Generally, pluralistic democratic societies are self-governing and do not possess a homogeneous identity.  Today, most North Americans live in a pluralistic democratic society in their lived geographical space or in their experienced digital space via the Internet.  Because of its pluralistic nature, citizens need to learn to respect others’ similarities and differences to live peaceably in pluralistic democratic societies.  But, what does respect for others mean?  What is the basis for it?  And, how is it manifested in our society?  Using the libertarian and Rawlsian conceptions of justice, I will: 1) explore the possible answers to these three questions; 2) explore each conception’s interpretation of ‘respect for others’; and, 3) consider the implications these interpretations hold for moral education within a pluralistic democratic society.  

As an Ontario Certified Teacher for the Junior/Intermediate age group, this discussion of justice and respect for others is particularly relevant to my teaching experience within the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious classrooms in the Greater Toronto Area.  As such, this paper will explore the conceptions of justice and respect in order to better inform teachers such as myself who work outside the formal study of religion but wish to foster an inclusive public school classroom atmosphere.  The work done in this paper is also intended to benefit researchers such as myself who wish to explore the connections between religious literacy and religious bullying in public school settings.  This paper briefly documents a portion of my exploration.  While personal perspectives and insights are included at the beginning and end of the paper, the core of this document unravels the two philosophical conceptions of libertarian justice and Rawlsian justice towards the value of ‘respect for others’.  First, I introduce the concept of justice.  Second, I present an explanation of libertarian justice and its conception of respect for others.  This is followed with an explanation of Rawlsian justice and its alternate conception of respect for others.  Lastly, I conclude by considering both conceptions’ implications towards moral education in pluralistic democratic societies.  While other conceptions of justice and respect exist, only two are highlighted in this discussion to maintain simplicity and clarity.  

To begin our discussion, the notion of concept and conceptions must first be clarified.  Whereas a concept is an ideal, value, moral, or principle that is commonly agreed upon by many, the conception, i.e. the interpretation and manifestation of that concept, varies based on individual or group perspectives within a society; as a theoretical interpretation of a concept, a conception can differ (Swift, 2014).  Hence, for the purposes of our discussion, we must first understand the concept and conceptions of justice to understand the conceptions of ‘respect for others’. 


The concept of justice pertains to allotting citizens what they are due (Swift, 2014), yet the conception of the concept differs across various pluralistic democratic societies.  For example, a study by Westheimer and Kahne (2004) found that teachers agreed upon the need to develop effective democratic citizens but that three conceptions of this citizen existed: 1) the personally responsible citizen; 2) the participatory citizen; and 3) the justice-oriented citizen.  Where the first conception simply emphasized embodying the characteristics of an effective citizen, the second conception encouraged leadership and participation toward positive democratic change.  The third conception focused on personal politics through critical analysis and social critique towards improving democracy.  As illustrated by this study, the conceptions of justice and respect for others are important to consider because it helps form our societal principles of moral education.  Furthermore, it informs educators of the varying student and parent perspectives towards moral education in pluralistic democratic societies. 

While these three perspectives are an important aspect of the conversation, we must first consider the underlying conception of justice to help us approach the discussion with a common conception.  Here, we leverage the libertarian and Rawlsian perspective of justice.  As various conceptions of libertarianism exist, I will focus only on Nozick’s right libertarianism conception of justice as discussed by Adam Swift (2014).  

Libertarian justice and respect for others

Nozickian right libertarians hold firm to the notion of self-ownership and the right to property and goods.  In this sense, each citizen has equal opportunity to self-ownership, the degree of ownership attained, and that the liberty to act upon that ownership should be respected by other citizens. Consequently, a libertarian’s conception of justice is justice as entitlement to ownership and the ability to maintain said ownership.  Libertarian citizens opt for a laissez-faire society that allows people to obtain goods and act on them based on personal desires.  As a result, they do not favour state rules or restrictions on their property as it is perceived as a regulation on their freedom to act on personal desires.  

In this light, merit and values placed on a citizen’s efforts in self-ownership are strong, so any institutional redistribution of goods accrued by one’s personal merit or obtained as a gift is unjust.  As goods and property are self-gained in the eyes of the libertarian, any institutional redistribution of their goods obstructs their individual liberty to act on their ownership.  To maintain justice, libertarians expect societal institutions to support citizens by protecting their property from the intrusion of others.  However, if a citizen has obtained goods in a wrongful manner, goods and property should be taken away from that citizen and rightfully returned to the initial owner.  For example, American Jacques Istel purchased land in Arizona and became the mayor of his purchased property and named the town Felicity, after his wife.  In 1985, he obtained agreement from the Imperial County Board of Supervisors to name a location in his town the Official Centre of the World (New York Times, Feb 2014).  In accordance with libertarian justice, Istel had the right to purchase and act upon his purchase as he wished.  If his property was sold unlawfully, it would need to be relinquished to Arizona state or another rightful owner.    

