Jonathan Quong (2011:15) asks two questions about liberalism, which can be used to identify the extent and nature of a liberal political philosopher’s commitment to neutrality.
1. Must liberal political philosophy be based in some particular ideal of what constitutes a valuable or worthwhile human life, or other metaphysical beliefs?
2. Is it permissible for a liberal state to promote or discourage some activities, ideals, or ways of life on grounds relating to their inherent or intrinsic value, or on the basis of other metaphysical claims?
Comprehensive liberal perfectionists answer ‘Yes’ to both of those questions. (Their position is comprehensive by dint of their saying ‘Yes’ to 1, and perfectionist by dint of saying ‘Yes’ to 2. In general, however, they are just labeled ‘liberal perfectionists’, so I’ll use that terminology from now on.) Their opponents argue that this leads to an unstable position: their perfectionism is in tension with their liberalism, because liberalism requires some sort of neutrality which is violated by a ‘Yes’ answer to either Question 1, or 2, or both. Your job is to explain, analyse and adjudicate this debate.
Your first port of call should be:
J. Quong Liberalism without Perfection (OUP, 2011).
Quong’s first chapter is just about the best introduction to this issue.
The following three chapters contain Quong’s arguments against liberal perfectionism. In each case, his general strategy is to argue that liberal perfectionists have no principled way of preventing their perfectionism from leading them to accept illiberal conclusions: each chapter takes an attempt by liberal perfectionists to show that their position is consistent (e.g. Joseph Raz’s use of a version of the harm principle, as discussed in Quong’s chapter 2), and argues that it fails.
You should then have a look at some of the people Quong argues against. Most important amongst these is:
J. Raz The Morality of Freedom (Clarendon, 1986), chapters 5-6, and 14-15.
Chapters 14-15 contain the arguments which are the main focus of Quong’s attack. Chapters 5-6 contain Raz’s riposte to the idea that liberalism has a deep commitment to neutrality. The central job of this essay is to assess whether Quong’s attack on Raz is sound: that is, whether Quong’s arguments work, and whether Raz has resources available to him
to come up with an adequate response (or indeed a counterattack). Some inspiration might come from Raz’s ally Steven Wall:
S. Wall Liberalism, Perfectionism and Restraint (Cambridge, 1998), chapters 1-5.
There is also a short discussion between me and Jonathan Quong in a recent journal, in which I suggest a way of defending Raz, and Quong argues against it.
B. Colburn ‘In Defence of Comprehensive Liberalism’, Philosophy and Public Issues 2 (2012): 17-29.
J. Quong ‘Liberalism Without Perfection: Replies to Gaus, Colburn, Chan, and Bocchiola’, Philosophy and Public Issues 2 (2012): 54-79, at 58-66.
Dealing with the above will be enough to allow you to write a good essay: one way of answering the question is just to explain the debate in the pieces listed above, and to decide whether or not Quong is successful in showing that Raz’s position is either inconsistent or unattractive.
There are other ways of attacking this question. You might, for example, want to focus not on the perfectionism, but on the comprehensiveness of liberal perfectionism. One reason to do this might be because you want to argue that comprehensive foundations are inconsistent with liberalism, as is argued by the political liberals (Quong and Rawls, for example). If that’s the case, you might think that the Quong/Raz debate misses the point: liberal perfectionism is indeed inconsistent, but not for the reasons Quong says. Or, you might think that it offers a way to rescue liberal perfectionism, if we drop the comprehensive foundations but keep the perfectionist politics. On the other hand, you might think that there are good reasons to be a comprehensive liberal. If so, maybe those are what settle the question of liberal perfectionism’s consistency, because the comprehensive foundations either give the perfectionist the resources to resist Quong’s argument against Raz or give us reasons to be anti-perfectionists, and hence demonstrate the inconsistency of liberal perfectionism by a different route. Be inventive! You must make sure that you answer the question, but there are many possible argumentative routes that you might follow.
You’ll find suitable reading and inspiration for these lines of thought in the reading list and the individual lecture handouts, and I can suggest further reading myself if you want it.