Political liberalism and the false neutrality objection

Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 1 (7):1-20 (2018)
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One central objection to philosophical defences of liberal neutrality is that many neutrally justified laws and policies are nonetheless discriminatory as they unilaterally impose costs or confer unearned privileges on the bearers of a particular conception of the good. Call this the false neutrality objection. While liberal neutralists seldom consider this objection to be a serious allegation, and often claim that it rests on a misunderstanding, I argue that it is a serious challenge for proponents of justificatory neutrality. Indeed, a careful examination of recent French and Canadian laws which impede the members of cultural minorities from freely practising their religion reveals that the state can hide its discriminatory aims by cloaking the policies it enacts in neutral language. In order to avoid the problem of false neutrality, I contend, liberal neutralists should defend a combination of neutrality of justification and neutrality of aim and operationalize neutrality of aim through a practical test that has been a defining feature of American jurisprudence on religious freedom in the last thirty years: the general applicability requirement.

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Étienne Brown
San Jose State University


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