Review of Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship



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Chapter 6
Challenges Posed by Kymlicka’s Theory


Will Kymlicka's theory has received international accolades for addressing the need for the proper recognition of the multicultural, multiethnic character of states. In 2004, Kymlicka was consulted as an authority on multiculturalism and minority rights in the writing of the UNDP Human Development Report, of which the footprint of his theory was firmly imprinted127. Multicultural Citizenship, for Kymlicka - is primarily about multinationalism; multiple nations living harmoniously together under a single state, each polyethnic in their own right, accepting diversity both in their backyard and within their own home. Kymlicka uses remedial nation-building to remedy those nations unable to access their own stable culture due to the imposition of a majority national culture. But are multiculturalism and nationalism truly such sweet bedfellows? Can institutional policies that advocate and reinforce national borders and in particular national cultures, truly also be at ease with a dynamic cultural multitude?

Despite the strong internal coherence of Kymlicka's main argument, his theory is laced with several key inconsistencies attributable to his liberal nationalist stance, that open the way towards potential abuses of his schema. The majority of these inconsistencies are attributable to the fact nation-building concepts and assumptions do not follow easily from Kymlicka’s arguments on the natural relationship between liberalism and multiculturalism, this is the source of a number of unresolved difficulties in his work128. Kymlicka says that national minority rights are necessary because minorities are fragile and susceptible to nation-building efforts. Yet by promoting multiculturalism within a national setting – or alternatively, promoting nationalism in a multicultural setting, his theory has ambivalent results for addressing a complex divided society. Ultimately the two trends work against each other.

This Chapter summarises issues with and hints towards the sorts of reform Kymlicka’s theory is in need of, which are addressed more fully in the coming section.

Circular Logic


Let us begin with examining the ways that circular logic runs through Kymlicka’s remedial nationalism (Favell, 1998; Kostakopoulou, 2008, p. 51). According to Kymlicka, the non-neutrality of the majority nation is what causes unfair treatment of minority nations. To create fair treatment, Kymlicka argues that we should accord national rights to minority nations and that in doing so, we will have enhanced liberalism, because each of the various national groups will be more equal to one another. I summarize this argument in the following syllogism:

  1. Nation-states are non-neutral; they privilege a particular societal culture.

  2. Individual autonomy relies on having secure access to a societal culture.

  3. National rights are the best way to secure a (societal) culture.

  4. States that provide national group rights (securing societal cultures) are more liberal than those that do not.

The validity of Kymlicka’s theory and its conclusion D however, rests on the arguments A-C, of which A is uncertain and B and C are dubious at best. While Kymlicka’s theory seems logically sound, he really begins with his theoretical conclusion: that liberalism and nationalism are compatible, and then drives his argument forward based on this conclusion from evidence which, though possible, are not in any ways substantiated, and which drives the arguments back to the main premise.

Kymlicka does this also with respect to two of his main conclusions: first, the need for national minority rights, and secondly, compatibility of liberalism and nationalism.

The compatibility of liberalism and nationalism he derives follows:


  1. Nationalism is a modern phenomenon.

  2. Liberalism is a modern phenomenon.

  3. To a certain extent liberalism and nationalism arose together.

  4. Nationalism values shared identity over shared values.

  5. Nationalism allows us to prioritize the Right over the Good.

  6. Nationalism is the best unit to express liberalism.

A and B lead to sub-conclusion C, D leads to sub conclusion E, and C and E together lead to conclusion F.

Or the following argument, which I have also broken down:

A) National minorities have a societal culture different from the majority.

B) The majority societal culture is unfairly imposed on the national minority.

C) Immigrants left their societal culture to join the majority societal culture.

D) Most immigrants are happy to integrate into the majority societal culture.



E) National minorities deserve more rights than immigrants.

Or another:

A) Nation holds deep meaning for the identity of its members.

B) We need to respect our fellow human’s identity.



C) National feelings are worthy of our respect.

While we certainly ought to learn respect and recognition of the identity of others, it is not clear that national identity – particularly in its political incarnations – is more worthy of respect than other spheres of identity, or that national identity provides the deep meaning (assumption A).

If we remove the convincing steps which Kymlicka links in between in the above argumentations, we are left with circular arguments, which I outline as follows:


  1. Nationalism facilitated the rise of liberalism because it was the unit of political organization best suited to liberalism.

  2. Giving minority national rights will create more freedom (liberty) because national culture (societal culture) provides freedom.

  3. National minorities are entitled to more rights than immigrants because they (national minorities) demand more rights.

  4. We need to respect national feelings because they are worthy of our respect.

While Kymlicka’s theory in some respects has been called path-breaking for its attempt to bridge theoretical and empirical arguments (Favell, 1998), we must nevertheless be wary of the way Kymlicka convincingly drives his arguments and the one-sidedness of the empirical evidence he uses to back them129.

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