Multicultural Liberalism

  • Katherine Smits


Where modern liberal theorists have addressed pluralities of identity, rather than interest within a national society, they have focused upon multiculturalism, defined usually as the co-existence of several ethnic or national groups within a nation-state. Recent debate has focused on the conflicts between individual and communal rights in culturally plural societies, arising as a result of the assertion of ethnic minority cultural rights.1 As cases involving female genital mutilation and other contested cultural practices demonstrate, this controversy has public policy, as well as philosophical implications. Much of the defense of minority cultural rights from a liberal perspective derives from the work of Will Kymlicka, who rejects the atomistic and interest-based model of the subject, reasserting the role of national community in the construction of individual identity. On this basis, he argues that the state should recognize cultural survival as a collective good, necessary for individual autonomy—a recognition that translates into the legal protection of indigenous minorities and limited self-government for them under a system of multicultural citizenship.2 Kymlicka cites Mill and other nineteenth-century liberals in support of his argument that liberal principles of freedom and autonomy are compatible with the recognition of national membership.3


National Identity National Culture Moral Belief Female Genital Mutilation Cultural Community 
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  1. 1.
    See e.g., Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha C. Nussbaum (eds.), Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
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    Discussed at length in Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
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    I must note here that Kymlicka’s following characterization of Quebecois culture as traditional, conservative, and dominated by the Church, and the Quiet Revolution as its sudden and dramatic entry into modernity is in fact debatable. Pierre Trudeau has famously defended this interpretation of French Canadian history in “The New Betrayal of the Intellectuals” (in Federalism and French Canadian Society [Montreal: HMH, 1967]). Claude Couture argues that this characterization of Quebecois history is the product of colonial attitudes amongst anglophone social scientists. He suggests that pre—Quiet Revolution Quebec was not culturally or ideologically monolithic, but rather diverse, and subject to the same influences of urbanization and industrialization as anglophone Canada. See Claude Couture, Paddling With the Current: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Etienne Parent, Liberalism and Nationalism in Canada (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1998), chs. 1 and 2. I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for Palgrave for drawing this to my attention.Google Scholar
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© Katherine Smits 2005

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  • Katherine Smits

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