Review of Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship



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Chapter 3
Kymlicka: Between Choice and Culture


Agreeing with the communitarians, Kymlicka views the concept the strict separation of the private from the public sphere, as well as the liberal atomistic selves as unrealistic. Despite these reservations, Kymlicka remains a strongly committed liberal. He does not view the communitarian critique of liberalism as altogether accurate and, as we have seen in the previous chapter, strives to demonstrate how culture and community can find their role within liberalism beyond the mistaken conception of the communitarians that our “deepest ends” are non-revisable (1995, p. 91). But how are we to forge a path forward beyond a flawed abstract individualist conception of the human person on the one hand, and the contextualized but illiberal communitarian standpoint on the other? Kymlicka developed an elegant theoretical solution to do precisely this.

Culture as a Precondition of Choice


Kymlicka’s picture of the human person begins from a similar starting point as the communitarians: human beings are creatures of meaning and morality. We lead deeply connected lives with one another. Life is good when I can live and act in accordance with my core values (Kymlicka, 1989, p. 12). Kymlicka’s concept of the person therefore ties the strong liberal insistence on individualism with the communitarian’s insistence on the importance of the good life for humankind32.

These core values and convictions about the good life are in part determined for me by the ethical milieu of the society into which I am born. Culture is important because it forms the context of my choices; culture is a necessary precondition and ground for my choosing the good life (Kymlicka, 1995, pp. 81-4). My culture shows me what is valuable, what is good and just. Culture, Kymlicka argues, is even more than a primary social good, it is the context from which I choose and is therefore politically relevant (Van De Putte, 2003, p. 73). Because an adequate context of choice is essential for the good life of the individual it should be protected. Therefore, for communitarians and likewise for Kymlicka, living the good life requires some stability in the environment that gives my life meaning; i.e., in the community which sets the values and paints the social portrait of my behaviour and ends. But what exactly is meant by ‘stability’? This is where the communitarians and Kymlicka begin to part company.

First, for the communitarians cultural stability means closure. This may occur for example in the form of strong restrictions against immigration. As Walzer refers to it, seeing the nation as a sort of family or elite club which cannot restrict members from leaving but which has high standards and strict limitations on granting new membership (1983, pp. 43-5)33. Because it is important that the members of a group feel committed to the group and to the same values of the group, it is therefore important that membership in the group be restricted to those who hold the same values and cultural preferences as other group members (1983, p. 58). Unrestricted influx from outside members threatens to destroy the deeply held core values of the group and thus threatens its overall stability. Therefore, in the eyes of the communitarians, the group should necessarily be protected from the threat of external influences, or what Kymlicka calls “external restrictions”.

Second, though communitarians do see room for cultural movement within the social patterns of the group, they see the need to restrict change to within those established patterns to ensure the protection and survival of “at risk” cultures (Redhead, 2002, p. 124). While groups may suffer from forces of change from non-group members, groups similarly suffer erosion from change within the group as well. Group members wishing to alter the norms and laws of society may unwittingly disrupt the society. A particular threat is from pressures of globalization and the spread of the English language and American culture34. A tension is encountered between community members wishing to adhere to “the old ways” and those wishing to bring change into the community. There is also a risk that members of a minority culture may seek to assimilate with the majority cultural practices and language, thus diminishing the claims of the minority for separate and special status.35 Because for communitarians culture is of value in itself, the cultural fabric of a community should therefore also be protected from its own members. This is what Kymlicka refers to as “internal restrictions”.


Internal vs. External Restrictions


This distinction between “internal” and “external” restrictions is what sets Kymlicka’s theory apart from the communitarians. For communitarians, both internal and external restrictions are considered necessary to protect the group. According to Kymlicka however, while external restrictions (protection against outward threats to stability) are legitimate to apply on a group, internal restrictions (protection against inward threats to stability) are not (1998b, p. 62; 1999a, p. 115). There are several reasons that lead Kymlicka to this conclusion, and which he believes allow his theory to remain in keeping with liberalism, in sharp contradistinction to the communitarians.
        1. We Stand Apart from our Ends


The first reason for Kymlicka to disallow internal restrictions is tied to his conception of person. As human beings, says Kymlicka, we can stand apart from our ends – something communitarians deny (1995, p. 91). Although we derive meaning from our culture, humans are in fact self-reflexive beings capable of questioning the beliefs presented to us by our community. In Kymlicka’s words, we are able to “radically revise our ends” (1995, p. 82)36 While there are many things in our (social) environment that are given to us, as humans we have the ability to adapt and to remove ourselves from this environment, further, we have the ability to alter the environment we live in itself. The culture we live in gives us the keys and the means to navigate the world, but we can modify those keys and stand apart from the meaning and the ends presented to us by our community. As humans, we chart our own paths and found our own new worlds.

