Liberal Ethics & Political Obligation

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DeCoste, Jordan
Liberalism , Neutrality , Political Obligation , Perfectionism
This is a study in the political ethics of liberalism. It uses political obligation theory to shed light on the neutrality-perfectionism debate. My thesis is that neutralism cannot provide a coherent foundation for liberal political morality because a viable account of general political obligation relies on background assumptions about persons and conduct that are reasonably contestable even though they are not illiberal. To make this case, Section I reviews the conceptual details of neutrality across two generations of thinking. Second-generation neutrality, under political liberalism, is the more plausible rendering because it acknowledges that liberalism must stake a middle-ground between non-moral instrumentalism and moral absolutism. Liberalism, in other words, needs a moral reason to be neutral. I question whether political liberalism remains sufficiently moral and sufficiently neutral by asking if it offers mutually sustaining legitimacy and obligation principles. Section II discusses perfectionist ethics and highlights a crucial kind of value, called inherent value, often invoked but rarely scrutinized in political theory. Inherent value marks the main ethical difference between liberal neutrality and illiberal perfectionism, showing how liberal-perfectionist positions on controversial matters can be taken without prescribing for the whole of life. Including this type of value, I then outline the precise neutralist and perfectionist conditions that liberals adopting either perspective would have to meet in justifying general political obligation. Section III then answers my main research question about whether political liberalism’s moral account of political obligation coheres with its neutralist position on legitimacy. My essential claim here is that our responsibility to comply with the moral and epistemological standards of civility is a position from inherent value. And since political liberalism cannot escape these inherent value assumptions while explaining and justifying its account of general political obligation, it is there that we can most clearly see political liberalism’s perfectionist leanings. My dissertation therefore shows a new way to understand that only liberal-perfectionist valuation can hang-together a coherent and viable liberalism for today’s pluralistic polities.
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