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Liberal Neutrality and Moderate Perfectionism

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This article defends a moderate version of state perfectionism by using Gerald Gaus’s argument for liberal neutrality as a starting point of discussion. Many liberal neutralists reject perfectionism on the grounds of respect for persons, but Gaus has explained more clearly than most neutralists how respect for persons justifies neutrality. Against neutralists, I first argue that the state may promote the good life by appealing to what can be called “the qualified judgments about the good life,” which have not been considered by liberal perfectionists including Joseph Chan and Steven Wall. Then I clear up several possible misunderstandings of these judgments, and argue that: (a) moderate perfectionism does not rely on controversial rankings of values and is committed to promoting different valuable ways of life by pluralistic promotion; and (b) moderate perfectionism requires only an indirect form of coercion in using tax money to support certain moderate perfectionist measures, which is justifiable on the grounds of citizens’ welfare. Thus, I maintain that moderate perfectionism does not disrespect citizens, and is not necessarily unfair to any particular group of people. It is, in fact, plausible and morally important. The defence of moderate perfectionism has practical implications for the state’s policies regarding art development, drug abuse, public education, and so on.

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  1. For simplicity, these definitions are intended to be rough. I do not think that this will create any problem for my arguments in this article.

  2. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point. In my view, briefly, Gaus would now think that some perfectionist policies may be publicly justifiable in some societies—it has to depend on whether reasonable people can converge on the policy in question or whether the policy can be chosen through a fair procedure from an “optimal eligible set.” But given the fact of reasonable pluralism, I think that in most societies most perfectionist policies are not justified in any of those ways. Moreover, the form of perfectionism that I defend in this article appeals to certain kinds of perfectionist judgments (as they should be reasonably accepted) and adopts pluralistic promotion of perfectionist goods. Thus Gaus’s convergence conception of public justification (Gaus 2011) cannot authorize my version of perfectionism.

  3. Yet, there has not been much systematic discussion of Gaus’s argument for neutrality, except for Wall (2009, 2010) and Lister (2011).

  4. Quong (2011) is an exception. I will choose to discuss briefly two arguments by him in the penultimate section called “The Problem of Deeper Disagreement” and in fn. 22.

  5. Wall’s most recent work includes: (Wall 2009, 2010). Other perfectionists, such as Arneson (2003), Raz (1986), and Sher (1997), are not as active in the debate as they were before.

  6. This anti-perfectionist argument is a powerful one, but has not been discussed by any prominent perfectionist. I will argue against it later.

  7. See Gaus and Vallier (2009, pp. 54–55).

  8. Cf. Chan (2000, p. 15, fn. 21).

  9. See Waldron (1999, part II).

  10. As I will argue later, if a certain thing or way of life is considerably good or bad for most people, then this gives a strong reason to promote or discourage it.

  11. One criticism would be that the qualification strategy is useless because the state’s coercion generally applies to all citizens, not most, if not all, citizens.

  12. That is, there are sufficient epistemic reasons to accept qualified judgments.

  13. I concede that there may be some people who take hard drugs for non-medical purposes but do not become addicted to them. In addition, I realise that some people may still manage to lead a good life even though they are addicted to hard drugs. Nevertheless, I think that the bad effects of hard-drug addiction are very serious for most people, and this is a strong reason for discouraging people to use hard drugs for non-medical purposes.

  14. To Rawls (1999), political values provide public reasons for all citizens, but these reasons do not include any perfectionist judgment.

  15. Miller (2004) has made a similar argument for the state’s provision of public goods. Yet, my version of perfectionism appeals to qualified judgments about the good life, which have not been considered by Miller or any prominent perfectionist.

  16. But I do not deny that there are occasions where it is good for a person to appear to be a coward or to be (blissfully) ignorant of something.

  17. One main criticism of perfectionism by Waldron (1989, p. 1148) and Metz (2001, p. 426) is that the perfectionist state should not promote different conceptions of the good by turns, as it would be both absurd and wrong for the state to promote different religions alternately. However, moderate perfectionism does not promote any religion, because any religion is an object of serious controversy, and different religions cannot be treated as compatible goods (e.g., to most Christians, their religion is the true one and other religions are false). The promotion of different religions will lead to social conflicts and serious distrust of the government. In contrast, most agency and prudential goods are compatible goods: generally, to promote an agency or prudential good will not imply that another agency or prudential good is not valuable.

  18. This is not infeasible. Governments of developed countries generally can identify those citizens who belong to ethnic minorities or certain socially disadvantaged groups (such as low-income groups).

  19. There seems to be another reason, an egoistic one, for helping other citizens to live better: when a large number of other citizens live better, we stand a much better opportunity to flourish. This line of thought seems worthwhile to explore, but has not received much attention from state perfectionists.

  20. See Chan (2000, pp. 15–16).

  21. Actually, I think that the state may discourage people from heavy smoking, alcoholism, and so on through moderate measures on similar grounds. For a useful discussion of the harmful aspects of serious addictive personality, see Nakken (1996).

  22. Recently, Quong (2011, ch. 3) has pressed a respect-based objection against perfectionism. He argues that if the state has already distributed resources fairly, then perfectionism is unnecessary unless it treats citizens as if they “cannot make effective decisions about their own good” (Quong 2011, p. 102). Such paternalistic treatment of citizens, he argues, diminishes their moral status. A short response: that assumption about citizens indeed appears to be disrespectful, but I think that perfectionism is based on a somewhat different assumption: citizens do not and cannot always make the best decisions about the good life for themselves and for others without some help from perfectionist policies. This assumption, I think, is a plausible and modest one, and does not diminish people’s moral status.

  23. I owe this point to Chan.

  24. A fair procedure is also necessary.

  25. This idea about the appeal to truth in politics is from Arendt (1967, p. 114).


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I would like to thank Paul Billingham and Dan McDermott for their extensive comments on earlier drafts of this article. For helpful suggestions, I thank Alex Barker, Simon Caney, Joseph Chan, James Christensen, Chenxin Jiang, Karita Kan, Louise Law, Loretta Lou, David Miller, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, Zak Taylor, and Wai-hung Wong. I am also grateful to the participants of the Nuffield Political Theory Workshop and three anonymous referees for their comments on the penultimate version of this article. This article was written while I was on the Swire Scholarship. I am grateful to the Swire Education Trust for its generous support.

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Correspondence to Franz Fan-lun Mang.

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Mang, F.Fl. Liberal Neutrality and Moderate Perfectionism. Res Publica 19, 297–315 (2013).

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