Moral Universalism and Cultural Difference
Abstract and Keywords
This article examines the relationship between moral universalism and cultural difference. It analyses the problem of how to measure the claims of particular cultures against the demands of universal morality and discusses possible ways to resolve the tension between cultural minorities and the intrusion of the morality of Western liberalism. One prominent solution to this problem attempts to resolve it by identifying special rights to be accorded to cultural groups to enable them to hold on to their particular customs and traditions. The best-known and most influential theory here is that developed by Will Kymlicka, who put the case for the protection of cultural minorities in terms that were consistent with the universalist commitments of a liberal political outlook.
1 Origins and Nature of the Moral Problem
Reflection on cultural diversity has been a significant element of Western political theory since European encounters with people of the new world in the sixteenth century (Pagden 1994). The Spanish conquests in the Americas in particular gave rise to philosophical debates, notably amongst theologians, about the very humanity of the peoples across the Atlantic. Fascination with the diversity of human customs grew with the appearance of travelers' reports detailing the exotic practices and beliefs of people in the East and in Africa, as well as in the Indies and Americas. For philosophers, the diversity of human experience provoked the question of whether there were universal standards of morality—or whether morality was simply a matter of custom. These (p. 582) questions held more than mere philosophical interest. On the contrary, they bore directly on the issue of how the peoples of distant lands should be treated by the Europeans who traveled there, particularly if they came as representatives of princes or of the church (Todorov 1992; Watner 1987). For Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1494–1573), the Spanish colonists were right to regard the native Americans not as humans but as natural slaves, inferior to Europeans as children were to parents, women were to men, and cruel people were to the mild. In the controversy at Valladolid in 1550 this theologian and philosopher defended these views before Charles V, against the arguments of Bartholomé de las Casas (1484–1566), who contended that the natives of America were human and could not rightly be enslaved. Although both men thought that the natives could not be left to govern themselves, Las Casas held that they should be governed just like the people of Spain, according to the universal standards of natural law (Hanke 1994).
The Dominican theologian, Francisco de Vitoria, went further to make it clear that the wish to extend the empire could not serve as a basis for just war. Nor could conquest be justified by pointing to the idolatory or unnatural sexual practices of the natives. The Spanish had the right to engage in lawful commerce with the Indians of America, but no right to expropriate their property; the right to preach but not to convert; the right of free passage but not the right to inflict harm (Vitoria 1991).
These writings and disputes reveal the emergence of a debate within Western thought that remains salient today. In part this is because discussions of the status of the peoples of the new world did much to shape the development of international law. But more broadly, these discussions established the idea that all people should be viewed as participants, if not members, of a global moral community—all of whom were bound to acknowledge universal rights and obligations. In a stroke they established both the humanity of distant peoples and the duty of these peoples to abide by universal laws—regarding free passage or rights of commerce—of which they knew nothing. In denying European princes the right of conquest, the theologians and philosophers invoked moral principles that also denied native peoples any claim to moral separateness or independence.
Today, the issues which first provoked such controversy in the sixteenth century are very much alive, although in a different guise (Keal 2003). Four centuries of colonialism have seen the economic and political transformation of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, as well as important changes to the cultural composition of Western societies that have seen an influx of immigrants of (p. 583) different backgrounds. Yet, in spite of these developments, there has not been a complete convergence on common ethical standards. Customs remain diverse. Even in the face of pressure to sign up to or abide by international declarations of human rights, many states insist on cleaving to their own ethical traditions. Many immigrants also have attempted to continue to live by the moral standards laid down by their cultural communities of origin, rather than conform to those of their host societies. At the same time, there has been a resurgence of claims by indigenous peoples around the world to recover some of the lands they have lost to colonizers, and to reassert the ethical vitality of their own native traditions. While the native peoples of the past four centuries tried, with limited success, to resist the advance of Christian morality into their lands, cultural minorities now resist the intrusion of the morality of Western liberalism into their communities. A significant part of contemporary political theory now wrestles with the problem of how to measure the claims of particular cultures against the demands of universal morality (Benhabib 2002).
