Timothy Jackson on Liberal Neutrality

Timothy Jackson is perhaps the most articulate Christian ethicist I’ve come across who, along with folks like Michael Sandel, critiques the Rawlsian (?) idea that liberalism ought to be neutral in respect to questions of the good.

In his new and compelling collection of essays, Political Agape, Jackson does so by tangling with perhaps liberalism’s other most famous 20th century defender, Ronald Dworkin. [1]

By taking on the thought of Dworkin, Jackson approaches the issue by thinking about who gets rights and why. For Dworkin, rights are interest-based, which means they are due to those who consciously express interests. Rights are owed to those who have self-conscious autonomy. In so doing, by anchoring the liberal rights framework in individual autonomy Dworkin purports to be neutral on questions of value. Value is something to be determined freely by the individual, and the only proper politics is that which respects this individual choice.

However, Jackson notes, “to claim that only the interests of extant persons are legally protectable is already to make a controversial value judgment.” He continues, “it is not possible to separate judgments of rightness from judgments of goodness; we cannot determine what is just without also determining the goods to be justly produced, as well as distributed.” This allows him to claim that “questions of value precede questions of justice [construed in terms of rights] as more basic.” [2] This leads to his argument for sanctity, which I’ll tackle in a future post.

I find this basic argument compelling, that grounding rights in the condition of possibility for moral discourse and action – individual autonomy – is to already make or assume a value judgment.

On a slightly different but related note, I’ve heard, more than once, people push Sandel on his claim that society ought to collectively reason through its value judgments. They respond to him that such an attempt would only lead to theocracy or some sort of autocratic moral coercion. Jackson has a reply to this sort of rebuttal:

A community’s judicial and legislative systems cannot escape acting on some rough social consensus concerning fundamental values and meanings, not excluding the value and meaning of human life. And part of democratic governance involves making room for the volatile educational and conversational processes whereby key axiological issues are publicly debated and acted on. Unanimity will not be had, but there is no escaping the need to hear multiple social voices discussing momentous moral values. Compromise and majority vote, reined in by Constitutional checks and balances, will often be the best a democracy can hope for. But the constructive tension that moves a society to ponder the meaning of its shared (and vulnerable) humanity is far preferable to a bogus “pluralism” or “fairness” that claims to prescind from controversial value judgments about life and death. [3]



[1] Timothy P. Jackson, “A House Divided, Again: Dworkin and Singer on Sanctity and Dignity,” Political Agape: Christian Love and Liberal Democracy (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015) 186-213.

[2] Ibid., 204.

[3] Ibid., 204.


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