By Nigel Dower

The following essay forms part of the book “Unlocking Liberalism”, edited by Robert Brown, Gillian Gloyer and Nigel Lindsay.  The author has kindly given permission for the Social Liberal Forum to reproduce it here.


In the chapter I defend a version of liberalism which is similar to the ‘new liberalism’ of the early twentieth century of T. H. Green and L. T. Hobhouse, sometimes called social liberalism, liberal socialism or welfare liberalism. It also owes a lot to the ideas of two more modern ‘liberal’ thinkers, namely John Rawls and Amartya Sen. As such it is in broad contrast to the old or classical liberalism of the 19th Century which stressed laissez faire and the minimal state, and also to a modern influential version of liberalism called libertarianism or neo-liberalism which in some respects harks back to the earlier classical liberalism. The guiding question for me is: what makes liberty valuable? The answer put simply is that whilst it is good to have liberty in the sense of not being prevented from doing certain things, what makes it really valuable is one being able to exercise one’s liberty or exercise it properly; that is, it is in large measure valuable if the conditions are in place for the effective exercise of liberty. For instance, it is one thing to have free speech (e.g. there is no law preventing one from speaking one’s mind), it is another to be able to exercise it articulately because one has had a reasonable education. It is one thing to be free to pursue whatever hobbies one wants to (e.g. public opinion or social conventions do not make it difficult), it is another to have sufficient resources to be able to pursue interesting hobbies. For these conditions to exist for everyone in society, many things need to be in place – certain political and legal institutions, the provision of education, access to health care and various forms of social protection. For these to be in place there needs to a general commitment to social justice. Furthermore, in the modern world, if this conception of liberalism is accepted, it has serious implications for any society in the rest of the world and also to future generations who will need the conditions of liberty in place for them too. The idea of liberalism as ‘social liberalism’ does not strictly entail it, but in fact, I shall argue later in the chapter, liberalism needs to be cosmopolitan and committed to sustainability.

What follows is largely a personal exploration of what liberalism means to me today: it does not pretend to be an authoritative analysis of what diffferent liberals today may say, let alone map onto actual Libdem policies.

The worth of liberty

To get to the the heart of my main point, let me contrast the approach of John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971) with that of Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) who advocated libertarianism as a contrast to Rawls’ idea of social justice (Rawls 1971; Nozick 1974). John Rawls and Robert Nozick were American philosophers who were trying to articulate the social values that underlay a modern society such as the USA (but which they both thought were applicable universally). Rawls’ book was monumental both in size (it was some 600 pages long) and in impact, not just amongst philosophers but also amongst sociologists, political theorists, legal theorists and international relations theorists. He felt the need to articulate an essentially liberal approach in the face of a then much more worked out socialist/Marxist critique. What surprised him was that the main reaction came from the other side of the political spectrum, and one of the key figures in this reaction was Robert Nozick: basically Rawls’ view of liberalism was not a pure enough version which was libertarianism. Although there has been much water under the bridge since then in terms of the debate about what makes a society liberal, I feel that what Rawls and Nozick said still sums up a key fault line. My engagement with political philosophy was really triggered by teaching this material, so that is why I am using them in what follows.

Rawls argued for two principles that should underline the structure of a just society: the equal liberty principle and the difference principle. The equal liberty principle was that that everyone should have as much liberty as was consistent with others having the like liberty. The difference principle was about justified differences of wealth and status: basically inequalities are only justified if they lead to the worst off group being better off that under any other arrangement (because such differences contribute to the general well being of all). The latter idea has proved controversial because it is too strong a demand of justice, but the underlying thought behind it is valid. Rawls thinks that the intuition behind justice is that, were we not to know our position in society or about our abilities and attitudes  (the ‘veil of ignorance’ condition), we would want to ensure that we had both freedom and and a reasonable material basis for living (i.e. we were not too poor). In fact the two ideas are linked by another important aspect of Rawls’ account: he stresses the equal worth of liberty. We need for instance sufficient wealth, education etc. to make the exercise of liberty effective. We also need not merely laws that allow us various freedoms (movement, assembly, religion etc.) but also an effective legal framework in which laws are complied with and enforced, so that we can exercise our liberties without fear or hindrance. A necessary condition of this is that there are effective restrictions on how liberty is exercised (e.g. in labour laws and, we would now stress, environmental laws) and that there is progressive taxation e.g. to finance education and reasonable access to healthcare. One of the ways of bringing this out is through the distinction between fair equality of opportunity and formal equality of opportunity. A society might have formal equality of opportunity if jobs and public offices are open to people from whatever backgrounds, but this could be consistent with large numbers of people because of poverty or lack of education being unable to take advantage of these formal opportunities, whereas fair equality of opportunity requires that everyone has a reasonable level of wealth and education. (This is easier said than done but at least the conception of a fully just society is one in which this ideal is achieved.)

