Freedom and Uncertainty: Contemporary liberal theory examined from the perspective of moral uncertainty
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
This thesis aims to use general assertions of moral uncertainty as a perspective by which to explore and illuminate contemporary strands of liberal theory. It examines the work of the earlier contemporary liberal theorists, including John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin and Bruce Ackerman, as well as the more recent accounts of liberalism that express ideas of pluralism (Michael Walzer, Joseph Raz, John Gray, William Galston, George Crowder), political liberalism (John Rawls, Charles Larmore), public reason (Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson, Gerald Gaus), multiculturalism (Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka, Brian Barry, James Tully, and Bikhu Parekh), and postmodernism (Richard Rorty). The development from the earlier to more recent liberal theories represents a fundamental shift in justificatory strategy: where earlier liberal conceptions aim at universality, and at overcoming or transcending uncertainty, later approaches make this uncertainty, usually in the form of pluralism or difference, central to the liberal project. In order to achieve this, these latter theories tended to presuppose the circumstances of western society, or western democratic values. Generally speaking, these approaches fail to respond adequately to moral uncertainty, and to meet their own justificatory aims. This manifests, in the earlier theories, as plausible but contestable central conceptions, and, in the more recent theories, as the inability to justify particular liberal conceptions in the face of persistence difference. This is an important result, and suggests the need for further developments in liberal justificatory strategies. I suggest that one viable approach would be for liberal theory to accept moral uncertainty, and work from a model of society and self towards a more successful liberal conception.