Can Liberalism meet the challenge of cultural pluralism?

Lee Corbett, University of New South Wales

Duncan Ivison Postcolonial Liberalism, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2002. ISBN 0-5215-2751-1 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

If you asked me a few years ago ‘what is postcolonial liberalism?’, I’d have said ‘an oxymoron’. As an undergraduate, I thought liberalism was a dirty word. The idea that it could accommodate the aspirations of those who would challenge colonial authority, authority that called itself liberal, seemed naïve. As I have begun researching indigenous political movements, and their responses to democratic theory, I have been surprised to discover that people who call themselves liberals have been some of those most responsive to the challenges these movements pose. Aside from confronting my prejudices about liberalism as a political doctrine, my research has brought to my attention the importance of democratic participation in organising just societies. I am becoming more convinced that democracy, rather than equality or freedom, should be the watchword of progressive politics. Of course democracy presupposes a measure of equality and freedom, but it is more than either of these taken alone.

Political Agreement in Liberal Democracies

Political liberalism is fundamentally concerned with the legitimacy of a society’s political norms and institutions, and the criterion of legitimacy is the consent of all ‘reasonable people’. This conception of legitimacy is appealing because it grounds political authority in the community. If there is one thing that indigenous political movements have articulated, it is a challenge to the supposedly reasonable character of Australia’s organisation of political power. They have challenged prevailing ideas of justice, punishment, and land rights, and so the very meaning of ‘reasonable’ along with standards of legitimacy is changing. Accordingly, a philosophical attempt to justify a ‘postcolonial state’ must outline the substance of a ‘political agreement’ in a plural society. Duncan Ivison does so in Postcolonial Liberalism by contesting the idea of political agreement developed by John Rawls.

In The Law of Peoples (1999), Rawls distinguishes public and private reason, by differentiating reasons that specify the right and those that specify the good. Within Rawls’s framework, the right covers all questions with universal answers; that is, answers acceptable to all reasonable people, whatever their cultural heritage (think of prohibitions against murder). The good covers questions over which ‘reasonable disagreement’ is possible (think of laws about sexual conduct between adults). Public reason deals with questions of the right and should be used when discussing ‘basic political’ matters. Private reason deals with ethical commitments, often drawn from religious doctrines, that specify conceptions of the good. Rawls argues that public reason ‘specifies at the deepest level the basic moral and political values that are to determine a constitutional democratic government’s relation to its citizens and their relation to one another’ (1999, p. 132).

To see how this is cashed out, the example of religion and the state is useful. Consider a society in which the population is evenly divided between two faiths. They have agreed for the time being that neither will be enforced as a state religion, yet their agreement is a matter of expediency rather than commitment to the value of pluralism. Rawls calls this ‘balance of forces’ a modus vivendi, which he differentiates from his idea of ‘political consensus’. He argues that in such a situation ‘we do not have stability for the right reasons, that is, as secured by a firm allegiance to a democratic society’s political (moral) ideals and values’ (1999, p. 150). Whatever peoples’ private motivations, Rawls expects that in democratic societies they should endorse fundamental principles such as religious freedom not out of expediency but out of belief in the fundamental equality of people; that is, for the right reasons. We can see that he is attempting to argue for a strong concept of political agreement while not expecting individuals to converge on the private motivations they have for such an agreement. Both religious and non-religious reasons can be used to endorse religious pluralism, and mutual respect for peoples’ private reasons becomes the social foundation of a strong political agreement on basic questions.

An agreement that attains the status of 'universal consensus' is too much to hope for when different cultural groups live together.

Ivison argues—rightly—that this split between the public and private is unsustainable, and confuses the issue of political agreement in plural societies. He suggests that Rawls overestimates the possibilities of ‘public reason’, and does not give enough weight to the fact that ‘reasonable pluralism’ applies to ‘standards of right as well’ (p. 80). Accordingly, a basic agreement that attains the status of ‘universal consensus’ is too much to hope for when different cultural groups live together. Moreover, such an agreement would produce social exclusion. The social consequences of the way we think about political agreement, or democracy, reveal the political implications of Postcolonial Liberalism. When legitimacy is based on a presumed agreement between reasonable people, marginalised social groups’ ability to express dissent is frustrated by constitutional parochialism supported by tradition and power. Ivison wants to pare down political agreement to a modus vivendi; to which he gives a different meaning than Rawls—viz. a ‘temporary consensus’ that is openly provisional.

