Liberalism was developed during the Enlightenment – the European period of history during which people moved away from superstition, such as religion, and towards logical thinking. ‘Reason’ theorists began to believe that people were capable of working out, in a logical fashion, what was in their own best interests.
This idea goes against paternalism (allowing a ‘fatherly’ figure of authority make decisions for you). Reason was closely associated with the continuous progress of humanity through logical thought. Liberals believe in education for this reason and dismiss tradition for traditions sake.
Liberals believe in reason because they have faith in human nature to make the correct decisions, so their view of human nature is quite positive- much more positive than the conservative view. Liberals believe that through reasoned logical thought humans continually advance their amounts of knowledge from one generation to the next.
A potential problem with allowing people to be guided by their own motivations and thoughts is that they may be selfish or make the ‘wrong’ decisions. Liberals promote discussion and debate, but this might lead individuals into conflict with each other.
However, liberals believe it is better for self-development for people to make mistakes and learn from them. Also, the debate of issues though reason and logic will lead to peaceful solutions and a development of human knowledge. This process highlights the cost of ignoring reason, for instance conflict and bloodshed. War therefore should only be used as a last resort, after reasoned discussion has failed.
Equality & Social Justice
Justice means that moral judgements are made about a person’s actions and those actions are either rewarded or punished accordingly. Social justice is about providing people with their fair share of the materials and resources that exist in society (for example wealth, housing and so on). Liberals hold justice fairness as important because they believe in different kinds of equality.
Liberals believe in foundational equality – the belief that all human beings, no matter who they are, are born equal. This means that they have the same human or ‘natural’ rights and have the same moral worth.
They also believe in formal equality, including equality before the law. This is the idea that no humans should be given any kind of social status above those of other people. They would reject class-based hierarchical systems or titles, or racism, sexism or cultural discrimination. The most important types of formal equality are legal and political equality, as this means that the state must treat everyone the same. This is supported by the idea that everyone should get one vote.
Liberals also believe in the idea of equality of opportunity, the idea that every person should have the same chance to achieve something, take part in something or become something they want to. This idea promotes meritocracy, the idea that people achieve things though their skills and hard work (merit). They would reject the socialist idea of equality of outcome (social equality) as this would not reflect the differing talents and work people contribute to society. Although early liberals did not extend these equalities to women, modern liberals fully support them as applied to all social groups.
There are differing views in liberalism as to how equality is best achieved. Classical liberals suggested that the state should leave people alone and let them achieve what they can from birth, regardless of the situation they were born into. Modern liberals argue that the state should try to raise the less privileged to give them an equal or more equal opportunity to achieve the same as others. This idea is expressed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1970), who said ‘economic inequality is only justifiable if it works to benefit the poorest in society’.
As previously seen, liberals see a state as necessary. Individuals would recognise that it would be in their interests to sacrifice a portion of their freedom to have protection through a system of laws. Therefore, there is a (hypothetical) ‘social contract’ between the state and the people. This theory was explained by John Locke in Two Treatieses of Civil Government (1690).
“Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
Social contract theory suggests that political authority comes from below- from the people. The people in a society create the state by and for individuals, and it exists to protect and serve their interests. It arises out of their consent and so implies that they do not have an absolute obligation to obey all state action and decisions. When government breaks the terms of their contract the people have the right to refuse it and rebel. The state’s key role is to be a neutral arbiter (umpire) in society, not to represent the interests of one group in society over others. Its role is to enforce the laws of the land, particularly agreements between individuals (contracts), and not to take sides.
Liberals support democracy as it gives consent, and therefore legitimacy, to government. It is a useful protection against the tyranny of government, as the people effectively have a say in what the government is doing, for example how taxes are being spent (‘no taxation without representation’). It is also the only way to achieve ‘utility’- promoting the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number. Mill suggested that, if unrestrained, democracy leads to tyranny. But without democracy, ignorance and brutality prevail. Democracy promotes participation and education- an idea known as developmental democracy. Finally, democracy is the only way of creating harmony in a modern society, as it reflects the interests of various groups.
Despite the close link between liberalism and democracy, some early liberals saw democracy as dangerous. This is because it amounts to rule by ‘the masses’ at the expense of individual wisdom, and it does not allow for the fact that some people may be much better informed and educated than others, yet everyone receives one vote. Mill even advocated the granting of more votes to the educated as a way of addressing this. Democracy also rejects the concept of the individual in favour of will of the group, as it is a form of majoritarianism, or the rule of ‘the 51%’. Democracy can lead to a ‘tyranny of the majority’ (quote by Alexis de Tocqueville), as whatever the majority vote is, will be the decision that is made. However, modern liberals would reject these criticisms, suggesting that as long as democracy is limited and monitored by a constitutional framework, then it is the best way of protecting the freedoms and promoting the views of the greatest number of people.