Based on this conception of libertarian justice, respect for others can be considered as a form of respect warranted on the condition that one’s own liberty to property and goods is not restricted.  In other words, citizen “A” who owns a yacht will respect citizen “B” who also owns a yacht, so long as citizen “B” does not park their yacht in citizen “A’s” yacht parking spot.  Or, citizen “B” does not take away or use citizen “A’s” yacht without “A’s” permission.    

If we consider this conception of respect for others on the basis of libertarian justice in moral education, and if we consider morals as a good that one owns, it appears that each student would be given equal opportunity to obtain and act upon their morals as they please and as much as they please.  While mutual respect exists from this perspective, this libertarian foundation could lead to domination of certain individuals, and thereby their morals, over others.  Within a classroom environment, vocal students would be permitted to act upon, express, and display their morals over quiet or shy students.  In public school environments, a discussion of Catholicism could dominate over a discussion of Buddhism because a Catholic student may be more vocal or Catholic students may be the majority within the classroom or community environment.  This is dangerous and can greatly minimize valuable discussions from minority perspectives.  Whereas the influence of this model of justice may be considerable within economic spheres, it is not appropriate or just for educational spheres, especially for minority groups or students as it creates inequality during class discussions and settings.   

In contrast, the Rawlsian conception of justice translates into another conception of respect for others.  This is explored in the next section of this paper.

Rawlsian justice and respect for others

Rawlsians believe that all people are free and equal citizens and that society is organized as a fair scheme of cooperation between these free and equal citizens (Swift, 2014).  Hence, from this fundamental credence, Rawlsians believe that the maximum level of liberty should be allotted to every citizen.  Branching from this core belief of equal citizenship, Rawlsians regard justice as fairness which is clearly illustrated in the two principles of the equal opportunity principle and the difference principle.  

The equal opportunity principle argues that actions are just if inequalities were a result of one’s freedom to make personal choices; however, the principle would argue that actions would be unjust if inequalities arose from our circumstances (Swift, 2014).  In other words, as equal citizens, unjust acts would occur if people were allotted unequal and unfair opportunities.  For example, from a Rawlsian perspective, it is just for Chris Hadfield, who grew up in a middle-class family on a corn farm in Southern Ontario, to have become an astronaut and travelled to space because he chose to dedicate his studies towards that endeavour, but it is unjust for another individual with the same aspirations to not be given the opportunity because they were born in a slum and academic educational institutions were not available to him in his community.  Alternately, the difference principle is premised on the notion of maximin, i.e. where the society should offer an outcome to the maximum threshold for the least well-off individual in the society.  For example, to ensure a certain standard of living is available to all individuals, a minimum wage is set by societies to ensure a maximum threshold outcome is attainable for individuals who may be the least well-off within the labour market.  

Based on the overall Rawlsian conception of justice as fairness, respect for others is founded on the Rawlsian conception of society as a group of individuals that aim to cooperate with one another as free and equal citizens.  Specific to moral education, each individual would then have the liberty to choose whichever morals they please and the consequences of that choice would be just, since the individual had the opportunity to self-choice.  Alternately, Rawlsians would consider it unjust if moral education did not encompass all morals since doing otherwise would restrict student options and create unequal and unfair opportunities for students to choose a moral of their preference.  

Eamonn Callan (1997) offers a more detailed interpretation of the Rawlsian notion of respect – what he refers to as reciprocity.  In this framework, reciprocity requires open dialogue, humbleness, and consideration of each other’s viewpoints, i.e. what Callan interpreted as an “empathetic identification” of another’s viewpoint.  “For if I am to weigh your claims as a matter of fairness rather than a rhetorically camouflaged expression of sheer selfishness, I must provisionally suspend the thought that you are simply wrong and enter imaginatively into the moral perspective you occupy” (Callan, 1997, p. 26).  Specific to moral education, this conception of respect through dialogue extends to include an open awareness to humble oneself and seek to understand another’s morals from the other person’s perspective.  By endorsing Rawls’s two principles of justice, i.e. liberty and equality, and fairness (Swift, 2014), and considering the extension of Callan’s interpretation of reciprocity, it appears Rawlsians would support Robert Jackson’s (1997) interpretive approach to teaching religious education.  In Jackson’s approach, the interpretive process takes priority and students and teachers are encouraged to interpret religious materials.  Students and teachers in this approach are expected to become more reflexive and develop a greater understanding of self and others through interpretation.  This approach aligns well with the Rawlsian and Callan interpretation of reciprocity because it promotes empathetic identification and humbling of oneself.  But how does this approach manifest in the libertarian perspective?  Can it?  

