Social and Political Philosophy: Contemporary Perspectives

By James P. Sterba | Go to book overview

7

LIBERALISM AND FREEDOM

John Deigh

I

It is a commonplace of intellectual history that what chiefly separates the political thought of the moderns from that of the ancients and the medievals is a concern with individual freedom. Rousseau, in the most famous line from the Social Contract, expressed this concern brilliantly when he wrote, “L’homme est né libre et partout il est dans les fers.” 1 One can only marvel at how much of modern political philosophy Rousseau crystallized in these twelve words. It is the birthright of every human being to be free, and it is the task of political philosophy to find an arrangement of the institutions and practices of political society that will secure this right for each of its members. A society that falls short of this ideal is an unjust society. It denies some of its members this right. It keeps them in chains.

Liberalism is the tradition that we most closely identify with the search for this ideal. Its hallmark is the defense of individual liberty against various forms of tyranny that are justified and prosecuted in the name of some other, allegedly higher ideal: higher, its proponents will argue, because it is of greater importance in the grand scheme of things than the life of an individual, or because it is of greater importance than liberty to an individual’s life. Liberalism opposes all such claims, and it has been the primary bulwark against the authoritarian, totalitarian, and supremacist programs to which they give rise. At the same time, though liberalism is first among movements and theories of modern political thought in its concern with individual liberty, the concern is not exclusive to it. Anarchism too, in some of its forms, springs from this concern. And it is also a principal theme in Marx’s early writings, the essay “On the Jewish Question,” the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and The German Ideology.

Of course, there are large disagreements across these movements and theories, not only about what interferences with action count as violations of individual liberty, but also about the very notion of individual liberty: whether it is an essentially negative notion, as Hobbes argued, or has some

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