Liberalism : Core Themes

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  • Liberalism : Core Themes; The Primacy of the Individual
    • Individualism
      • Individualism is the most fundamental feature of liberalism relating to human nature. It is the unique feature that distinguishes it from other ideologies.
      • Individualism is the belief in the supreme importance of the individual over any social group or collective body.
      • Atomism - A belief that society is made up of a collection of self-interested and largely self-sufficient individuals, or atoms rather than social groups.
      • The state constitutes an inherent threat to individual autonomy as it is controls human behaviour, taking responsibility away from individuals and restricting their freedom to act. Liberals have therefore argued that it should be strictly limited in its scope and power. (Classical Liberals)
      • However some liberals believe the state was necessary, it should become a ‘nightwatchman state’ protecting individuals from harm. Adam Smith (1723-90) said that it had only three legitimate functions, maintaining a system of justice, defence against foreign aggression and maintaining public works. (Modern Liberals)
      • John Locke (1632-04) justified this as a small social contract theory, individuals surrender a small part of their autonomy so social life can continue. The state can only exist because individuals agree to it existing. (Modern Liberals)
      • Individuals should enjoy maximum possible freedom - consistent with a like freedom for all.
    • Freedom
      • Maximise freedom within limits.
      • Liberty - only way people can develop their skills and talents and fulfill their potential.
      • Classical liberals - Believe in minimal intervention - negative freedom to ensure people have as much liberty as possible.
      • Modern liberals - Believe in an enabling state - positive freedom - their intervention is positive as it enables individuals for the state to intervene and give the individuals some support and more freedom.
      • John Stuart Mill ‘ The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’.
    • Reason
      • Faith in reason - to release the desires of human beings from superstition and ignorance. Believes that humans are rational thinking creatures and are capable of defining and pursuing their own best interests.
      • A strong bias against paternalism (authority exercised from above for the guidance and support of those below, modelled on the relationship between father and child).
        • Not only does paternalism prevent individuals from making their own moral choices, and if necessary learning from mistakes.
          • It also creates the prospect that those invested with responsibility for others will abuse their position for their own ends.
      • Reason emancipates humankind from the grip of the past and from the weight of custom and tradition.
      • Education is a basis of liberalism to help give people reasoning skills so people can better improve themselves through acquisition of knowledge and the abandonment of prejudice and superstition.
      • Rationalism is the belief that the world has a rational structure, and this can be disclosed through the exercise of human reason and critical enquiry.As a philosophical theory, rationalism is the belief that knowledge flows from reason rather than experience and contrasts with empiricism.
    • Justice
      • A moral standard of fairness and impartiality; social justice is the notion of a fair or justifiable distribution of wealth and rewards in society.
      • Justice is the idea about giving each person what he or she is ‘due’.
      • The liberal theory of justice is based on a belief of equality in various kinds. The first is equality where humans are seen to be ‘born’ equal in the sense that each individuals is of equal worth, an idea embodied in the notion of natural rights or human rights.
      • Secondly the idea that individuals should share the same formal status in society,  through equality and equal citizenship. The liberals fiercely disprove of social privileges or advantages that are enjoyed by some but denied to others. (Race, gender)
      • Rights should not be reserved for any particular class, most important forms of equality are legal and political. (Equal votes in election e.g)
      • Equality of opportunity, each and every person in society should have the same chance to rise or fall in society. The game of life should be played on the same playing field.
        • However not equality of outcome or reward which leads to a belief in meritocracy (position in society determined by ability and hard work)
    • Toleration
      • Liberals believe toleration should be extended to all matters regarded as ‘private’ on the grounds that, like religion, they concern moral questions that should be left to the individual.
      • Toleration is both an ethical ideal and a social principle. On the one hand it represents the goal of personal autonomy, on the other it establishes rules about how human beings should behave towards another.
      • Sympathy for toleration and diversity is also linked to the liberal belief in a balanced society, one not riven by different interests.
      • Indeed a acceptance of pluralism (a belief in choice, or the theory that political power should be widely and evenly dispersed) can be said to be rooted in individualism and the assumption humans are separate and unique creatures
      • Although individuals and social groups pursue very different interests, liberals hold that there is a deeper harmony or balance amongst these competing interests. These interests complement each other for example workers need jobs, employers need labour.
      • The liberal social ethic is very much characterised by a willingness to accept and in some cases, celebrate  moral, cultural and political diversity. .


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