2 The Differentiated Rights Solution
One prominent solution to the problem attempts to resolve it by identifying special rights to be accorded to cultural groups to enable them to hold on to their particular customs and traditions. The best‐known and most influential theory here is that developed by Will Kymlicka, who put the case for the protection of cultural minorities in terms that were consistent with the universalist commitments of a liberal political outlook. Liberals, he contended, had failed to take proper cognizance of the claims of cultural minorities wanting to hold on to their cherished traditions, and wishing to avoid being assimilated into the dominant culture of the wider society. Yet there was no reason why liberalism, with its universalist aspirations, should find this problematic, for it was perfectly capable of marrying its commitments to universal moral standards with respect for cultural difference (Kymlicka 1989, 1995, 2001).
The key to Kymlicka's position is his claim that what matters for all human beings is being able to live autonomously. Liberalism, he contends, has always (p. 584) recognized the importance of autonomy, which it views as a good to which all persons have an equal claim. But far from this mandating the assimilation of cultural minorities into the ways of cosmopolitans in liberal states, respect and concern for autonomy requires respect and concern for cultural communities, through which the capacity for autonomy is nurtured. The destruction of cultural groups could only portend disaster for the lives of those who are dependent upon such communities to learn what has value, and to learn the art of making choices.
To protect cultural minorities, Kymlicka suggests recognizing three kinds of group‐differentiated rights: (1) self‐government rights, to be enjoyed by national minorities, such as indigenous peoples, whose communities have their own “societal cultures” and are able to sustain independent political structures; (2) polyethnic rights, to be enjoyed by ethnic minorities, such as immigrant communities, who have no claim to being allowed to govern themselves but should be allowed—and enabled—to preserve their cultural heritage with the help of laws exempting them from some obligations as citizens, and recognizing their special needs as speakers of different languages or adherents of different religious faiths; and (3) special representation rights, to be made available to groups whose numbers and circumstances warrant separate provision being made to ensure their access to the political process. Armed with these rights, Kymlicka thinks, the different groups in a liberal society would be suitably equipped both to enjoy the protection of their particular cultural values and to live as citizens in the liberal nation state.
This solution strikes the balance between moral universalism and cultural difference in a particularly interesting way. According to Kymlicka, cultural groups must be protected from external interference from the outside society to ensure that they are able to maintain their cohesiveness and integrity. Without “external protections,” many groups would wither. For example, without laws restricting the purchase of tribal lands by outsiders some Indian communities would be undermined, as individual members of the tribe were tempted to give up their portions for high prices. Without subsidies to sustain their community services, some cultures would wither. Without special language rights, some groups would see their languages decline and their communities disadvantaged. At the same time, however, Kymlicka insists that cultural protection does not entitle communities to impose “internal restrictions” on their members, who remain members of the universal community and bearers of the rights enjoyed by all citizens. Thus, groups that wish to restrict the education of women and girls, or attempt to deny freedom of (p. 585) religion to dissenters in their midst, or insist on illiberal (even if not “unnatural”) sexual practices (such as female genital mutilation), cannot escape regulation by the authority of the state, which must protect the rights of individuals established by appeal to universal principles. That this standard might also threaten the viability of the cultural groups otherwise offered “external protections” is not, for Kymlicka, enough to warrant tolerating any more substantial departure from the universal principles of liberalism. Like the Spanish scholastics of the sixteenth century, Kymlicka is moved by an appreciation of the plight of many minority peoples to argue for extending to them the protection of universal moral law. Nonetheless, like Las Casas and Vitoria before him, Kymlicka cannot extend to them the right to take themselves beyond the authority of that law. In the end, a liberal society cannot encompass highly illiberal elements: universal principle cannot tolerate deep difference.
