In an increasingly diverse America, weighing the rights of the majority against the rights of the minority is the subject of debate and disagreement, both in theory and in everyday life.
Princeton Politics Professor Alan Patten examines this difficult subject and proposes a new ethical defense of minority rights in his book “Equal Recognition: The Moral Foundations of Minority Rights”, which has just been published in paperback by Princeton University Press.
Patten, Howard Harrison Professor of Politics and Gabrielle Snyder Beck, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Strategic Initiatives and Director of the Political Philosophy Program, is interested in research and teaching in both the history of political thought and in contemporary political philosophy.
Patten answered questions on the topic of minority rights and why they are important today.
Question. Your book examines the moral foundations of minority rights. What rights are these?
Reply. The book explores the reasons for believing that cultural minorities should be recognized and accommodated. Generally speaking, most people would accept that cultural minorities are entitled to the same set of civil, political and social rights as their fellow citizens. And many would also recognize the need for special measures to ensure that cultural minorities are not disadvantaged by discrimination or callousness. My central question is whether cultural minorities also have rights that would enable them to benefit from and maintain their distinctive cultures over time.
Q. Why is it important to examine the moral basis of these rights?
A. Every liberal democracy is culturally diverse at least to some extent. Here in the United States, over 20 percent of the population uses a language other than English at home at least some of the time. Many states around the world are home to significant national minorities who wish to live under their own institutions and enjoy substantial autonomy. In the name of culture and religion, many minorities are asking for exemptions from generally applicable laws that weigh heavily on them. Citizens and officials around the world need rigorous and critical ways of thinking about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in these statements.
Q. What does political theory teach us about the balancing of competing claims for rights by majority and minorities?
A. Political theorists remain strongly divided on the claims of culture. Many liberals view multiculturalism and nationalism as dangerous distractions that have little basis in the principles of liberal democracy. My book opposes this prevailing wisdom, asserting that a liberal concern to give each individual a fair chance to achieve their goals and commitments ultimately turns into a demand that cultures compatible with liberal values ââbenefit from. ‘equal treatment by the state.
Q. What themes do you develop in making this argument?
A. One is culture: the book devotes a fair amount of attention to resuscitating the concepts of culture and cultural preservation. When can we say that a diverse group of individuals share a culture? How to tell the difference between a change of culture and its disappearance? A second is the idea that the state should be neutral: the book revives and defends the thesis that a liberal state should be neutral between the different ends and attachments of its citizens.
Q. How could we think of applying some of these ideas to America today?
A. With a growing Hispanic population, American debates over minority language rights are likely to become more intense in the years to come. Americans must also pay attention to debates on minority rights because of their country’s position of global leadership. What responsibilities does America have to ensure the self-determination of national minorities and protect vulnerable cultures from destruction by nationalizing states and the forces of globalization?