Liberalism for the liberals, cannibalism for the cannibals

Steven Lukes

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    The aphoristic title suggests a parallel between liberalism and a culturally embedded, exotic and utterly repellent practice. Is liberalism, understood as the political morality that underpins and justifies liberal practices and institutions, culturally embedded? If so, are the reasons we can offer in its defence similarly embedded and thus uncompelling to non-liberals? Are its core values defensible only by 'internal or consensual reasoning'? Arguments by Walzer, Tully and Parekh in support of this claim are examined and doubts are raised about too holistic a notion of culture. The arguments of the early Rawls and Barry against the claim and for the view that liberalism is culture-free are next examined and criticised. Hollis's idea that liberalism 'has to remain a fighting creed with universalist pretensions' is considered and compared with Barry's less nuanced view and the question of how to defend liberalism is confronted directly. Must its defence rely upon reasoning internal to a liberal outlook? A distinction is drawn between first-order beliefs about substantive issues and their background assumptions, on the one hand, and beliefs about how to argue and justify your political morality on the other. The question whether the latter can be dissociated from liberal background assumptions is raised. A second distinction is drawn between the standpoint of an anthropological observer and a participant in political discourse. From the latter's perspective, it is suggested, liberal practices and institutions may be defensible from nonliberal background assumptions. Finally, the empirical issue of whether liberalism is culture-centric is raised and the suggestion is made that to contrast it with cannibalism is to rely on an illusory notion of 'the exotic' and of the extent of moral diversity.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationTrusting in Reason
    Subtitle of host publicationMartin Hollis and The Philosophy of Social Action
    PublisherFrank Cass
    Number of pages20
    ISBN (Print)0203501837, 9780203501832
    StatePublished - Jul 1 2003

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Social Sciences(all)


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