3 The Cosmopolitan Solution
If the differentiated rights solution cannot tolerate deep difference, it is worth noting that it is nonetheless an attempt to go further than earlier liberal theory to accommodate difference on a principled basis. Toleration might have to be circumscribed by the universal standards of liberal justice. All the same, at least in Kymlicka's theory, it has a place of its own. But for a number of critics of differentiated rights, toleration cannot have a principled place in a theory of the good society in the way that Kymlicka might wish. If moral standards are truly universal, the case for group differentiation diminishes, along with the basis for cultural toleration. This point has been pressed by a variety of critics of group‐differentiated rights, including some feminists and liberal egalitarians. It would be unfair to liken these critics too much to Sepulveda, for whom native Americans were so far inferior to Europeans as to be fit only for slavery. Liberal egalitarians and feminists (of all stripes) are strongly committed to principles of human equality. Nevertheless they have at least this much in common with Sepulveda: they view the distance between universal morality and the particular moralities of (illiberal) groups as too great to warrant either protection of the groups or toleration of their ways.
(p. 586) This view is defended from a feminist perspective with especial vigor by Susan Okin, for whom feminism and multiculturalism are clearly in tension (Okin 1998). Far from thinking that the liberal state should protect minority cultures, Okin argues that it should act positively to discourage certain cultures from perpetuating their traditions because they do not accord women equal dignity or consider that women should have the same opportunity to live as fulfilling and as freely chosen lives as men. Minority group rights exacerbate rather than resolve the problem of human development:
In the case of a more patriarchal minority culture in the context of a less patriarchal majority culture, no argument can be made on the basis of self‐respect or freedom that the female members of the culture have a clear interest in its preservation. Indeed, they might be much better off if the culture into which they were born were either to become extinct (so that its members would become integrated into the less sexist surrounding culture) or, preferably, to be encouraged to alter itself so as to reinforce the equality of women—at least to the degree to which this value is upheld in the majority culture. (Okin 1999, 22–3)
Cultures that practice female genital mutilation, give women or girls no say in choosing a marriage partner, or raise women to serve men, should not be protected. They should not even be tolerated but encouraged—or forced—to reform themselves. Ideally, for Okin, this should be done in a way that gives women themselves the opportunity to participate in the transformation of their cultural communities. (Here she is sympathetic to the arguments of Shachar 2001, and Friedman 2003.) While she is well aware that state power is open to abuse, even when the intention is to ameliorate oppression, Okin nonetheless holds firmly to the view that the use of that power is necessary to ensure that the interests of women are not subordinated to the interests of particular cultural groups. And although she admits the importance of recognizing the complexity of cultural communities, which are not always sharply separated from the wider society or from each other, and that many women belong to more than one community, this does not lessen the need to judge cultures by the moral standards she holds significant. These are, broadly speaking, the principles of liberal feminism (see also Okin 2002, 2005; for a critique see Kukathas 2001).
This stance is adopted even more stridently by Brian Barry, who sees in the claims of multiculturalism not the appeal to respect for difference but the pleadings of cultural relativism. For him, this simply will not do. The principles of liberal egalitarianism have universal validity; and all societies, including the communities within them, must be judged by liberal standards. (p. 587) To the extent that cultural groups fail to meet them they deserve not toleration, much less protection, but condemnation. Where necessary, the state should intervene in such communities to ensure that liberal principles are honored. The liberalism to which Barry appeals is that embodied in the thought of John Stuart Mill (Barry 2001).
The practical implications of this view are spelt out in some detail by Barry. Religious minorities cannot expect to be exempt from the requirement to ensure that their children receive a broad general—that is, liberal—education, and the inculcation of religious doctrines, such as creation science, is not an acceptable substitute. Cultural groups which attempt to enforce strict codes of behavior by the power of social pressure will have to temper their approach if it is too harmful or coercive. Thus, for example, the Amish, who shun those who leave their communities, should be required to compensate those whose livelihoods are affected by their inability to trade with their former neighbors; otherwise, many people will remain in Amish communities not because they long to but because the costs of exit are too high. Muslim and Jewish groups will also have to modify their behavior, since their wish to consume only halal or kosher meat cannot be granted without violating the proper standards governing the humane slaughter of animals. Ritual slaughter, Barry opines, is indefensible; and those whose cultures prohibit the eating of meat from animals not killed in the proper way should become vegetarians (see also Casal 2003; for a critique of Barry see Kukathas 2002).
