(Nussbaum 2011) Perfectionist liberalism and political liberalism

Nussbaum, Martha C. Perfectionist liberalism and political liberalism. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 2011 Winter; 39(1):3–45. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1088-4963.2011.01200.x.

Nussbaum expounds two rival theoretical frameworks for liberal societal institutions, perfectionist liberalism and political liberalism, and argues for the superiority of political liberalism. Perfectionist liberalism sees certain substantive liberal moral principles about human self-realization or “perfection”, especially moral pluralism (the belief that widely divergent lifestyles can be equally valuable) and personal autonomy, as essential to the success of liberal societal institutions, and calls for these beliefs to be promoted actively by the state. Political liberalism, by contrast, recognizes that in many societies (notably the USA), large subpopulations adhere to systems of ethical belief that are inconsistent with each other and with the beliefs advocated by perfectionist liberalism, and advocates that the state only promote belief in a minimal moral code that can achieve a broad consensus across the population, while still providing a basis for loyalty to liberal societal institutions. The principal tenet of this minimal moral code is respect for persons. Nussbaum argues that employing the power of the state to inculcate a comprehensive set of moral principles, like that of perfectionist liberalism, involves disrespect for persons. Also, as a practical matter, perfectionist liberal indoctrination of the population is unlikely to be successful. On the other hand, teaching people to respect each other does not show disrespect for them, and can achieve a broad consensus. Thus, Nussbaum concludes that political liberalism is superior to perfectionist liberalism.


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