What I Read in the Summer: Joseph Raz

Those summer days are over, but one can always reminisce. This is part of a series of posts on my summer reading. Just add ice cream.

A quick poll around my circle of friends reveals that the perfectionist philosopher Joseph Raz has none of the sex appeal Karen Barad (in my previous post) does. Maybe that’s because Raz makes no attempt to blow your mind with metaphysics or to connect their theory with groundbreaking science. As John Danaher has remarked in his blog, Raz’s writing is dull. At times it’s boring the point of despair. I can only be grateful I was reading his monograph, The Morality of Freedom, in the summer, sipping one home-made ice latte after another in an effort to stay awake. Which, I think, was well rewarded: Raz’s argument against state neutrality was one of the more interesting views I’ve come across lately.

What? Freedom without state neutrality? How is this plausible? Will this bearded old fellow be able to pull this off?

The Morality of Freedom spans other topics, as well, such as the authority of law. However, this being my blog, I’ll only write on what delights me most about the book: its argument against state neutrality. To put it briefly, Raz believes that living in a liberal state is an essential part of the well-being of persons. People need to be able to live according to their own senses of the good life, and to complete projects that are of significance to themselves, in order to thrive. The purpose of the state is to guarantee this kind of autonomy.

The heterogenous ways in which persons seek to excercise their autonomy, their diverse values and life situations, have traditionally been a key reason to support state neutrality. According to supporters of neutrality, or anti-perfectionists as Raz calls them, the government should not act in ways that endorse one conception of the good life above another. Defenders of neutrality will argue that this could lead to one group of people coercing another to adopt their way of construing what is valuable, thereby restraining the autonomy of the underdog. Instead, the government should actively seek to create possibilities for people to pursue their own, differing conceptions of the good.

Raz, however, argues that this is not just undesirable, but also practically impossible. Any government action – not just legislation – will facilitate conceptions of the good life while hindering others. For example, infrastructure aimed at easy automobile access such as highways will make it easier to run a two-car suburban household, while making it increasingly harder for an ecologically minded person to find reasonably unpolluted foraging grounds, far enough from major roads for safe wildharvesting. Similarly, as long as political neutrality is endorsed, individualist morals are easier to follow while collectivist conceptions of the good are disadvantaged.

Raz supports a liberal state, and as such does not endorse forceful government action in favor of one conception of the good or another. He does, however, argue that governments should evaluate which kinds of conceptions of the good life they seek to endorse: failure to do so will only make the effects of government decisions on individual moral agents’ ability to pursue their own ideals invisible, as these effects cannot be eradicated. Notice that ‘conceptions’ is in the plural form here. According to Raz, perfectionism – the belief that some ways of life are more desirable or valuable than others – is fully compatible with moral pluralism. There can be many different kinds of a good life that a government can support.

If citizens are not to be forced to lead “the good life” as conceived of by the government, how is the government to endorse it? Raz argues for encouragement. For example, artists’ grants can be one form of perfectionist encouragement, given that the presence of, and appreciation for, art can be one aspect of the life well lived.

While I’m no political scientist, I would like to see governments considering and openly declaring the moral justifications of their actions instead of obfuscating them (if there are any) with the smoke and mirrors of “political neutrality”.


Published by


Doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Turku. My interests lie at the intersections of ability, agency, and ethics: what kinds of agents ought we to be? Is there anything normative to be said about abilities? More specifically, I'm currently interested in autonomy and self-control, disability, and human enhancement.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s