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Charles Larmore

Dear Eric,

Thank you for reading my book and taking the time to write this review of it. Controversy is welcome, especially by someone with views such as mine. However, I think that on a number of points you have misunderstood what I wrote.

(1) You say that I "give up on liberalism's universalism and the thought that each individual counts". I do not believe I use the term “universalism” in the book. Such a term, by the way, can mean many different things. I say that political liberalism excludes, as does any conception of political legitimacy, since its fundamental principles are ones that some reasonable people – “reasonable” in my minimal, non-tendentious sense – see reason to reject. But I also say (p. 168-69) that those it thus excludes it also includes in a qualified way. For it allows their perspectives, minus the views that lead them to reject the defining principles of liberalism, to play a role in determining the terms of political association. And I add that this is what makes liberalism unique among forms of political association. So it is not true that I have given up the thought that “each individual counts”. What I reject is the Enlightenment faith that all those who oppose the defining principles of liberalism are either benighted or confused and that ultimately the whole world is destined to become liberal. It is why I believe (p. 95) that there is no solution to Rousseau’s problem of devising a form of political association that reconciles political authority and the liberty of each citizen. If the possibility of such a solution is what you mean by “univeralism”, then I reject it in this sense.

(2) You say that "Larmore assumes that a state can only be legitimate if it offers some kind of legitimation story". This seems not quite right for two reasons. First, even if a state offers a legitimation story, this does not make it legitimate. Only if the legitimation story is indeed correct and only if a substantial number of people accept the story as correct (p. 97), will the state be legitimate on the basis of the story it itself issues. (I add that second condition since, though legitimacy and perceived legitimacy are not the same thing, a state cannot be legitimate unless it succeeds in securing order and the conditions of social cooperation, and that requires most people perceiving it to be at least somewhat legitimate). Second, people may consider a state to be legitimate for reasons quite distinct from those the state itself promulgates, as when they think its rule is better than nothing (pp. 42, 85). So to the extent that perceived legitimacy is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for actual legitimacy, a state may be legitimate even if its own legitimation story is neither correct nor perceived to be correct.

(3) You say that "Larmore assumes that authority is required if the circumstances of politics are to be solved" and that Machiavelli would disagree since for him "authority is maintained if "property nor...honor" of citizens "is touched"." I do not understand your point here. Property is a legal institution, and it requires some source of authority, such as a state, to set down the rules for property's acquisition, transfer, etc.

(4) You write that "to establish the legitimacy of a state (from a liberal perspective), the question is not what they [states] say, but what they do (do they oppress, silence, terrorize, etc.). That is, what matters for liberal legitimacy -- say from the perspective of liberalism of fear -- is how people are treated, and can be expected to be treated, over time. It is odd that Larmore does not note this." This, I think, is completely wrong, since I emphasize throughout that legitimacy is not the same as perceived legitimacy (or what I term authority). A state may say all it wants that it is legitimate. Whether it is indeed legitimate is a matter of whether its way of treating its people is in fact justified.

(5) You write, as a point against my views, that "As Hume teaches, for rules to function as rules they do not require or originate in justification (even if they can be justified post facto)." I’m not sure what you mean by rules “requiring or originating in justification”. But I address at length (pp. 81-82) Hume’s “teaching” about rowboaters who devise implicit rules about what each should do and argue that such rules are far too simple to be of the sort on which social cooperation generally depends. And once more complicated rules become necessary, they also become controversial, whence the need for an authority, such as the state, to determine what exactly these rules will be. And that, in turn, will pose the question of the right with which such an authority imposes this kind of determination. Whence the question of legitimacy.

(6) You write in a footnote that "Larmore does not address who (or what) is a person, and here, too, one senses that he accepts further possible acts of exclusion." This is false, since I develop a concept of the person at pp. 152-54.

best wishes,


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Here's a link to my past blogging (and discussions involving me) at: New APPS.


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