by Steven Lecce. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. 352pp. Cloth. £45.00/$70.00. ISBN: 9780802092120; Paper. £20.00/$29.95. ISBN: 9780802094476.

Reviewed by Ryan K. Balot, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto. Email: Ryan.Balot [at]


In light of recent challenges to liberal neutrality, Steven Lecce’s book is timely. According to Lecce, previous theorists, whether liberal or not, have typically misunderstood the conceptual foundations of liberal neutrality. In order to clarify the issues and to motivate his discussion, Lecce first revisits debates between Locke and Jonas Proast, J.S. Mill and James FitzJames Stephen, and H.L.A. Hart and Lord Patrick Devlin (Chapters 1-3). He then offers a critical appraisal of the liberal perfectionism of Raz and Dworkin, followed by a vigorous rejoinder to three important critics of contractual arguments for neutrality (Chapters 4-6). Finally, Lecce defends a particular version of contractualism and neutrality, developing his own ideas largely in conversation with Rawls’ POLITICAL LIBERALISM (Chapters 7-10). Lecce’s conclusion, along with parts of Chapter 10, explores the policy implications of neutrality, particularly in response to socialist and feminist critiques.

Lecce’s excursion into the historical controversies is interesting, but his normative arguments owe little to his investigation of them (consider the absence of any reference to these debates in the section entitled “The Argument Revisited,” pp.228-230). Meanwhile, his criticisms of Raz and Dworkin will be familiar to those conversant with the relevant literatures. The heart of the book is the normative account developed in the third part. Within their decidedly circumscribed parameters, Lecce’s arguments are carefully reasoned, plausible, and thorough (occasionally painstakingly so). On the way to fleshing out his own position, Lecce guides the reader through the subtle disagreements among a handful of generically similar or like-minded theorists, chiefly Rawls, Nagel, Barry, and Scanlon. Lecce’s own position bears a close family resemblance to theirs.

Lecce begins with the premise of the “equal primary importance of everyone’s life” (p.186). He helpfully distinguishes his variety of egalitarianism construed as a democratic ideal from arguments that justify moral equality, mysteriously and even incoherently, as he contends, on the basis of human capacities. If we accept democratic equality, then the cardinal question is how to construct a political life that enables citizens to stand in an equal relation to one another; and “the answer,” Lecce argues, “is a democratic politics tempered by contractually generated principles of justice” (p.229). What makes “tempering” necessary is the principle of equal respect combined with the need to take ethical pluralism seriously. Since “thickly” embedded citizens are unlikely (ex hypothesi) to agree on substantive principles of [*410] justice, and since legitimacy, in Lecce’s conception, demands that citizens consent to their polity’s regulative standards, we must find a way to abstract from contentious ethical claims in order to discover mutually acceptable principles. Lecce follows his chief interlocutors in proposing a hypothetical constitutional convention attended by abstractly conceived “reasonable people.” At this convention, perfectionist principles of justice would reasonably be rejected because they are based on controversial ethical or ontological premises. This much is relatively uncontroversial in the literature dominated by the views of Rawls, Nagel, and Scanlon.

At this stage, however, we reach an apparent impasse. As critics such as Simon Caney have asked, how can we be any more certain about liberal neutrality than we can be about comprehensive conceptions of the good? Why do liberal sensitivities to reasonable disagreement over the good not extend to liberal neutrality itself? If neutralists reject perfectionist principles because comprehensive conceptions of the good are not sufficiently certain to warrant imposing them on others, as Barry (for example) argues (p.168), then why should such skepticism not also apply to the hypothetical contract and its (seemingly inevitable) liberal results? Lecce argues that the major accounts of liberal neutrality all fall prey to this kind of objection, which he calls the “reflexivity thesis.” The reason is that previous neutralists have relied unnecessarily on a belief in “epistemic asymmetry” between our knowledge of contractually produced justice and our knowledge of comprehensive conceptions of the good.

Lecce aims to avoid this objection by proposing that it is not epistemic asymmetry, but rather moral equality (to be superseded by “democratic equality” in a later chapter: cf. pp.185-193), that underwrites the contractualist case for neutrality. In his own terminology, Lecce avoids the damning consequences of the reflexivity thesis by devising a conception of “reasonableness as fairness,” as opposed to the more typical “reasonableness as valid argument”: “The content of the reasonable is best elaborated by asking which principles of justice fairly situated hypothetical contractors would choose to regulate the democratic institutions of the civic equals for whom they are trustees” (p.230). Lecce’s distinction between moral and epistemic conceptions of reasonableness is one of the chief sources of his claim to originality, but he does appear to build directly on ideas already explored in Rawls’ POLITICAL LIBERALISM (cf. p.203) and in the work of Scanlon and others (cf. p.224). To his credit, on the other hand, Lecce helpfully sorts out the ambiguities and tensions in Rawls’ discussion of the “reasonable” (pp.210-221), although I am not convinced that Lecce’s thoughtful arguments are enough to refute Rawls’ view that a well-ordered society requires reasonable as opposed to simple pluralism.

