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International Toleration: Rawlsian versus Cosmopolitan

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 January 2006


How should liberal societies respond to nonliberal ones? In this paper I examine John Rawls's conception of international toleration against what is sometimes called a cosmopolitan one. Rawls holds that a just international order should recognize certain nonliberal societies, to which he refers as decent peoples, as equal members in good standing in a just society of peoples. It would be a violation of liberalism's own principle of toleration to deny the international legitimacy of decent peoples who, among other things, affirm human rights and accept peaceful coexistence with other societies. According to the cosmopolitan idea of international toleration, on the contrary, only societies that are liberal in character meet the criteria for toleration. I suggest that, against the Rawlsian conception of international toleration, the cosmopolitan idea is more consistent with the fundamentals of liberal political morality. I then clarify the ways in which cosmopolitan toleration is not worryingly interventionist even as it is not altogether toothless; and I end with some reflections on why cosmopolitism is not morally imperialistic.

2005 Foundation of the Leiden Journal of International Law

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