The philosopher Akeel Bilgrami’s notion of identity is original and challenging to liberal political theory, but still largely unaddressed by it. In a nutshell, Bilgrami characterizes identity as holding certain values and commitments with a crucial addendum: as we want to continue living by those values and commitments in the future, we erect some social and legal barriers to prevent them from change. Liberals of a Millian and/or Rawlsian cast of mind, in turn, arrange political institutions to enable such change, as they assume that we are the kind of creatures that change their minds. In this sense, the identitarian and the liberal mindset are, as the philosopher claims, “mirror opposites”. This article engages with Bilgrami’s view in two senses: on the one hand, it highlights some potentially problematic areas that may call for further clarification and reinterpretation of the liberal canon, as well as offering other set of tensions that arise with non-liberal philosophical traditions. On the other hand, it contends that Bilgrami’s ultimate claim is not merely that the identitarian mindset is more rational than the liberal mentality, as he does, but that it makes political demands that should be assessed against the liberal ideal of justification. While it may be the case that identitarianism is rationally superior to certain versions of comprehensive liberalism, the paper concludes that it loses out to political liberalism, to the extent that Bilgrami’s identitarianism is willing to display the state’s coercive muscle in oppressive ways, in a way that political liberalism does not.
- Akeel Bilgrami