Although not every liberal egalitarian has taken as much delight as Barry in writing against the multicultural grain, many have been skeptical about the importance of culture and community. The “cosmopolitan alternative,” as Jeremy Waldron calls it, is not only a feasible way of life—one that eschews the morality of cultural community—but a form of living which is, in many ways, more suited to the modern world. Indeed, paying too much attention to the claims of minority cultures runs the risk of pandering to forces that are not only self‐serving but also disruptive and threaten to undermine the peace of otherwise stable modern societies (Waldron 1997). Although we should be sympathetic to the plight of those indigenous cultures that have suffered as their communities have been damaged or destroyed by the coming of settlers, we have to move on. Political theory must be forward‐looking rather than backward‐looking, and should consider how justice can serve all people considered as equals rather than how justice must compensate those whose ways of life have been compromised (p. 588) (Waldron 1992; on rectifying historical injustice see also Kukathas 2003a; Ivison, this volume).
For those who adopt the cosmopolitan stance, the claims of cultural minorities are not to be dismissed, but neither are they to be given the weight that minorities themselves demand, or that theorists like Kymlicka defend. Some, like Joseph Raz, for example, argue that the morality of autonomy cannot license toleration of societies or communities that violate or repudiate individual autonomy. If such societies are to be tolerated, the justification must be entirely pragmatic. Intervention in the lives of other people or communities is an enterprise fraught with danger, and should not be undertaken lightly. Moral universalists need not be Jacobins in politics (see Raz 1985, 424; Fitzmaurice 1993, 14; see also Levy 2004). Nonetheless, there is, for these theorists, no principled reason for non‐intervention: universal principles simply trump cultural differences.
Some cosmopolitans, however, argue that the issue is not so much one of whether universal principle should override cultural particularity as one of discovering what is universal in the particular. Martha Nussbaum is the most notable exponent of this view, arguing that most, if not all, cultures recognize certain goods as essential for anyone to live a good life (Nussbaum 1992, 1993, 1995). To the extent that they do, all are capable of recognizing our common humanity, and acknowledging that we are all citizens of the world: cosmopolitans. Every culture therefore has its own internal resources from which to draw to criticize and attack injustice and oppression. In the Third World, no less than in the First, therefore, women and oppressed minorities can stand up to their cultures and make claims of justice which are at once universally defensible and yet locally grounded. Those who would deny them the right to do so in the name of culture must themselves go against aspects of their own traditions as well as against universal moral principle. The problem with Nussbaum's universalism, however, is that it assumes, mistakenly, that identifying a list of capabilities desirable for any good human life is sufficient to show that there are universal values shared by all societies. But what distinguishes communities of value is the fact that, while they may share a conviction that life, liberty, attachments, and recreation are important, they interpret and rank these values very differently (for a fuller critique see Ackerly 2000, 102–10). To be fair to Nussbaum, however, she does acknowledge the reality of cultural difference and the fact of people's attachments to cultural traditions. Moreover she consistently maintains that the appropriate attitude to take towards other cultures is one of humility (p. 589) (Nussbaum 1999). While she is a cosmopolitan, she is clearly not a liberal Jacobin (Levy 2004).
In spite of their differences, cosmopolitans share a conviction that universal moral judgments can be made, and that cultural differences cannot be invoked to justify failure or refusal to abide by the demands of morality. No one can rightly declare an unwillingness to enter or remain within the universal moral community. Like the Spanish scholastics, their stance is intolerant of difference at least to this degree: Difference is to be condoned for as long as it remains within the bounds of a standard of morality no one could reject. Toleration, in this picture, is only a minor virtue, circumscribed as it must always be by other, more fundamental, concerns—such as justice.
