Liberalism: Some Key Definitions

All liberals start off from the principle that liberty is the primary political value. After this, liberalism fractures along a spectrum of views: positive, negative and republican liberty. These are fundamentally to do with differing conceptions of liberty.

i) Humans are in a perfect state of freedom to order their actions (Locke); the burden of proof is on those who are against liberty, the a priori assumption is in favour of freedom (Mill); contemporary liberal thinkers (Feinberg, Benn and Rawls) agree.

Basic normative assumption = those who would limit freedom are under the onus of justification, particularly if they would limit freedom through coercive means

§ Political authority, its laws and policies, must be justified because they limit human freedom

–       Social contract theory (Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant and Locke) is usually viewed as liberal even though the political prescriptions of each thinker have distinctly illiberal features. Nevertheless, all take as their starting point a state of nature in which humans are free and equal and so argue that the limitations imposed must be justified in terms of the social contract theory § expresses the fundamental liberal principle

ii) In addition to the fundamental liberal principle, paradigmatic liberals such as Locke argue that justified limitations on liberty are fairly modest i.e. only a limited amount of government can be justified because the basic task of the government is to protect the equal liberty of the citizens.

Negative Liberty

Disagreement about the concept of liberty has led to different conceptions of the task of government. Isaiah Berlin, for example, advocated for a negative conception of liberty:

‘If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form of inability…Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by other human beings’.

§ Liberty = the absence of coercion by other human beings. The government’s role is to ensure that citizens do not coerce each other without justification in order to protect liberty. Negative liberty is an opportunity concept: being free is a matter of what we can do, regardless of whether or not we actually do it.

Positive Liberty

British neo-Hegelians such as Thomas Hill Green and Bernard Bosanquet developed a positive conception of liberty that acknowledges freedom as the exemption from compulsion by another. However, the other might not be human; someone can be unfree if he is subject to an impulse that cannot be controlled. Thus a person is only free if he is autonomous. In the sense that a free person’s actions are said to be his own, positive liberty is an exercise concept.

§ Freedom consists in the degree to which a subject has effectively determined and shaped his own life, apart from compulsions and unreflectively following customs, to the overall benefit of his short and long term interests.

As well as this concept of freedom as autonomy being present in Rousseau, Kant and Mill, contemporary theorists such as Benn, Dworkin and Raz also enshrine this liberal principle in their political theories.

Another concept of positive freedom is freedom understood as the ability to act on or pursue one’s own ends; freedom is ‘the ability act’ (Tawney). Positive freedom as effective power to act closely ties freedom to access to material resources: I cannot become a member of a Country Club because I am too poor to afford the membership though in principle I could become a member if this resource was available to me.

Republican Liberty

In the Roman, republican usage (Cicero and Machiavelli), the opposite of the liber was the servus and so the dominant connotation of freedom was not having to live in servitude to another § freedom is the opposite of domination. The ideal government ensures that no agent, including itself, has arbitrary power over any citizen, in order to ensure that every citizen’s liberty is protected. The method by which this principle is enacted is equal disbursement of power; by according each citizen power, this offsets the power of another citizen to arbitrarily interfere with his or her activities.

Unlike positive liberty, republican liberty is not primarily concerned with rational autonomy, realising one’s true nature or becoming one’s higher self.

Unlike negative liberty, republican liberty traces the mere possibility of arbitrary interference to a limitation of liberty, rather than the actual occurrence of interference.

Classical Liberalism

As well as fracturing over the conception of liberty, a more important division concerns the place of private property and the market order.

Classical liberals insist upon the close relation between liberty and private property for it is through the ownership of private property that a citizen is able to live her life as she sees fit. Thus, private property is consistent with individual liberty. Some people (Gaus, Steiner, Robbins) argue that liberty and property are the same thing thus a market order based on private property is the embodiment of freedom. A secondary argument from classical liberals claims that ownership of private property is the only effective means of protecting liberty, because the individual is protected from encroachments by the state.

Even within classical liberalism there is a spectrum of views on the relationship of private property to a free society, ranging from near anarchists to left leaning views that allow for a modest social minimum. Although today classical liberalism is portrayed as extreme libertarianism, the tradition’s central concern was bettering the lot of the working class. As Bentham put it, the aim was to make the poor richer, not the rich poorer. As such, liberals reject redistribution of wealth as a legitimate aim of government.

New Liberalism

New liberalism challenges the link between private property and individual freedom. New liberalism emerged out of a period in which the sustainability of a prosperous equilibrium was being questioned (c. late 19th/early 20th century). At the same time as losing faith in the old market order, faith was increasing in the government as a means of supervising economic life partly due to the First World War and partly due to more sophisticated democratisation in Western countries. For the first time, elected officials could truly be representatives of the community, or so it was thought. Thirdly, the growing conviction that property rights generated an unequal society to the detriment of the working class’ liberty. The first suggestion of this is found in Mill, later developed by Rawls, both of whom believed that it is an open question whether personal liberty can flourish without private property.

New liberalism is deeply concerned with developing a theory of social justice, a consequence of the impact of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. Rawls’s ‘difference principle’ claims that a just basic structure of society arranges social and economic inequalities so that they are to the greatest advantage of the least well off group in a particular society. For Rawls, only inequalities that enhance the long term prospects for the least well off are just. The difference principle constitutes the principle of reciprocity, whereby no group of people is allowed to advance at the cost of another. In contemporary political thought, followers of Rawls are committed to cashing out the difference principle in terms of equality (Dworkin) hence the development from ‘welfare state’ liberalism to ‘egalitarian’ liberalism.