Implications for moral education

Let’s consider the hypothetical setting of a religious education class in a pluralistic democratic society.  Fifty percent of students are atheists, 30 percent are of diverse Christian faiths, 10 percent are Sikh students, and 10 percent belong to a mix of various faiths.  If we consider Jackson’s interpretive approach from the libertarian perspective, all students would be entitled to the opportunity of voicing their opinion in class.  Regardless of the faith, the student(s) who answers the most questions and may be most vocal about their faith would be given the opportunity to do so.  Without the basis of Callan’s empathetic identification and the humbling of oneself, a tension that may arise is Jackson’s (1997) encouragement of the interpretation of religious material and the analyzing and development of the self.  Libertarians may question why reflexivity is required so long as they respect and allow others to their own moral thinking.  Does this promote a peaceable pluralistic democratic society within the classroom?  Results may depend on class dynamics and student characteristics, but if students were provided a laissez-faire environment to vocalize, obtain class time, and express themselves as they pleased, I personally do not think a peaceable environment for moral education would be fostered.  Hence, a libertarian conception of respect for others is not appropriate for a class because it has a probable propensity to encourage inequality during class discussions and settings.   

Conversely, a Rawlsian perspective of respect for others based on Callan’s interpretation of reciprocity can accommodate Jackson’s interpretive approach in this hypothetical situation.  Ultimately, regardless of any classroom dynamic and student characteristics, I believe the Rawlsian conception of respect would encourage students to develop their understanding of one another and live cooperatively and peaceably despite different morals. Unlike the libertarian conception of justice based on merit, the Rawlsian value of equal citizenship encourages deliberation among majority and minority perspectives.  This is crucial and paramount in fostering inclusive public school classrooms as students learn to dialogue with similar and different perspectives.  Per the Rawlsian conception of justice as fairness, it would be unjust in a Rawlsian society to seize the opportunity for fair discourse from students and withhold the opportunity to consider all moral values in choosing their own.  For these reasons, I aim to uphold the Rawlsian conception of respect for others in my own public school classroom.    

Today, all North American lived spaces, geographic and/or digital, are pluralistic in nature.  With this awareness, Westheimer and Kahne (2004) posit that students in a pluralistic democratic society “must develop and learn from those who hold different perspectives” (p 243).  Drawing on the findings of this paper, I would agree and argue that dialogue with others of similar and different perspectives is a necessity to living peaceably in our pluralistic democratic societies.  The Rawlsian notion of respect for others should be strongly considered as a foundation to encourage this dialogue in moral education within our North American public school classrooms.  

Works Cited
  • Callan, Eamonn. (1997). Creating Citizens: Political Education and Liberal Democracy. Oxford Scholarship.
  • Jackson, Robert. (1997). Religious Education: An Interpretive Approach. London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton.
  • Mooallem, Jon. (2014, Feb 19). A Journey to the Centre of the World.  New York Times.
  • Swift, Adam. (2014). Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians (3rd ed.).  Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Westheimer, Joel and Joseph Kahne. (2004). What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy. American Educational Research Journal, 41(2), pp. 237-269.

Contributor Biography: Wing Yu Alice Chan

Wing Yu Alice Chan is a PhD student in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University. After working in the private sector, she realized her true passion laid in teaching and learning and she entered the Masters of Teaching program at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto.  During her teaching experiences, she noticed a prominent need for the informal inclusion and discussion of students’ religious identity within public school classrooms and conducted her Masters research in this area.  This propelled her into her PhD research where she explores religious literacy and religious bullying in public schools.  Her exploration is contextualized in the mandatory religious literacy programs in Montreal, Quebec and Modesto, California. Wing Yu Alice Chan was born in Hong Kong and grew up in the Greater Toronto Area.  Aspects of diversity and education have always been present and significant factors in her life through her upbringing, school community, and personal interests.  Diversity and inclusiveness are personal values and passions she carries into her research on inclusive education.