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The Authenticity Problem of Non-Western Liberal Practices

Human Rights
Political Theory
Developing World Politics
Critical Theory
Liberalism
Normative Theory
Yujin Choi
Columbia University
Yujin Choi
Columbia University
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Abstract

For many liberal theorists, a person is autonomous with respect to some political values only if, upon critical reflection of those values, she identifies with them and does not feel deeply alienated from them. This paper aims to show that individuals from a political community on which liberal values are historically imposed do not fully enjoy individual autonomy in this respect. For non-Western individuals, it is unnecessarily difficult to promote liberal values in a non-alienating way and become an authentic contributor rather than a mere follower of the liberal discourse. This is because they have to be constantly conscious of the fact that these values are imposed on and thus are fundamentally external to the community they are part of. I define this conundrum as the authenticity problem. This paper argues that the authenticity problem is a serious irony of liberal universalism. The imperialistic history of liberalism created a political environment where the members of non-liberal societies have to follow liberal values, not to be regarded as backward, and to be part of the advanced world. This is so not only at a collective level but also at an individual level: if an individual adopts a value imposed on her to be part of the advanced world, it seems problematic to say that such an experience fosters her autonomy. Consequently, liberalism's history undermined the autonomy of non-Western individuals by depriving them of a political environment where they can conceive of a liberal project authentically their own. Under the imperialistic history, non-Western individuals are left with two unattractive options: inauthentic liberalism and illiberal culture. This paper is consists of three parts. (a) First, it identifies what the authenticity problem is both in theory and practice and explains why this problem creates an irony within liberal universalism. (b) Second, it suggests that the problem arises partly because the classic conception of individual autonomy is tied with a conception of authenticity that assumes an antagonistic social relationship between an agent and her surroundings. I argue that this is why the prominent versions of liberalism, i.e., liberal perfectionism and political liberalism, are both incapable of solving the authenticity problem. However, I think individual autonomy and some basic rights based on this value are too important to a person's well-being to simply be rejected altogether. Rather, it can be re-conceptualized, using non-Western experience as a crucial resource, in a way that it can genuinely resonate with and thus can be authentically promoted by non-Western individuals (c) Lastly, I argue that such a re-conceptualization should be done in a relational and situated perspective. A relational and situated perspective helps us recognize that social relations are an important part of our enjoyment of individual autonomy. Since the historical context of one's cultural and political community is one of the most important social relations that shape her identity, a relational and situated conception of individual autonomy is better equipped to deal with the authenticity problem than the classic conception. I will explain how this is so in detail.