This ‘temporary consensus’ should be developed within a ‘political discourse’ in order for it to be legitimate. Ivison defines the ‘postcolonial state’ based on this deliberative democracy as:

A state of affairs in which the legitimacy of the norms, practices and institutions upon which people’s well being depends inheres in a form of social and political conversation – or embodied argument – about what is legitimate and illegitimate; an argument that is ultimately ‘without any guarantor and without any end’ (pp. 22–3).

Once conceptions of the good are no longer bracketed from political discussion, the legitimacy of the political arrangements comes to depend on the legitimacy of the conversation about these topics. Ivison’s thesis is this: legitimacy is based on consent, and because consent on substantive questions cannot be assumed, the conversation itself bears the weight of legitimating the outcomes. A ‘way of living’ should be developed in which ‘political agreement’ is thought of as open to revision, and legitimate only because of its relation to an open democratic discussion between citizens. Ivison does not go so far as to argue that ‘procedures’ of deliberation can be specified by the right. Rather he drops this distinction in favour of a discussion in which moral and ethical doctrines can be invoked, and the outcome is legitimate so long as people are able to participate freely. The idea is to ensure that the ‘weight of tradition’ does not frustrate minority groups’ ability to challenge the status quo by offering reasonable arguments to the contrary.

Rights in Liberal Democracies

The way that Postcolonial Liberalism thinks of rights follows directly from the preceding discussion of legitimacy. Rights are claims that individuals have on other individuals—whether that is simply non-interference or requiring them to do things such as pay taxes and so on. The philosophy of rights to which Postcolonial Liberalism responds most directly is Will Kymlicka’s. Kymlicka argues that society is made up of distinct ‘societal cultures’ that organise individuals’ access to meaningful ways of life (1995, p. 76). He also suggests that access to ‘cultural resources’ is a pre-condition of liberal freedom, and that cultural resources are a ‘primary’ good which individuals have a right to enjoy. Kymlicka correctly perceives the right to preserve and draw upon traditions as necessary for indigenous peoples to enjoy the same rights and freedoms as members of the colonial culture.

Ivison's construction of individual rights as capacities to participate in democratic deliberation has a lot to recommend it.

However, I agree with Ivison that the problems in Kymlicka’s approach to indigenous rights are clear: ‘cultural rights’ do not adequately express the right to participate in the democratic government of society, nor do they allow scope for the interaction between cultures that inevitably takes place. Culture is far too heterogeneous be used as a basis for rights: what happens if people are not sufficiently organised to sustain an identifiable culture, or when they identify with more that one cultural group? The problem of who identifies a culture worthy of protection, particularly if the people in question are not able to articulate their demands within the forums of liberal-democracy, suggests that ‘cultural rights’ are not a suitable ‘construction’ of the rights that should be extended to all people. The right to draw on cultural traditions is legitimate, however the reasons Ivison gives for thinking this are more compelling than Kymlicka’s.

Ivison advocates what he calls a capabilities approach, that argues for rights on the basis of their ability to ‘provid[e] the conditions in which people can construct and pursue meaningful lives’ (p. 113). This is a more diffuse concept of rights, that I think intentionally avoids reduction to a list of particular measures. Combined with deliberative democracy, the ‘capabilities’ approach takes on the character of a theory of democratic participation:

A postcolonial liberal order should aim to secure those capabilities required to participate effectively in collective practices of public reason that affect one’s fundamental interests. What counts as a fundamental interest includes not only those very basic psychological needs that human being everywhere share, but is also shaped by the particular forms of constructive social power – or constellation of discourses – circulating in the public sphere (p. 133).

