Reconstructing Galston's Conception of State Neutrality

By Harris, George W. | William and Mary Law Review, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing Galston's Conception of State Neutrality


Harris, George W., William and Mary Law Review


I.

Any conception of political morality applying to modern western societies will reflect a conception of state neutrality, whether that morality be liberal, utilitarian, or perfectionist. Articulating a conception of state neutrality becomes especially crucial to liberalism, however, because, according to liberalism, the problem of a well-ordered society for western states is the problem of what principles of social cooperation are rational for a society in which central kinds of conflicts involve a plurality of competing conceptions of how it is best to live.(1) Different versions of liberalism, then, can be distinguished from each other in terms of the different conceptions of state neutrality they reflect. My purpose here is to contrast the conception of state neutrality reflected in William Galston's recent work(2) with one of its major competitors. The result will be a clarification of Galston's reconstruction of state neutrality.

Before turning to that task, I first want to clarify the notion of neutrality I wish to discuss. Much has been written about the structure of liberal arguments for particular conceptions of political morality as to whether theory should begin with the "right" or the "good."(3) Some have argued that to begin with the right is to construct a political morality in a way that is neutral regarding any conception of what makes a life good.(4) Others, including Galston, have argued that political theory must begin with a conception of the good and derive a conception of liberalism from it.(5) I believe that Galston is correct on this issue, but this is not the issue I wish to discuss. The issue of the neutrality of philosophical theory is different from the issue of how neutral the state should be regarding the different conceptions of the good life its citizens pursue. Whatever structure political theory takes, the political morality it produces will reflect a normative conception of state neutrality, a conception of how the state is morally restricted from taking sides on competing conceptions of the good life.(6) For my purposes, it does not matter how the conception of state neutrality is derived from its theoretical base, from the right or from the good; all that matters is what it is. I simply am interested in getting a grip on how competing conceptions of liberalism differ in terms of their conceptions of state neutrality. Were we able to isolate all the major liberal competitors in these terms, we would improve our understanding of the philosophical options before us, as we would by isolating the nonliberal competitors for our assent. No view that fails to recognize the facts of pluralism is a real competitor, which means that any plausible political morality must require some normative notion of state neutrality. Until a conception is refined to bring its version of state neutrality into focus, the option it represents will not be entirely clear to us.

II.

Consider two liberal competitors. The first has a Kantian lineage, and the second a lineage to Isaiah Berlin. The idea is to understand how beginning with fundamentally different conceptions of the foundations of morality can yield fundamentally different conceptions of liberalism and state neutrality.

The Kantian lineage I have in mind begins with the thought that what is important about political principles is how they apply to persons in terms of what is most important about persons.(7) Persons have a certain kind of value, and it is this particular kind of value that is the foundation for morality, even political morality. We first need to understand the kind of value persons are supposed to have on this view and, second, what it is about persons that gives them this kind of value.

The kind of value in question is the special value that attaches to dignity. What is it to value something as possessing dignity? Barbara Herman, a contemporary Kantian, put it this way in the context of explaining the value of our rational nature:

   Rational nature as value is both absolute and nonscalar. … 

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