The Legacy of Joseph Raz

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Does liberalism make any sense without individualism, human rights as a foundation, and the belief that the state should stay out of people’s lives? Joseph Raz, who died on May 2ndnd, believed it. Raz was a world-renowned legal and political philosopher whose book The Morality of Freedom offered a way of merging liberalism with a traditionally opposed political philosophy: perfectionism. According to the latter, the state has a duty to work actively for the well-being of its subjects, while liberalism has traditionally been understood as supporting state neutrality in relation to the way people live. Political philosopher and former Joseph Raz graduate student Steven Wall explains how viewing autonomy as a basic human good enabled the marriage of liberalism and perfectionism.

Liberal political theory is a family of competing views. The differences between family members are important and have attracted writers’ attention for some time, but it has been widely accepted that liberalism, however best conceived, is committed to one or more of the following: individualism, rights -centered morality and neutrality regarding different understandings of the good life. In his instructive book The Morality of Freedom, and in a number of subsequent articles, Joseph Raz presented an attractive view of liberalism that rejected all of these commitments.




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In the jargon of contemporary political philosophy, Raz’s version of liberalism is avowedly “perfectionist” because it rejects the notion that governments should be neutral with regard to differing conceptions of the good life, as many strains of liberalism claim. Rather, in Razian’s view, governments have a responsibility to promote the well-being of those under their authority. To meet this responsibility, governments must actively support their subjects in their own efforts to lead a good life, understood as the result of successful engagement in pursuits, activities, and relationships that are objectively valuable, rather than merely subjectively valued or desired. However, no general agreement on what objective value is can be expected in modern societies. But Razian liberalism, unlike social contract versions of liberalism, is not committed to the idea that political morality is the object of agreement among members of a society.

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To lead a good life, we need more than protecting our rights.

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The perfectionism of Razian liberalism, affinities with the older liberalisms of JS Mill and the 19thth The 19th century British idealist T.H. Green sets it apart from many other liberal views. Liberal writers often insist that people have the right to make their own choices about how they want to live, and as long as those choices don’t violate the rights of others, the resulting consequences should not be a common concern. But to lead a good life, we need more than protecting our rights. We need to live in a social and cultural environment that gives us access to valuable options. Effective access to valuable options requires not only the negative freedom to pursue them, but also the positive means to do so. Such an environment, Raz argued, is a collective good, one valuable in itself but not one to which we as individuals could lay claim. Collectively we may have a right to the environment in question, but our individual needs and interests by themselves would not be sufficient to create an obligation on the part of others or our government to secure it for us. Our right to such an environment must be justified on the grounds that it is in the interests of all of us.

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While many Liberal writers have viewed rights as trump cards held by individuals against their community, the Razian Liberal sees rights as based on the common interests of members of the community.

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Razian liberalism, then, does not reject individual rights, but invites us to rethink them. The well-being of the individual comes first. Our rights are secondary to our interests and the interests of our fellow citizens. My right to freedom of expression, to give one example, is not based solely or even primarily on my interest in being able to speak freely, but on my interest and the interest of others in living in a society where everyone can speak freely . So while many Liberal writers have viewed rights as trump cards held by individuals against their community, the Razian Liberal sees rights, or at least many of the important rights, as being based on the common interests of members of the community.

The perfectionist and anti-individualist nature of the Razian view of politics seems to make it inhospitable to the kind of freedom liberals have long celebrated. Why, one might ask, should Razian liberalism be considered a form of liberalism at all? Raz’s innovative response was to insist that personal autonomy, each person’s ideal to shape their own life by choosing freely from a wide range of valuable options, is itself a perfection. Besides, it’s not just one perfection among others. For those living in modern societies, Raz argues, personal autonomy is a necessary part of living well. You won’t be able to live well if you don’t take an active part in shaping your life, no matter how good your life may otherwise be. It follows that the perfectionist state, if it is to succeed in promoting the well-being of its members, must be an autonomy-supporting state. However, it is in the nature of personal autonomy that one cannot force another to attain it. So the autonomy-supporting state will not try to force its subjects to lead a good life. It will largely limit itself to securing the framework conditions necessary for the realization of personal autonomy, such as protecting its members from coercion and manipulation and giving them access to an appropriate range of valuable options.

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For those living in modern societies, Raz argues, personal autonomy is a necessary part of living well.

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This raises another question: is it good for people to live their lives on their own terms if they make a mess out of it? Perhaps an autonomous bad life would be worse than an otherwise equally bad life not freely chosen. Another innovative move by Raz was to argue that personal autonomy presupposes a pluralistic understanding of values. There are a variety of objective goods and a variety of ways to combine them into patterns of good living. Valuable autonomy is achieved when we freely pursue and realize real goods from this multitude of possibilities. So autonomy is good in itself, but only as a necessary element in the exercise of valuable autonomy, which is itself part of a good life. This pluralistic understanding of values ​​and the accompanying ideal of autonomous agency clearly distinguishes Razian perfectionism from older forms of perfectionism, which often identified a single or a small number of paths for human flourishing. For example, Aristotle held that a polity should promote the good of its members, but he held that people’s good lives are rooted in our human nature and that grounding severely limited the range of fully good ways of life. There is no such ambition in Razian liberalism to confine goodness to activities that supposedly develop essential qualities of human nature.

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The pluralistic understanding of objective value that underlies Razian liberalism is a metaphysical thesis.

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The pluralistic understanding of objective value that underlies Razian liberalism is a metaphysical thesis. A sound political philosophy must be based on a correct understanding of values. Like the late Isaiah Berlin, Raz held that there are multiple and conflicting objective goods that cannot be ranked on a common scale. The truth of this metaphysical value proposition would, in a way, explain how reasonable people can pursue pluralistic and contradictory ways of life. The pluralism of values ​​and the ideal of personal autonomy that animate Razian liberalism are certainly controversial doctrines, and some political theorists insist that state policies should not be justified by appeal to such doctrines. Many are now attracted to John Rawls’ idea that political philosophy should strive to be independent and avoid “entanglement with philosophy’s longstanding disputes.” But this avoidance strategy has its price. Holism in philosophy is hard to resist. Everything is interconnected, and a view of politics that does not delve into deeper value issues runs the risk of not giving us a good account of how our efforts to live well compare to our efforts to order our societies well , be consistent.

Razian liberalism is haughty. Does its perfectionism make it a poor guide to real world politics? The ever-present possibility of civil wars, the incompetence of modern governments, a lack of trust in the authorities, and the dominance of interest group politics all advise against asking too much of governments. Compromise and restraint are forced upon us by prudence. But smart trade-offs and restraint must be guided by some understanding of what politics can achieve when things go well. Razian liberalism urges us not to lose sight of the good in dealing with the imperfections of our political world.

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