Leiden Law Blog

Liberal Democracy and the Accommodation of Diversity

Liberal Democracy and the Accommodation of Diversity

For theorists (Charles Taylor, Jeffery Stout, Nicholas Wolterstorff and so forth) who champion diversity, diversity is undoubtedly regarded as a vital value for the prosperity of liberal democracy. However, their championship of diversity is established upon two unfounded assumptions: firstly, that diversity is a value, rather than a social fact that arises within the evolvement of a society; and secondly, that diversity is not only an important political or sociological value, it is also a value that is of comparable significance to liberty, equality and fairness of opportunities, all of which are the basis of liberal democracies. Furthermore, two interpretations can be made when regarding diversity as a political value: diversity can be perceived as an important instrumental political value, which aims to enrich and promote justice in a liberal democratic political society; and, even more so, diversity can be seen as an indispensable intrinsic value, in the same way as liberty, equality and fairness, which are the foundations of liberal democratic societies.

Nonetheless, these two assumptions should not be made too quickly or taken for granted. For one thing, if diversity is a social fact that arises along with the development of a contemporary liberal society, then it is not entitled to, or in need of, special protection to warrant or support its continuation. This is the strongest rejection of accommodating diversity.

A weaker rejection of accommodating diversity would be as follows: if we perceive diversity as an instrumental value that facilitates the realisation of justice, then, diversity must be supported for its contribution to justice, otherwise it does not merit the special attention paid to. Moreover, if the value of diversity becomes a burden and ceases to support the realisation of justice in a society, it will lose its importance as an instrumental value. As Stephen Macedo points out, “any tolerably complete account of our disposition toward diversity needs to take account of the dependence of our political order on the habits, values, and interests formed in ‘private’ communities, including religious communities. The degree of support that these communities provide for our shared political project is a vital public concern.” Therefore, the accommodations we make for diversity should be based on a perspective that recognises the utmost importance of diversity for the core political values of a democratic society.

The weakest argument against the critics’ claims about diversity still carries some weight. Even if diversity is regarded as an intrinsic political value that has been embedded within the liberal democratic value system, it does not necessarily enjoy the same privileged position as liberty, equality and fairness, as not all important political values have the exact same weight. Hence, if diversity is a downstream value of the fundamental values of liberal democracy, then the accommodation of diversity must be limited by those primary values in liberal democratic societies. In other words, the accommodation of diversity cannot conflict with the basic values of liberty, equality and fairness, otherwise the attention given to diversity would outweigh that given to those basic values. Precisely for this reason, many liberals in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany etc. strongly object to the demand to incorporate the ‘Sharia Council’ into their domestic legal systems. Liberal democratic legal systems are the last remedy and guardian of the most fundamental values of human rights, while some content of Sharia Laws is plainly incompatible with those basic values of liberal democracy. In that sense, the diversity of pluralist legal system cannot be accommodated, not to mention supported. Liberal democracy’s fundamental commitment to justice, based on liberty, equality and fairness, places a limitation on other values. In that sense, contrary to what critics claim, liberal democracy is able to support developments resulting from the accommodation of diversity, so long as they do not conflict with the fundamental values of liberty, equality and fairness. By demarcating using the basic rights and constitutional essentials that protect the equality of individuals, liberal democracy actually leaves a lot of room for newcomers to make their cases, whatever their religious or cultural backgrounds, whilst also giving due weight to legitimate policy goals. All a liberal democracy asks is that newcomers take the basic values underscoring shared public reason seriously, and realise that their religious or philosophical views do not enjoy special privileges in the public sphere. Therefore, if a democratic society strengthens the values of liberty, equality and fairness embedded in public reason by discouraging various kinds of religious or comprehensive views, it does not mean that such a society is unfair to those comprehensive doctrines, nor does it represent advancement for a particular comprehensive doctrine.

Granted, liberal democracy seeks common ground on which all reasonable citizens can stand. However this does not mean that it cannot affirm the superiority of certain moral characteristics and encourage certain moral virtues, insofar as they belong to a reasonable political conception of justice within a constitutional regime. Values such as liberty, equality and fairness are shared by all citizens and do not depend on any particular comprehensive doctrine, since they are distinctively political values tied to political conceptions of justice, and to the forms of judgment and conduct essential to maintain fair social cooperation in the long haul.

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