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Liberal Equality and the Justification of Multicultural, Civic Education

  • J.S. Andrews


The central feature of modern liberal political morality is the principle of equal respect for persons. According to Ronald Dworkin, governments have an obligation to treat each person as an equal, with equal concern and respect. In distributive contexts, this principle stipulates that each individual is entitled to an “equal” share of social resources, where equal is a function of what is required by the abstract principle of equal concern and respect. For Dworkin, this requirement means that liberal justice is fundamentally concerned with treating people as equals and not equally. By treating someone as an equal he supposes that government must treat each of its citizens with equal dignity, regarding her as an individual with a standing interest in leading a truly good life. By contrast, to treat someone equally, according to Dworkin, “...requires that government treat all those in its charge equally in the distribution of some resource or opportunity....” To treat persons as equals, that is, with equal concern and respect, is to arrange for all individuals to receive those material goods and opportunities that make living a good life possible. For my purposes, I will assume that treating people as equals is the constitutive feature of liberal equality.



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I would like to thank J.E. Bickenbach, Will Kymlicka, Rahul Kumar and Alistair Macleod for helpful comments upon drafts of this article.

1. Dworkin, R., A Matter of Principle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985) at 190.

2. But sometimes the only way a government can treat its citizens as equals is by treating them equally in the distribution of social resources and opportunities. Yet this is not always the case. We can imagine two people who both suffer from serious disabilities; A however is more seriously impaired than B. Treating both individuals as equals, as having equal dignity, requires that government give more aid to A. If, on the other hand, we were concerned only to treat them equally, this sort of differential treatment would be unwarranted. Liberal egalitarians like Dworkin claim that it is treating people as equals that is constitutive of their political morality. Treating people equally, when this would be appropriate, is a derivative requirement, since liberals want to be in a position to give more than a strictly equal share of resources to some persons—those with disabilities, for example

The precise metric that liberal egalitarians should employ to distribute resources is a complex and intensely debated question. For a powerful overview, see Cohen, G.A.On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice” (1989) 99:4 Ethics at 906–44.However, for my purposes, I will take it for granted that “primary goods” suffice for what liberals ought to make people more equal in.

3. By Rawls’ most recent works I mean in particular his new book Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) in which he stresses the distinction between “political” and “metaphysical” or “comprehensive” conceptions of liberal equality, as well as earlier articles, “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical” (1985) 14 Phil. & Publ. Affairs 223 at 223–5; “The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus” 7/1 Oxford J. of Legal Stud. (1987) 1 at 1–25; “Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good” (1988) 17 Phil. & Publ. Affairs 251–76; Justice as Fairness: a Guided Tour (1989) Unpublished manuscript.

4. Ibid. “Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good ” at 252.

5. Dworkin, R.In Defence of Equality” (1983) 1 Soc. Phil, and Policy 24 at 25.

6. Other political liberals include Galston, W., Liberal Purposes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Larmore, C., Patterns of Moral Complexity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Comprehensive or “ Millian” liberals include Raz, J., The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986); Kymlicka, W., Liberalism, Community and Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989); and Macedo, S., Liberal Virtues (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

7. SeeKymlicka, W.Liberalism and the Politicization of Ethnicity” (1991) IV:2 The Can. J. of L. and Juris. 239 at 239–56; Walzer, M. ed., The Politics of Ethnicity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983).

8. SeeGutmann, A., Multiculturalism and the “Politics of Recognition” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) at 4.

9. Larmore, C.Political Liberalism” (1990) 18 Pol. Theory 339 at 346.

10. The term “neutrality” can be interpreted in many ways, and so talking about liberal neutrality often leads to confusion. The sense in which a liberal state is neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good is a very special one, that the state does not justify its actions and policies on the grounds that some ways of life are inherently more worthy than others. The justification of government policy is thus neutral between rival conceptions of the good. For further discussion of this version of liberal neutrality see Kymlicka, W.Liberal Individualism and liberal Neutrality” (1989) 99:4 Ethics 883 at 883905.

11. “Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good”, supra note 3 at 252; and “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical”, supra note 3 at 224–25.

12. “Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good”, supra note 3 at 252.

13. Ibid.

14. “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical”, supra note 3 at 225–26; “The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus”, supra note 3.

15. “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical”, supra note 3 at 245n.27.

16. Galston, supra note 6 at 242–43.

17. Ibid, at 243; for a similar definition of civic education see Fullinwider, R.Citizenship and Welfare” in Gutmann, A. ed., Democracy and the Welfare State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988) at 266–79.

18. Dworkin, supra note 5 at 27.

19. Kymlicka, supra note 6 at 10.

20. Ibid. at 12.

21. Raz, supra note 6 at 205.

22. Macedo, supra note 6 at 272.

23. Ibid.

24. P. Trudeau (House of Commons, 1971); quoted from Mcleod’s, K.Multiculturalism and Multicultural Education” in Samuda, R. et al., ed., Multiculturalism in Canada: Social and Educational Perspectives (Toronto: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1984) at 31.

25. Lassard, C. & Crespo, M.Multicultural Education in Canada: Policies and Practices” in Ray, D. & Poonwassie, D. ed., Education and Cultural Differences (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992) at 451–71.

26. SeePeters, R.S., Ethics and Education (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966); Peters, R.S., ed., The Concept of Education (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967). For a critical perspective on this view of education see Martin, J.R.The Ideal of the Educated Person” (1982) 31:2 Educational Theory 97 at 97109.

27. See Kymlicka, supra note 6 at 135–82 for an insightful exploration of the relationship between cultural membership and liberal equality.

28. SeeVerma, G. & Ashworth, B. Ethnicity and Educational Achievement (London: Macmillan, 1985) for an analysis of multicultural education and educational achievement in Britain.

29. Kymlicka, W. develops this argument at length in his recent article “Two Models of Pluralism and Tolerance” (1992) 14 Analyse & Kritik 33 at 3356.He argues powerfully that political liberalism’s account of the person obscures liberal commitments to individual liberty and equality.

30. I elaborate and defend this point in my doctoral dissertation Liberalism and the Justification of Public Education (Queen’s University, 1994).

31. Supra note 1 at 205.

Liberal Equality and the Justification of Multicultural, Civic Education

  • J.S. Andrews


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