What Good is Abstraction? From Liberal Legitimacy to Social Justice

66 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2019 Last revised: 29 Sep 2019

See all articles by Nimer Sultany

Nimer Sultany

University of London - School of Oriental and African Studies; Harvard University - Law School - Alumni

Date Written: July 27, 2019


The stakes could not be higher. Post-World War II political and economic institutions are under unprecedented pressure. The social coalitions that have sustained them are crumbling. Welfare-state capitalism is in retreat, and liberal institutions are besieged. Right-wing populists are cementing their power and consolidating their grip on political and legal institutions around the globe. The answer to these historical changes cannot be a return to the very status quo that led to them in the first place.

This Article argues progressive liberal theoretical frameworks are unfit for purpose. They betray a loss of conviction and commitment to the very egalitarian ideals that progressive liberals advocate for. Specifically, it critiques abstraction as a mode of argumentation in political and legal theory in which there is a retreat from controversial political and moral territory to establish a consensual political regime and binding legal order. It is an internal critique to liberal theory that illustrates that this abstraction does not meet the theory’s own standards and fails to achieve its declared objectives.

The main family of theories that betray this lack of conviction is “political liberalism,” as developed by eminent scholars such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. Political liberalism draws a clear distinction between the ambitions of liberal justice and the institutional commitments of liberal legitimacy. Progressive liberals allow as legitimate policies and practices, such as welfare-state capitalism and neo-liberalism, that are detrimental to the very goals that they aspire to. Therefore, the egalitarian bark of progressive liberal theory is louder than its egalitarian bite. Ultimately, liberal legitimacy is not merely different from justice but it also defers justice and legitimates injustice.

Keywords: Rawls, Dworkin, Justice, Good Life, Legitimacy, constitutional essentials, integrity, neutrality, liberal egalitarianism, political liberalism, comprehensive liberalism, liberalism of fear

Suggested Citation

Sultany, Nimer, What Good is Abstraction? From Liberal Legitimacy to Social Justice (July 27, 2019). Buffalo Law Review Vol. 67, No. 3, 2019, pp. 823-887. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3431059 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3431059

Nimer Sultany (Contact Author)

University of London - School of Oriental and African Studies ( email )

Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square
London, WC1H 0XG
United Kingdom

Harvard University - Law School - Alumni ( email )

1563 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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