4 Difference and Recognition
Unsurprisingly, the cosmopolitan outlook, and liberalism more generally, have been criticized, and sometimes rejected entirely, by theorists for whom difference and particularity have not been duly recognized. For Michael Walzer, for example, the idea of citizenship of the world simply carries no meaning, so the cosmopolitan ideal makes little sense (Walzer 1996, 125–7). More broadly, he questions the idea that societies can readily be judged or criticized from the standpoint of universal morality, since a large part of morality is tied to local understandings and meanings. Social criticism is most effective when it comes from within, from those who understand their communities and grasp the meanings implicit in their practices. Only then can there be genuine criticism and a serious confrontation with oppression (Walzer 1981, 1983, 1987, 1994). There will always be a temptation for greater powers to repress particular, “tribal,” loyalties; but the reality is that these communities will have to be accommodated, for parochialism cannot be overcome, since individuals have a commitment to their own histories, cultures, and identities (Walzer 1994, 81).
Walzer's inclination is to advocate toleration of difference, although he is also wary of the capacity of groups to disrupt social harmony as they seek political advantage in any society prepared to condone their activities (Walzer 1997a, 98). But toleration has its limits, and cannot be extended to groups (p. 590) which are oppressive, particularly to the extent that group practice goes against the norms of the host society, which will have its own, “thick,” shared understandings of what is right and wrong (Walzer 1997b). For Charles Taylor, the offer of toleration, particularly in liberal societies, has generally been of little value, for it has failed to appreciate what groups really want, and has all too often turned out to deliver even less than promised.
Taylor's writings pose a challenge to liberal solutions to the problem of dealing with difference because he insists that all such solutions have failed to appreciate the nature of the demands made by particular groups. Understanding that groups have wanted recognition of some kind, liberal regimes have responded by offering them equality: equal rights, equal status, even a measure of material equality and, ultimately, equal dignity. “With the politics of equal dignity, what is established is meant to be universally the same, an identical basket of rights and immunities” (Taylor 1994, 38). The problem, however, is that what groups desired was recognition of their dignity not as members of a universal community but as individuals and groups distinct from everyone else. For these groups, non‐discrimination and toleration are not enough; and the idea that the liberal state might be seen as a neutral framework in which they, along with all others, might flourish under difference‐blind principles was simply an illusion. The reality is that liberalism is not the meeting ground for all cultures but “the political expression of one range of cultures, and quite incompatible with other ranges” (Taylor 1994, 62). For Taylor, Kymlicka's group‐differentiated rights solution is too weak, for it does not go far enough to recognize how much groups matter to their members. Granting different groups rights to enable them to pursue particular cultural goods works only “for existing people who find themselves trapped within a culture under pressure, and can flourish within it or not at all. But it does not justify measures designed to ensure survival through indefinite future generations” (Taylor 1994, 62).
The charge that liberalism fails to accord groups the right measure of recognition is also pressed by Iris Young, for whom assimilation lies at the heart of the liberal impulse. The “politics of difference” she advocates is a politics of group assertion (Young 1990, 167) that looks to extend the scope of democracy to include the marginalized and oppressed within the political process. It is exclusion that does most to reinforce oppression. The problem with liberal humanism is that, for all its universalist pretensions, it simply perpetuates existing patterns of dominance, albeit in the name of individual liberty and justice as impartiality.
(p. 591) 5 Deliberative Democracy
Can respect for difference be duly honored within the perspective of a universalist moral and political theory? The democratic solution offered by theorists of deliberative democracy suggests that it can. Seyla Benhabib in particular has argued that, in the modern world, the deliberative model of democracy offers the best prospect of accounting for the kinds of institutions needed to deal with the salience of cultural difference in modern society.
The distinctiveness of the theory of deliberative democracy, according to Benhabib, lies in “its vision of the interaction between liberal commitments to basic human, civil, and political rights, due process of law and democratic political struggles in civil society” (Benhabib 2002, 114). Benhabib herself offers a “two‐track model” of deliberative democracy according to which cultural disputes are regulated directly and indirectly by the state, but without ending the “dialogue and contestation” that is a marked feature of the “civil public sphere [that is] essential for a multicultural democratic polity” (Benhabib 2002, 115). When disputes arise, for example over laws governing cultural minorities, it is not enough to argue about whether or not groups should have cultural rights. What is needed is a political process in which cultural minorities can put their case. Yet this also means minorities recognizing that they themselves cannot simply demand to be left alone since their traditions themselves are often under pressure precisely because members of their communities demand change. Cultural communities must themselves be willing to take their place in the political process of democratic deliberation. Indeed, for Benhabib, this is something that such communities cannot escape, since they are not fixed and homogeneous entities but bodies comprising different and contesting perspectives. The very boundaries of cultural communities are not permanently settled but capable of being reconfigured in the deliberative process.