Nozick’s response to Rawls was to argue that the right to liberty, especially economic liberty, is central and to reject Rawls’ idea of distributive justice as represented by the different principle and by implication the importance of the worth of liberty as being central to its value. The right to liberty is just that, the right to as much freedom to act as one chooses, with a  ‘minimal state’ acting as a nightwatchman to maintain the rule of law, external defence and providing such public goods as are essential for everyone. Liberty for Nozick acts as a ‘side-constraint’ on what may be done to limit that liberty, it is not a goal that the state pursues (which he criticizes as an example of a ‘rights maximisation’ model). In the sphere of economic activity, what makes a transaction just is the process involved: a contract e.g. of employment or transfer of goods is just if it observes two conditions, that of non-coercion and that of non-deception. If the repeated exercise of just transactions leads to very unequal outcomes including extreme poverty, there is nothing unjust in this. Nozick’s ‘entitlement’ theory is an example of what he calls a historical account because it looks at the the history of the transactions; it is contrasted with what he calls patterned accounts (e.g. distribution according to merit) or end-state accounts (e.g. a just society is one in which there is a certain distribution of wealth). For him progressive taxation in which much more money is taken from the rich to finance services and support for the poor/disadvantaged is in effect theft from the rich because it is a denial of part of their economic freedom.

This position of Nozik’s may be rather strong even for liberals who are more drawn to the libertarian model, but the contrast with Rawls brings out a kind of fault line in liberal thought. Are we trying to create a society in which everyone has the conditions in which their liberty has a value and worth – which requires much more than a minimal state – or are we trying to create or maintain a society in which everyone is minimally restricted by law to do their own thing, even if this results in many people having a liberty which is worth very little because they are so poor, uneducated or otherwise disadvantaged? To put is another way, is a liberally  just society one in which there is, inter alia, an overall fair distribution of life opportunities, or one in which what makes a society just is the summation of lots of individual transactions between individuals that happen to meet formal requirements of things like non-deception and non-coercion? (These things are by the way very important:  it is their adequacy I am questioning.)

The capabilities approach

So the crucial distinction is I am suggesting between promoting freedom as a formal set of limits on others and the state, and promoting freedom as promoting the conditions which enable freedoms to be exercised effectively. This is very much the theme of a modern influential economist/philosopher Amartya Sen, who along with a number of others such as Martha Nussbaum, promotes the ‘capabilities approach’ (Sen 1999; Nussbaum 2000). Sen’s main concern is with an adequate account of development, which he sees as multi-dimensional and not just about economic growth. His account is relevant not only for poorer countries but for richer countries like the UK. He characterizes development ‘as the process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy’, and sees it as providing the conditions in which all people are able first to develop a full range of capabilities (requiring proper nutrition, nurture and education) and then exercising these capabilities in ‘functionings’ (through a generally strong rights framework, access to work, medical aid and other forms of support) in lives which they have ‘reason to value’. For me this is a deeply ‘liberal’ conception of society and what real development is about.

Two further contrasts are worth mentioning that help to bring out the difference between the new liberalism I am broadly supporting and the more libertarian vision.

