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.
Comment (from this Blueprint): This paper is not about objectionable commemorations in particular, but sets out to explore how any political symbols can be justified at all in a liberal democratic state. This should be a preliminary to any discussion we have about statues and monuments. A particular point of interest is that, according to Tsai, the state ought to engage with its citizens through rational persuasion. This will be relevant to latter discussions regarding the nature of moral education, and the role emotions play in it.