMill, VsKant, VsHumboldt): It does not seem to have occurred to Locke, Kant, and Mill that [the] foundational positions would pose a problem for the politics of liberalism in a society whose members disagreed about the existence of God, the nature of reason, and the destiny of the human individual. They just took it for granted that liberalism required a philosophical foundation of this kind, and that their task as political philosophers was to articulate that foundation, convince (as Mill put it) ‘the intelligent part of the public … to see its value’ (1956(1): 90), and if necessary argue, as Locke argued in his discussion of atheism (1983(2): 51), that those who could not subscribe to these foundational positions might have to be regarded as dangerous by the government of a liberal society.
>Liberalism/Mill, >Community/Humboldt, >State/Humboldt, >Categorical Imperative.
>Neutrality/Waldron.
Gaus I 97
The doctrine of human dignity and equality deployed in a theory of justice must be able to resist – in more or less the manner of a moral absolute – various pragmatic considerations that might tempt us to sacrifice or neglect the interests of a few weak and vulnerable persons for the sake of the convenience or prosperity of the wealthy or powerful. Justice has to be able to stand up to that, and its constitutive doctrines have to have what it takes to do that heavy moral lifting. Many of the comprehensive conceptions that political liberals want to exclude from the public realm address themselves to exactly this issue: they explain in ethical or transcendent terms why exactly it is that the few weak and vulnerable may not be sacrificed in this way. The political liberal proposes to do this work without help from any such conception, but in a way which nevertheless retains their allegiance in overlapping consensus. >Overlapping consensus/Rawls, >Overlapping consensus/Waldron, >Abortion/Rawls.
Gaus I 99
Comprehensive liberalism/Waldron: Some comprehensive conceptions will affirm the moral importance of people’s actual experience here and now, while others may sideline or denigrate it. Those that do affirm it will sit more naturally with, and in a way will generate and inspire, the moral and political commitments traditionally associated with liberalism. And that is what the comprehensive liberal wants to remind us of. Liberalism is based on certain ethical commitments, certain propositions about what matters and about the importance of certain kinds of respect for the lives, experiences, and liberty of ordinary men and women. It is not a neutral or nonchalant creed, and its commitments arguably cannot be articulated at a purely political level.


1. Mill, John Stuart (1956 [1859]) On Liberty, ed. Currin V. Shields. Indianapolis: Hackett.
2. Locke, John (1983 [1689]) A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. James H. Tully. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Waldron, Jeremy 2004. „Liberalism, Political and Comprehensive“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications.


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Waldron, Jeremy
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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