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Theses Doctoral

Value Pluralism and Liberal Democracy

Lin, Yao

As the title indicates, this three-essay dissertation explores the relations between value pluralism and liberal democracy.
The first essay, “Negative versus Positive Freedom: Making Sense of the Dichotomy,” starts with the puzzling appeal of the negative-versus-positive-freedom dichotomy. Why has this distinction, despite forceful criticisms against it, continued to dominate mainstream discourses on freedom in contemporary political theory? Does it grasp something fundamental about the phenomenology of freedom?
In this essay I examine four main approaches to making sense of the appeal of this dichotomy, and the challenges they each face. Both the conventional, naive contrast between “freedom from” and “freedom to,” and the revisionist strategy to distinguish between the “opportunity-concept” and the “exercise-concept” of freedom, upon close scrutiny, fail to survive MacCallum’s triadic argument against all dichotomous views on the concept of freedom. The third account, which reduce the negative/positive dichotomy of freedom to the divide between “phenomenal” and “nounemal” conceptions of the self, or of the range of preventing conditions, is both interpretively misleading and conceptually uninformative, as I illustrate by using Berlin’s discussion on self-abnegation as an example. In the fourth place, I analyze why both the historical bifurcation account that take the negative/positive dichotomy of freedom as merely genealogical, on the one hand, and the republican critique of it based on the presumably sublating conception of non-domination, on the other hand, are unsatisfying.
Finally, I argue that grounding the negative/positive dichotomy of freedom on the idea of value pluralism avoids the pitfalls of those approaches examined. According to this account, the dichotomized instantiation of freedom is necessary insofar as we live not in isolation but with other moral agents. The “negative” freedom instantiated in the access to an extensive sphere of permissible choices and actions, and the “positive” freedom instantiated in the access to collective decision-making and democratic self-government, reflect two equally genuine yet incommensurable modes of freedom as a basic value.
Many believe that value pluralism and liberalism are ultimately incompatible, however, since liberalism implies the prioritization of liberal values over other basic values, which is contradictory to the value pluralist idea that all basic values are equally genuine and incommensurable. The next two essays take up this challenge, arguing on the contrary that a persuasively elaborated version of value pluralism is not only compatible with liberal commitments, but can also provide distinctive grounds for liberal democracy and have significant political implications.
In the second essay, “Value Pluralism and Its Compatibility with Liberalism,” I explain the methodology of my argument, elaborate three key concepts underlying value pluralism – value objectivity, value incompatibility, and value incommensurability – and then develop an account of modal heterogeneity of value instantiation, as opposed to valuative hierarchy. Whereas valuative hierarchy is in tension with value incommensurability, the idea of modal heterogeneity allows that different values have different modes of instantiation that warrant differentiated prioritization of certain values in relevant practical contexts, without implying anything about the comparative moral worth of relevant values. I use a mathematical analogy to illustrate the modal heterogeneity of value instantiation, as well as how we may accord freedom a special institutional role on the basis of its modal specialty vis-à-vis other basic values, rendering liberalism compatible with value pluralism.
The argument is completed in the third essay, “Value Pluralism, Liberal Democracy, and Political Judgment,” where I compare my account based on the idea of modal heterogeneity, developed in the second essay, with three existing versions of liberal pluralism. Whereas Berlin’s argument from choice, Crowder’s proposal of pluralist virtues, and Galston’s presumption of expressive liberty all fail to pass either the Jump Test or the Trump Test, my modal account overcomes these two basic difficulties faced by liberal pluralism.
The rest of the essay discusses three main political implications of the modal account of liberal pluralism. First, it helps us better understand the nature of demarcating and overstepping the so-called “frontiers” of a “negative” area of permissible choices and actions free from interference, or put another way, of balancing the protection of civil liberties and rights, on the one hand, with the procurement of certain important social goods through policies, on the other hand. Second, the modal account entails the dichotomization argument for democracy, and as a consequence supports not only liberalism, but liberal democracy. Recognizing the tension between negative and positive modes of freedom as immanent to the dynamic of liberal democracy, value pluralists nonetheless have reason to cherish, rather than to decry, such dynamic. Third, the modal account also suggests we appreciate the contentious yet indispensible role of political judgment in democratic life, and attend to the normative theorizing of its implications. On the one hand, it recommends institutional designs that diversify forms of political decision-making, such as by introducing adequate mechanisms of checks and balances and establishing relevant sites of expertise. On the other hand, it calls for the appreciation of the ideal of statespersonship, even in a liberal democratic society.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Johnston, David Chambliss
Elster, Jon
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 27, 2016
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