Will Kymlicka | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Will Kymlicka

Will Kymlicka, political philosopher (born 1962 in London, ON)

Will Kymlicka, political philosopher (born 1962 in London, ON). Author of 8 books and over 200 articles, which have been translated into 32 languages, Will Kymlicka’s groundbreaking work on the link between democracy and diversity, and more recently on animal ethics, has secured him a position among Canada’s most influential thinkers.

Education and Early Work

Professor of Philosophy and Canada Research Chair in Political philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Kymlicka received his BA from Queen’s University in politics and philosophy in 1984, and a D.Phil in philosophy from the University of Oxford in 1987, under the advisory of the Montréal-born Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen. Kymlicka’s political analysis is set squarely within the liberal tradition and involves a theory of the proper relationship between the individual and the state. In his first major publication, Liberalism, Community and Culture (1989), Kymlicka advances a version of liberalism that answers the charge that liberal political theory is too individualistic to account for group rights in general and the rights of minority groups in particular. The argument he advances is that the identity of individuals is embedded within a social and cultural context that links it to the identity of communities. Kymlicka argues for the collective rights of minorities, such as French Canadians and Aboriginal peoples, on the grounds that a secure sense of cultural belonging is of great importance for individual wellbeing. Furthermore, he posits that rights to protection and autonomy for minorities are justified by the disadvantages they face in enjoying secure cultural membership. Kymlicka’s idea that the concept of group rights should be part of liberal thought is heavily influenced by his reading of American thinkers John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin.

Multicultural Citizenship

Kymlicka’s early writings set the stage for his magnum opus, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights. There he develops a liberal model for understanding group rights, leading to concrete policy recommendations for the federal government. His focus is on ethno-cultural groups such as national minorities, which he distinguishes from immigrant groups who have “voluntarily entered the country” and are expected to “participate within the public institutions of the dominant culture.” The main objective of Multicultural Citizenship is to show that group-differentiated rights (rights that only apply to specific groups) are both a valid extension of basic liberal values, and necessary in certain situations. Kymlicka believes that true equality requires different treatment for different groups. He defines three such group-differentiated rights for national minorities: (1) rights to self-governance that ensure political autonomy or territorial jurisdiction, (2) poly-ethnic rights such as anti-oppression policies that involve the alteration of school curricula and legal exemptions, and (3) special representation rights used to equalize the historical exclusion that members of culturally disadvantaged groups experience. Each separate category is meant to protect the autonomy of individuals within minority groups while ensuring their ability to participate in larger society.

Central to Kymlicka’s defence of group-differentiated rights is a distinction between “internal restrictions” and “external protections.” The former are intended to protect minorities from the destabilizing impact of internal dissent, such as the decision of individual members not to follow traditional practices or customs. External protections aim to protect minority groups from the impact of external decisions, in particular “the economic or political decisions of the larger society.” These protections include upholding historical agreements about special land and hunting rights, terms of federation, and agreement concerning boundaries and the use of languages. Kymlicka insists that the liberal state should support external protections to minority cultures, provided they do not result in oppression and exploitation. Internal restrictions, however, cannot be justified from a liberal perspective because they restrict individual autonomy. While critics have found fault with some of Kymlicka’s arguments (e.g., the clear-cut division between national minorities and immigrant groups, and the idea that the rights of minorities are undervalued in Canada), Multicultural Citizenship is regarded as essential reading for anyone interested in the link between citizenship and social justice. It was awarded the Macpherson Prize by the Canadian Political Science Association and the Ralph Bunche Award by the American Political Science Association for spearheading the contemporary debate about group-differentiated rights.

Recent Work

In his most recent book, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (co-authored with Sue Donaldson), Kymlicka develops a moral framework that connects “the treatment of animals more directly to the fundamental principles of liberal-democratic justice and human rights.” This approach is based on citizenship theory, which divides animals into three categories: domesticanimals, which have been tamed and kept by humans as a source of labor, food , or companionship; wild animals; and liminal animals, such as mice, pigeons and insects, who have “adapted to life amongst humans, without being under the direct care of humans.” Kymlicka and Donaldson apply a different form of person-state relationship to each category. They argue that domesticated animals should be granted co-citizenship with humans, in which their best interests and preferences would be taken into consideration. This may involve a “prima facie right to share ... public spaces.” Similarly, wild animals should enjoy sovereignty and be granted a secure space that protects their autonomy and ability to flourish. Liminal animals should be treated as denizens with the right to live among humans as equals rather than being viewed as pests subject to mass extermination. While seemingly controversial, Zoopolis steers a middle course between animal welfare reform and “abolitionism,” granting all animals full equality with humans, by insisting that both approaches are too simplistic to account for the many ways in which humans affect animal populations and vice versa.


Will Kymlicka is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Killam Prize in 2004, the Trudeau Fellowship in 2005, and the 2009 Premier’s Discovery Award in the Social Sciences. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2003, and served as President of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy from 2004 to 2006.

Further Reading