Social embeddedness

It is feature of some liberal thought – often seen as the key problem of liberalism for its critics – that liberalism involves  a conception of the individual as an ‘isolated rational chooser’ rather than as ‘flesh and blood’ people embedded in social relations. Sometimes, how fairly I am not sure, the thought of Immanuel Kant is invoked here given his account of moral autonomy. Liberalism is sometimes contrasted with communitarianism that stresses that people’s identities are shaped by community relations and shared traditions. However there is nothing in the new liberalism as such to entail commitment to a rugged individualism that sees individuals as isolated units with minimal ties and responsibilities towards others in society, and much in it to reject it. This idea of rugged individualism is more congenial to those who espouse a more libertarian view of the individual whose main duty in response to others generally (apart from family and personal relations) is simply not to harm other people (a negative duty or minimal morality conception). The new liberalism is entirely consistent with seeing  and indeed for many new liberals essentially involves seeing individuals as embedded in social relations – from family units, through local community to wider socially cohesive society with significant positive duties and responsibilities to promote justice and indeed the conditions of liberty, as I have suggested above, within that society and beyond. To achieve formal liberty all we need do is refrain from interfering; to achieve the worth of liberty requires active engagement. It does not just happen. The importance of communal relations at all levels is both intrinsic and instrumental; that is, our well-being is constituted by ‘freedom in relations’ or what Merleau-Ponty called ‘situated freedom’, but also communal relations help make people more liklely to contribute to the general interest or public good. Another way of marking the distinction between the new liberalism and libertarianism precisely turns on this point that the new liberalism is about the public interest in the sense that it is liberty and the conditions of liberty or of reasonable living for everyone that is the object of concern. By contrast for the libertarian the right to liberty is a side-constraint, as I noted earlier,  on what the state can do which is merely to allow as much of it as possible: there is no goal of promoting the public interest or common good (or if there is, it is in a much weaker sense).

The importance of other values

A further contrast has to do with how we understand the value of liberty and whether we see it as the value above all else. Is what is important that we have liberty or rather a range of liberties to do or not do certain things and so long as the state or others in society do not stop me from exercising my liberty (except where justified if my exercise invades another’s liberty), then that is all that matters? To be sure, it is central to all liberalism to say that both the possession of liberty and the exercise of liberty are important. The possession of liberty involves not merely an objective social reality in which certain things (e.g. religious practice; free speech) are indeed permitted and protected but also the subjective awareness of this, and so a person can when he chooses exercise that liberty in confidence that he will not be stopped or interfered with.

Bu the social liberalism which I am supporting goes much further than this. Apart from stressing what I have already mentioned, that what makes the possession of liberty valuable is the knowledge that one has the resources – financial, educational etc. – or the capabilities to exercise it effectively and what make the exercise of it more likely is the awareness that one can do so and do so effectively, there are two things to mention. First, liberty is partly valuable because it leads to the development of the person. This was a key idea in an early liberal thinker namely John Stuart Mill; here liberty is not merely an end in itself but a means by which a person could develop her full potential as a unique individual, or as we might say now pursue her own authentic life-journey (or as Sen would say exercise a full range of capabilities in a full or rounded life). The point here is that whilst liberty is clearly central to this possibility, the value of a full life is not exhausted in terms of liberty. What make a life go well is not merely having and exercising liberties but many other things.

This is an aspect of a more general point. If having and exercising liberties is not merely a good in itself and but also a means to something else of value, we have to ask what other things are of value. Of course one could argue that having liberty or freedom is good as a means to the further enjoyment of them later or to other liberties and freedoms, but this would I think be a very restrictive view of what human well being consists in.  Personal relationships and friendships, interesting work and hobbies and various kinds of enjoyment, the pursuit of knowledge, quite apart from basics such as not starving, being healthy and being secure, are all dimensions of a good human life, and they are all good in themselves however much or otherwise our enjoyment of them is linked the exercise of our liberties. If we as liberals stress liberty, it is not merely because it is important in its own right but because of its crucial instrumental role in make the enjoyment of all these other goods more likely. 

Once it is acknowledged that liberty is valuable not merely in its own right but as a means to many other goods, we can also readily see that these goods are goods for other people as well as oneself, including their liberites as well. To be sure the main point here is that my liberty is valuable to me because its exercise leads me to enjoy or have many other things. But we can and should be in favour of liberty because also leads (at least generally) to other people achieving well-being in various ways.  Part of the ethical value of having (effective) liberty is that it contributes to well-being generally. (For the libertarian liberal it is just this way understanding the value of liberty that is questioned – hence Nozick’s key point about the right to liberty being a side-constraint. See my comment above about the public interest.) Much of our concern for the environment for instance is premised on trying not to undermine the life conditions of people anywhere and in the future which are thought to be threatened by environmental degradation and resource scarcity which will put in question access to things like enough food, water and other basic goods. It is these goods that are the focus of attention rather than liberties themselves. 