Culture as a source of change and freedom


Second, not only are we able to stand apart from these ends, for Kymlicka it is important that we question our ends. Culture is important for us as a stepping-stone into a world of diverse values. Indeed culture itself can be considered a “framework of meaningful options” (Van De Putte, 2003, p. 18). While it is indeed our ground of choice, it is also what enables choice to then change this ground itself. Thus, there is a somewhat circular relationship between circumstance and choice, or in other words, culture and autonomy. Culture is source of our autonomy and that autonomy in turn gives shape to our culture, changing it again and again, continuously through time.

Thus for Kymlicka, culture is always culture in transformation. Culture is not a fixed structure, but has a mix of influences at any given time and itself is always swept up in a current of change. Therefore, cultures should not be restricted from internal change because for Kymlicka it is indeed natural that all cultures will and should adapt over time (1995, p. 104). Otherwise, we would end up with “fossilized” cultures which retain traditions and habits that no longer hold meaning for those who live by them37. Once you preserve a culture for its own sake and not for the sake of its members, it can easily become solidified against naturally occurring cultural transformations. Kymlicka's theory on the other hand aims to allow for the internal mutability and natural developments and transformations that occur over time within and between cultures (Van De Putte, 2003, p. 74).

Therefore, while Kymlicka agrees with the communitarians that culture is worthy of protection, the group is defended for the choices of its members not the group qua group. In Kymlicka’s theory it is not groups but individuals who are the bearer of rights (Van De Putte, 2003, p. 17).

Culture is valuable only insofar as it is valued by the members of the group


This leads to the third reason that Kymlicka wishes to distinguish himself from the communitarians through separating internal and external restrictions: because unlike the communitarians, for Kymlicka culture is not a value in itself. Kymlicka rightly argues that culture is only valuable insofar as the members of the group themselves value it (1995, p. 108). As we have already covered, all cultures – including minority cultures – are continuously evolving. If a minority group decides together to drop a particular cultural practice, contrary to the communitarians, Kymlicka sees this as not only allowable but indeed required by liberalism.38

Rightly put, cultures and traditions are therefore only important for Kymlicka insofar as they are good for the individual and ought not to be preserved for their own sake. As Rainer Forst says, Kymlicka gives “individual members of cultures general rights to personal autonomy, even against the self-understanding of the minority culture” (Forst, 2002, p. 77). This is in sharp distinction to Charles Taylor, who defends that the group should be defended for the worth of the group itself, not on the basis of the choices of its individual members – which can lead to dangerous anti-liberal conclusions. As Kymlicka correctly says, if the group were no longer accepting the choices of its members the state would be inappropriately subsidizing certain choices that are no longer valued (Kymlicka, 1995, p. 113).


Those Cultures that Deserve Protection should themselves be Liberal Ones


It would be unacceptable for Kymlicka that a particular minority group decided that women should not be granted voting rights. This is because such a restriction on rights does not meet his criteria of protecting the group from unwanted external influences; instead, it is a form of restriction on the freedoms of internal group members to change their culture (Kymlicka, 1995, p. 153)39. Therefore, not all demands for cultural practices will be allowed following Kymlicka’s schema (Okin, 1999) 40.

“Soft” Communitarianism


Thus, Kymlicka rejects what he terms “strong communitarianism” which he deems theoretically wrong and potentially dangerous and argues instead for a “soft communitarianism” which is his unique spin on liberalism. The difference in his view is that strong communitarianism says that the individual leads an encumbered life where they need learn only from the community what is good and meaningful, whereas Kymlicka’s soft communitarianism insists that individuals must learn to be critical and evaluate their culture and the narratives given to them.