There are two objections to the deliberative approach, both of which Benhabib rejects. The first is that the deliberative model is biased to the extent that it does not accommodate deep differences of belief and cultural practice. In demanding that consensus be sought, it in effect excludes many groups that will do poorly when consensus is not reached, as will often be the case. The second is that deliberative politics itself has limitations that cannot be overcome if it is to do justice to the need for pluralist cultural power‐sharing arrangements and also to secessionist cultural and nationalist (p. 592) demands (Benhabib 2002, 133–46; see also Valadez 2001). For Benhabib, consensus is achievable; and group secession from public life has to be resisted. It is important not to overstate the significance of consensus, since it is at times important to defend claims made in the name of universal justice. Equally, the “requirement of morality and those of compromise need not be mutually exclusive, as Habermas sometimes suggests they are” (Benhabib 2002, 145). Moral universalism and cultural difference might be in tension, but the point is to resolve it through a democratic politics.
6 Radical Toleration
The tension between moral universalism and cultural difference is indeed difficult to resolve. Some have attempted to deal with it by simply asserting that universal morality must take precedence over any claims of culture. Others have tried to find in the principles of a universal morality a basis for giving some weight to the demands of cultural groups. And, of course, some maintain that the very idea of universal morality should be viewed skeptically, at the very least because many claims to universal morality are simply the claims of particular moralities masquerading as universal; but also because morality is the product of community and not a universal standard accessible to human reason (see in particular Alasdair MacIntyre 2002). Disagreement appears to be a feature of the analysis of difference as much as it is a feature of difference itself.
Yet in contemporary discussions, no less than in the debates of the sixteenth century, insufficient attention has been paid to an alternative, more radical, option of moral separation. The Spanish theologians, convinced of their capacity to achieve moral knowledge through an investigation of natural law, saw no option but to judge other peoples by the standards of universal morality. That those people demonstrated no appreciation, or even cognizance, of the moral law could not exculpate them from moral responsibility. The possibility that Europeans might simply leave other peoples to their own practices and traditions was simply beyond consideration—particularly for those, like Vitoria and Las Casas, who insisted on the humanity of the peoples others regarded as savages. In contemporary political theory, most writers are (p. 593) concerned to emphasize the equality of all persons and groups, and therefore to ask how they might be included as participants within the framework of a single moral community. The idea that social unity is not important, and that we might do better to maintain greater moral distance among groups, may, nonetheless, have something to offer.
To adopt this stance would mean taking a particular view of the nature of groups and of the claims of culture. Rather than think of the world as made up of fixed groups, whose claims need to be considered by those in power, we should begin by recognizing that groups themselves are not permanent or stable entities but more or less temporary associations of individuals. How they associate, who they encompass, and how strong their identities, is determined not simply by their “shared” histories but by the conditions in which they find themselves. Australia's Aborigines did not view themselves as a single people before the arrival of European settlers, although now they find themselves united to some degree as a people with a common cause. Differences can be identified along many dimensions (from religion to language to ethnicity), although any one of these dimensions might easily supply the basis of a form (more or less stable or enduring) of social unity. A good society is one that leaves people free to form, or persist in, the forms of association they find congenial.
On this view, there are no cultural rights (Kukathas 1992a, 1992b). Groups are to be regarded not as established with the right to protection or guarantees of perpetuation into the distant future, but as associations of people who are entitled to continue in association with one another if they so desire. Each is free to depart and the authority of the group's leaders rests only on the willingness of the members to acquiesce in their rule. The outside world, however, is neither entitled to intervene in its activities nor obliged to help it sustain them. The proper stance here is one of radical toleration: groups are tolerated even when their practices are themselves highly intolerant of dissenters in their midst. There is no expectation that groups or their members must conform to the standards of the wider society, although those who wish to leave their groups may not legitimately be prevented from doing so—and no one is under an obligation to help groups retain their unwilling members.