If one goes a step further and recognises that nonhuman life has a value (or even just the sentient lives of higher animals), then our policies, insofar as they recognise the need to protect the life conditions of these living things, explicitly reflect values other than liberty values.. These are not of course values which I enjoy, let alone values I enjoy because I exercise liberty, but like the human well-being of other humans I may recognise I have inter alia a duty to promote (or at least not undermine) them. Of course not all social liberals would acknowledge that non-human living things have any intrinsic value (merely a use value to human beings) – it is not part of what liberalism means – but there is certainly nothing inconsistent for a liberal to acknowledge such a value. Whether or not one recognises this, the more general point I am making which I think is implicit in the social liberal position (which may be absent from the libertarian position that makes liberty itself the value) is that the importance of liberty rests partly on providing much of the enabling conditions for other human values – in oneself as well as in others – to be realised as well.

Further contrasts

So far I have tried to map out what I see as the main features of an approach to liberalism which may be called the new liberalism or social liberalism, and I have contrasted it to the libertarian model. I am not claiming that all liberals fall neatly into one or other camp or that these are clear-cut polarities. Many individual liberal thinkers may wish to combine elements of both.

What I want to do now is pick out five areas of thought in which liberals might take somewhat different positions. These different positions may all be taken within the broad perspective of new liberalism: they are not as such points of difference between new liberals and libertarianism or classical liberalism. They concern political liberty, multiculturalism, freedom of thought, global implications and the environment. I shall deal with the first three briefly but say more about the latter two because they are of particular importance in the modern world.

Political liberty

T. H. Marshall once argued that there are three types of rights of citizens in a state: political rights or rights to political participation, civil rights or the rights to non-interference by the state or others in such areas as freedom of thought, religion, assembly and freedom from arbitrary attack, discrimination or lack of due process, and socio-economic rights or the rights to receive various kinds of benefit, such education, health care, pensions or unemployment benefits (Marshall 1973). Classical liberalism tended to focus of civil liberties/rights in contrast to the so-called ‘liberty of the ancients’ which was the freedom to participate in ‘res publica’ of one’s state. The new liberalism I have been giving a version of very much takes to heart Marshall’s third category of rights namely social and economic rights, partly, as we have seen, because it is a bedrock of the effective exercise of civil rights. But liberalism, classical or new, does not, conceptually, make a lot of the possession and exercise of political liberty. Of course liberals have broadly been supportive of democracy, namely that citizens should have the right to choose governments in elections, and as a political party it has long been a party of active members or party activists, but the question is: how much emphasis is put on political participation in democratic processes as something important for citizens in general?

Curiously enough some thinkers actually contrast what they see as the republican conception as opposed to the liberal conception of citizenship (see e.g. Miller 1999). The republican conception is about citizens as actively engaged in res publica (‘public things’ or the public space in which Habermas saw public deliberation taking place) – not just every five years but all the time. This is important both because such active participation is crucial to a properly functioning democracy but also because such participation is actually an important part of what makes us fully human (the point that Aristotle was making when he said the ‘man is a social animal’). By contrast the so-called ‘liberal’ conception is of citizens who enjoy a whole range of rights or liberties to pursue their own conceptions of the good as they choose: whether or not they see active political engagement as part of that is accidental.  Maybe this conception of the liberties that are at the heart of liberalism is attractive to some liberals, but my thought is that actually the possession and and exercise of political liberty is an important part of what liberalism should mean today. This is not merely because I believe that participation in the affairs of one’s society is an important part of a fully human life (it gives us some sense of being marginally in control of our destiny) but because if we want the kind of society in which the other two types of rights are realised and the worth of liberty is generally secured, a vibrant society of politically active citizens is actually an important part of what is needed.


