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Philosophy – Ray Kerkmez Research Paper




Philosophy of Liberalism

by Ray Kerkmez  LLM, MDR

Liberalism generally encompasses the significance of freedom and equality in the treatment of individuals. Advocates of liberalism view the phenomenon from different angles depending on how they understand it. [1] However, most of them call for fundamental views such as liberal democracy, protection of human rights, freedom of religion, constitutionalism, capitalism and free and fair elections. These are principles that are widely accepted by even groups that don’t openly advocate for liberalism. [2] Liberalism includes numerous customs but the major trends are classical and social liberalism. Classical liberalism gained its momentum in the eighteenth century while social liberalism became popular in the twentieth century. Liberalism came to light during the era of revolution when many governments comprised of monarchies, dictatorial regimes, colonialism and hereditary regimes. [3]Liberalism was the major driving force during this period. People were so much tired of oppression and dictatorship and as such they united to fight for their own rights and freedom. [4] This paper takes a deeper insight into the philosophy of liberalism, the different forms of liberalism as well as different critics of liberalism. Contributions of major liberal philosophers will also be highlighted.

The philosophy of liberalism was very popular during the struggle for independence in Africa and America as well as other countries which were under colonial period for decades. One of the earliest proponents of liberalism is John Locke who received a lot of credit for his philosophical work. [5] Locke mainly advocated for respect of human rights by the government. He held that the people had the power to forcefully overthrow oppressive governments. Those in authority were subject to the approval of the governed. Even though citizens have a responsibility of respecting and submitting to the authorities, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they submit to unjust and oppressive laws. [6] The right to life, property and liberty were fundamental to every individual. The American and French revolution are good examples were the philosophy of liberalism was very significant to the achievement of political independence. The French and the American justified the overthrow of tyrannical political regimes through liberal philosophy. [7] Numerous political regimes were established across Europe and America as a result of liberalism. Further spread of liberalism was seen in the twentieth century during the two world wars. Liberalism has played a crucial role in the establishment of democratic republics, protection of civil human rights, freedom of religion, globalisation and enhancement of social welfare. In fact, it has been the answer to the modernity question. [8]

In the last four centuries, there have been a lot of quest for liberalism right from the English Civil War to the Cold War. This was mainly as a result of response to European religious wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, the first major push for liberalism was during the American Revolution. [9] The phenomenon exploded fully as an uprising to end political oppression. Advocates of classical liberalism mainly stressed on the significance of civil rights and free markets. After the French Revolution they were in dominance for a century. [10] The trend was accelerated by World War I and the Great Depression. Britain was also towards social liberalism in the nineteenth century which highlighted the need for social welfare. Liberalism – constitutionalism, civil rights and freedoms as well as social welfare – became widespread during the beginning of the twenty-first century. [11]

Americans were under British oppression for decades. They declared independence from the British monarchy rule in 1776 due to underrepresentation in the overseas government. [12] The Americans were determined to end the British tyrannical rule and establish a sovereign nation. The revolution resulted to numerous social and political changes including the US Bill of Rights which held some certain natural rights as fundamental to liberalism. It also sparked the French Revolution which began in 1789. [13] Its initial grievance was the enactment of human rights as stipulated under the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The year 1792 saw the establishment of the French Republic with Napoleon ruling as the first Consul for five years. [14] The impacts of the French Revolution spread to the entire European continent since it resulted to the end of feudal regimes, liberalisation of property legislation, abolition of guilds, liquidation of the Holy roman Empire, legalisation of divorce, equality under the law and elimination of church courts. The metric system was also established. [15]

