Vol. 26 No. 2 (June 2016) pp. 26-27

EQUAL RECOGNITION: THE MORAL FOUNDATIONS OF MINORITY RIGHTS, by Alan Patten. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. 344pp. Hardcover $45.00. ISBN: 978-0691159379.

Reviewed by Philip A. Dynia, Department of Political Science, Loyola University New Orleans. Email: dynia@loyno.edu

Alan Patten, a professor of politics at Princeton, explains in the Preface that his interest in the questions of nationalism and culture he addresses in this book developed because of a Canadian upbringing that included formative political memories of Canada’s struggles with cultural diversity. Occasionally, readers may struggle through his sometimes dense and extremely nuanced philosophical analyses. Those readers who persist, and who share his passion for political theory, will finish EQUAL RECOGNITION with a sense of satisfaction and admiration for Patten’s efforts. Others may be left wondering about the value of his work to multicultural conflicts in the “real” world.

At the very outset, Patten acknowledges that many Americans, his own friends and acquaintances included, may be puzzled by this work. The United States has been and remains today and will undoubtedly continue to be a culturally diverse society. The ability of these varying cultures to enjoy their differences is firmly entrenched in American constitutional traditions and protections. At the same time, Patten avers, most Americans would reject the idea that public institutions ought officially to protect or accommodate the cultural differences that exist here. Perhaps the best indicator of this general skepticism is the relative absence of any major social movement devoted to preserving or promoting distinct cultures within the United States. In the last half-century American society has been reshaped (sometimes in major ways) by social movements centered on issues of race, class, gender, disability, and sexuality. But for the most part all of these movements have pursued a goal of integration—they seek full inclusion of marginalized or subordinated groups into a unified American citizenship. The fabled American “melting pot.”

What one does not see in the American experience of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is any large-scale campaign to achieve the rights of minority cultures to remain different. In this respect, Patten tells us, the rest of the world looks much more like Canada than it does the United States, facing problems and puzzles about the nature and value of culture that are familiar from the Canadian experience though they may arise in a variety of different shapes or forms.

Patten attempts, briefly and arguably half-heartedly, to persuade us that the questions he addresses are relevant to the United States. As a world power, he suggests, the United States is expected to take positions on demands for cultural recognition and self-determination that regularly appear on the world stage. He also believes that many of the questions he explores are important to American readers because the right approach to cultural minorities within the United States is not fully settled; moreover, growing numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants are beginning to exhibit levels of confidence and self-organization that may place questions about minority cultural rights onto the future American political agenda.

At the same time, and some might say frustratingly, Patten disclaims any desire to offer a general theory of multiculturalism or nationalism, nor “a complete recipe for solving particular conflicts” (p. xii). He pursues instead a path of rigorous thinking about the philosophical issues, fully acknowledging they are only one dimension of the overall problem. But he believes that his conclusions shed light on normative policy choices by suggesting what questions to ask and what criteria to apply, while not fully determining those choices absent the [*27] crucial factual issues that require intense study and that are better addressed in another forum. Patten seeks only to indicate through his philosophical endeavors “what kinds of facts are relevant to policy choices” even though this exercise “will not reveal what those facts are” (p. xii). Later, he notes that “good policy is typically more complicated than simply applying the relevant abstract principle” (p. 10). At which point some may question the value of this book to American diplomacy (the last Secretary of State who may have had the philosophical background to follow Patten’s complex arguments was Henry Kissinger) or average American readers (who increasing face problems of integrating immigrants about whom they know little more than they do about Patten’s political philosophy). And when Patten states that “political theory serves, not as a proxy for democratic deliberation, but as a resource that those engaged in deliberation can draw upon to illuminate, and make more rigorous, their concepts and claims” (p. 24) one begins to wonder how applicable Patten’s philosophy is to the real world.

However, despite this reviewer’s considerable skepticism about the practical value of such political theory or its applicability to contemporary liberal regimes (a species not overly represented on the planet, and the only ones likely to come near to deliberating upon, never mind realizing, Patten’s suggestions regarding minority rights), one must concede that Patten’s theoretical efforts, on their own terms, are quite successful. He presents an excellent account of how theories of liberal democracy have addressed minority rights or majority nationalism, from the Amero-centric accounts in the post-World War II decades to a new generation (beginning in the 1980s) that challenged the earlier agnosticism about problems of culture.

Patten proceeds to develop an approach that differs from existing theories of liberal multiculturalism in two major respects: (1) Patten accepts many of the criticisms of liberal multiculturalism and therefore seeks to rebuild its foundations on a more solid basis, and (2) he rejects the multiculturalists’ embrace of liberal nationalism and concomitant efforts for minority control of territory and their own institutions. Instead, Patten bases minority cultural rights on an idea of liberal neutrality—the liberal state ought to be neutral in its treatment of majority and minority alike and if necessary extend equivalent culturally specific resources and facilities to each, while eschewing support for the liberal nationalists’ idea that national minorities must be accorded all the traditional prerogatives of the nation-state within some restricted territory.

Patten’s theoretical path to these conclusions comprise the bulk of the book. His philosophical analyses throughout are keen and fair-minded to those he may disagree with, and his consistent middle-of-the-road philosophical trajectory between extremes is positively Aristotelian. This is a work that will delight scholars immersed in political philosophy, even as it may confound other readers of LPBR (the words “legal,” “law,” and “politics” do not appear in the index). Patten appears to be an admirer of early John Rawls, and there are certainly echoes of Rawls throughout EQUAL RECOGNITION. Which is why many readers will finish this book expecting and hoping to hear a good deal more from Alan Patten.

© Copyright 2016 by author, Philip A. Dynia