Philosophy & Public Affairs 30.4 (2001) 417-442
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Respect for Persons and Perfectionist Politics
In an article published in this journal, Joseph Chan defends the view that Kantian liberals have no viable objection to a nonliberal or perfectionist state, i.e., to a government that seeks to promote happiness, virtue, or meaning in people's lives. 1 Kantian liberals are those such as John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, and David Richards who maintain that the state should not seek to realize a conception of the good because doing so would treat citizens disrespectfully. 2 The Kantian perspective is probably the most influential and promising motivation for liberalism. Teleological theories such as instrumentalism and utilitarianism provide notoriously shaky foundations for liberal rights for each to live as she sees fit, 3 and hence are not [End Page 417] used to defend liberalism as often as deontological Kantianism. What might prima facie appear to be rival deontological arguments for liberalism, e.g., contractualism or natural rights of self-ownership, upon reflection seem fundamentally motivated by a principle of respect for persons. 4 In any event, the idea that the state must respect citizens' capacity for reasoned decision-making has grounded two important arguments for liberalism and against perfectionism. First, several Kantian liberals have thought that a perfectionist state has a tendency to severely restrict its citizens' autonomy and to generate conflict as a result. Second, many Kantian liberals have claimed that it would be objectionable for a state to enforce conceptions of the good since citizens reasonably disagree about their truth. In response, Chan draws a distinction between moderate and extreme perfectionism, and argues that these two objections do not apply to the moderate form.
In Section II of this article I suggest that Chan argues in a convincing way that moderate perfectionism avoids the two central respect-based objections in the literature. However, in Section III, I argue that perfectionism is incompatible with respect for persons for a reason that neither Chan nor anyone sympathetic to Kantian liberalism has brought out fully. The fundamental locus of the conflict between respect for persons and perfectionist politics has not been pinned down, which I seek to do here. Once the deep source of tension between respect and nonliberalism is specified, it becomes clear that even Chan's moderate perfectionism does not escape plausible charges of disrespect.
An additional aim of this article, however, is to point to a way out for perfectionism. In Section IV, I sketch a new form of nonliberalism that I call "open perfectionism," and then, in Section V, I contend that open [End Page 418] perfectionism promises to be compatible with respect for persons. As is often remarked, the way to move beyond a dichotomy is to show that both poles rely on a shared, questionable premise. I believe that the debate between Kantian liberals and nonliberals typically assumes that citizens do not have a meaningful opportunity to exit their states. This assumption, although true of extant states, is not necessarily true. Once we imagine a perfectionist state that provides substantial resources to enable its citizens to opt out, then we can conceive of a respectful perfectionism, even one that is extreme by Chan's lights. I conclude in Section VI that Chan's moderate-extreme distinction is neither necessary nor sufficient to show that perfectionism can be respectful; rather, an open-closed distinction likely does the job.
Even if I succeed in showing that open perfectionism is consistent with the Kantian principle of respect, those who defend liberalism on other grounds could still have a complaint against open perfectionism. For example, utilitarian liberals will object that open perfectionism would not promote the general welfare as much as liberalism. Such arguments need to be considered elsewhere in detail; I cannot establish here that the principle of respect is more plausible than the principle of utility, or that the latter principle does not entail liberalism. I instead focus on making a dialectical argument against Kantian liberals, developing the strongest objection they can make to nonliberalism and then contending...