Philosophy 218 - 11.4.3 Liberalism

Liberalism in political philosophy does not have the same meaning as the word liberal in popular American discourse. For Americans, liberal means someone who believes in representative democracy and is politically left of center. For example, liberals generally favor regulating the activities of corporations and providing social welfare programs for the working and middle classes. Liberalism as a political philosophy, however, has quite a different emphasis.

Fundamental Principle of Liberty

British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) expresses the fundamental principles of liberalism in his work On Liberty (1859), arguing for limited government on the grounds of utility. His interest is in “Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” (Mill [1869] 2018). In this regard, he defends “one very simple principle,” which is the minimizing of government interference in people’s lives:

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. . . . The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. (Mill [1869] 2018)

In Mill’s view, real freedom is when people are able to pursue their own individual idea of “the good” in a manner they see fit. Mill’s claim is at the heart of most variants of liberalism.

Positive and Negative Liberty

We are at liberty when we are neither constrained to act nor obligated to refrain from acting in a certain way. At least since Isaiah Berlin’s (1905–1997) “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), this sort of liberty has been called negative liberty. Berlin, a British political theorist, suggests that negative liberty is “the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others” (Berlin 1969, 122). Negative liberty in the political realm often refers to the absence of government control over the lives of individuals, or in what we are reasonably able to do without interference. Conversely, Berlin thinks of positive liberty as “the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master” (131). We want our life decisions to depend on ourselves and not on external forces. “I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will,” says Berlin (131). The ability to participate in democratic institutions, for example, is a form of positive liberty.

The Welfare State and Social Justice

Some theorists hold that negative liberty has limits when it comes to how much liberty, in practice, a person has at their disposal. The theory of justice that sees individuals as having claims on resources and care from others is often called welfare liberalism. Such theorists are not in favor of limited government and believe that the well-being of citizens must be a vital component of our agreement to obey a government. American philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002) famously makes this argument in his seminal book A Theory of Justice (1971), in which he attempts to articulate an account of fairness that satisfies our intuition that human freedom and social welfare are both important.

Rawls begins with the idea that society is a system of cooperation for mutual advantage. Given the fact of today’s pluralistic societies, people reasonably disagree about many important issues, which means we must find a way to live peaceably together with our differences and collectively determine our political institutions. In addition, Rawls believes that there are deep inequalities embedded in any basic social structure, which result from the fact that we are all born into different positions and have different expectations of life, largely determined by the political, economic, and social circumstances that attend those positions. Therefore, Rawls says, we must find a way to distance ourselves from our own particular concepts of such ideas as justice, the good, and religion and begin with relatively uncontroversial facts about human psychology and economics. We should then imagine ourselves in an “original position” behind the “veil of ignorance”; that is, we should imagine we do not know any facts about our personal circumstances, such as our economic status, our access to education and health services, or whether we have any talents or abilities that would be beneficial to us (Rawls 1999, 11). We also remain ignorant of any social factors such as our gender, race, class, and so forth. Because Rawls assumes that no one wants to live in a society in which they are disadvantaged, operating from this position offers the greatest chance of arranging a society in a way that is as fair and equitable as possible. For instance, we would not support a system that forbade all left-handed individuals from voting because we ourselves might fall into that group.

Rawls argues that two major principles should govern society. First, the “liberty principle” states that each person has an equal right to the same basic, adequate liberties. Basic liberties are liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom to hold property, and freedom of assembly. Second, the “difference principle” states that any social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions: (1) they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of “fair equality of opportunity,” and (2) they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. Note that Rawls is not advocating for an equal distribution of goods or advantages; rather, he says that any distribution of goods or power that isnot equal can further disadvantage already disadvantaged individuals. His goal is to create a society that seeks to address inherent structural inequalities as well as possible (Rawls 1999, 13).

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax