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Joseph H. Carens
Culture, Citizenship, and Community. A Contextual Exploration of Justice as Evenhandedness

Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, pp. 284, ISBN 0-19-829751-3

Review by Emanuela Ceva - January 24, 2001

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In this book Joseph Carens aims to explore the relevance of identities and cultures to such normative concepts as justice, citizenship and political community. To this purpose, he outlines a contextual analysis of different circumstances of justice and political claims, suggesting an attitude of openness to differences in order to deal with different requests of identity recognition.
Inside this theoretical framework, Carens addresses two kinds of questions. On the one hand, he tackles 'questions about how liberal democratic political communities ought to respond to differences of culture and identity among citizens (or residents)'. On the other hand, he takes into account 'questions about differences among liberal democratic cultures' (p.6).

The strategy followed by the author is characterized by a continuous shift from theory to context, and from context to theory. This choice is grounded on the fact that, in Carens' words, 'we do not really understand what general principles and theoretical formulations mean until we see them interpreted and applied in a variety of specific contexts' (p.3).

Through his analysis Carens tries to suggest an alternative idea of justice as fairness, which could overcome the difficulties connected to the application of the neutral conception proposed by John Rawls. This new idea of justice is essentially based on the assumption that, in order to treat people fairly, it is necessary to look at them in a concrete way. That is to say, to pay attention to their own particular identities and values. This idea endorses a conception of equality which is not simply based on the idea of granting identical formal rights to every citizen. It is deeply connected to the possibility of adopting practices of differentiated citizenship, granting particular rights on the basis of the different claims raised by different groups. The core of this conception of justice is the idea of evenhandedness, according to which 'what fairness entails is a sensitive balancing of competing claims for recognition and support in matters of culture and identity' (p.12). The rules of the balance between different claims cannot be decided and fixed in advance, yet they are to be considered in relation to the different contexts in which those claims arise.

From this contextual perspective, Carens challenges the applicability of the models proposed by Michael Walzer and Will Kymlicka, as representatives of different attitudes towards identity and cultural issues.
Chapter 2 ('Complex Justice, Cultural Difference, and Political Community') is mainly devoted to the analysis of M. Walzer's Spheres of Justice. Carens argues that even if, on the one hand, Walzer's proposal is extremely bound to contextual evaluation of different circumstances of justice, on the other hand, it is not relativistic. Walzer, indeed, proposes some general principles which can be applied to every kind of political institutions, since they have a deep moral value. There seems to be, that is to say, a sort of general morality, which can be at least extended to all those people who share the same commitment to democratic values. Thus this extension is strictly bound to a specific political context, that is a liberal democratic one. So, from this perspective, how to deal with those groups whose commitments clash against liberal democratic patterns? Walzer seems here to propose a quite reasonable solution: the only basis we have, in order to try to understand 'others', is what we believe to be morally just. But in doing this we should try not to impose our judgement, yet to be ready to revise our opinion and to learn from others' standpoints.

Through the analysis of W. Kymlicka's Multicultural Citizenship (Chapter 3, 'Liberalism and Culture'), Carens tries to answer to a fundamental question: 'how a liberal political community should respond to cultural diversity?' (p.17). Kymlicka suggests that the classic liberal idea of a perfect political neutrality is an illusion, since states always make choices which have both political and cultural consequences. In Kymlicka's view it is important to give political relevance to cultural claims coming from a minority group. The feeling of belonging to what he calls a 'societal culture' is fundamental for all human beings, since it is just on the basis of this feeling that they can build their own temper and attitudes. Every choice an individual makes is fundamentally bound to the cultural group he belongs to; hence the importance of this feeling of belonging in every part of his life. Carens criticizes Kymlicka's concept of 'societal culture' since it seems to be too abstract and, for this reason, not sensitive enough to the different issues coming from different contexts. Moreover, the indeterminacy of this concept does not allow defining the extension and the limits of the right of an individual to have public access to his own 'societal culture'. The only criterion is the separation between national minorities, who have this right in full, and immigrants, who don't, since they have explicitly renounced to this right when they have entered the 'new' society. Furthermore, according to Carens, this concept of 'societal culture' is more suitable for a monocultural conception of citizenship than to a multicultural one. Indeed, it seems that it is still bound to a strong idea of nation-state political structure, which strictly connects political institutions to cultural commitment and values.

The problem of the integration of minorities within a liberal democratic framework is explored further in Chapter 4 ('Distinguishing between difference and Domination: Reflections on the Relation between Pluralism and Equality'). Here Carens focuses his attention on the relation between equal opportunities and cultural differences, trying to find an answer to this basic question: how much, if so, can cultural heritage affect the way people can take advantage of public opportunities? The dilemma is, here, whether the state should tolerate social and political inequalities deriving from cultural and ethical differences, or whether it should try to override these cultural differences promoting equality. Also in this case, Carens proposes a contextual evaluation of the way cultural differences have played an important role, if any, in the definition of those inequalities. Lower social success, for example, seems to be justified in the case of Amish, whose cultural beliefs and attitudes affirm different goals from the rest of society. But the same lower social success rate seems unjustifiable in the case of Afro-Americans, since it is based on a cultural discrimination, apart from their aims and goals.

