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About this book

Western political theory has many great strengths but also a few weaknesses. Among the latter should be included its ethnocentricity, its tendency to universalize the local. The political theorist makes universal statements about human beings, societies and states without making a close study of them, and about reason, tradition, human nature and moral ideals without appreciating how differently these are understood in different societies and traditions. These statements are often an uncritical universalisation of his society’s modes of thought and experience. This book traces this tendency in different areas of moral and political life, and argues that a critical engagement between different perspectives offers one possible way to counter this tendency. Seeking universally valid knowledge is a legitimate ambition, but Western political theory cannot realise it without the help of the non-Western as its critical interlocutor.

Table of Contents

Frontmatter

Chapter 1. Introduction

Abstract
This chapter explains the structure of the book. It argues that Western political theory shows a strong tendency to universalise the local, to generalise the modes of thought and experience of the political theorist’s society. After offering several examples of this ethnocentric tendency, the chapter goes on to suggest that it is best countered through a critical dialogue between different perspectives in which the ethnocentrism of each is exposed and acknowledged.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 2. The Concept of Rights

Abstract
In this chapter, we examine the idea of rights both historically and philosophically, and show how they have come to be defined in exclusivist, possessive and nearly absolutist terms and extended to most areas of human life. They are understood within the individualist framework, which in turn is based on a narrow and possessive view of the individual. Using Marx, one of its powerful critics, as a basis, we explore how rights, important as they are, could be defined differently. This involves reconceptualising individuals as socially embedded beings involved in a thick network of social relationships, seeing others not as rivals or enemies but as partners in a shared common life, and defining and exercising their rights in a non-exclusive, non-possessive and socially responsible manner.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 3. Human Rights and Moral Pluralism

Abstract
This chapter pushes the inquiry further and argues that while the idea of rights, including human rights, is an important strand in our moral vocabulary, it cannot be its sole basis. It ignores large areas of human life where the idea of rights makes little sense and, if exclusively pursued, could dry up the wellsprings of altruism, moral responsibility and other valuable dispositions. The modern tendency to make human rights the sole or the dominant basis of morality makes them carry a burden they cannot bear and oversimplifies the complexity and pluralism of moral life.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 4. Reason and Identity

Abstract
This chapter examines the role of identity in moral and political life. Rationalist philosophers argue that moral conduct is based on universally valid principles and that the right thing to do can be objectively determined. This view overlooks the crucial role of personal and collective identity in shaping moral life, and ignores the fact that what is the right thing to do for one person might not be so for another. While identity is an important reason for action, it is itself subject to rational scrutiny and may be overridden in certain circumstances. Developing an identity sensitive view of reason and a reason orientated view of identity provides a badly needed basis to deal with differences in a multicultural society.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 5. Regulating Hate Speech

Abstract
This chapter focuses on the right to free speech. It argues that it is a mistake to reduce free speech to freedom of expression which puts the individual at the centre of discussion and makes free speech a matter of their more or less unlimited right to express themselves. Free speech is better seen as a vital human good, which is why individuals have a right to it and why that right has certain built-in limits that vary with a society’s history and circumstances. Applying this to hate speech, the chapter shows why it deserves to be limited in the interest of the common good and why the limits are best defined in local terms.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 6. A Misconceived Discourse on Political Obligation

Abstract
This chapter questions the traditional formulation of political obligation as why one should obey the civil authority or respect the law. This individualist view sees citizens as atomised subjects taking their decisions in isolation rather than as mutually responsible individuals who collectively exercise their sovereign control over the conduct of their public affairs and incur several political obligations such as not only obeying the law but also disobeying oppressive laws, protesting against injustices and upholding public norms. The traditional discussion is largely conservative, concerned to maintain order and stability, and finds these obligations of active citizenship unsettling. Its bias needs to be exposed and overcome.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 7. Liberal Democracy and National Minorities

Abstract
This chapter probes the limits of liberal individualism from a different angle. It argues that liberalism welcomes individual but not group differences, those resulting from individual choices but not those that are ascriptive or inherited. It is also committed to the homogenous nation state granting an identical basket of rights to all its citizens, and feels deeply nervous in the presence of loosely structured and sometimes asymmetrical polities based on regional autonomy. As a result, liberalism finds it difficult to deal with the demand for greater regional autonomy, and often unwittingly provokes secessionist movements.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 8. A Critique of the Liberal Approach to Violence

Abstract
This chapter argues that liberal individualism is unable to explain much of the violence going on in society and its members’ responsibility for it. Since liberalism concentrates on who did what and should be held responsible for the resulting consequences, which it is unable to do in a highly complex organisational context, it is led to argue that no identifiable individual and hence no one really can be blamed for the harm done to hundreds by multinational drug trials, suicides by desperate prisoners, and thousands killed in unnecessary wars. Since liberalism tends to define causality in terms of actively initiating a course of action, it is unable to take account of the consequences of an individual’s unwillingness to interrupt or arrest the course of action, and leads to a highly attenuated and untenable view of individual responsibility.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 9. Understanding Humiliation

