The legacy of Joseph Raz

The liberal state should not be neutral

Does liberalism without individualism, human rights at its foundation, and a belief that the state should stay out of people’s lives even make sense? Joseph Raz, who died on May 2nd, believed it did.  Raz was a world-renowned legal and political philosopher whose book, The Morality of Freedom, offered a way of marrying liberalism with a traditionally opposed political philosophy: perfectionism. According to the latter, the state has a duty to actively promote the good of its subjects, whereas liberalism has been traditionally understood as supporting the state’s neutrality when it comes to how people live their lives. Political philosopher and past doctoral student of Joseph Raz, Steven Wall, explains how seeing autonomy as a fundamental human good allowed the marriage of liberalism and perfectionism.


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

Real vs Idea SUGGESTED READING The legacy of Charles Mills By Jason Stanley In the jargon of contemporary political philosophy, Raz’s version of liberalism is avowedly “perfectionist” in that it rejects the notion that governments should be neutral among different understandings of the good life, as many species of liberalism claim.  Rather, governments, on the Razian view, are charged with the responsibility of promoting the good of those subject to their authority.  To discharge this responsibility, governments must actively assist their subjects in their own efforts to lead good lives, which are understood to be the product of successful engagement with objectively valuable, and not merely subjectively valued or desired, pursuits, activities and relationships.  To be sure, universal agreement on what is of objective value is not to 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 between the members of a society.


To lead good lives we need more than our rights protected.


The perfectionism of Razian liberalism, which has affinities with the older liberalisms of J.S. Mill and the 19th century British idealist T. H. Green, sets it apart from many other liberal views.  Liberal writers often insist that people have rights to make their own choices about how to live, and so long as these choices do not violate the rights of others, their resulting consequences should not be a matter of common concern.  Yet to lead good lives we need more than our rights protected.  We must live in a social and cultural environment that provides us with 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 that is intrinsically valuable, but not one that we could claim to have a right to as individuals.  Collectively, we may have a right to the environment in question, but our individual needs and interests taken on their own would not be sufficient to establish a duty on the part of others, or our government, to secure it for us.  Our right to such environment must be justified by the fact that it serves the interests of us all.


Where many liberal writers have seen rights as trump cards individuals hold against their community, the Razian liberal sees rights as grounded in the joint interests of the members of the community.


Razian liberalism thus does not reject individual rights, but invites us to reconceive them.  The well-being of individual people comes first.  Our rights are downstream from our interests, and the interests of our fellow citizens.  My right to free speech, to take one example, is not grounded solely, or even in the first instance, in my interests in being able to speak freely, but rather in my interest, and the interests of others, in living in a society in which all can speak freely.  Thus, where many liberal writers have seen rights as trump cards individuals hold against their community, the Razian liberal sees rights, or at least many of the important rights, as grounded in the joint interests of the members of the community.

The perfectionist and anti-individualist character of the Razian view of politics might seem to make it inhospitable to the kind of freedom that liberals have long celebrated.  Why, it might be wondered, should Razian liberalism be viewed as a form of liberalism at all?  Raz’s innovative answer was to insist that personal autonomy, the ideal of each person fashioning a life of his own by freely choosing among a wide range of valuable options, is itself a perfection.  It is, moreover, not simply one perfection among others.  For those who live in modern societies, Raz argued, personal autonomy is a necessary constituent of a good life.  One will fail to live well if one does not take an active role in determining the shape of one’s life, however good one’s life may otherwise be.  The upshot is that the perfectionist state, if it is to succeed in promoting the good of its members, must be an autonomy-supportive state.  Yet it is in the nature of personal autonomy that one cannot force another to achieve it.  So, the autonomy-supportive state will not be one that seeks to coerce its subjects into leading good lives.  It will largely limit itself to securing the background conditions necessary for the realization of personal autonomy, such as protecting its members from coercion and manipulation and making sure that they have access to an adequate range of valuable options.


For those who live in modern societies, Raz argued, personal autonomy is a necessary constituent of a good life.


This invites another question, is it good for people to lead their lives on their own terms if they are going to make a mess of it?  Perhaps an autonomous bad life would be worse than an otherwise equally bad life that was not freely chosen.  Another innovate move by Raz was to argue that personal autonomy presupposes a pluralistic understanding of value.  There is a multiplicity of objective goods, and a multiplicity of ways of combining them into patterns of good ways of living.  Valuable autonomy is achieved when we freely pursue and realize genuine goods from among this multiplicity of options.  Autonomy is thus intrinsically good, but only as a necessary element of the exercise of valuable autonomy, which is itself a component of a good life.  This pluralistic understanding of value, and the ideal of autonomous agency that goes with it, sharply distinguishes Razian perfectionism from older forms of perfectionism, which often identified a single, or small number, of paths to human flourishing.  For example, Aristotle held that a polity should promote the good of its members, but he thought that the good life for human beings was one grounded in our human nature, and that grounding significantly limited the range of fully good ways of living.  There is no such ambition in Razian liberalism to limit the good to activities that develop what purport to be essential properties of human nature.


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


The pluralistic understanding of objective value that lies behind Razian liberalism is a metaphysical thesis.  Sound political philosophy must be grounded on a correct understanding of value.  Like the late Isaiah Berlin, Raz held that there exist plural and conflicting objective goods that cannot be ranked on a common scale.  The truth of this metaphysical claim about value would go some distance toward explaining how reasonable people could pursue plural and conflicting ways of life.  The value pluralism and the ideal of personal autonomy that animate Razian liberalism are, to be sure, controversial doctrines, and some political theorists insist that state policies should not be justified by appeal to such doctrines.  Many today are attracted to John Rawls’s idea that political philosophy should aspire to be free-standing, avoiding “entanglement with philosophy’s long-standing quarrels.”   But this strategy of avoidance comes with a price.  Holism in philosophy is difficult to resist.  Everything bears on everything else, and a view of politics that does not engage with deeper questions of value risks leaving us with no good account of how our efforts to lead good lives cohere with our efforts to order our societies well.

Razian liberalism is high-minded.  Does its orientation toward perfection make it a poor guide for real world politics?  The ever-present possibility of civil strife, the incompetence of modern governments, the lack of trust in public authorities, and the dominance of interest group politics all counsel against asking governments to do too much.  Compromise and restraint are forced upon us by prudence.  But intelligent compromise and restraint must be guided by some understanding of what politics can accomplish when it goes well.  Razian liberalism asks us to not lose sight of the good as we manage the imperfections of our political world.

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