- • Abstract individualism: This is the individualism closest to the classical stream of liberalism. The individual is considered a completely independent creature that ‘owns’ its body and its personal abilities. As a result, only the individual receives the praise for any success during their life, and they will not owe any debt or thanks to wider society. This perspective is sometimes described as an atomist one, as it considers individuals as a collection of isolated atoms without any connection to each other.
- • Social individualism: Unlike the above, Modern Liberalists connect individualism with wider units, such as family, society and even the nation. For example, T.H. Green declared the importance of society and its inherent friendship and co-dependency in order to give individuals the opportunity to discover their true character and reach their potential.
Alongside individualism, Liberalism (as the name suggests) considers freedom a key principle. This emphasis on freedom is a natural result of the belief that society should be organised to allow the individual to live their life as they wish. In order to be able to do that, the individual must have freedom.
Liberals nevertheless see that absolute freedom for individuals is not practical. Absolute freedom would be able to create a situation where some individuals could use their freedom to harm others. As a result, although freedom is among the basic liberal principles, they are willing to limit that freedom for everyone to be able to live together. They believe that everyone should have as much freedom as possible without impacting the freedom of others. In the words of John Rawls (1971): ‘that everyone is entitled to the widest possible liberty consistent with a like liberty for all’.
But although liberals agree that freedom is a basic principle, they have not always agreed how that freedom can be practically ensured. In his famous writing Two Concepts of Liberty (1958), Isaiah Berlin mentions two types of freedom seen in the work of liberals, which are ‘negative freedom’ and ‘positive freedom’.
- • Negative freedom: This is the type of freedom in which Classical Liberals believe. The idea behind negative freedom is that an individual is free if left alone to live their life without intervention, and that they may behave as they wish. This freedom is described as negative as it believes that any obstacles that could prevent the individual from achievement should be eliminated.
- • Positive freedom: Unlike the above, Modern Liberals believe that freedom calls for much more than merely eliminating obstacles and leaving the individual alone. They rather believe that true freedom calls for creating conditions giving the individual a fair opportunity to develop their abilities and understanding of the world and, therefore, they will be able to reach their potential as a person. In order to do that, they believe that positive steps need to be taken to ensure that the individual gets the opportunity socially, economically and politically to be an independent person.
It is not only their consideration of freedom that has prompted discussion among liberals. They also have very different ideas with regards to how to organise a political society, and the role of the state.
The concept of rights is currently very important in political discussions. It is also an idea which is central to the liberal view of the world. Indeed, the importance of rights now reflects how key liberal ideas have become an important part of society.
A right is simply a provision allowing an individual or group of people to behave or be treated in a way and which, at the same time, places a duty upon others to keep to this regime. Early liberals from the 17th and 18th centuries, such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, argued that everyone has natural rights – namely God-given rights which are common to all, whoever they are and whatever their background. Indeed, according to Jefferson (who happened to be a friend of the Welshman Richard Price and influenced by some of his ideas) these are inalienable rights, as people acquire them only for being human; so they must be accepted and followed. It was said that these natural rights are wholly necessary in order to live a meaningful life. Locke believed that the individual had three natural rights, the right to ‘life, liberty and property’. Jefferson was of a slightly different viewpoint, regarding whether property could be treated as a natural God-given right. As a result, he described our natural rights as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Liberals do not now very often refer to natural rights. The idea of human rights has become more common. The principle behind both ideas however – that every individual, no matter who they are, has basic rights – is very similar. The main difference is that today’s liberals, in discussing human rights, consider them as rights agreed upon by our ability to reason, and not God-given rights.
Due to this emphasis placed by liberals upon the individual, and as they also wish for freedom for each individual to live life as they wish, it is understandable why liberals like the idea that everyone has basic rights. These rights have been sometimes used to obstruct the power of the state. As an example, Locke emphasised that the main role of state is to ensure that members of society have their natural rights. If this happens, he stated that people ought to keep to the law. However, Locke stated (and it must be remembered that this was a person living during the 17th century) that it would be right for people to rebel against the government should it not safeguard their natural rights.
Society and politics have changed significantly since the days of Locke and Jefferson. Nevertheless, their arguments continue to be very relevant to liberals. For that reason, liberals are often very critical when states operate in ways that endanger individual human rights, for example by limiting the rights of people to freedom of expression, freedom of conscience or the freedom to gather in a crowd. For liberals, this is a sign of a state stepping in too far and preventing individuals from living free lives as they wish.
The development of liberalism followed the Enlightenment – a movement during the 18th century questioning traditional ideas on religion, politics and learning through the belief that people can use their ability to reason in order to understand the world. As a result, the influence of the Enlightenment and emphasis on rationalism has influenced liberalism in several ways.
First, liberals want freedom for everyone partly as they believe that people are reasonable and considerate, and that they can think for themselves, and decide which path to follow during their lives. This does not mean that liberals believe people are incapable of making mistakes. It however means that liberals do not believe in paternal ideas, which tell people how they should live their lives.