Most of the nineteenth century liberals advocated for a world independent of intervention by the government. They held that governments burdened individuals and as such wanted them to stop interfering with their personal lives. [16] They were calling for upholding of civil liberties and establishment of free markets. This economic-based liberalism was the main issue in Adam Smiths’s Wealth of Nations. It led to the reformation of the world of economics. Smith exclaimed that the market could self-regulate itself and as such there was no need of government intervention.[17] Liberalism calls for equality before the law, freedom of speech and a government that respects and upholds the rights and freedoms of the governed. All forms of liberalism share a common legacy even though philosophers contemplate that their schools of thought are contradictory. [18] Different liberal philosophers have different perspectives depending on times, cultures and geographical locations. Philosophers have attached numerous adjectives to liberalism ranging from classical, social, ethical, deontological, perfectionist, democratic, economic, welfare-state to institutional, among many others. These are different perspectives used by liberal philosophers to tackle liberalism. [19]

However, despite the variations, all these forms of liberalism bear fundamental conceptions. The very root of liberalism is the significance of humanity and the society. [20] Some of the most important elements of liberalism are individualism, egalitarian, universality and meliorism. Individualism signifies the predominance of human beings against the forces of social structures while the egalitarian element stresses the value of individual morals. [21] On the other hand, the element of meliorism emphasises that it is possible for societies to enhance their socio-political structures while universality encompasses the moral unity of human beings and marginalisation of cultural diversities. The major moral and political bases for liberalism are natural rights and the utilitarian theory. All these conceptions have resulted to the following common stands of liberalism: individual liberty, equality, property rights, pluralism, autonomy and consent. [22]

Early liberal philosophers like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza did a cross examination of the importance of government in a society which is liberal. They held that the creation of a sovereign political regime whose jurisdiction was universal was an ingredient to establishing the basic life amenities. [23] They further argued that individuals were instinctively driven by survival and the desire to preserve themselves. As such the formation of a common supreme authority which could intervene between competing desires of human beings was necessary to be free from such a perilous existence. The establishment of this supreme power could only be successful through formation of a social framework that allowed individuals to enter into a social contract with the supreme authority. [24] This would enable transfer of natural rights to this sovereign authority and individuals would get liberty and protection of life and property in return. According to these liberals, there was no a particular form of government that was the most appropriate but rather the most important belief about liberty was that it was natural and strong justification was a necessary component for its enactment. [25]

Most liberal philosophers advocated for minimum government interference and in fact termed it as a “necessary evil” in its best state. [26] It was important for governments to note that the people had the authority to overthrow them via any possible means in case of poor and oppressive governance – even if it meant violent uprising and revolt. Modern liberal philosophers argue that the government has a greater role of providing the typical means to gain from these rights. It would be utterly irrelevant for the government to guarantee individual rights without making available the practical means to benefit from the rights. [27] The early philosophy of liberalism was crucial for laying the foundation for the separation of the state and religion. Liberals held that any particular social and political structure originated from the interactions of individuals rather than divine intervention. The official administration of the state was not necessary for faith to prosper – it could do so on its own. In the modern world, liberal philosophers maintain that the most vital element of liberal philosophy is liberty. [28] Right from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, liberal philosophers viewed liberty as non-interference from the government or any other individual. They held that any individual had the liberty to his/her own unique capabilities without sabotage from any person. To them, the only form of freedom which deserved to be regarded as liberty was the one which allowed individuals to pursue their own interests in their own ways. [29]

However, the beginning of the nineteenth century saw liberty being defined in a more positive version to differentiate it from the older negative version. Thomas Hill Green, a British philosopher, was the first to develop this new conception of liberty. [30] He was strongly opposed to the idea that individuals were only driven by self-interest. Instead, he insisted on the sophisticated circumstances surrounding the development of human moral behaviour. In a bid to lay the foundation for the modern liberalism, Green argued that political and social institutions had to enhance individual freedom. According to Green, the new form of liberty was the freedom to act rather than just avoiding suffering inflicted by other individuals. However, freedom and liberty does not necessarily mean the power to do what one wishes or wills. [31] The classical form of liberalism regarded the society as composed of selfish individuals but Green’s perspective of the society is one where individuals have a responsibility to promote what is generally accepted as good. His liberalism conceptions spread quickly and within a few years, this new version had become the basis for the social and political establishment of the British Liberal Party. By the twentieth century the version had encircled most areas of the world. [32]

