Roland Pierik (Amsterdam) and Wibren Van der Burg (Erasmus University Rotterdam) have posted a new piece, What Is Neutrality?, on SSRN. The abstract follows. — MLM
One of the central axioms of liberalism is that government should treat its citizens with equal respect and concern. One way to achieve that goal is that government should be neutral with respect to the variety of ideas of the good life its citizens endorse. The classic liberal interpretation of neutrality is that government should not embrace or penalize particular conceptions of the good life, but should provide a neutral framework within which the various and potentially conflicting conceptions of the good life can be pursued. Important ways of providing such a neutral framework are the employment of general laws that affect all citizens equally – or so it is assumed – and the exclusion of religious arguments and symbols from political debates and the public sphere in general.
In this paper we want to reinvestigate the question of liberal neutrality. We contend that liberal discussions have been dominated – if not hijacked – by one particular interpretation of what neutrality could imply, namely, exclusive neutrality, that aims to exclude religious and cultural expressions from the public sphere. Although we acknowledge the importance of this exclusive interpretation of neutrality in specific contexts, we will argue that that it is only one of several relevant interpretations. To substantiate our claim, we will firstly elaborate upon inclusive neutrality. To do so, we will formulate two supplementary interpretations of neutrality: proportional neutrality and compensatory neutrality. Secondly, we will argue that in most contexts inclusive proportional neutrality is more appropriate than exclusive neutrality.
Our elaboration of these different interpretations of the neutrality ideal can help to acknowledge that some political disputes should not be seen in terms of the antithesis between liberal neutrality and illiberal multiculturalism but of a clash between various valid but incompatible interpretations of what liberal neutrality can imply. In these cases there is no simple or straightforward answer to the question which interpretation of neutrality should prevail. Moreover, since neutrality is not an end in itself, it must be balanced against other liberal values, mentioned above. Philosophical analysis can only show which values are at stake in this balancing act; actual choices can only be made in specific contexts.