From this, Kymlicka derives two criteria from which we may distinguish just from unjust group restrictions in a liberal society. First (on a note which strongly resounds of Rawls), group rights should make the majority and the minority culture more equal to one another (“equality between” groups). Second, group rights should allow for the internal change of the group (“freedom within” the group). Such group rights, insists Kymlicka, would be “impeccably liberal” (1995, pp. 152-3).

Yet, if Kymlicka believes that a certain degree of stability of culture is needed to allow group members to flourish, how should this be protected in view of the above? While for communitarians stability means limitations upon change, for Kymlicka stability means something slightly different. For Kymlicka, to secure my cultural environment the most critical thing is that the cultural goods which I feel I need to live the good life can be made freely available to me. These cultural goods are naturally secured for us by our political systems, through which we decide together upon which aspects of our cultural heritage we will invest in and promote. However, as Kymlicka points out, the goods which we promote and distribute are those which reflect the cultural preferences of the majority of the society.

Kymlicka agrees with the communitarians in saying that state “neutrality” is an unjustified myth. In his own words, “the state is inevitably involved in recognising and reproducing particular ethnocultural groups, and so the politicisation of cultural identities is inevitable” (Kymlicka, 1998b, p. 25). This is natural says Kymlicka and in his view there is nothing wrong with this. But what happens with respect to minority cultures that have different preferences and needs from the majority? This is where group rights come in.


The Disadvantages of Minority Cultures


In pluralist nations, says Kymlicka, we are faced with a considerable problem because minority cultures are disadvantaged. Not only are they disadvantaged –more importantly, the sources of these disadvantages are structural ones rather than a consequence of free choices or individual responsibility. Liberal “neutrality” is never benign says Kymlicka, the institutional settings of liberal democracies are a large source of injustice towards minority cultures and maintain the dominance of the majority cultural preferences over and above their own (Kymlicka, 1998a, p. 178). Minority cultures are either integrated or assimilated into the main culture. As Kymlicka says, “Liberal states have engaged in systematic efforts at ‘nation-building’ that involve promoting and diffusing a common national culture, and which aim at the sociocultural integration of minority groups” (1998a, p. 178). Systemic injustices are committed towards minorities by the very virtue of their being outside of the majority rule from which the laws and stamp of governance are sealed. Minority groups are thus marginalised within our societies and majority cultural preferences are often dictated to them.

Minorities generally have three options available to them: marginalization, integration, or nationalist separation (Kymlicka, 1998a, p. 185). Although a number of minority groups have typically settled for marginalization, the majority are increasingly seeking the latter two options. Immigrants, says Kymlicka, entered the main society willingly and nearly always want to integrate into the mainstream society. This process of integration is inter-generational however and is sometimes a painful process. Immigrants therefore sometimes require measures to make the transition into the mainstream easier for them. National minorities on the other hand, were generally forced to join the mainstream society unwillingly and do not easily concede to integration. They feel something more is at stake and that their unique cultural preferences will be lost if they join the main society; therefore, they most often opt to have degree of self-determination, or at the extreme, full separation from the nation-state (1998a, p. 186).

Like the communitarians, Kymlicka sees a need for a politics of difference to remedy the difficulties faced by cultural minorities. As with any other member of society, minorities wish to see their rights protected. As Kymlicka frames it: it is an important part of one’s individual rights be able to choose based on cultural preferences and not to have those preferences disallowed simply because the leading dominant majority deems those preferences unworthy.41 Multicultural citizenship as defined by Kymlicka “neither rejects nor undermines” the state’s efforts to promote certain cultures he says; “it simply seeks to ensure that they are fair” (Kymlicka, 1998b, p. 25).

Following the concept of person and community that Kymlicka has developed, humans need to have a societal culture42 to provide their lives with meaning. Kymlicka suggests that for immigrants, this is not such a great problem as they have willingly elected to join and integrate into the majority culture. Where we begin to face extreme difficulties, he points out, is with minority nations who do not wish to forsake their own societal culture to join that of the majority. It is therefore not enough to protect national minorities from xenophobia and discrimination as is needed for immigrants. What is needed for national minorities is something more says Kymlicka: a secure cultural structure to give expression to their national identity (1995, p. 93)43. For Kymlicka, this is achieved through group-specific rights, which aim for equality between nations44.


