How can a liberal democracy promote its central values, such as autonomy and non-discrimination, at the same time that it protects basic rights, such as free speech? One common view is that these two goals are incompatible. According to this view, free speech rights commit liberal democracy to “neutralism,” which prohibits favoring any values. Under a neutralist approach, liberal democracy cannot promote its core values of autonomy and non-discrimination. It has no role in encouraging responsibility and virtue among its citizens.
James Fleming and Linda McClain offer a powerful challenge to the neutralist view. They propose an account of “autonomy as responsibility” that reconciles the two goals of protecting rights and promoting a set of public values and virtues. Liberal democracy upholds the rights of citizens out of respect for their autonomy, or their ability to use their reason freely to choose their own ends. For citizens to be able to make decisions as autonomous agents, they must have the right to choose their religion, associations, and political positions. But it is also important in an autonomy respecting regime that the government cultivate and encourage good decision-making. It would be pointless to respect autonomy if no actual people exercised their autonomy well. The government thus has an obligation to promote the capacity of citizens to make better and more responsible decisions. The government, including the Supreme Court, should pursue the twin aims of protecting rights and promoting individual autonomy and responsibility. This view differs from perfectionist theories, which advance particular comprehensive doctrines, and neutralist accounts, which refuse to promote values altogether. Read More