The Morality of State Symbolic Power

SOCIAL THEORY AND PRACTICE 42.2 (2016): 318-342

Abstract: Philosophical interest in state power has tended to focus on the state’s coercive powers rather than its expressive powers. I consider an underexplored aspect of the state’s expressive capacity: its capacity to use symbols (such as monuments, memorials, and street names) to promote political ends. In particular, I argue that the liberal state’s deployment of symbols to promote its members’ commitment to liberal ideals is in need of special justification. This is because the state’s exercise of its capacity to use symbols may be in tension with respecting individual autonomy, particularly in cases in which the symbols exert influence without engaging citizens’ rational capacities. But despite the fact that the state’s deployment of symbols may circumvent citizens’ rational capacities, I argue that it may nonetheless be permissible when surrounded by certain liberal institutions and brought about via democratic procedures.