To challenge Lecce’s argument on its own terms, I would draw attention to the familiar worry that the contracting situation antecedently “builds in” the principles of justice that theorists purport to derive from it. This not only gives rise to a vicious circle, but also appears, as Habermas and others have urged, to ignore the arguably valuable work of democratic politics. Although Lecce [*411] discusses this “circularity thesis,” as he calls this particular challenge, he gives particularly short shrift to this set of objections (pp.195-200).

There remains, however, the larger concern that L.’s approach is less ecumenical than it might have been. A book entitled AGAINST PERFECTIONISM really ought to confront the doubts about neutralism raised by the diverse perfectionists and non-neutralists writing today: neo-Aristotelians such as Stephen Salkever; republican theorists such as Michael Sandel or Ronald Beiner; capabilities theorists such as Martha Nussbaum; consequentialist perfectionists such as Thomas Hurka; or virtue theorists such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Peter Berkowitz, or Stephen Macedo. Lecce mistakenly assumes that his audience will be as saturated in and fascinated by the intra-mural debates that he examines, as he is. Readers might find that the most serious challenges have not been adequately addressed.

For example, Lecce does not directly grapple with the following, now almost proverbial, criticisms of liberal neutrality: (1) that liberal democracy, despite its characteristically neutralist intentions, constitutes a “regime,” an educative political order that largely erodes the traditional liberal distinctions between public and private; (2) that liberalism itself implicitly offers a conception of the human good, though perhaps not one that is truly admirable; (3) that liberal democracy habitually shuns the virtues, and yet, as many liberal theorists have begun to see, virtues are required to sustain the liberal order; and (4) meanwhile, the liberal order itself presents certain virtues (e.g., civility or toleration) as intrinsically valuable. (For discussion of these criticisms and others, see especially Collins 2006, along with Beiner 1992; Macedo 1990, 2000; MacIntyre 1984; Salkever 1990; Sandel 1996; and many others). As Susan Collins (for one) has argued, more specifically, it is hard to grant that courage, moderation, and justice are admirable and excellent qualities of individuals, and then to propose that these virtues are merely instrumentally useful for enabling individuals to pursue ends that are, by comparison, worthless (such as counting blades of grass or consuming pornography) (Collins 2006: 36-38).

Lecce’s inattention to these broader “perfectionist” challenges is symptomatic of his narrow outlook on political philosophy altogether. At a crucial juncture in his critique of Rawls, the highly Lockean Lecce declares, “The task of the political philosopher is to explain how political justification should proceed, what principles are ultimately justified, and on the basis of which considerations” (p.222). At the risk of minimizing the salience of justification and legitimacy, it is only fair to respond that canonical political philosophers have also focused on questions of ethos and character formation; on civic education; on the dangers and opportunities of rhetoric; on the relationship between economic productivity and political power; and on the development of humanity’s most distinctive and essential capacities. The “other” perspective – i.e., the perfectionist perspective articulated and defended most profoundly by Plato and Aristotle – addresses itself to the deepest and most important dimensions of human existence: scientific, [*412] philosophical, and artistic achievement; the ongoing exercise of deliberative prudence; the satisfactions of civic friendship; the maintenance of a respectful and proportionate attitude toward the natural world and our place within it; and, in general, the healthy development of human beings in whatever ways and to whatever extent they are capable of flourishing. These features of human existence have a serious claim on our attention, whatever religion or creed we do or do not accept. If Lecce understandably urges us to take pluralism seriously, then so too should we insist on creating opportunities for ourselves and our fellow citizens to develop the human faculties even to the vanishing point of excellence. It is the great merit of Lecce’s book to have clarified the neutralist position to a tee, though the book’s corresponding defect is to have polarized the debate between neutralists and perfectionists to an even more desperately irreparable degree.

That is a shame, because the real task of the political philosopher, right now, is to address the rival claims of liberalism and perfectionism without doing serious injustice to either. This will require theorists to avoid the Scylla of liberal bread and circuses (cf. Kateb 1992: 229) and, equally, the Charybdis of tyrannically monolithic visions of human goodness. Achieving this ambitious goal may be virtually impossible – as virtually impracticable, anyway, as Plato’s strategy of empowering philosopher-kings and abolishing the nuclear family. Be that as it may, however, political theorists should not simply throw in the towel. Instead, political theorists should raise their eyes to the horizon and think big – as big, if possible, as Plato did, when he offered his utopian Callipolis as a regulative ideal in the REPUBLIC. It is only by resuming the tradition of enlarged speculation that we can promote equality that refuses to pander and liberty that is not license (cf. Locke, SECOND TREATISE, §6).

Beiner, Ronald S. 1992. WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH LIBERALISM? Berkeley: University of California Press.

Collins, Susan. 2006. ARISTOTLE AND THE REDISCOVERY OF CITIZENSHIP. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kateb, George. 1992. THE INNER OCEAN: INDIVIDUALISM AND DEMOCRATIC CULTURE. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.



MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1984. AFTER VIRTUE: A STUDY IN MORAL THEORY (2d edn). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Rawls, John. 2005. POLITICAL LIBERALISM. New York: Columbia University Press. [*413]


Sandel, Michael J. 1996. DEMOCRACY’S DISCONTENT: AMERICA IN SEARCH OF A PUBLIC PHILOSOPHY. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Ryan K. Balot.