Level 5 Response – To what extent do Liberals agree in the issue of freedom and liberty? (24 Marks)

Liberalism was born in the Age of Enlightenment, a time in which philosophers were reacting to the Ancien Regime and challenging traditional systems of government. As such, freedom is paramount to liberal thinking. To answer this question the following issues, need to be considered: the basis behind liberal conceptions of freedom, the limits of personal freedom and the role of the state in safeguarding freedoms. Ultimately, there is significant agreement amongst Liberals on the issue of freedom and liberty, with modern liberals only somewhat digressing on what constitutes harm and the role of the state in protecting personal freedoms.

Liberals agree to a large extent on the conceptual basis behind freedom and liberty. Classic Liberals reject the Hobbesian view that is inherently pessimistic of human nature. They believe that all humans are capable of rational thought. Consequently, they believe that citizens should be given as much personal freedom as possible and mechanistic theory dictates individuals are equal worth.  Classical liberals also believe in egotistical individualism. This means that society is merely a collection of atomised self-interested individuals. However, because of their rationality, humans will seek to create harmony with others as this is the best path to their own success and, therefore, will look to respect the freedom and liberty of others. This was part of the social contract theory formulated by John Locke. Modern Liberals are similarly optimistic about human nature. However, they believe in developmental individualism. This means that humans want to see wider societal progress and believe in actively supporting others to achieve this, rather the simply respecting their own rights. Therefore, it is clear than the classical and modern liberals fundamentally agree on why there should be freedom and liberty, there only slight disagreement is how much individuals seek to support that. 

Liberals differ slightly on what freedom of action people should have. Classic Liberals support the ‘harm principle’. This is the idea, popularised by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859), that human actions should be as free as possible as long as it does not bring harm direct to another person. Whilst this would preclude physical violence, for example, there would be almost no limits on freedom of expression because such limits would inhibit innovative thinking. Modern liberals support the sentiments behind the harm principle, however, they differ on what constitutes harm. For example, they do not believe it is limited to violence, but harm can be psychological and emotional too. Consequently, for example, modern liberals support limits on speech and actions that may cause others harm, even indirectly. This is why modern liberals have been at the forefront of supporting hate speech legislation which criminalises hateful speech based on characteristics like sexuality or race. As a result of this, liberals agree that humans should have freedom of action until a point of harm, but differ on where that definition harm may lie. 

Liberals differ more significantly on the role of the government in protecting freedom.  Classical liberals believe in a minimalist state which acts merely as an enforcer of contracts and the creation of social order. Classical liberals therefore support the concept of negative freedom. They believe that one of the biggest threats to liberty is the state itself. Famously, John Locke said that “no body can give more power than a man has himself”. This concept of negative freedom, is, for example, a key reason that the Second Amendment was seen as vital in the US constitution. Conversely, modern liberals tend support positive freedom. Modern liberals believe that without state intervention real freedom will only be enjoyed by those already privileged in society. Using the thought experiment of the ‘veil of ignorance’ John Rawls argued that in a natural state humans would opt for a world of social justice and greater equality. Therefore, modern liberals advocate for positive freedoms supported by an enabling state. Modern liberals for example supported the introduction of the Human Rights Act (1998) and Equality Act (2010). Therefore, this is the area where classical liberals and modern liberals disagree the most, with the role of the state in enforcing freedom and liberty an area of contention.

Ultimately, there is some agreement between classical and modern liberals on the issue of freedom and liberty, though not complete agreement. Liberals tend to largely agree on the rationale behind why freedom should exist, and they agree that humans should have as much freedom as possible, although they disagree somewhat on how much is possible. Liberals do disagree quite significantly on the role of the state in ensuring freedom, however, both agree that the state as some role in doing so. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that there is some clear agreement on the issue of freedom and liberty, with the disagreements being largely matters of degree.

What is good about this response?

  • It follows the Golden Rule for Ideologies questions that every paragraph compares the different strands of the ideology.
  • Good knowledge is shown of all strands with consideration of differences and agreement.
  • The Key Thinkers are used at not just named.
  • It develops thematic points which address the question.
  • It clearly considers the extent or agreement and disagreement within the themes relevant to the question. This is made very clear in the conclusion which considers why there is some, but no full, agreement.
  • Real-World examples are used where relevant to explain what each strand stands for.

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