Getting on with each other

Thomas Nagel

  • Ethics in the Public Domain: Essays in the Morality of Law and Politics by Joseph Raz
    Oxford, 374 pp, £40.00, June 1994, ISBN 0 19 825837 2

Liberalism of one kind or another is the dominant political tradition of Western culture; that is why it is under such constant attack. But while the conflicts between liberalism and various authoritarian, repressive, radical, romantic or theocratic alternatives produce a good deal of excitement on a world scale, a quieter and intellectually more demanding argument has gone on within the tradition concerning the best way to interpret liberalism, both theoretically and in application to concrete social and political problems. One of the most important issues in this debate is how liberalism justifies its distinctive toleration for multiple different and inconsistent forms of life and systems of value – its remarkable impartiality, in political terms, among diverse conceptions of the human good, and its commitment to allow individuals to seek their own salvation or self-realisation provided they do not interfere with the same freedom of others. Unlike those French secularists who forbid Muslim girls to wear head-scarves to school, true liberals are reluctant to interfere even with anti-liberal cultures in their midst. This is sometimes foolishly thought to depend on moral scepticism, but it doesn’t: the commitment to toleration, if it is not a mere compromise imposed by the balance of power, can be justified only by a strong moral conviction that it is right – otherwise why not suppress what we don’t like?

On this question the Oxford moral and legal philosopher Joseph Raz is a distinguished defender of a view that, in its logical structure and basic values, adheres to the tradition of John Stuart Mill. Raz believes that liberal institutions are justified because, for those civilisations capable of sustaining them, they provide the best way of promoting human well-being: their value, in other words, is instrumental. The argument depends both on a definite view of the nature of human well-being, human good or human happiness – in which autonomy has a central place – and on a belief that liberal toleration increases the likelihood that people will attain that good. This was precisely the structure of justification, in its original utilitarian version, that John Rawls set out to oppose with his contractarian alternative and his motto that ‘the right is prior to the good.’ Raz believes, on the contrary, that the system of individual rights is a means of achieving the good, and cannot be explained as an independent part of ethics or political theory. The issue between them is whether recognition of liberal rights is in itself a way of treating people as equals – an end in itself –or a consequence of equal concern for their welfare: a mere means.

This collection of 16 essays from the past decade, most of them previously published, offers an excellent exposure to Raz’s recent thoughts not only on such general questions of moral and political philosophy, but also on concrete issues such as multiculturalism, free speech, national self-determination (in an essay jointly written with Avishai Margalit), and on the nature of law and its relation to morality (a subject on which he is in the positivist tradition of H.L.A. Hart). The essays use and develop ideas set out in his earlier books, particularly The Authority of Law (1979) and The Morality of Freedom (1986).

Though Raz believes that rights are valuable because they promote the good, he is not a utilitarian, because he does not believe that all human good can be reduced to a single, experiential common denominator, such as pleasure or happiness or desire-satisfaction. Nor does he think that the good life requires the kind of individualistic freedom of choice in professional, personal and aesthetic matters that typifies modern, economically and politically liberal cultures. His position, which he calls ‘value pluralism’, is that many different and incompatible ways of life are good in their own (incompatible) terms. Since he thinks secure membership in a community is very important, he finds value in all kinds of relatively closed cultures. Autonomy is a general condition of well-being only because the value of a way of life, even one which does not include constant opportunities for choice, is greatly enhanced if it is as a whole freely chosen or freely accepted by someone to whom other options were available.

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