Multiculturalism and Equal Human Dignity: An Essay on Bhikhu Parekh


Bhikhu Parekh is an internationally renowned political theorist. His work on identity and multiculturalism is unquestionably thoughtful and nuanced, benefiting from a tremendous depth of knowledge of particular cases. Despite his work’s many virtues, however, the normative justification for Parekh’s recommendations is at times vague or ambiguous. In this essay, I argue that a close reading of his work, in particular his magnum opus Rethinking Multiculturalism and the selfproclaimed “sequel” A New Politics of Identity, reveals that his claims frequently rely upon a Kantian account of moral dialogue and indeed moral personhood that he remains unwilling to claim. Recognizing this latent Kantianism is essential to a thorough assessment of Parekh’s work on identity, and his criticisms of other theorists. It is only because of his ambiguity that his multiculturalism is able to avoid the sort of charges that he levels against other responses to diversity, including those of such authors as Rawls, Habermas, Kymlicka, and Raz.

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  1. 1.

    Witness the persistent Islamophobia, on several continents, in debates over cultural and religious accommodation.

  2. 2.

    For an extended discussion of issues of minorities within minorities see Eisenberg and Spinner-Halev 2005.

  3. 3.

    He adds, ‘Secondly, even if the principles are shown to be universally valid, some might not accept them or, even if they do, they might not feel so committed to them as to be motivated by them in their relation to others… Thirdly, even if they are accepted by all concerned, the abstract universals need to be interpreted, and here people are likely to disagree… universal moral principles have to be balanced, prioritized, and applied to the unique circumstances of specific societies, and that too generates much disagreement. Since such disagreements cannot by definition be resolved by references to the principles themselves, we are left without any guidance’ (Parekh 1999b, p. 166).

  4. 4.

    Parekh’s use and understanding of ‘operative public values’ is surely influenced by his study of Michael Oakeshott’s anti-universalism, though not in ways that further or undermine the claims made in this essay. It is perhaps notable that Parekh doesn’t reference Oakeshott in his discussion of operative public values. See (Parekh 1995) for his review of Oakeshott’s political philosophy.

  5. 5.

    I am grateful to a reviewer at Res Publica for highlighting this revision.

  6. 6.

    Why must a society periodically reassess its operative public values? Where does this obligation come from if not a society’s operative public values? I will suggest an answer in the next section.

  7. 7.

    Other works that emphasize the importance of intergroup dialogue include (Dryzek 2006; Bohman 1996, 2007; James 2004; Tully 1995, 2009; Benhabib 2002).

  8. 8.

    Which Parekh seems to take as almost self-evident, and not in need of justification.

  9. 9.

    See Chap. 13 (Parekh 2008a) for Parekh’s discussion of the universal value of democracy.

  10. 10.

    I am struck by various conversations I have had with what might be called Conservative Christian Evangelicals (by no means an endangered group in contemporary American society). A common and powerful reason for a claim in these conversations has been a personal knowledge of God’s will. What happens to reasonable discourse if, for example, the statement ‘I see what your saying but that is not what God tells me’ is a legitimate if not irrefutable counterargument?.

  11. 11.

    Rawls (1993, p. 193). Elsewhere, I argue that Rawls’ account of neutrality of aim, by focusing on illiberal or undemocratic beliefs and practices, fails to consider that there might be good reason to address the potentially preventable bad effects of specific policies of liberal states. States could address these concerns, I argue, by recognizing certain cultural rights claims. Such policies would make political liberal societies more consistent with what Rawls calls the ‘criterion of reciprocity’ (Preiss 2009).

  12. 12.

    For a thorough analysis of the normative foundations of Habermas’ discourse ethics and Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, see Baynes 1992.

  13. 13.

    Parekh criticizes Rawls’ claim that the difference principle requires a ‘sense of cohesion’ to be effective, (Parekh 2008a, p. 46). It is not clear, however, that Rawls’ conception of solidarity requires any more than the ‘thin’ set of shared values (Parekh 2008a, p. 83) that underpin Parekh’s model of intercultural dialogue.

  14. 14.

    By ‘instrumental’ here I don’t mean non-moral. I am simply recognizing that dialogue may be justified in terms of its likely ends, as opposed to a justification by reference to foundational principles.

  15. 15.

    There is a sense, perhaps not too different from Parekh’s vision of a ‘humane and just world,’ in which Kant’s humanity formulation of the categorical imperative is itself fundamentally concerned with the ends of actions (Wood 1998). If what we mean by ‘ends-justified’ theories is interpreted in such a broad and normatively loaded way, then both theorists work from the ends backwards. The parallel holds.

  16. 16.

    See, in particular, section 87 of A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971).

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    Though the ‘assimilationist wrongly asks for a greater degree and range of unity than is possible or necessary’ (Parekh 2008a, p. 83).

  18. 18.

    For an argument that the humanity formulation is most central to Kant’s moral philosophy, see (Wood 1998).

  19. 19.

    Which Parekh himself recognizes in his brief discussion of Kantian moral philosophy and children or those with severe learning disabilities (Parekh 2008a, p. 211).

  20. 20.

    Or reference a positive case of earlier theorists.

  21. 21.

    Though Kant is perhaps too singularly focused on the human capacity to reason (Parekh 2008a, p. 218).

  22. 22.

    I wonder how this lexical priority of the impersonal differs in practice from Kymlicka’s liberal restriction, which Parekh criticized at length in Multiculturalism Reconsidered (Parekh 2000, pp. 100–105).


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I would like to thank Martha Nussbaum, Michael Green, Amy McCready, Michael James, and two extremely helpful anonymous reviewers at Res Publica for feedback on earlier versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Joshua Broady Preiss.

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Preiss, J.B. Multiculturalism and Equal Human Dignity: An Essay on Bhikhu Parekh. Res Publica 17, 141–156 (2011).

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  • Multiculturalism
  • Bhikhu Parekh
  • Kant
  • Liberalism
  • Equality
  • Recognition
  • Human dignity