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Ethnocultural Neutrality and Nation-Building: A Critical Evaluation of Will Kymlicka's Fairness Based Argument for Minority Cultural Rights

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posted on 15.11.2021, 06:05 by Riley, Steven Guy

This thesis looks at an argument by Will Kymlicka in which he claims that the idea of an ethnoculturally neutral state is "manifestly false" and should be replaced by liberal political theorists with a model of the state as engaging in "nation-building" (Kymlicka 2001 pp23 - 27). Once we do this, Kymlicka argues, we see that the burden of proof regarding minority cultural rights has shifted away from the defender of such rights and falls equally on those who seek to deny those rights. We see this, Kymlicka claims, because the nation-building model of the state highlights a number of burdens that are placed on cultural minorities, burdens which are otherwise disguised by a norm of ethnocultural neutrality. Kymlicka argues that this means that the debate over minority cultural rights has moved on from substantive debates about the worth of cultural units (including his well known argument that we have a fundamental interest in the success of our own culture). In this thesis I argue for two main claims. The first is that the idea of ethnocultural neutrality is not manifestly false so long as it is understood as part of a requirement that state institutions and policies should be capable of an appropriate justification. Moreover I shall suggest that acceptance of such a norm can in fact be used by Kymlicka in order to ground the specific fairness based claims that he wants to make about majority nation-building in liberal democratic states. Secondly I shall argue that Kymlicka's claims about the fairness of majority nation-building rely upon the kind of substantive account supplied by his earlier argument that we have a fundamental, autonomy based, interest in the survival of our own societal-culture. In this respect, then, Kymlicka is wrong to suggest that the debate has moved on. My defence of ethnocultural neutrality helps us to see where there is underlying agreement amongst liberals on a number of multicultural policies and also highlights the areas of substantive disagreement which, I shall suggest, do not revolve around acceptance, or not, of a norm of ethnocultural neutrality but instead are deep rooted disagreements about the worth of our cultural and national attachments and how they are to be weighed against each other and against other interests that we have. On this score I suggest that Kymlicka's own autonomy argument is unconvincing.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Das, Ramon