The contextual strategy followed by Carens finds a good application in Chapter 5 ('Culture adaptation and the Integration of Immigrants: The Case of Quebec'), where the author investigates the question of the requests of cultural adaptation in relation to immigrants in a liberal democratic state, considering the case of Quebec. It is interesting to notice that this question is addressed in a normative way, not in an empirical one. The point is whether the state is entitled to expect immigrants to adapt - and not whether these latter can actually adapt - to the 'new' culture. In Quebec immigrants are expected to use the official language and to accept the basic principles of pluralism and democracy. According to Carens, these are quite modest requests and they are morally defensible in accordance to the idea of justice as evenhandedness. Actually, 'these are the sorts of demands that go hand in hand with a commitment to providing immigrants and their children with equal opportunities in Quebec and with the other rights and freedom that a liberal democratic political community should provide to its members' (p.18).

Carens goes deeper in the question of the adaptation of immigrants in a liberal democratic state in Chapter 6 ('Muslims Minorities in Contemporary Democracies: The Limitation of liberal Toleration'). Here the author takes into account the case of Muslims, whose habits are utterly different in comparison to western liberal ones. One of the most interesting questions addressed here is 'whether Muslims can be full members of liberal democratic societies given the strength of their communal identity' (p.141). Indeed, it seems that one of the strongest liberal democratic requirements (in order to gain the status of 'citizen') is the capacity to abstract from one's own identity, as to political and public matters. Actually, Carens suggests that this problem is not connected to Muslims' identity, but to the concept of democracy itself. At this stage, Carens recalls a model of democracy that 'simply requires that people listen and engage with each other. To treat other people with respect […] does not necessarily require that one suspends one's own commitment or distances oneself from one's own identity. Indeed, conversations are often more fruitful when people speak from their deepest selves' (p.143).

The presence of different identities and different cultures inside the same social framework makes the concept of citizenship really complex. A heterogeneous citizenship, indeed, can give rise to problems of political recognition and legitimacy. Carens (Chapter 7, 'Multiple Political Membership, Overlapping National Identities, and the Dimensions of Citizenship') suggests three different dimensions of citizenship, which are defined in accordance to different feelings of belonging to different, and sometimes overlapping, dimensions:
  1. a legal dimension, connected to the opportunity of having the legal status of citizen;
  2. a psychological one, related to an emotional attachment and loyalty to one's identity;
  3. and a political one, based on the fact of sharing a collective agency.
The multiplicity of identities and belongings also challenges the validity of the traditional idea of nation-state, conceived 'as an administratively centralized, culturally homogeneous form of political community in which citizenship is treated primarily as a legal status that is universal, equal and democratic' (p.161). In Carens's view, this idea is misleading as to different aspects:
  1. from a conceptual viewpoint, since it does not take account of multiple citizenship;
  2. from an empirical perspective, since it does not correspond to the actual composition of most western contemporary societies;
  3. from a theoretical point of view, since it ignores the importance of the recognition of differences as a step towards equality.
The importance of giving prominence to the idea of overlapping citizenship has, according to Carens, also a moral basis, since it seems to be the only way in order to give voice to claims of collective identity recognition.

When claims for political recognition coming from cultural minorities take the form of requests for distinct political institutions, new and complex challenges arise. The context explored in Chapter 8 ('Citizenship and the Challenge of Aboriginal Self-Government. Is Deep Diversity Desirable?') is related to the claims for self-government coming from Aboriginal groups in Canada. In front of these kinds of claims, Carens criticizes the idea of referring to a unique model of citizenship, since it cannot provide an adequate level of integration in front of so many different claims and identities. It is for these reasons that, also in this case, he recurs to the presented model of differentiated citizenship.

The last chapter of the book ('Democracy and Respect for Difference: The Case of Fiji') is completely written in the respect of the contextual feature of the whole work. Here, Carens deals with the case of Fiji, as an example of social and political conflicts, connected to the attempts to preserve cultural traditions and identity.

Through this book, Carens gives an important contribution to the analytical study of the issues connected to pluralism. Moreover, the contextual strategy helps to create a very flexible model, which can be adapted to the deeply different questions related to a 'multicultural' social framework. From this point of view philosophy seems not to have the task to point out substantial conceptions of politics and justice, since this pretension will clash against the limits of forecast and understanding of a changing reality. The duty to find any substantial answer seems to be left to the discussion between the different actors, who are involved in these complex situations.

The Author

Joseph Carens is Professor at the Department of Political Science of the University of Toronto (Canada). His research interests are mainly focused on contemporary political theory, especially on issues related to immigration and political community. He is author of Equality, Moral Incentives, and the Market (1981); (ed.) Democracy and Possessive Individualism (1993); (ed.) Is Quebec Nationalism Just? (1995).

Index of Contents

  • Chapter 1 Introduction: Contextual Political Theory, Comparative Perspectives, and Justice as Evenhandedness
  • Chapter 2 Complex Justice, Cultural Difference, and Political Community
  • Chapter 3 Liberalism and Culture
  • Chapter 4 Distinguishing between Difference and Domination: Reflections on the Relations between Pluralism and Equality
  • Chapter 5 Cultural Adaptation and the Integration of Immigrants: the Case of Quebec
  • Chapter 6 Muslim minorities in Contemporary Democracies: The Limitations of Liberal Toleration
  • Chapter 7 Multiple Political Memberships, Overlapping National Identities, and the Dimensions of Citizenship
  • Chapter 8 Citizenship and the Challenge of Aboriginal Self-Government: Is Deep Diversity Desirable?
  • Chapter 9 Democracy and Respect for Difference: The Case of Fiji
  • Chapter 10 Conclusion

University of Bari - Workshop for Epistemology & Computer Science and Department of Philosophy