What does Equality mean?


Kymlicka’s theory challenges the traditional liberal concept of equality. Equality is of importance not only between individuals, but also between the multiple groups or nations that compose a state. These nations aim to be treated differently in order to be equal. Indeed, ‘equal but different’ captures the essence of Kymlicka’s theory. At first glance, the sentence seems contradictory, however Kymlicka forces us to challenge our conceptions of equality. For Kymlicka, the conflagration of sameness and equity has led to internal confusion in our theories and an inability on the part of liberal philosophers to rationalize difference. This inability to rationalize difference was clearly displayed, says Kymlicka, in Canada when the Charter of Rights was introduced and generated an outcry from minority groups (1995, pp. 38-9). At the time, liberals were at a loss to explain this reaction. After all, why would anyone reject a document that sought to establish their equality as citizens? But for the Quebecois and the First Nations, the Charter of Rights meant something else. It meant an unfair imposition of “foreign” cultural values and norms upon them and removal of both political and social power from their hands. Thus, instead of reducing friction between cultural groups, the proposed Charter of Rights increased inter-group tensions significantly.

Equality through different treatment on the other hand, takes into account the fact that the political vocabulary that defines our democratic systems is not shared by all.45 A politics of difference therefore gives recognition to new voices and provides an adequate public space for them to be heard on equal footing with the majority culture.


Cultural Compensation


In certain circumstances therefore, Kymlicka says that equal treatment of a people requires differential treatment. This different treatment is to be used to promote equality, as in equal access to the pool of state resources. In a sense, Kymlicka considers minority groups as being institutionally handicapped (Van De Putte, 2003, p. 74). Cultural rights act as compensation for minority disadvantage in a majority system. Since culture is the good from which all other goods are to be chosen, it is natural that this good should be equally distributed as access to other goods are.

Kymlicka uses Dworkin’s theory of resource egalitarianism and tweaks the theory to treat culture itself as a social good (which Dworkin’s theory itself does not endorse, nor does it endorse group-differentiated rights) (see Dworkin, 1981b and 1981a). Kymlicka argues by analogy that the cultural "deficit" of a minority (struggling to defend itself against the majority culture) requires compensation similar to welfare compensation (1995, p. 83). Providing a correction for a cultural disadvantage through separate group rights, instead of making minorities unequal, actually eliminates a source of disadvantage that diminishes their standing amongst a community of equals.

This is one of the core reasons for Kymlicka's support of group rights. Kymlicka’s point is such: the wheels of justice do not turn an even balance, to rectify the structural injustices towards minorities compensation is due to them in the same way it is due to those who are on welfare or are sick (or otherwise unfairly disadvantaged).

The Key Difference between Choice and Circumstance


Kymlicka supports his argument by emphasizing Dworkin’s key distinction between choice and circumstance, which he believes is essential for liberalism (Kymlicka, 1989, p. 186). Social goods are supposed to be distributed equally throughout the society. A problem arises however when some people require expensive items not because of choice but because of circumstance.

While one can choose to cultivate an expensive taste in wine, no one would choose to be in a wheelchair (Kymlicka, 1989, p. 186). Insurance covers circumstances we prefer not to occur. Those who require a bigger slice of the pie due to their unfavourable circumstances should therefore be provided for and those who need extra on the basis of preference alone should not. As Dworkin says,

The most effective neutrality [requires that]…the choice between expensive and less expensive tastes can be made by each person for himself, with no sense that his overall share will be enlarged by choosing a more expensive life, or that, whatever he chooses, his choice will subsidize those who have chosen more expensively” (Dworkin, 1978/2003, p. 33).

So for example, while expensive caviar should not be entitled to state support, expensive medicines required for saving someone's life are entitled to be supported. The underlying reason is that by supporting these "rectifications" of unfavourable circumstances, the disadvantaged person will be raised to a level of equality with the society. Kymlicka takes this argument from Dworkin to argue that because the culture of a minority citizen is not of their own choosing but is very much the result of the circumstance into which they were born, it is unfair that they should be underprivileged in the society they live because of it.


