Is Liberalism Disingenuous? Truth and Lies in Political Liberalism (pages 113-134)

Emily McGill

ABSTRACT: Rawlsian political liberalism famously requires a prohibition on truth. This has led to the charge that liberalism embraces non-cognitivism, according to which political claims have the moral status of emotions or expressions of preference. This result would render liberalism a non-starter for liberatory politics, a conclusion that political liberals themselves disavow. This conflict between what liberalism claims and what liberalism does has led critics to charge that the theory is disingenuous and functions as political ideology. In this paper, I explore one way that this charge unfolds: critics charge that liberalism utilizes an individualistic and identity-insensitive social ontology, which in turn yields epistemic deficiencies that render it incapable of detecting oppression. The theory’s claim to freestandingness then shields it from necessary critique. I argue that this objection relies on constructing a conflict between liberalism’s professed non-cognitivism and its actual cognitivist commitments. By demonstrating that Rawlsian political liberalism explicitly endorses substantive moral truths, and that the method of avoidance applies only to public justification for coercive state action, I show that the theory is openly and foundationally cognitivist, and thus that the charge of disingenuousness does not stick.

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