Secondly, the emphasis on rationalism means that liberals believe in progress. They believe that the increase in knowledge over the last centuries, the scientific revolution, means that people have a better understanding of the nature of their world. Also, as we can reason, people can try to organise the world for the better. It is also expected that each generation, in its turn, adds to the store of knowledge, to achieve further progress in the future.
Thirdly, the emphasis on reason means that liberals believe in discussion. They accept that conflict – for example about how to share or how to use scarce resources – will happen in any society. Nevertheless, when this happens, liberals believe that open discussion is the only way to overcome this. They believe that this will succeed, as people are reasonable. And in discussion they will see that conflict is pointless and it could lead to violence or unfortunately war.
Justice and equality
Justice can generally be defined as a matter of making a moral decision on how to share opportunities or resources among members of society, in the fairest way. Liberals have three different definitions of equality.
The first definition, basic equality, believes in basic equality for all. This means that liberals believe that the life of everyone is of equal value. Basic equality, in turn, leads liberals to believe in formal equality. It means that everyone should get the same formal status in society, and that each person, no matter their background, has the same rights. Liberals oppose any regime that gives opportunity to some but not others, because of gender, skin colour, religion or social class. The most common examples of formal equality are ‘legal equality’ and ‘political equality’. The first requires equal treatment by the legal regime for all members of society, regardless of any other social factors (race, gender, class). The second requires equal treatment for all by the political regime, for example by giving the same voting rights to all and ensuring that all votes are of equal value.
Thirdly, liberals emphasise equal opportunities, namely that everyone should get the same opportunity to succeed within society. This does not mean that liberals believe in absolute equality – that is, they do not believe that life outcomes should be the same for all and that there should not be any difference in standard of living or wealth. But the starting point should be the same for all, accepting thereafter that individuals will go in different directions during their lives. Liberals are doubtful of the idea of absolute equality, as we are all individuals with different talents and different personalities and not everyone wishes to climb in society.
The three above types of equality have been central to liberals in deciding how to achieve justice for all in society. Classical and Modern Liberalists however define equality differently. Both types of liberals agree with the definition of basic equality and formal equality. But things are quite different when discussing equal opportunities.
Classical Liberals believe that only very small steps need to be taken to give equal opportunities to members of society. They believe that if there are arrangements for ensuring formal equality, and that the legal and political arrangements do not give any group an unfair advantage (e.g. that some jobs are given to men only or that education is available to white people only), it can be said that equal opportunity exists for all. In other words, for Classical Liberals, equal opportunity means the removal of every formal obstacle to progress in society. In comparison, Modern Liberals believe that much more needs to be done. For these liberals, not only does the lack of any formal legal or political obstacles need to be ensured, but also that no other social factors will impede them. So Modern Liberals believe that ensuring real equal opportunities requires the state to provide education and healthcare for all. They believe that a level playing field can only be achieved through the giving of social support, with equal opportunities to climb in society.
Tolerance and pluralism
As there are many different individuals in society, there is a wide range of moral, cultural and political ideas and practices. Liberals strongly believe in tolerance of diversity. They believe that different individuals can only live free lives if people are willing to accept that others will, perhaps, choose to think or behave in a manner with which they do not agree. The emphasis on tolerance and the connection between that and individual freedom goes back a long way in the history of liberalism. It received much attention in the work of early liberals such as John Locke (1689) and specifically in his defence of religious freedom. In his famous writing, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Locke stated that state intervention was not right in the task of ‘looking after the souls of men’.
But some liberals believed that society is more than something to be tolerated, that includes moral, cultural and political diversity. They believe that social pluralism should be considered as positive and that it should be celebrated and promoted. For example, in his famous volume, On Liberty (1859), J.S. Mill argued for a society that allows many different ideas and that discusses them openly. He believed that this would promote discussion, learning and social progress.
Individualism is a completely central liberal principle. It means that liberals believe that individual welfare should come before social welfare, or the welfare of any other collective group. They believe that people are different individuals in the first place, and that this fact is important. First, each individual person is unique with their own character, taste and identity. They also believe that each person is equal in moral status, as everyone, in the first place, is an individual.
Following this, liberals want to create a society that will allow people to succeed and develop, living their lives as they wish. This means that liberals are doubtful of any political viewpoint that attempts to control too much of an individual’s life, without leaving them to follow their own course in life.
However, although individualism has been a very important principle in liberal work of all kinds over the centuries, liberals have not always agreed how to define it. The American liberal, John Dewey (1931), explained that within liberalism some believe in ‘abstract individualism’ and others in ‘social individualism'.
Liberalists have looked at individualism in very different ways over the years. Despite these differences, each liberal agrees nevertheless on the general point, that priority should be given to individual welfare. In other words, the individual is the starting point for every liberal – the most important unit.