Political Liberalism, Western History, and the Conjectural Non-West

Loubna El Amine*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Taking its distance from classical liberalism, political liberalism seeks to avoid controversial metaphysical assumptions by starting from institutional features of modern polities. Political liberalism also extends the limits of liberal toleration by envisioning societies that it considers nonliberal but decent. This article is concerned with the relationship between these two dimensions of political liberalism, specifically as they are instantiated in the work of John Rawls. I show that these two dimensions are in tension with each other. Put simply, if political liberalism is institutional, then decent societies are impossible. Decent societies are only conceivable within the ahistorical realm of values—a realm that Rawls sometimes slips into, even though its avoidance is central to political liberalism’s claim of distinctiveness. Rawls’s appeal to hypotheticals to defend his account of decent societies only serves to mask this tension and to foreclose important avenues of inquiry about the non-Western world. I also deploy throughout the article archival material that evinces Rawls’ concern with ethnocentrism but also the difficulties he faced in coming up with an adequate account of non-Western societies. On the argument I offer here, this intractability is to be expected, since Rawls did not recognize that the problems with his account were not purely philosophical, but in fact, sociological, political, and historical.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)190-214
Number of pages25
JournalPolitical Theory
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2021


  • John Rawls
  • Political liberalism
  • decent societies
  • global justice
  • hypotheticals
  • the non-Western world

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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