Do minority groups have rights? Examining Will Kymlicka's arguments over minority rights

Essay, 2016

10 Pages, Grade: A


Ever since the French and American revolutions individual rights have been the main focus of the development of a modern liberal democracy; it was not until the aftermath of the Cold War and the ideological conflict between the two superpowers that a new wave of ethnic nationalisms in both Eastern Europe as well as within liberal democracies themselves emerged, moving the question of minority rights to the forefront of political philosophy (Kymlicka, 2001, p. 17). From Scottish independence and refugee crisis to the gay liberation movement—numerous ethnic, immigrant and social minority groups began to raise their voices in demand of specific groups rights within a multicultural society today, challenging libertarian view of nation-building. In this essay, normative issues raised by distinct minority groups, their relation to the processes of modern-day nation-building and various arguments for and against multiculturalism and integration will be discussed. In relation to Will Kymlicka’s debate over minority rights, socialist, feminist and radical multiculturalist critiques will be examined so to unravel the complexities of ethnocultural justice. Finally, an alternative model for societal group relations will be suggested in favour of both ‘protective’ and ‘polyglot’ multiculturalism, all of which I will examine in detail.

Political theory over minority rights emerged within the philosophical framework of liberal-communitarian debate: liberal individualists prioritizing individual freedom over community matters while the so-called ‘collectivists’ became strong advocates for community interests—minority groups in particular—and their legitimacy for group-specific rights. Communitarians view individuals as “the product of social practices” thus community interests “cannot be reduced to the interests of their individual members” (Kymlicka, 2001, p. 19). For communitarians, privileged individual autonomy is seen as destructive for communities, and a way to protect communities from the “eroding effects of individual autonomy” is by ensuring minority rights (Kymlicka, 2001, p. 19). An ever-growing concern over minority rights within a liberal framework has been greatly influenced by one of the most notable political philosophers on multiculturalism – Will Kymlicka. He argues (2001), that minority groups—which, according to his view, consist of national minorities or ‘minority nations’, polyethnic or immigrant groups and non-ethnic minorities—as well as individual members of any given society preserve culture which is necessary for a sense of identity. Culture, according to Kymlicka (2001), is something everyone needs to succeed in life—thus, to some extent, may be viewed as a ‘primary good’ – an idea introduced by Rawls’s ‘theory of justice’. To emphasize the value of cultural identities for both individuals and a community is an aim for liberal multiculturalists like Kymlicka, who introduces the concept of ‘group-specific’ rights to ensure and preserve those identities. Minority nations, such as Québécois, who preserve common culture, language and prior history of self-governance and have been involuntarily incorporated into a larger state, Kymlicka argues (2001, p. 29), ought to be granted self-governing rights such as territorial jurisdiction. For those immigrant or ethnic groups who come voluntarily, group-specific privileges shall be offered so to help “express their cultural heritage without hampering their participation in the society” (Rozée, 2016). Favouring Nozick’s notion of ‘equality of opportunity’, special representation rights need to be given for those representatives of non-ethnic marginalized identity groups so to promote minority representation within a dominant political jurisdiction. For Kymlicka, a central claim is that individual autonomy requires membership in and maintenance of a culture of one’s own, “because the choices autonomy entails require a meaningful context that only a culture provides” (Young, 2002, p. 48). However, while Kymlicka (2001, p. 22) recognizes the politics of culture and its role in minority representation, he notes that although culture is necessary for identity politics, it is also a site and source of conflicts between individuals and communities alike. Thus it is crucially important for liberal multiculturalists to determine inter-group relations within a multicultural society so that minority rights do not restrict individual rights of self-determination.

Minority group rights, contemporary liberals believe, create a perceived conflict between the individual and the collective, for Kymlicka (2001, p. 23) argues that “minority rights are consistent with liberal culturalism as long as they protect the freedom of individuals within the groups and promote relations of equality between groups.” It derives from Kymlicka’s (2001, p. 22) illustrative division between ‘good minority rights’ (or inter-group relations) for which external (state) protection may be justified in order to promote equality and ‘bad minority rights’ (or intra-group relations) for which internal restrictions for individual freedom in order to maintain group solidarity cannot be justified within a liberal perspective. Within this view, indigenous groups should be given group-specific rights such as self-governance purely because they need external (state) protection in order to compensate societal inequalities and promote the value of lifestyles; whilst women’s movements in the name of a larger group solidarity cannot be restricted as it may result in the system of absolutism. This, along with a notion of group-specific self-governing, polyethnic and special representation rights for minorities seem to benefit the concept of cultural preservation within a multicultural society and in favour of those identity groups marginalized by a larger societal culture; Kymlicka’s arguments, nevertheless, generated a heated debate amongst numerous political philosophers who perceive such grouping ‘illiberal’ and ‘too categorical’ thus proposing different interpretations of societal relations regarding minority groups.

