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Jeremy Waldron on Neutrality - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 92
Liberal neutrality/liberalism/Waldron: Problem: 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. >Liberalism/Mill, >Community/Humboldt, >State/Humboldt, >Categorical Imperative.
Neutrality: The difficulty (...) came to the fore in discussions of ‘liberal neutrality’ in the 1970s and 1980s. A number of theorists attempted to sum up the essence of liberalism in terms of a principle requiring the state to refrain from taking sides on disputed ethical and religious questions.
>Neurality/Dworkin, >Neutrality/United States.
Problems:: Liberal neutrality may be seen as a generalization of religious toleration into the realm of ethical choice generally. But therein lay the position’s vulnerability. So long as liberalism was read as a principle about religious neutrality, its defence could be rooted in moral ideas. Once it expanded into the ethical realm, it was not clear what it could rest on. It couldn’t be based on scepticism about values, for it seemed to represent a particular commitment in the realm of value (Dworkin, 1985(1): 203). Liberal theorists scrambled to define a distinction within the realm of values between political morality (e.g. moral principles of justice and right, like the neutrality principle itself), on which the state was permitted to act, and ethics (and perhaps the rest of morality besides justice and right), on which it was not permitted to act (Waldron, 1993(2): 156–63).
Gaus I 93
But it was always a fine line, and the wider world tended to blur the distinction between ethics and morality and talk generally about the liberal commitment to value neutrality.
A similar dilemma confronted those who tried to use neutrality as a meta-principle of political justification. Bruce Ackerman (1980) developed a theory of justice in the form of a contractarian dialogue, for which it was laid down as a ground rule that no reason (adduced in conversation to justify any particular distribution of power) ‘is a good reason if it requires the power holder to assert - that his conception of the good is better than that asserted by any of his fellow citizens’ (1980(3): 11).
WaldronVsAckerman:Could this strategy work? It might, but only if we were certain that the different paths to neutrality did not make a difference to the meaning or character of the destination. But this seems unlikely. Moral principles are characteristically dependent for their interpretation on some understanding of the point or purpose for which they are imposed.


1. Dworkin, Ronald (1985) A Matter of Principle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
2. Waldron, Jeremy (1993) Liberal Rights: Collected Papers 1981–1991. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3. Ackerman, Bruce (1980) Social Justice in the Liberal State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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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