        1. The Shipwreck Example


Dworkin uses an allegory about a boat shipwrecked on a deserted island to explain the distinction between choice and circumstance (Kymlicka, 1989, pp. 187-8). The unlucky crew and passengers on the shipwrecked boat decide that to create a fair system for all, they will tally up the resources on the island and have an auction. Clamshells will be distributed in equal portions to each of the passengers, from which they can bid for the items they desire. This way, if someone desires a highly valuable piece of beach property they will have to shell out more clams to make their purchase. The basic idea behind the example is that expensive preferences are not to be endorsed. If you have expensive tastes then you must pay for them; in this way, frugality is rewarded and thereby benefits the common pool of resources.

Kymlicka’s Version of the Shipwreck Example


Kymlicka borrows Dworkin's example of the shipwrecked boat and modifies it to demonstrate his case (Kymlicka, 1989, pp. 188-9). In Kymlicka’s version of the shipwreck, instead of one boat, there are two boats shipwrecked on an island. These boats have a sophisticated computer system that will allow them to distribute the resources of the island fairly amongst all of the shipwrecked passengers. However, upon arrival on land, the passengers realise that the smaller boat belongs to a different cultural group from the larger boat. While the larger group has been able to use more of its clam shells to take the best pieces of the land for its own uses, the smaller group is unable to amass enough clam shells to buy the pieces of land they see most fit for their survival and futures and are therefore considerably disadvantaged.

If we accept Kymlicka’s argument and also hold social welfare programs to be necessary, then compensation for minorities has an even stronger justification. Whereas someone who is on welfare or is sick is disadvantaged from unequal access to the goods of the system, Kymlicka’s key insight here implies that minorities are disadvantaged from lack of access to the system itself. While a person in a wheelchair was not necessarily put in this disadvantaged position by the state, minorities are in their position of disadvantage specifically because the state mechanisms are made to favour the cultural choices of the majority. While social advocates claim it is the government’s duty to provide the conditions necessary for all citizens to find employment, there will nevertheless remain some citizens who would prefer not to work. Yet certainly no one prefers to face unfair racial or cultural discrimination. Moreover, while medical disabilities and unemployment may be temporary conditions, the colour of a person’s skin and/or their mother tongue are life-long attributes.


What this Amounts to: Cultural Rights as Defined by Kymlicka


Justice between communities therefore requires that different groups are accorded different rights (in effect, Kymlicka attaches rights to culture as opposed to universal rights which he says be used against minority groups). Hence, “special rights” are used to protect groups from unfair impositions by the majority culture (Kymlicka, 1994, p. 19).
        1. Ethnic groups


Ethnic groups are groups of persons with a common ethnic background different from the majority culture. Protections for these groups according to Kymlicka are very different than those for other types of groups or collectivities such as unions, women’s groups, homosexuals, etc. Ethnic groups require state protection from outward interference but can change internally. Ethnic groups require protection because culture is an important source of freedom and autonomy. Immigrant communities made of those who voluntarily migrate to another country fall under this category (Kymlicka, 1995, pp. 30-1).

Polyethnic state


Polyethnic states are states composed of two or more ethnic groups, e.g. immigrant-settler society such as Canada or the United States. These are multicultural states with significant numbers of immigrant communities (Kymlicka, 1995, p. 18).

National minorities


National minorities according to Kymlicka are “historically settled, territorially concentrated, and previously self-governing cultures” (1997b, p. 19). These nations although sometimes willingly entering into confederation, were more often forcibly assimilated into a larger state with their lands overtaken by a foreign majority culture that imposed itself on them. (Kymlicka, 1995, p. 6; 1998a, p. 185; 1998b, p. 2; 1999a, p. 100; 1999b, p. 132) As a result of this annexation of their former homeland, Kymlicka says these groups have formed a national consciousness independent of the majority culture (1999b, p. 132).46

Unlike immigrant groups, national minorities largely express a refusal to assimilate and a desire for independence from the power-holding majority, even if the cultural similarities between themselves and the majority have markedly increased with time (as is the case with minority Quebecois society and the majority English-speaking Canada). National minorities view themselves as “distinct peoples” and as such believe they have “inherent rights to self-government” (Kymlicka, 1998c, pp. 174-5).47