Thinking of individual rights as capacities to participate in democratic deliberation has a lot to recommend it. For one, it solves any perceived tension between negative rights and positive rights. There is no practical sense in which individuals can have freedom from without having correlative freedoms to. So-called negative rights, rights against the state, are of course necessary guarantees of personal freedom from arbitrary power. However any privileging of these rights over the positive rights of individuals to have things done for them, shows up as a symptom of bourgeois social power rather than any reasoned hierarchy of rights. Focusing on capacities for participation brings this to light: to participate effectively in democratic society, individuals need both basic personal freedoms and fairly distributed civil rights. Civil rights include basic economic equality, dignity and cultural respect, education, and political participation. The political implications are clear: no individual rights without civil rights, and no civil rights without individual rights.

Democracy and Pluralism

The existence of a hegemonic culture in most societies means that the state is necessarily implicated in choices between cultural groups’ different ethical commitments. Taking as our starting point the idea that all people should have the capacity to participate in the democratic governance of society, cultural pluralism immediately challenges any perceived cultural neutrality of the state (Markus 2002). If we want all sections of the community to ‘move forward’ through constructive engagement, then a degree of respect and commitment from each culture to value other groups is fundamental. If any cultural group feels that its traditions are not respected, its commitment to open engagement will be attenuated by legitimate fears of cultural destruction. Ivison expresses this as a political commitment when he argues that ‘it is [a] dual process of accommodation and change between and within indigenous and non-indigenous normative orders and institutions that postcolonial liberalism seeks to acknowledge, encourage and learn from’ (p. 160). Ivison suggests that multiple sources of authority and appeal should be available in society to ensure individuals can always question or defend cultural practices under other norms.

Ivison proposes that institutional design should build on, rather than against, the multiple forms of power in society.

In attempting to accommodate indigenous aspirations where possible, what stands out is the difficulty of specifying ‘constitutional essentials that secure and promote people’s basic capabilities (where what here counts as a basic capability is itself subject to a process of discursive legitimation)’ (p. 138). Ivison does not want to adopt either Rawls’s or Habermas’s approaches to political agreement, because he finds their criteria for legitimacy too universal. Instead, he tentatively proposes that a ‘core’ of basic rights are fenced off as immune from popular delegitimation; then discourse is the adopted process for specifying any rights beyond these ‘core’ rights. He concludes by proposing that institutional design should build on, rather than against, the multiple forms of power in society (pp. 140–4). There are always, underneath the surface as it were, implicit assumptions about reason and its application that Ivison does not quite make explicit enough here. It seems to me that while Ivison proposes an appropriate set of practical positions, he is committed to a particular rationality that requires a stronger defence. To respond to the impossibility of absolute cultural neutrality of the state, Ivison wants liberalism to ‘go local’, to devolve power where possible to the communities affected. This may involve for instance, arrangements similar to those employed in Canada that devolve governmental power to First Nations’ bodies over relevant matters without dissolving the nation.

On a final note, I am not convinced that Ivison’s proposal for a reflexive legitimation process undergirded by core rights is robust enough to deal with conflicts of interest in plural societies. Stronger evaluative criteria may be required to ensure minority rights are protected. Questions may always arise as to whose rights are being protected in certain circumstances, and the lack of cultural neutrality of the state extends to all levels of political authority and all politically salient differences. Conflicts between indigenous communities, between indigenous men and women, or over the use of ‘customary punishment’, will not necessarily be resolved by recourse to ever lower or competing levels of authority. Rather, criteria upon which everyone can agree, such as universal human rights and the quality of political participation that should be enjoyed by all citizens, ought to be specified and implemented as part of the political culture. While I think Ivison endorses such criteria, he shies away from endorsing them strongly. Our differences, in the broad, are small, and the book makes a good argument well. Understood from the perspective of the historian of ideas at some later date, the emerging liberal discourse on postcolonial social relations will mark an important shift in thinking about the character of modern society, and one that all who take these issues seriously should engage with.


Kymlicka, W. 1995, Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Markus, M. R. 2002, ‘Cultural Pluralism and the Subversion of the “Taken-for-Granted” World’, in Race Critical Theories: Text and Context, ed. Philomena Essed & David Theo Goldberg, Blackwell.

Rawls, J. 1999, The Law of Peoples, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Lee Corbett is an Associate Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney, and a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of New South Wales.

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