Dr Clare Chambers – The Neutralist Dilemma

PTRG – 28th March 2018

This week the Political Theory Research Group welcomed Dr Clare Chambers of the University of Cambridge to discuss her paper, ‘Reasonable disagreement and the neutralist dilemma: Abortion and circumcision in Matthew Kramer’s Liberalism with Excellence.’

By tracing the logical implications of the liberal state’s commitment to neutrality, the paper subtly reveals the limits of the neutralist project in liberalism. Through the cases of abortion and circumcision, it shows that sometimes, the state cannot avoid violating its commitment to neutrality. It has to implement a policy with which a party would reasonably disagree on the basis that it violates freedom and equality. In the case of abortion, there is reasonable disagreement about whether the foetus is a person. If the state takes the position that the foetus is not a person, it should permit abortion because to do otherwise would be to deny the bodily autonomy of pregnant people who want to terminate their pregnancy. If the state takes the position that the foetus is a person, the state should prohibit abortion because allowing it would be murder, violating the freedom and equality of the foetus. But taking a position on whether the foetus is a person violates neutrality because it is a point about which people reasonably disagree due to the burdens of judgement.

Dr Chambers’ paper provoked vigorous debate for the duration of the session. The choice of cases lent themselves to extensive discussion, as did the setup of the neutralist dilemma itself. Participants were particularly keen to explore the ramifications of state neutrality for parenting. Questions arose regarding parental intervention and the range of possible future lives that parents inevitably prevent their children from living, and the extent to which parents should be allowed to (irreversibly) modify the bodies of their children for cultural, or even cosmetic, reasons. In addition to this, the function of state neutrality and its capacity to bolster or diffuse racist or otherwise prejudicial attitudes was considered. There were also lively exchanges regarding the questions of adults’ regret for their parents’ actions, the value of bodily integrity, and the importance of one’s sense of cultural belonging, both as a child and adult.

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