How should a liberal respond to the fact that in many modern pluralist societies such as the UK there are many different groups with different ethinic and cultural backgrounds and, often going alongside this, different faiths? Here liberals are caught in a dilemma, because on the one hand we want to espouse the freedom of groups to follow  their way of life, and on the other hand the liberal conception has historically centred on the primacy of the individual, on individual rights and on a secular basis for the promotion and protection of liberties, though of course not being opposed to religious perspective of many individuals: the liberal conception is neutral between those who have religious faith and those who have none. The trouble is that many groups are groups whose worldviews reject precisely these things in favour of a more communal conception of wellbeing and routed in some religious faith. If liberalism sticks to its radical individualism then it can at best adopt a pragmatic accommodation to groups with different perspectives. On the other hand it is possible for liberals to adopt a somewhat more generous approach by recognising that whilst liberty does indeed focus on that of individuals, it can extend to include the liberty of groups, and can, beyond mere toleration embrace multiculturalism and positive interfaith relations.  

John Rawls in his later book Political Liberalism actually grapples with this: whereas in his earlier work he was primarily concerned with ensuring the liberty of individuals to pursue ‘their conceptions of the good’, he later recognised that in modern complex societies there are differennt ‘comprehensive visions’ of different groups, and what we need is a political conception of justice that aknowledges  what he calls an ‘overlapping consensus’, which each comprehensive vision can support for its own reasons (Rawls 1993). This is however an immensely complicated issue I do not pretend to address properly. Clearly there are limits to what one may welcome, for instance if groups actually advocate a rejection of the liberal democratic order they are part of, or of course think that terrorism is a legitimate way of challenging the state and what it stand for. All I am saying is that a liberalism that is relavant to the 21st century needs to be somewhat accommodating to what may be called the liberty of groups as well as the liberty of individuals.

The value of freedom of thought

Another issue which may divide modern liberals of the ‘new liberalism’ approach is over why freedom of thought is valuable. Here I am sympathetic to an older view, one clearly articulated by John Stuart Mill, that one of the main reasons to champion freedom of thought and expression, apart from the value of people having their intellectual or spiritual journeys and thus achieving their own development, is that the ‘truth’ is more likely to emerge through the free and uninhibited exchange of ideas and arguments. This contrasts with a typically modern view that some liberal may have, along with thinkers of other political persuasions as well, that there is no truth to be had in many areas. Thus some form of relativism is held that there are no right or wrong views in areas such as ethics, political values, aesthetics or religious beliefs. (A stronger relativist or postmodern view might also hold this also for scientific ‘knowledge’ in particular and factual ‘knowledge’ in general.). I am myself sympathetic to the older view that however difficult it is to reach reasonable views in these areas, the search for moral and religious ‘truth’ or at least more rationally grounded positions and arguments is a valid one, and that open debate and discussion is the best basis for trying to achieve this . If one abandons this in favour of relativism, one has no principled basis for rejecting extremist views (since they are no worse than other views). One also deprives oneself as we will see later of a principled basis for criticising the behaviour of other countries in international relations.

This position may seem to be at odds with my advocating embracing multiculturalism above, because it may seem as though I am saying that one has to accept the variety of different religious faith positions. But the tension is only apparent not real. Apart from of course the immense practical importance of good relations between different groups, the emphasis upon dialogue and positive exchanges of views rather than argumentative confrontation is more likely to conduce to truth and indeed to the recognition that each group may have some measure of access to the truth: in religious matters it seems unlikely that one group will have the monopoly of truth anyway.

International relations

The liberalism that I am advocating is one that is firmly rooted in the recognition that if liberty is valuable for the reasons I have argued inside a country like the UK, it is valuable anywhere in the world, and that, other things being equal, we have commitments to promote and certainly not to impede the realization of liberty elsewhere. Given the analysis I have given of the worth of liberty and of how the conditions of liberty are necessary which include inter alia the basic goods of life – food, water, health, economic well-being – the argument for the universal value of liberty looks much less like an as appeal to specifically western values and more like an argument for the conditions of life that are needed anywhere in the world, whatever the differences in culture and so on. In any case if as I have argued liberalism includes the acceptance of other values as well, these other values are certainly universally applicable. So what I am advocating is a version of liberalism which is sometimes called liberal internationalism, but what I prefer to call liberal cosmopolitanism.

