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Multicutlural Citizenship or a Law of Peoples? Kymlicka on self-determination and group-rights

Over the course of his career, Will Kymlicka has developed an influential account of grouprights notable for its strong commitment to both luck egalitarianism and individual autonomy (understood as the freedom to rationally form and revise conceptions of the good in light of alternatives).1 Kymlicka argues that its only through having a rich and secure cultural structure that people can become aware, in a vivid way, of the options available to them, and intelligently examine their value.2 Consequently, unless people have secure membership of cultural community, their capacity to freely form, revise, and pursue life options will be severely limited. Thus, ensuring the equal liberty of all to freely form, revise, and pursue conceptions of the good requires that all enjoy secure membership of a cultural community, something that is often denied to national minorities under pressure to assimilate into the dominant societal culture. In this way, Kymlicka proposes that we should treat secure membership of a cultural community as a kind of primary good or resource, subject to luck egalitarian distributive principles.3 Being a member of a vulnerable national minority is like being born with a disability. Just as someone with a disabilitythrough no fault of her own1

See Will Kymlicka, "Liberal Individualism and Liberal Neutrality," Ethics 99 (1989); Will

Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community, and Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), chapter 1; Will Kymlicka, "Two Models of Pluralism and Tolerance," Analyse and Kritik Summer (1992).2

Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community, and Culture, 165. It is for this reason that Kymlickas position has been labelled luck mutliculturalism. See


Jonathan Quong, Cultural exemptions, expensive tastes, and equal opportunities, Journal of Applied Philosophy 23, no. 1 (2006): 54-55.


needs additional resources so that she may enjoy the same opportunity as others to pursue her desires, ambitions, and life projects, vulnerable national minorities need special measures additional resources and group rightsto protect the viability of their cultural community if they are to have the same chance as members of more dominant groups to pursue their aims, ambitions, and life-projects.4 What is particularly notable about Kymlickas approach to minority rights is the way he reduces the debate over group rights to a debate over equality of resources that can be settled from within a luck egalitarian framework: People should have to pay for their choices, but special political rights are needed to remove inequalities in the context of choice which arise before people even make their choices. Thus, the guarantee of aboriginal rights can be seen as spelling out what it means to treat aboriginal people as equals, given their special circumstances.5 Many of Kymlickas critics, by contrast, treat group-rights as raising metatheoretical questions about the limits of liberal egalitarianism in the face of the diversity of peoples. For theorists such as William Galston, Vernon Van Dyke, and Bhikhu Parekh, the fact of cultural pluralism calls into question the very scope of liberal egalitarianism, while the contestability of liberal principles in the face of religious and cultural pluralism means that liberal egalitarianism cannot be assumed as the arbiter of recognition claims.6 For the latter two theorists in particular, group rights raise similar sorts of issues as those that lie at the heart of the dispute between cosmoplitans and their criticis over the requirements of global justice4

Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, community and culture (Oxford University Press, 1991), 189. Ibid., 190-191. William A. Galston, "Two Concepts of Liberalism," Ethics 105 (1995); Bhikhu C. Parekh,



Rethinking Multiculturalism, 2nd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000); Vernon Van Dyke, "The Individual, the State, and Ethnic Communities in Political Theory," World Politics 29, no. 3 (1977).


whether liberal egalitarian principles can be imposed on people against their will. Kymlickas project, by contrast, is to show that minority rights and liberal egalitarianism are mutually compatible. Despiteor perhaps because ofits influence, Kymlickas theory of group rights has come in for much criticism in the literature. Much of this has concentrated on the difficulty that his theory faces moving from an argument about the value of cultural membership for individual autonomy to a defence of group rights for actual national minorities.7 His distinction between the claims of national minorities and those of immigrant groups has also received its fair share of criticism.8 I say something about the strength of these criticisms below. However, what I am more interested in exploring in this paper are the alternative sources of commitment to the cause of national minorities that can be found in Kymlickas work and which stand in tension with his luck egalitarian argument for group rights.


