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.

Toleration also respects liberty of conscience, which Kukathas argues is an important value. He notes that human beings are disposed to act according to conscience, and that there is ‘anguish’ in acting unconscionably. Sometimes death is preferred to acting against conscience. Accordingly, people should not be forced to act against conscience.

Later versions of liberalism also support toleration, but not as a first principle. Kukathas quotes the late John Rawls, whose A Theory of Justice is the most cited work of liberal philosophy from the second half of the twentieth century, as saying ‘ the degree of tolerance accorded moral conceptions depends on the extent to which they can be allowed an equal place within a just system of liberty.’ Justice is Rawls’ first principle, not toleration.

Other liberals, like Kukathas’s main intellectual adversary, the Canadian political theorist Will Kymlicka, value toleration only to the extent that it supports autonomy, a high value for Kymlicka and many other contemporary liberals. Kymlicka sees a group’s culture as providing the necessary context for choice. To preserve that context, the culture must be at least tolerated, and possibly positively assisted. On the other hand, Kymlicka argues that liberalism is committed to individuals having the freedom to question and challenge their communities. This means that practices like restricting religious freedom or denying education to girls would not be tolerated.

Because Kymlicka sees toleration as a derivative principle, it is not an argument against intervening in illiberal groups if a first principle, like autonomy, is threatened. As Kukathas sees toleration as a first principle, it is a justification for leaving illiberal groups alone, respecting their liberty of conscience and preserving the peace.

A lot turns on the relative merits of conscience and autonomy, and one of the most interesting parts of The Liberal Archipelago is its critique of autonomy. Kukathas argues, contrary to much philosophical opinion, that an unexamined life is worth living.

He gives as an example a Muslim fisherman in Kelantan (in Malaysia, Kukathas’s place of birth). The fisherman may have little ability to evalute his beliefs, lacking knowledge of the world beyond his immediate locality, but nevertheless be physically comfortable, have family and friends, take pride from his skills, and meaning from his religion. Kukathas suggests that it might make sense to argue that the fisherman has an interest in insulating himself from challenges to his worldview, rather than an interest in challenging it.

Freedom of association plays a central role in Kukathas’s theory. Unlike freedom of speech, freedom of association is valuable for people who are not interested in freedom. By combining with others, people can live according to their conscience and their beliefs, whether these were freely chosen or not. With the strong form freedom of association in Kuthathas’s liberalism, those in the association set its rules, and can enforce them on the association’s members. Those who don’t wish to comply leave or are excluded.

These associations are the source of the archipelago metaphor in the book’s title. A liberal society is the sea, and the associations are the many small islands of the archipelago. The society is liberal because it respects freedom of association and exit, people creating ‘islands’ and moving between them, not because each of the islands are structured according to liberal principles.

Most liberals would agree that freedom of association and exit are necessary organising principles of associational life in a liberal society; Kukathas is unusual in thinking them sufficient as well. I agree with him more than most, in that I believe that illiberal associations ought to be tolerated within a liberal society (or archipelago). Not every association has to meet the benchmarks of the liberal state. They can discriminate against people on religion, race, sex, and all the other characteristics covered by modern anti-discrimination law. They can limit or abolish freedom of speech within their association. They can restrict who else their members associate with. Human well-being can take many forms, and not all are compatible with liberal principles.

But I part company with Kukathas in two ways. Though exit can be costly and difficult, it should be a real option if the overall society is to be liberal. What constitutes a real option depends on a society’s particular circumstances, but in modern Western countries it means at minimum that everyone must be educated, and that there be must be alternative sources of sustenance (these need not be provided by the state, but a liberal state would ensure that they were available).

Where exit is impractical or undesirable, I support minimalist regulation. For example, where associations refuse medical care, I believe intervention is warranted for children or others incapable of making and acting on informed choices. If parents fail to adhere to minimal standards of care, the state ought to be able to exit the child. 

The danger is that without effective rights of exit and without regulation the liberal archipelago could became, in a phrase Kukathas quotes, a ‘mosaic of tyrannies’. Kukathas defends his theory against objections along these lines. While he rightly points out the state’s history of failed intervention, this history highlights the need for caution in intervention, rather than showing it is never justified.

Though I cannot adopt a pure version of Kukathas’ theory, it is a welcome alternative to some forms of contemporary liberalism. It does not demand that liberalism go ‘all the way down’, structuring all aspects of society. It respects people’s lives as they are actually lived, rather than demanding that they be lived according to abstract principles.

It was also good to see that although this is an academic text, the Kukathas wit has been banished to the footnotes, rather than banished altogether. You might need to have read Rawls’ A Theory of Justice to get the line about the missionary position being preferred to the original position, but better an in-joke than no humour at all.

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