Liberty is very much related to democracy. In any democratic society, the institutions of governance are very much transparent and accountable and the people are given the right to elect individuals to represent them in government. [33] Political regimes that marginalise the governed in the process of decision making amount to subjecting them to tyrannical rule. Democracy too involves the respect for human rights. Any governing authority that does not uphold the rights and freedoms of its citizens can in no way be termed as democratic. Under democracy every individual is given equal and fair treatment. The voice of the governed is regarded and as such, the government cannot just dictate leadership to its subjects.[34] The government is under obligation to manifest its powers based on the commonly agreed governing legislation or the constitution. Therefore, if the government acts with powers emanating from any other source apart from the nationally agreed laws of the land, it violates the constitution and as such it deserves not to be in power under whatever definition of liberalisation. [35]

It is in these circumstances that liberalisation allows the governed to even forcefully overthrow oppressive governments. Equality, toleration and pluralism are things that can’t be sidelined when talking about liberal societies. [36] Equality is the most important characteristic of any form of liberalisation. Any type of liberalism, proposes that all individuals are equal. Thus, the right to liberty is fundamental to every individual. This means that all individuals are equal before the law and no individual is naturally entitled to enjoy the benefits of liberalisation than another one. Equality also includes equal distribution of the physical resources that individuals require in their social and economic development rather than just equality before the law. [37]Pluralism in terms of liberalisation involves propagation of opinions and customs that are a characteristic of stable social institutions. Liberalism does not advocate for conformity to the thinking of people but establishing a government that accommodates conflicting opinions and perspectives but still permit the existence of these views. [38] For the philosophy of liberalism, pluralism easily results to toleration. Since there is variance of viewpoints, advocates of liberalism maintain that individuals should be in a position to respect the divergent opinions of other individuals. Initially, toleration was associated with religion. According to some liberals, different groups from different societies vary in what they term as ethical standards and as such individuals should be at liberty to make decisions independently – without any form of interference from other individuals or the state. [39]

Even though the philosophy of liberalism has been very instrumental in revolutionising social and political structures it has received some critics. [40]For instance, some scholars contemplate that it resulted to feminism even though others hold that liberal democracy is not sufficient for feminist objectives to be realised. Liberalism in terms of feminism advocates for gender equality. The continued existence of barriers to gender equality undermines the liberties guaranteed to individuals by a liberal society. [41] Female advocates of liberalism argue that liberalism cannot be talked about when women are still marginalised. There is need to expand the territories of liberalism so that the voice of women can be regarded in the political set up of liberal societies. Another enemy of liberalism is conservatism. [42]Conservatives hold that some preoccupations hinder the continuity of traditional social norms practiced by communities. In addition, Karl Marx was strongly opposed to the aspects behind the foundation of liberalism. He was for eradicating the liberal difference between the individual and the society and collectively joining the two into a unit that would overthrow the nineteenth century capitalism trend. [43] Marx was not certain about the link between liberalism and socialism. After Marx, the most successful form of socialism – social democracy – came into existence. Social democracy aims to rectify the inherent defects of capitalism by cutting the inequalities of an economic system. However, strong similarities exist between social liberalism and social democracy. [44]

Liberalism is commonly quoted as the central principle of modernity. In the political arena throughout the world, liberalism is extensively spread out. [45]Liberal parties and other institutions are a common phenomenon in many nations even though they campaign for different grievances depending on their ideological course. One common thing shared by liberal groups is advocacy for civil rights and democracy. [46] Any contemporary society has liberal roots as one of its fundamental elements. Early forms of liberalism popularised economic distinctiveness. One of the major driving forces behind liberalism was replacing absolutist and royalist rule with a written decision-making process. Advocates of liberalism created a constitutional legislation that prioritised fundamental individual freedoms and liberties such as the freedom of expression and speech. [47] These political changes highlighted the modern transition authority based on a constitution rather than absolutism. The incorporation of liberalism into free markets was another major achievement. However, before markets were established, liberals destroyed the existing traditional world economic structures. Mercantilist policies, internal barriers to trade, royal monopolies and other obstacles to economic activities were terminated. Liberalism later gained more momentum when the need to expand civil rights arose. [48]

