levy book forum part 1: what is rationalism, pluralism and freedom about?

Levy book cover

This month, I will discuss Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom by my good friend Jacob Levy. I usually don’t write much on “political theory,” as it is a genre of scholarship that I am not fluent in, but I thought orgtheory readers might enjoy this book.

Levy’s goal is to review the tradition of political thought in the West and argue that there is a fundamental tension. First, one might think that, from a liberal perspective, that people have the right to association. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Western liberalism is the view that people have the right to live in neighborhoods they choose, join churches they like and otherwise hang out with who they want. Yet, at the same time, these non-state groups impose all kinds of restrictions. And this is the tension: liberals tend to put tight reins on states – they are supposed to have limited powers over people – but people can still join groups that are highly illiberal in character.

Summarizing this book is tough, but it has a few major sections, each with a distinct message. The first clearly articulates the problem and offers the argument that states and private groups can over-reach and move in illiberal directions. The second major section ranges through political and social thought and is an exploration of thinking about the boundaries between states, civil society and individuals through modern (e.g., 1500+) history. The third section is an argument against synthesis – you can’t believe at the same time that groups are totally awesome because they shield you from the state but at the same time totally be against their constraining character.

The book is really two short books – one on history of thought and another on ethics (how two normative positions are mutually exclusive) – so my discussion will not go into every detail. What I will do is pick out some parts that sociologists might enjoy and put them under scrutiny.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 17, 2017 at 12:02 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Good choice! It’s a great framework, waiting for graphing and proxy measure development.



    October 18, 2017 at 3:28 pm

  2. I consider the key problem from this text on p46-47. It is one thing to dissent from the acts of the state or to try to formulate those actions which will transform the people into a more charitable and rational group, but we are very mired enmired in unconscious rituals as this extract indicates.

    “Many well-known disputes about freedom and group life seem not to
    involve institutions with secondary rules but rather such non-institutionalized
    entities as traditions or cultures. From the perspective of the pure theory,
    this is a distinction almost without a difference.4 These non-institutionalized

    4 Some might think that there is another difference: that formal associations are joined, while
    unincorporated groups are born into. The problem of being born into does not actually track the
    formal/unincorporated distinction very closely—a person can be born a Catholic, or born living in
    and heir to property in a residential association. So far as the pure theory is concerned, being “born
    into” does not make much difference; everyone is born somewhere, and even the freest person
    spends his or her life making choices shaped by particular contexts, the child of the most
    cosmopolitan urbanites no less than the Amish child. They both grow up choosing to do things
    that they are morally permitted to choose, and neither has meaningful access to every conceivable
    life choice.

    groups have normative structures with primary rules that all members
    are under a generalized duty to follow. Conflicts of interpretation lead to
    divergences in practice, not to formal conflicts in adjudicative venues.
    Norm enforcement is radically decentralized: to local communities or congregations,
    to social networks willing and able to pressure their members
    and shun those who stray too far, or—probably especially—to families.
    Again, the decision to follow a norm that mandates morally permissible
    behavior or prohibits morally omittable behavior is simply the exercise of
    freedom. The decision to enforce norms—by disowning a child, breaking
    with a friend, refusing to marry a potential partner, or pressuring others to
    do those things—is, likewise, simply the choice to do something that a pure
    liberal theory recognizes the right to do: disassociate from another person.
    That the disassociation is done by many at the same time, and for norm enforcing
    reasons rather than personal whim, doesn’t change its moral


    Fredrick Welfare

    October 21, 2017 at 2:35 pm

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