Implicit in such a view is a certain kind of universalism. Everyone has a duty of forbearance from intervention in the affairs of others, which only self‐defense can defeat. It is certainly a view that acknowledges the humanity of all peoples. But it takes a step that Vitoria and Las Casas were unwilling to contemplate in suggesting that those who do not acknowledge this universal morality may withdraw from its ambit, and continue to live beyond its frontiers. There is no (p. 594) obligation on the part of any of them to enter into moral association with the dominant society. A good society is, thus, one that makes room for dissent even from its deepest commitments. It tolerates difference even when differences seem intolerable (for a fuller defense see Kukathas 2003b).
This is a position that will appear uncongenial to those who attach great importance to the inclusion of all groups as properly “recognized” members of a single moral community. It will also be rejected by those who consider some groups worthy not of toleration (let alone recognition) but of moral condemnation for their failure to abide by the universal standards of morality. The virtue of this position, however, is that it does not compel those who repudiate the moralities of particular groups to embrace them. Nor does it compel those groups who dissent from prevailing standards to embrace those who reject them. The cost, however, is that groups can be offered no assurance that they will survive; and the moral majority can be offered no assurance that the universal morality will prevail universally.
In practical terms, it must however be conceded that it is hard to expect that such a view will find many adherents. It demands a level of toleration that most states, liberal democratic or otherwise, will find difficult to sustain.
7 The International Dimension
In some respects, the trend of contemporary discussion is moving precisely in the other direction. In international political theory, the tide is moving with those who argue that universal standards of justice should hold across the globe, and that political institutions should be established to ensure that distributional inequalities are reduced or eliminated, and that oppressive or simply illiberal regimes are pressured to conform to global moral standards. Charles Beitz, for example, has argued that the standards of justice defended by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971) could serve as a standard not only for all societies but for justice between societies (Beitz 1979; see also Pogge 1989, 2002).
Rawls himself has dissented from this view, arguing in The Law of Peoples (Rawls 1999) that the principles of justice do not extend to international society, which must be governed by different principles altogether. In this, however, he seems to have retreated from any kind of commitment to moral (p. 595) universalism, now regarding moral principles as the distillation of the ethical convictions of particular moral communities rather than as insights reached through the power of human reason. Such a position has also been elaborated by David Miller, for whom principles of justice are tied to national communities (Miller 1995, 1999, 2001).
Most theorists, however, have rejected the Rawlsian view of international order, and begun to argue for global institutions to enforce global standards of justice (Moellendorf 2002; Jones 1999). Allen Buchanan, for example, has suggested that a cosmopolitan outlook should govern our reflections on international order, and that what is most urgently necessary is a restructuring of global institutions to bring them into conformity with universal standards of morality. States, in the end, should be governed not by a primary concern for the interests of their citizens but by a commitment to protecting human rights everywhere in the name of the natural duty of justice (Buchanan 2004). If it is important that human rights be protected within domestic society, consistency, it is argued, requires that they be protected across the globe. “In fact, just as institutionalizing an arrangement that permitted individuals to be unjust could be seen as being complicit in the injustice, so institutionalizing principles of international conduct that licensed oppression could be seen as being complicit in the oppression” (Moellendorf 2002, 28).
Consistency is undoubtedly a virtue; and complicity in oppression is, at the very least, a questionable form of conduct. But if the danger of an aggressive universalism can be seen clearly anywhere, it may be in the international realm, where the ultimate purpose of political institutions should perhaps be not the pursuit of justice but the preservation of peace (Kukathas 2006). It is my suggestion that consistency dictates that we pursue no more than this in both the domestic and the international sphere. This is not because no universal standards of justice exist, but because peace is really the first virtue of social institutions, and is the universal standard most readily embraceable by cultures and communities of every different kind.
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