For instance, the main ingredient of the 1960s and 1970s US Second Wave of Feminism were liberal feminist organisations like the National Organisation for Women. These organisations not only advocated for gender equality but also racial equality. [49] As a result women were allowed to participate in elections. Furthermore, it is this wave of liberalism that has seen the formation of international organisations such as the League of Nations which was later renamed to the United Nations after the Second World War. Since the eighteenth century, the idea of worldwide liberalism has subjugated the views of liberals. [50] The flourishing of liberalism in domestic boundaries has resulted to possibilities of international liberalism, even though its opponents maintain that it can lead to loss of national sovereignty. There were also fears that democracies were corrupt and were not capable of either domestic or global authority. [51] Some scholars hold that international liberalism is the only inclusive and hope bearing vision of the affairs of the world. Therefore, liberalism has had significant influences. Approximately, forty countries in the world had liberal democracies but by 2008 the number had gone above eighty. Currently, most of the wealthiest and powerful countries in the word are characterised by liberal democracies that encompass extensive social well-being. [52]



 Liberalism is as old as history. It has been there for ages. It has been the basis for modern social and political structures. Liberalism gained momentum during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when nations in America and Europe were reforming their political structures. Individuals were tired of oppressive rule comprised of monarchies and dictatorial regimes. The same happened in Africa during the struggle for independence in the twentieth century. Liberalism has many forms ranging from classical, economic to modern liberalism. However, they all share common attributes i.e. equality before the law and protection of human rights are the major grievances for any liberal group. The government is charged with the responsibility of treating its citizens equally and fairly. A government that doesn’t prioritise equality and justice in its institutions of governance should be overthrown – even if it means a forceful eviction. Liberalism has had major impacts domestically and internationally among them globalisation. In the modern world, liberalism has taken different forms including push for gender equality in social and political structures, protection of child and human rights as well as respect for the rights of the marginalised and the underprivileged in the society.

[1] J Rawls, (2005). Political liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press

[2] R Chau, (2009). Liberalism: A Political Philosophy. Retrieved 6, June, 2011 from:

[3] J C Goodman, (2010). What is Classical Liberalism? Retrieved 7 June, 2011 from:

[4] J Narveson & S Dimock, (2000). Liberalism: new essays on liberal themes. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers

[5] J Locke, (2008). Of Civil Government: The Second Treatise. Rockville: Wildside Press LLC

[6] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2001). John Locke (1632-1704). Retrieved 6 June, 2011 from:

[7] C H Mcllwain, (2005). The American Revolution: a constitutional interpretation. Clark: The Law book Exchange

[8] (2007). John Locke. Retrieved 6 June, 2011 from:

[9] See above n 7 and accompanying text.

[10] R M Johnston, (2009). The French Revolution. Teddington: The Echo Library

[11] C H Mcllwain, (2005). The American Revolution: a constitutional interpretation. Clark: The Law book Exchange

[12] Ibid 76.

[13] Ibid 76.

[14] Ibid 77.

[15] Ibid 77.

[16] R Raico, (2011). The Rise, Fall and Renaissance of Classical Liberalism, Part 1. Retrieved 7 June, 2011 from: 

[17] Ibid 112.

[18] J Narveson & S. Dimock, (2000). Liberalism: new essays on liberal themes. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers

[19] See above n 16 and accompanying text.

[20] J Narveson & S Dimock, (2000). Liberalism: new essays on liberal themes. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers

[21] Ibid 56.

