Illiberal groups in a liberal society (a review of The Liberal Archipelago by Chandran Kukathas)

This review first appeared in Policy, Summer 2003-04

A review of The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom by Chandran Kukathas, New York, Oxford University Press, 2003.

Chandran Kukathas’s The Liberal Archipelago is a contrarian book. Recent liberal (well, left-liberal) writers support special rights for minority groups to protect their culture, but believe groups should give their members liberal rights. Kukathas takes the opposite view. Minority groups should not be given special rights, but they can run themselves illiberally. If their members don’t like it, they can leave.

To understand why these contrary conclusions are reached we have to go back into liberalism’s history.

Kukathas returns liberalism to one of its original principles, toleration. Liberalism emerged in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as a response to European religious conflict. John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) is the most famous argument for toleration from that time, though Kukathas rates more highly Pierre Bayle’s Philosophical Commentary (1708).

Since this early period toleration has been a way of preserving peace. Forcing diverse groups into a common culture causes conflict, including violent conflict. Putting up with each other, advocates of toleration say, is the better option. Kukathas argues that this is not merely a compromise; it comes to be internalised in basic norms governing social relations.

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