SOAS University of London

School of Law

The Double Move of Political Liberalism and Its Consequences: What Good is Abstraction?

Nimer Sultany
Dr Nimer Sultany

Date: 17 January 2018Time: 1:00 PM

Finishes: 17 January 2018Time: 2:00 PM

Venue: Institute of Advanced Legal Studies Room: L101

Type of Event: Talk

Chair: Dr Vanja Hamzić 

This talk zeros in on the theories that the leading theorists John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin advance in order to explain the complex justificatory moves that lead from the good life to justice to legitimacy as the basis for the liberal order and the effects of these moves. Evidently, the objective here is not merely to describe the moves undertaken within this project; but also to highlight the internal (to the theories) reasons for making these moves as well as their effects. Specifically, I suggest that following these internal reasons (namely, the recognition of disagreement) to their logical end will lead to different outcomes than the ones that prominent progressive liberal theorists proffer. The outcome that these scholars offer is legitimacy as the acceptable foundation for political and legal ordering. But the process involves an increasing thinning out of progressive commitments. It becomes pertinent to examine the effects of these theoretical moves and the price they pay for legitimacy; namely, whether it is likely to lead to justice, or—alternatively—whether it sacrifices justice. Particularly, I attempt to show that normative conceptions of legitimacy are no less controversial than the justice they seek to replace as the grounding for authority; and that the scholarly deployment of the method of abstraction to provide this grounding fails to bypass disagreement. More importantly, abstraction has a “dark side,” that is, negative implications that one needs to attend to. Specifically, I argue that abstraction conceals the depth and intractability of political disagreement; that abstract conceptions of legitimacy as deployed by progressive scholars like Rawls and Dworkin do not merely differ from justice but also defer its materialization; and that a particular instance of this deferral is the marginalization of the transformative project of institutional design.   

Nimer Sultany holds an SJD from Harvard Law School. His book Law and Revolution: Legitimacy and Constitutionalism After the Arab Spring is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. Other recent publications include: “The State of Progressive Constitutional Theory: The Paradox of Constitutional Democracy and the Project of Political Justification” in the Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review; “Religion and Constitutionalism: Lessons from American and Islamic Constitutionalism” in the Emory International Law Review; “Against Conceptualism: Islamic Law, Democracy, and Constitutionalism in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring” in the Boston University International Law Journal; and “Activism and Legitimation in Israel’s Jurisprudence of Occupation” in Social & Legal Studies.