Abstract
In much of the Western and other moral traditions, good enjoys primacy, and evil is largely seen as negative, derivative, and lacking stability. There are fascinating discussions of virtues, human dignity, harmony and happiness, but their negatives get only a cursory treatment. Some traditions, especially Buddhism, are rather different. They discuss evils more often than goods, describe them in a stronger and more evocative language, spell out their consequences in vivid and moving terms, and concentrate on showing why they should be avoided at all cost. This chapter is intended to show that the evils are sometimes easier to identify and agree upon than the goods, and that a discussion of them can offer greater insights into the nature of moral life than that of the goods.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 10. Reflections on Multiculturalism

Abstract
A multicultural society involves and is best managed by institutionalising formal and informal dialogue between its constituent cultural communities. Multiculturalism is often taken to involve social ghettoisation, cultural or moral relativism, and the minority’s right to live on its own terms. This chapter questions this. It analyses why and how multiculturalism appeared on the Western public and philosophical agenda, and argues that it was a way of evolving a shared common culture arising out of the formal and informal interactions between the constituent communities. Multiculturalism seeks to balance the demands of unity and diversity, and has not always got it right. The chapter goes on to suggest how the balance should be struck. The multicultural society is not another version of the nation state, and cannot be expected to be structured like it. It is sui generis and needs to aim at and be judged by its own distinct organising principles.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 11. Common Belonging

Abstract
This chapter takes the argument of the previous chapter on multiculturalism further. It is not enough to unite a multicultural society; it is equally important that its citizens should develop a common sense of belonging and accept each other as its equally legitimate members. The sense of belonging cannot be based only on equal rights, which arc largely formal, and requires some degree of mutual concern. Nor can it be based on shared ethno-cultural ties because the modern society is too complex and heterogeneous for that. The author suggests that while expecting a basic commitment from its citizens, a multicultural society should recognise that different citizens will do so differently and to different degrees depending on their relations to and treatment by the state.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 12. A Multicultural Perspective on Secularism

Abstract
This chapter analyses the related theme of secularism, often seen as the only way to deal equally with believers of different religions and non-believers. The chapter questions this view, arguing that secularism is not neutral between religious and secular people, and that its policies inevitably impact differently on different religions and cannot be neutral between them either. Secularism is not itself a fundamental value but a way to achieve such basic values as freedom of conscience and equality, and the form it takes in a society depends on its history, views on religion, values and political balance between the different religious communities. We should determine the minimum, the core, that a secular state should ensure, leaving different societies free to organise around it their own appropriate political systems. Each society, while sharing some features in common with others, will obviously need to develop its own form of secularism. We should speak of secularism in the plural and hope that their dialogue would benefit them all.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 13. Cultural Accommodation and the Criminal Law

Abstract
This chapter looks at the vexed question of whether and how cultural diversity impacts on the criminal justice system, which is supposed to deal with the universally agreed evils to which culture is supposed to be irrelevant. The author suggests that the opposite view is more convincing. Culture defines the meaning of an action, and we cannot understand what an individual was doing when he acted in a particular manner without understanding his cultural background. An act of scarifying a child’s cheeks could be a case of causing him grievous bodily harm, but also that of initiating him in his tribe and doing a socially obligatory act. To ignore the difference is to do its agent an injustice. Similar considerations are important in determining an individual’s degree of responsibility, his state of mind, and whether he acted under duress. Culture can play hermeneutic, explanatory and justificatory roles in criminal law. While defending the first two, the author limits its third role and shows where it is justified and where not.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 14. Ethnocentricity of the Nationalist Discourse

Abstract
This chapter challenges the dominant view that nationalism is basically a European phenomenon, first emerging in Europe and then spreading to the rest of the world and taking identical forms. This view gives Europe both too much importance and too much responsibility for the world’s ills. Nationalism did emerge in Europe, but every non-European country conceptualised it and blended it with local ideas in its own way and gave it a distinct form. In some societies it was based on religion; in others on ethnicity, language or civilisation. Some had a ‘pan’ element and that too varied from region to region. In many of these societies liberalism was not a dominant tradition, and hence nationalism did not have to come to terms with it or define itself in relation to it. All this means that there were and are multiple nationalisms, each unique but also sharing some common features with others.
Bhikhu Parekh

Chapter 15. Religious Tolerance in a Comparative Perspective

Abstract
This last chapter analyses the complex concept of tolerance and aims to do several things. It shows that the concept rests on certain assumptions and does not apply to societies where these are not met. In some societies, for example, every constituent community is believed to have a right to lead its own way of life and others do not pass judgement on it. People live the way they do, and the question of tolerating or not tolerating them does not arise. Furthermore, much of the Western discussion of tolerance largely occurs at first within the Christian and later within the secular Enlightenment traditions, and develops its own distinct theoretical framework, set of questions and vocabulary. Non-western traditions approach the question differently. Comparing these traditions helps us to appreciate their specificity, their strengths and limitations. Much of the traditional Western discussion tends to take too judgemental a view of others’ beliefs and practices, ignores the damage intolerance does to its perpetrators, and gives the tolerating person an unjustified moral superiority. In these and other respects it can benefit from a critical dialogue with other traditions.
Bhikhu Parekh

Backmatter

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