Liberals and Cannibals: The Implications of Diversity

Overview

The essays in this collection focus on the perennial but newly urgent questions of how the tension between relativism and the moral universalism current in contemporary politics can be resolved within the framework of liberalism. How is liberal society to interpret the diversity of morals? Is pluralism the appropriate response? How does pluralism differ from the widely condemned relativism – more specifically, the double bind of ethnocentric universalism, or ‘liberalism for the ...
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Overview

The essays in this collection focus on the perennial but newly urgent questions of how the tension between relativism and the moral universalism current in contemporary politics can be resolved within the framework of liberalism. How is liberal society to interpret the diversity of morals? Is pluralism the appropriate response? How does pluralism differ from the widely condemned relativism – more specifically, the double bind of ethnocentric universalism, or ‘liberalism for the Liberals, cannibalism for the cannibals.’

Taking as his starting point Robert Frost’s accusation that a liberal is someone who can’t take his own side in an argument, Steven Lukes confronts liberal thought with its own limitations. While recognizing the dangers of moral imperialism, Lukes argues that a relativist position based on identifying clearly distinct cultural and moral communities is incoherent. Drawing on work in anthropology and philosophy, he examines the nature of social justice, the politics of identity and human rights theory, as well as discussing how ideas drawn from the work of Isaiah Berlin can shed light on these debates.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
How can a society of diverse cultures, interests and viewpoints agree upon terms of debate, or come to a moral consensus and a coherent public policy? These probing, nuanced essays explore the philosophical and political dimensions of diversity and the ways in which different cultures are viewed by relativists, universalists and liberals. Lukes, a sociologist and author of The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat: A Comedy of Ideas, mounts a skeptical defense of the quintessential liberal balancing act. Respect for other cultures, he argues, should not preclude moral criticism and judgment; the liberal creed of universal rights is not just a European folk belief, a "liberalism for the liberals" comparable to "cannibalism for the cannibals"; and rationality is not just a product of Western-style modernity, but a common ground of traditional societies as well. Many essays are aimed at the relativism of the multiculturalist left, which he chides for thinking of cultures as cohesive, holistic, distinctive entities when in fact they are heterogeneous, ridden by conflict and shaped by outside influences. But he also takes on the right, in its communitarian and libertarian guises; in his best essay he demolishes free-market philosopher Friedrich Hayek's argument that society can neither conceive nor implement a coherent program of social justice. Lukes notes Robert Frost's definition of a liberal as someone who can't take his own side in an argument, and his own clear but somewhat dry prose sometimes leads to equivocal conclusions. In the end, though, his muted but tenacious defense of liberalism against cultural essentialism is welcome indeed. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781859845950
  • Publisher: Verso Books
  • Publication date: 6/19/2003
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Lukes is Professor of Sociology at NYU. He has previously taught at the London School of Economics and the University of Siena, and is the author of numerous works including Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, Power: A Radical View and What is Left?
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Table of Contents

Preface
1 Moral Diversity and Relativism 1
2 Is Universalism Ethnocentric? 10
3 Liberalism for the Liberals, Cannibalism for the Cannibals 27
4 Different Cultures, Different Rationalities? 46
5 On Comparing the Incomparable: Trade-offs and Sacrifices 63
6 The Singular and the Plural 78
7 Must Pluralists be Relativists? 100
8 An Unfashionable Fox 107
9 Social Justice: The Hayekian Challenge 117
10 Humiliation and the Politics of Identity 132
11 The Communitarian Voice 145
12 Five Fables About Human Rights 154
13 The Last Word on the Third Way 171
Index 175
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