I am ‘advocating’ this version of liberalism because I am well aware that this account is not strictly entailed by the basic position of social liberalism. It is perfectly possible for someone to be social liberal and not accept the global approach I have outlined. That is, one could be a liberal nationalist or even a liberal communitarian. One might hold that although liberty is indeed valid elsewhere in the world, it is the task of each political community to promote and protect liberal values and other values within each political community, and maybe cooperate with other like-minded communities in certain respets. (Indeed this view is somewhat similar to that advocated by John Rawls in his last major work The Laws of Peoples (Rawls 1999); whereas I think he hit on some important truths in his earlier writings, he is not as I see it right on this issue) or one could adopt the relativism view (I mentioned earlier) and say that whilst within certain political communities (such as the UK) these values are indeed the ones accepted or appropriate given our shared traditions, they simply aren’t appropriate to other political communities with other traditions.

So why should we accept a broadly universal value framework and the idea of trans-boundary obligations to promote and not to impede human well-being anywhere?

Let me back up a little here and offer an account of cosmopolitanism. Thomas Pogge, who effectively offers a liberal cosmopolitan analysis in his influential book World Poverty and Human Rights, offers the following general definition: 

‘Three elements are shared by all cosmopolitan positions. First, individualism: the ultimate units of concern are human beings, or persons – rather than, say, family lines, tribes, ethnic, cultural or religious communities, nations, or states. … Second, universality: the status of ultimate unit of concern attaches to every living human being equally – not merely to some sub-set, such as men, aristocrats, Aryans, whites, or Muslims. Third, generality: this special status has global force. Persons are ultimate units of concern for everyone – not only for their compatriots, fellow religionists, or suchlike.’ (Pogge 2002: 169)

What makes people ultimate units of concern is that they are trying to achieve their well-being and this well-being involves as we have seen earlier not merely basic goods such as food, water, health, shelter but the conditions of a reasonable livelihood in which they are able to make effective choices. As Henry Shue argues, there three basic rights to subsistence, security and basic liberty (Shue 1996). Now whilst it is clear that not all societies in the world espouse the full account of liberties as advocated by liberals, there is a universal concern about the conditions of effective agency and control over one’s life.  That is, almost all people – ordinary people – will have this concern, whatever the prevailing political conditions are – oppressive, authoritarian, tyrannical and so on. If liberalism, as I have earlier argued, is about respecting ways of life that are not typically how self-styled liberals wish to live, then in acknowledging these, the liberal can acknowledege the unversal value of agency, even if she is vigorously opposed to many forms of political regime that denies human rights and often undermines not only the liberties that liberals hold dear but the conditions of effective agency as well. But that apart, it is important to recognize that the conditions for the effective exercise of liberties as understood by liberals are in large measure the same conditions needed for the effective realization of ways of life that are not characterized in liberal terms, then we can recognize that the basic conditions of human well-being are in many respects the same all over the world.  Since it is well recognised that in many parts of the world vast numbers of people live in conditions that do not equate with conditions for a reasonable and full life, the recognition of trans-boundary obligations or what Pogge calls global force is surely reasonable.

Why should we accept these transboundary obligations?  First let me take positive obligations to assist with development through aid. If one accepts a conception of ethics which is open is the sense that wherever we have the capacity to affect the lives of others, then in principle we should be willing, as an aspect of the altruistic dimension to ethics, to response where appropriate (the Good Samaritan princple). But apart from this altruistic    consideration, there are two further reasons that particularly apply in the modern world. First, it may be in our collective interests to ensure that people achieve well-being anywhere in the world, at one level to reduce the likelihood of conflict, at another level to encourage mutually beneficial relations in the future such as trading relations. Second, given that the world is so inter-connected now through economic and other forms of globalization, there is a sense in which we in countries in the North have benefitted so much from this, that we owe it to others who have benefitted less to do something.

