From "Honor" to "Dignity": How Should a Liberal State Treat Non-Liberal Cultural Groups?

Menachem Mautner


Over the last twenty years, liberal thinkers have invested a great deal of effort in adapting liberal political theory to the multicultural condition. The central question that has occupied these thinkers is how a liberal state ought to treat cultural practices of non-liberal groups living within it. One major group of thinkers insists that it is incumbent on the liberal state to make sure that autonomy, together with some other central liberal values, are made part of the lives of all the citizens living in the state. Another major group holds that it is the function of the liberal state to serve as framework for the peaceful co-existence of people who have diverse conceptions of the good life. These thinkers therefore call for "restraint" on the part of the state in its relations with non-liberal groups. This Article wishes to go beyond these two approaches. It is motivated by the conviction that the only standards that a liberal state can invoke in its relations with non-liberal groups are universal standards, i.e., standards that can be viewed, to the utmost extent possible, as transcending any particular culture, and that can be applied not only to non-liberal cultures, but to the culture of the mainstream liberal society itself. The Article puts forth a series of considerations that must be taken into account when intervention on the part of a liberal state in cultural practices of non-liberal groups is considered. It also sets forth two proposals as to the standards that need to guide the liberal state in cases in which it considers intervention in cultural practices of groups living in it: the doctrine of human rights (and the concept of human dignity that stands at its core) and the concept of humanness.

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