The Intersection Between Public and Private: Rorty and Habermas

How do we deal with situations in which our conception of ourselves as individuals does not overlap with collectively held norms and values?

In the history of contemporary moral philosophy, Habermas argues that practical reason takes on three different tasks: pragmatic (purposive), ethical (good) and moral (just). He finds himself facing two important questions: 1) Does it makes sense to think of practical reason as a unified faculty when it encompasses these three divisions; 2) If it is not unified, how do we deal with the relationship between them ad properly mediate the point at which public and private intersect? Habermas concludes that ‘the unity of practical reason can be realised in an unequivocal manner only within a network of public forms of communication and practices in which the conditions of rational collective will formation have taken on concrete institutional forms’ (On the Moral Employment of Practical Reason, 17).

Habermas follows the Kantian conception of liberal society, in that the political and legal sphere is crucial to social harmony. He tends to emphasise public issues such as social justice, public discourse and community, over private issues such as identity, authenticity and fulfilment of individual goals. Rorty, also a liberal and also interested in the relationship between public and private, draws on thinkers like Nietzsche to claim that the private and public are subject to a division that cannot be closed. This is because he sees an inherent opposition between private interests and public needs. As such, Rorty argues that private (ethical) thinking must be set aside in order to participate in dialogue about public issues.

Moral reasoning for Habermas is fundamentally communicative and public, grounding its own standards and procedures in the collective agreement of the community. Private conceptions of the good do not have to be entirely sacrificed to the wider interest of the people, as it is a communicative practice. Habermas draws upon Kant’s negative liberal right, for, in giving up some of our individual freedom in a collective agreement, we avoid doing violence to others and therefore ensure that everyone has some measure of freedom. Whilst Habermas agrees with Kant’s call for a civil society based on reason, he posits reason against the Kantian definition as communicative, historical and rooted in social realities. In this way, he hopes to avoid having to say that reason is a priori transcendental.

For each function of practical reason, a sense of ‘should’ is involved in making claims. In the pragmatic sense, one ‘should’ do something in a given set of circumstances, for example, I should take my bicycle to be fixed if it is in need of repair. In the ethical sense, one ‘ought’ to do something, where there is room to question whether the ‘ought’ should be fulfilled, for example, I ought to make it up with my Aunt. In the moral sense, one ‘must’ do something, where there is no room for questioning whether one may or may not do it, for example, one must treat every person as his or her equal. Habermas distinguishes between the moral and the ethical thus: ‘in the first case, what is being asked is whether a maxim is good for me, or appropriate in the given situation, and in the second, whether I can will that a maxim should be followed by everyone as a general law’ (Ibid., 7).

In moving between the ethical and the moral, the identity of the individual is overcome by an orientation toward what is in the wider interests of the community/society/collective. Authenticity too is left behind as it is dealt with solely on ethical concerns, not moral ones. In fact, the only time we may live by our individual maxims is if ‘my identity and my life project reflected a universally valid form of life’ thus ‘what from my perspective would be equally good for all [would] in fact be equally in the interest of all’ (Ibid., 8). The complexity demands compromise in order that private interests are not unreasonably subordinated to collective will: herein lies the importance of public institutions based on the spirit of communicative reasoning. Communicative action is therefore the unifying force that keeps the ethical, moral and pragmatic aspects of practical reason together.

Does Habermas give enough weight to the force of aesthetic feeling – as well as practical reason – on the part of the individual? Could such a non-rational way of living be compatible with his project? Rorty, following Nietzsche, argues for a poeticised and stylised private sphere whilst claiming that the ethical and moral aspects of practical reason are incommensurable. He argues that his ‘poeticised culture is one which has given up the attempt to unite one’s private ways of dealing with one’s finitude and one’s sense of obligation to other human beings’ (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, 68). If we give up on a point of mediation, what do we stand to lose?

Rorty argues that our identities, beliefs and institutions are a matter of historical contingency; that is not to say that we cannot commit to individual or social projects with any less passion than when we laboured under the spell of metaphysics. Instead, we commit to such projects because of a common belief in enlarging the conditions in which human beings live, to make things less cruel. In removing reason and philosophy from public discourse and moral consensus, and replacing these with ‘a historical narrative about the rise of liberal institutions and customs’ (Ibid.), Rorty gives up on the notion of universal validity. This is in sharp contrast to Habermas, who maintains that universal consensus (and validity) can be achieved through communicative action. Nonetheless, it is Habermas’s particular deployment of universal reason that is problematic here, for, though he acknowledge that concepts like community and identity are historically contingent, he nonetheless wants to claim transcendence for reason, even though that transcendence has been brought about by contingent communicative action.

Against Habermas, Rorty proposes that solidarity is the basic unit of our social engagement, and, further, that this does not always rely on rational justification nor completely submitting to social institutions. Art and literature, for instance, can awaken the same sense of obligation and responsibility towards others. Rorty argues in this way to support his claim that reason is just another vocabulary, with no more or less priority than the other vocabularies in our toolbox. Does Rorty minimise the potential for private ethical considerations to impact on public moral concerns by drawing too sharp a distinction between public and private? One is left with the image of practical reason producing a schizophrenic citizen who cannot always make the right call when laying down his individual projects out of obligation to a wider cause. Compared with Habermas, who attempts to link the ethical with the moral by showing how it plays a role in communicative action, Rorty’s position seems less worked out and, paradoxically, reliant upon the political theorism of Habermas in order to save the idea of a fully functioning liberal society. Where would we be without the social institutions and rationality that binds their maxims? Nonetheless, Rorty does seem to be right in point out that reason is only one of the ways in which we can engage in the politicised public sphere, whilst Habermas’s account leaves little or no room at all for aesthetic self-determination.