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In defence of multiculturalism

14 November 20140 comments

Alan PattenA new book by one of the world’s leading philosophers has laid out an ethical defence of multiculturalism in the face of rising condemnation of the policy by conservatives across the world.

Canadian academic and writer Alan Patten’s book Equal Recognition has reasserted the case in favour of liberal multiculturalism through a new ethical argument around the importance of minority rights.

The book also raises questions about what we do and ought to mean when we use words like ‘justice’, ‘equality’ and ‘individual freedom’.

It recognises that conflicting claims about culture are now part and parcel of the political process.

Patten says that on one side, majorities seek to fashion societies and nation states in their own image, while on the other, cultural minorities press for greater recognition and access to political and social processes.

Multicultural liberals say that particular minority rights are a requirement of a just society while critics of multiculturalism question the motivations, coherence, and normative validity of multiculturalism.

Recently German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that multiculturalism had “failed” in her country and British Prime Minister David Cameron called it “a mistake”.

In Equal Recognition, Patten constructs an ethical defence on minority rights through the contexts of debates about language rights, secession, and immigrant integration.

The book also tackles the tricky issues of justice raised by cultural diversity offering a meticulous and dispassionate philosophical discussion of them while at the same time relating them to complex real-life situations.

Patten’s argument hinges on the traditional liberal commitment to equality which requires a society to be neutral in its treatment of citizens. That is to say its laws, policies, practices and institutions should not favour those who belong to a particular race or religious group.

Patten doesn’t claim that this state actually exists anywhere in the world or even that it can be achieved. What he does say is that the principle should guide policy.

Although he is not in the business of suggesting multicultural policy settings, there are some hard conclusions that can be drawn from his book.

The implications of the work, seen through the prism of recent events, are that Muslim women should have the right to wear burquas or scarves in public places and the Scots, or the Welsh for that matter, should have a right to their own parliament.

Alan Patten is Professor of Politics at Princeton University in the US. His previous books include Hegel’s Idea of Freedom, 1999 and Language Rights and Political Theory, 2003.

Helen Matovu-Reed
AMES Staff Writer