Substate nations vs. indigenous peoples


There are two types of national minorities – what Kymlicka labels the substate nations and secondly the indigenous peoples (which in later writings Kymlicka refers to as “homeland minorities” (2007, pp. 176-7)). It can be derived from Kymlicka’s theory that while substate nations had pre-existing national cultures that were supressed by the majority national culture, indigenous persons are persons who were living in a country prior to formation of a national government and have developed a national consciousness following the encroachment of the majority nation. The Canadian example which Kymlicka primarily draws his theory from has both types of national minorities: the Quebecois and the First Nations respectively. The former were not indigenous to Canada, like the original settlers from English-speaking Canada they were also settlers; however, they did not win a majority or control over the land and came to be dominated by English Canada. The indigenous peoples of Canada (also dubbed the “First Nations”) are also considered by Kymlicka to be minority nations; they too, like the Quebecois had territorial control wrested from their hands by the dominant English majority nation. With time, they too have developed a national consciousness and are now called the First Nations, reflecting their status as the original inhabitants of the land prior to French and English colonization48.

Multination states


Multination states are culturally diverse states with more than one national group, which enveloped pre-existing nations at some point during their formation. Across the world there are many more nations than states, and therefore, though their multi-national character is often unacknowledged and suppressed, many nations worldwide are in fact multi-national. The multi-national state Kymlicka principally refers to throughout his writings is his home country Canada.49 Other examples he mentions often include Belgium (with the Flemish Vlaams and the French Walloons) and Spain (with Catalonia and the Basque separatist region in addition to the Spanish majority) (Kymlicka, 1998b, p. 2).

Group-differentiated rights


Following his theoretical conclusions about the importance of group identity and culture for liberalism, Kymlicka concludes that group-differentiated rights are a necessary part of any liberal democracy in a pluralistic society. Group-differentiated rights enable us to think “different” and “equal” at once. Kymlicka describes three broad categories of group-differentiated rights (1995, pp. 26-33).
Rights for national minorities

In Kymlicka’s view, the lion’s share of group-differentiated rights is reserved for national minorities. These are the most complete form of group rights and are due because unlike other disadvantaged groups within the society national minorities were most often forcibly integrated into the state. These group rights are meant to be enduring as the national minority does not wish to integrate into the larger nation and sees no future of integration. They view their autonomy and promotion of their unique cultural community as an inherent right that should be secured into the indefinite future. (Kymlicka, 1998c, pp. 174-5).

Autonomy from the majority nation ensures that minority nations will have powers of collective decision-making to ensure that the cultural values they hold as integral to the flourishing of their community remain supported institutionally (Kymlicka, 1998a, p. 194). Only through having substantial control over a political body of their own can national minorities have enough “powers regarding language, education, government employment, and immigration” to sustain the culture and community integral to their ability to lead the good life (Kymlicka, 1998a, p. 194). The degree to which they view their separation can be anything from special representation rights all the way to full independence.



Special representation rights are guarantees for representative powers in the majority government institutions (Kymlicka, 1995). These rights are aimed to help the minority which is underrepresented in government or certain job sectors to gain visibility, a certain percentage of the disadvantaged minority must be represented to give them a voice and a fair chance.

Self-government rights involve more separation from the majority nation than special representation rights. These rights involve a degree of autonomy from the majority nation, for example as in a federal system, whereby the minority transfers some powers to the majority nation and views these powers as rescindable should they see fit (Kymlicka, 1998a, p. 194).

Another, sometimes inevitable shift by national minorities is towards full separation, where ultimately no form of partnership with the majority nation is viewed as possible and therefore complete autonomy is sought in the form of secession. (Kymlicka, 1998a, p. 185)


Polyethnic rights

The second major category of group right which Kymlicka addresses are Polyethnic rights. As the name implies, these rights are targeted towards ethnic groups within the larger society with the aim of making the entire society more culturally diverse. Societies such as Canada, the United States and Australia have been traditional immigrant countries and are therefore polyethnic societies.