See, for example, Choudhry, Sujit. "National Minorities and Ethnic Immigrants:

Liberalism's Political Sociology." Journal of Political Philosophy 10, no. 1 (2002): 54-78. Nickel, James W. "The Value of Cultural Belonging: Expanding Kymlicka's Theory." Dialogue 33, no. 4 (1994): 635-42.8

See, for example, Joseph Carens, "Liberalism and Culture," Constellations 4, no. 1 (1997),

Choudhry, "National Minorities and Ethnic Immigrants: Liberalism's Political Sociology.", Chandran Kukathas, "Multiculturalism as Fairness: Will Kymlicka's Multicultural Citizenship," The Journal of Political Philosophy 5, no. 4 (1997), Geoffrey Brahm Levey, "Equality, Autonomy, and Cultural Rights," Political Theory 25, no. 2 (1997), Jonathan Quong, "Cultural Exemptions, Expensive Tastes, and Equal Opportunities," Journal of Applied Philosophy 23, no. 1 (2006), Iris Marion Young, "A Multicultural Continuum: A Critique of Will Kymlicka's Ethnic-Nation Dichotomy," Constellations 4, no. 1 (1997).


In an early review of Kymlickas Multicultural Citizenship, John Tomasi suggested that Kymlicka might do better to jettison the idea of a cultural structure as a context of choice as the cornerstone of his argument and instead build the case for indigenous rights on arguments similar to those advanced by Rawls in his Law of Peoples.9 Just as Rawls argues there are non-liberal peoples that warrant respect and toleration in accordance with the idea of political liberalism applied internationally, Tomasi suggests that the self-government rights of decent, but non-liberal, indigenous peoples within liberal states similarly deserve to be recognised and respected.10 What I want to suggest is that Kymlickas commitment to the selfgovernment rights of indigenous peoples actually comes very close to Rawlss defence of the corporate right to self-determination of decent peoples in The Law of Peoples. It is a commitment to the self-government rights of indigenous peoples that cannot be derived from the value of cultural membership as a context of choice, not least because indigenous peoples corporate right to self-determination often acts to undermine the individual autonomy of group members. Nonetheless, what Kymlicka has to say about hard-cases suggests that it is something like a Rawlsian commitment to the self-government rights of decent peoples rather than a comprehensive liberal commitment to safeguarding the conditions of individual autonomy that best explains Kymlickas defence of indigenous rights. If I am right about the extent of Kymlickas commitment to the self-determination of peoples, serious consequences follow for the nature of the claims national minorities and indigenous peoples can prosecute against the dominant societal culture. For what members of different peoples owe each other as a matter of justice, if we follow a Rawlsian approach, is much less than what fellow citizens owe each other as co-participants in a scheme of mutual9

John Tomasi, "Kymlicka, Liberalism, and Respect for Cultural Minorities," Ethics 105

(1995), 595-603.10

Tomasi, "Kymlicka, Liberalism, and Respect for Cultural Minorities," 600.


cooperation. This is evident, as we will see below, in the distinction that Rawls draws between the requirements of distributive justice in the domestic casewhere inequalities must always be to the benefit of the least advantagedand the more minimal duty of assistance that governs the global redistribution of wealth (under which advantaged peoples are required only to ensure that burdened societies are capable of well-ordered, selfgovernment and no more).11 Widespread inequalities are thus permissible between members of different peoples when the terms of association between them are governed by the Law of Peoples. However, the toleration of widespread inequalities between majority and minority nations within the state is anathema to the luck egalitarian argument Kymlicka explicitly advances in favour of group rights. Indeed, the whole point of group rights according to Kymlickas luck egalitarian argument is precisely to reduce unjust inequalities between majority and minority nations. The argument of the paper proceed in four stages. In section I, I set out Kymlickas luck egalitarian argument for group rights in more detail before going on to contrast this with Rawlss argument for the toleration of decent peoples in Section II. I then consider how Kymlickas comments on the group-rights claims of refugees, small national minorities, and indiegenous peoples that restrict the liberty of women suggest an affinity between his approach and Rawlss argument for the toleration of decent peoples. The final section of the paper considers the tension between the two different arguments Kymlicka gives