Philosophical Studies

, Volume 162, Issue 3, pp 645–664 | Cite as

Can liberal perfectionism justify religious toleration? Wall on promoting and respecting

  • Kevin VallierEmail author


Toleration is perhaps the core commitment of liberalism, but this seemingly simple feature of liberal societies creates tension for liberal perfectionists, who are committed to justifying religious toleration primarily in terms of the goods and flourishing it promotes. Perfectionists, so it seems, should recommend restricting harmful religious practices when feasible. If such restrictions would promote liberal perfectionist values like autonomy, it is unclear how the perfectionist can object. A contemporary liberal perfectionist, Steven Wall, has advanced defense of religious toleration that grounds perfectionist toleration in an innovative account of reasons of respect. He thus defends perfectionist toleration on two grounds: (i) the appropriate manner of responding to perfectionist goods like autonomy and membership is to respect the religious choices of others; (ii) citizens can acquire reasons to respect the religious choices of others through internalizing a value-promoting moral and political code. I argue that both defenses fail. The cornerstone of both arguments is the connection Wall draws between reasons to promote value and reasons to respect it. I claim that Wall’s conception of the relationship between promoting and respecting value is inadequate. I conclude that the failure of Wall’s defense of perfectionist toleration should motivate liberal perfectionists to develop more sophisticated accounts of normative reasons. The viability of a truly liberal perfectionism depends upon such developments.


Perfectionism Liberalism Religious toleration Liberal perfectionism Steven Wall Toleration 



I am grateful to a number of people who provided me with feedback on this article, including Nathan Ballantyne, Thomas Christiano, Chris Freiman, Jerry Gaus, Uriah Kriegel, Mark LeBar, Jonathan Quong, Steven Wall and members of a 2009 University of Arizona writing workshop, along with an anonymous reviewer. I especially thank Gregg Keithley for pressing me to think hard about the relationship between perfectionism and toleration and to Aira Burkhart for graphic illustration.


  1. Benn, S. I. (1988). A theory of freedom. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Christiano, T. (2008). Does religious toleration make any sense? In L. Thomas (Ed.), Contemporary debates in social philosophy (pp. 171–191). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  3. Cuneo, T. (2005). Can a natural law theorist justify religious civil liberties? In T. Cuneo (Ed.), Religion in the liberal polity (pp. 108–130). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.Google Scholar
  4. Gaus, G. (2003). Liberal neutrality: A radical and compelling principle. In S. Wall & G. Klosko (Eds.), Perfectionism and neutrality: Essays in liberal theory (pp. 137–166). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  5. Hooker, B. (2000). Ideal code, real world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. King, P. (1998). Toleration. London: Frank Cass Publishers.Google Scholar
  7. Locke, J. (2009). A letter concerning toleration: Humbly submitted. New York: Classic Books America.Google Scholar
  8. Mill, J. S. (1978). On liberty. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  9. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Rawls, J. (2005). Political liberalism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Raz, J. (1986). The morality of freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Raz, J. (1988). Autonomy, toleration and the harm principle. In S. Mendus (Ed.), Justifying toleration: Conceptual and historical perspectives (pp. 155–177). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Smith, S. D. (2008). Toleration and liberal commitments. In M. Williams & J. Waldron (Eds.), Nomos xlviii: Toleration and its limits (pp. 243–280). New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Temkin, L. (1996). A continuum argument for intransitivity. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 25(3), 175–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Wall, S. (1998). Liberalism, perfectionism and restraint. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Wall, S. (2003). The structure of perfectionist toleration. In S. Wall & G. Klosko (Eds.), Perfectionism and neutrality: Essays in liberal theory (pp. 231–256). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  17. Wall, S. (2005). Perfectionism, public reason and religious accommodation. Social Theory and Practice, 31(2), 281–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Williams, B. (1996). Toleration: An impossible virtue? In D. Heyd (Ed.), Toleration: An elusive virtue (pp. 18–27). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentBowling Green State UniversityProvidenceUSA

Personalised recommendations