The majority of immigrant groups, says Kymlicka, willingly join the nation and elect to forgo their own cultural background to immerse in the culture of the new nation. In contrast to the separatist approach of national minorities, immigrants have a mainly integrative approach to citizenship (Kymlicka, 1998a, p. 203).50 They seek special exemptions not because they wish to form a separate polity or have national ambitions of their own but because the transition to the new culture is often intergenerational and takes time. Some special rights and funding are therefore needed to ease the transition into the new nation (such as, cites Kymlicka – funding language classes in their mother tongue) (1998a, p. 197).51

Unlike rights directed towards national minorities, polyethnic rights are meant to be temporary corrective measures, to facilitate integration and make transition into the new society easier for immigrants. They are not enduring correctives however as the end goal is integration. Perhaps because of the integrative nature of the requests for group rights by ethnic groups, Kymlicka devotes relatively little attention to these kinds of group rights, and devotes most of his attention to the rights of national minorities, which offer more of a fundamental challenge to the unity of the political community.

Collective Rights

The third category of group rights that Kymlicka mentions are collective rights, which is the much broader category of representation rights for other groups within the political community, be they women, homosexuals, trade unionists, etc. Kymlicka gives even sparser mention of collective rights than of polyethnic rights, only mentioning these groups in terms of what his theory is not describing. He justifies this by stating that his theory has filled an important role by demonstrating the importance of culture and that rights accruing to national minorities deserve a special category of their own – not merely to be subsumed under the umbrella of recognition rights more generally (Kymlicka, 1995, p. 18)52.

In Sum


Kymlicka wishes to save liberalism from its communitarian detractors and therefore tries to find a middle way between communitarianism and liberalism. While Kymlicka agrees with the communitarians about the importance of culture as a framework of meaning in our lives, he attempts to separate himself from their views by describing culture as the source of our autonomy. He further differs from the communitarians in saying that cultural rights must be liberal; i.e., they must maintain choices. His theory does not try to limit cultural change or growth or to condone blind imposition of culture upon group members. Instead, Kymlicka seeks to protect cultural groups from outward encroachment and to rectify structural disadvantages towards them. Kymlicka’s group rights are not meant to protect the group itself, instead, group rights should protect the individual members of the group – including the right for members to change the group over time. Kymlicka aims for this approach to be a corrective to the communitarian "endangered species" approach, which is not permissive with respect to alterations to the group itself and thereby risks fossilising cultures (Laitin & Reich, 2003, p. 89).

In sum, Kymlicka says that we are confronted by an asymmetric situation: a minority culture is threatened by a majority one. In order to prevent this asymmetry, there are two different paths we should take depending on the nature of the group, described as follows. First, if the threatened minority group is an immigrant or ethnic group, then measures should be taken to help foster their integration within the majority culture, including making the overall majority culture itself more fair and pluralistic. The second path of action is tailored to minority nations. Minority nations present us with an altogether different situation from immigrants, says Kymlicka. Minority nations do not seek integration with the majority and instead wish for separation. Although full separation is sometimes an inevitable outcome due to tensions between the minority and majority nation, this outcome can be mediated and perhaps prevented if the majority is willing to rescind some of its control over the minority. This may be in the form of providing them with special representation in the political system, or alternatively through partial autonomy in the form of supporting the minority’s own institutions and separate national culture53.

According to Kymlicka, minority claims must be liberal to receive state support. By this, Kymlicka means that group rights claims may only be used to redress asymmetric inequalities with the majority group, not to oppress internally the members of the group. Cultural rights as such are not in contradiction with liberalism he says, for Kymlicka they are its true fulfilment.

We can see from the above arguments that Kymlicka tries to balance group rights and liberalism by emphasizing the distinction between inter-group and intra-group relations (Kymlicka, 1995, p. 47). However, can we really bridge group rights and liberalism to the extent that Kymlicka suggests we can? Or is Kymlicka’s theory an “untenable abstraction” (Van De Putte, 1998; 2003), nice in print but not realizable in practice? Does his theory truly overcome the dangers of illiberal treatment of group rights, such as the abuses of the former League of Nations schema that deterred liberals from group rights in the first place? Can we presume national rights to be as innocuous as Kymlicka assumes them to be? Moreover, does Kymlicka’s theory of Multicultural Citizenship truly chart a path for multiculturalism? These questions will be addressed further in the coming chapters.


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