[22] J Narveson & S Dimock, (2000). Liberalism: new essays on liberal themes. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers

[23] J Gray, (2000). Two Faces of Liberalism. New York: New Press

[24] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2001). John Locke (1632-1704). Retrieved June 6, 2011 from:

[25] R A Epstein, (2003). Skepticism and Freedom: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

[26] Ibid.

[27] J Narveson & S Dimock, (2000). Liberalism: new essays on liberal themes. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers

[28] Ibid 34.

[29] R A Epstein, (2003). Skepticism and Freedom: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[30] D Lal, (2006). Reviving the Invisible Hand: The Case for Classical Liberalism in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press

[31] E A Reitan, (2004). Liberalism: Time-Tested Principles for the Twenty-First Century. Lincoln: University, Inc.

[32] See above n 29 and accompanying text.

[33] R Forst, (2002). Contexts of justice: political philosophy beyond liberalism and communitarianism. Los Angeles: University of California Press, Ltd

[34] Ibid.

[35] P J Kelly, (2005). Liberalism. Malden: Polity Press

[36] E F Paul & J Paul, (2007). Liberalism: old and new, Part 1. New York: Cambridge University Press

[37] Ibid 98.

[38] Ibid 99.

[39] P J Kelly, (2005). Liberalism. Malden: Polity Press

[40] Ibid 67.

[41] Ibid 67.

[42] J Gray, (2000). Two Faces of Liberalism. New York: New Press

[43] Ibid 34.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid 35.

[46] Ibid 45.

[47] R R Williams, (2001). Beyond liberalism and communitarianism: studies in Hegel’s Philosophy of right. New York: State University of New York Press.

[48] Ibid 102.

[49] L T Hobhouse, (2009). Liberalism. Teddington: The Echo Library.

[50] M G Raskin, (2004). Liberalism: the genius of American ideals. Lanham: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

[51] See above n 49 and accompanying text.

[52] Ibid 40.




Chau, R. (2009). Liberalism: A Political Philosophy. Retrieved 6 June, 2011 from:  

Epstein, R. A. (2003). Skepticism and Freedom: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Forst, R. (2002). Contexts of justice: political philosophy beyond liberalism and communitarianism. Los Angeles: University of California Press, Ltd 

Goodman, J. C. (2010). What is Classical Liberalism? Retrieved 7 June, 2011 from:

Gray, J. (2000). Two Faces of Liberalism. New York: New Press

Hobhouse, L. T. (2009). Liberalism. Teddington: The Echo Library

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2001). John Locke (1632-1704). Retrieved 6 June, 2011 from: 

Johnston, R.M. (2009). The French Revolution. Teddington: The Echo Library 

Kelly, P. J. (2005). Liberalism. Malden: Polity Press

Lal, D. (2006). Reviving the Invisible Hand: The Case for Classical Liberalism in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Locke, J. (2008). Of Civil Government: The Second Treatise. Rockville: Wildside Press LLC

Mcllwain, C. H. (2005). The American Revolution: a constitutional interpretation. Clark: The Law book Exchange

Narveson, J. & Dimock, S. (2000). Liberalism: new essays on liberal themes. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers

Paul, E. F. & Paul, J. (2007). Liberalism: old and new, Part 1. New York: Cambridge University Press

Raico, R. (2011). The Rise, Fall and Renaissance of Classical Liberalism, Part 1. Retrieved 7 June, 2011 from: 

Raskin, M.G. (2004). Liberalism: the genius of American ideals. Lanham: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group

Rawls, J. (2005). Political liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press

Reitan, E. A. (2004). Liberalism: Time-Tested Principles for the Twenty-First Century. Lincoln: University, Inc (2007). John Locke. Retrieved 6 June, 2011 from:

Williams, R.R. (2001). Beyond liberalism and communitarianism: studies in Hegel’s Philosophy of right. New York: State University of New York Press

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