The issue of minority rights’ recognition in relation to nation-building processes is a major challenge and a debating point for many liberal democracies today—it is precisely where most Kymlicka’s criticism derives from. As most nation states have arisen as a result of a deliberate processes of nation-building through the promotion of a ‘societal culture’, minority nations as well as immigrant and non-ethnic minority groups may be disadvantaged by the dominant societal culture thus restricting their engagement in the process of nation-building. Which is why the majority of liberal democracies abide by the principle of ethnocultural neutrality—culture treated as religion—something which “people should be free to pursue in their private life” (Kymlicka, 2001, p. 23). So long as they respect the rights of others, Kymlicka (2001, p. 23) notes, state should not be concerned about the ability of ethnocultural groups to reproduce themselves over time. For more, Michael Walzer argues that liberalism involves a “sharp divorce of state and ethnicity” and a state is neutral in relation to language, history, literature or calendar of these groups (Kymlicka, 2001, p. 24). However, the reality within most liberal democracies is in fact quite different. Take the United States for example: with no constitutionally recognized official language, immigrants under the age of 50 are still legally required to learn English in order to acquire citizenship and it is a de facto requirement for employment (Kymlicka, 2001, p. 25). Kymlicka would argue that such example affirms his distinction of liberal ‘civic nations’ like the US from illiberal ‘ethnic nations’ who do take the reproduction of a particular ethnonational culture and identity “as one of their most important goals” (Kymlicka, 2001, p. 24). This is why he argues (2001, p. 24) that ethnocultural neutrality within liberal democracies (or ‘civic nations’) is “manifestly false.” Promoting a dominant ‘societal culture’ through a territorially-concentrated culture, centred on a shared language used in both public and private life constrains an ethnocultural diversity of multinational states, which is why Kymlicka’s argument for national, immigrant and non-ethnic minority rights appears to be valid. Whilst Kymlicka recognizes the fact that the modern nation-building “inescapably privileges members of the majority culture” (Kymlicka, 2001, p. 27) and marginalizes minority groups, he nevertheless advocates for the creation of a dominant ‘societal culture’ and a promotion of minority integration through standardized public education in a common language for the purpose of “social equality and political cohesion in modern states,” (Kymlicka, 2001, p. 26) thus making his argument for minority rights unconvincing. As majority efforts at nation-building create injustices for minorities (whether native or immigrant), it is a responsibility of a state, he argues, to provide group-specific rights so to compensate for those past injustices. Yet, as radical multiculturalists would argue, even favouring minorities in regards of government-led specific group-rights, particularistic values, traditions, and identity of a given nation—or the so-called ‘national ethos’ (Etzioni, 2009)—will not create a perfect unity; Walloons or Flemings in Belgium, Kurdish, Sunni and Shia populations in Iraq nor various ethnic groups that make up Afghanistan will devote loyalty in political matters to the national government in the first place (Etzioni, 2009). To that philosophical extent the failure to establish a greater ‘national ethos’ by the creation of the European Union can be explained as numerous regional integration and cohesion policies of the EU could not subdue the interests of national communities. As in the case of Yugoslavia, such community-building endeavours to compensate for or replace ‘national ethos’ so to harmonize minority relations within a larger state unit may result in secession and civil war (Etzioni, 2009). The question now is, by recognizing the value and politics of culture, to what extent a state should take ethnocultural justice into consideration in the process of nation-building? For that the radical multiculturalist argument is particularly interesting one to explore.


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Do minority groups have rights? Examining Will Kymlicka's arguments over minority rights
University of Dundee
Theorising Politics
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Ignas Rekasius (Author), 2016, Do minority groups have rights? Examining Will Kymlicka's arguments over minority rights, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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