But our obligations do not merely arise in respect to obligations to give aid. Perhaps more significant is the challenge of ensuring that our general trading policies  and those of large companies that operate from the North and bring large profits back to Northern countries, do not actually harm people elsewhere or in various way impede development. This claim, one that for instance Pogge is interested in making, is of course somewhat controversial, but I will merely add a few thoughts which are the tip of a large iceberg. The idea that our trading processes might not be all that good for people in poorer countries is implicitly acknowledged by the increasing interest in the UK, not least liberals and liberally minded people, in fair trade. If we prefer to buy Fairtrade bananas tea, coffee and now a whole host of other things too, it is because we implicitly acknowledge (if not explicitly assert) that bananas etc. bought otherwise come through economic relations which are not (as) fair or just. Apart from the general issue of whether the terms of trade are often sufficiently favorable to poorer counties, there are specific issues of concern such as the way the whole intellectual  property right regime (TRIPS), presided over by the WTO, seems to trap poor farmers in situations in which big companies do rather well and they don’t. There is also the whole issue of tax havens which, as things currently stand, enable big companies to avoid paying much tax in  poor countries or indeed elsewhere. Insofar as we in rich countries accept that this is how the world economy works and indeed are both beneficiaries of this and to some extent participants in this, then we have some responsibility to think of how we can reduce our dependence on processes such as these, both as individuals and as citizens of a country whose policies are in in our hands. 

There are of course other dimensions to global responsibility as well.  Apart from a commitment to aid (development assistance as well as emergency assistance) and  global economic justice, there is a commitment to other things like environmental sustainability, peace-building (including I would argue reducing our dependence on the arms trade), promotion of international law including human rights law, strengthening the United Nations,  and having  relatively open borders. In all these respects a commitment to liberalism ought to be commitment to taking the global dimension seriously.

The environment

One area where arguably we are all collectively involved in contributing to harm is indeed our contribution to climate change. Few doubt that if we collectively continue in our carbon profligate ways, we will be shoring up serious trouble for people living in the future, maybe ourselves and children, certainly our grandchildren and generations after that. Some would argue that climate change is already happening in many parts of the world, and that the negative effects are already being felt in parts of Africa for instance where the people have made a minimal contribution to the problems (and so issues of compensation and assistance with adaptations arise too). Apart from climate change, pressures on the environment are occurring in many other ways as well, largely due to the relentless drive for development, particularly development as economic growth. Land degradation, depleted fish stocks and species loss are amongst the negative effects. To be honest, in my own opinion, unless we tackle the obsession with economic growth, as well as finding all the technical solutions we can, the prospects for the future are not great. However, I am not going to say more about my own perspective but rather finish with some more general observations about sustainability and why in principle we need to be committed to sustainability. If we accept the principle, it is then up to each of us to work out what needs to be done to achieve it, and how large the changes are that are needed.

There is nothing good about sustainability itself. It all depends on what we want to sustain. If the Mafia wish to sustain their control of a city, we do not approve of either the goal or the means involved. If a very rich person wished to sustain his carbon intensive lifestyle (and was right in thinking he could do this), we would not commend it, because we would feel he has not asked the obvious  universalizability question ‘could everyone do this?’ so we have to decide what things ought be sustained. Most people would recoil from the idea that all we need be concerned with is sustaining the conditions for a reasonable life for those living in our own country now. Why?  Because we recognize that future generations have a right to reasonable conditions of life insofar as it is possible for us to enable them to have these, and because we recognize that people in other counties also have a right to reasonable conditions of life. If we put these two thoughts together , the answer is that whatever we do, it should as far as possible be consistent with enabling all people present and future to achieve the conditions of a reasonable life. (If we acknowledge as I said earlier that non-human life has a value, that needs to be factored in too! But I put that aside here.)

If people elsewhere matter (cosmopolitanism) and future generations matter, then sustaining reasonable life conditions for all present and future is the very least that sustainability is all about. This goal is I believe achievable (just). To restrict our concern to our own country or to time present is morally partial and arbitrary. On the other hand, whilst clearly some growth is needed particularly in respect to the least well-off, the goal of universal economic growth for all present and future is I believe quite unrealistic. (It is a commitment to what Herman Daly called ‘the impossibility theorem’.) There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we think of what human well-being consists in. This is another big topic, though it is worth adding that the capabilities approach of Sen and others by focusing on the many dimensions of human well-being over and above economic well-being is a useful way into this re-evaluation.

My account of the scope of sustainability and what it entails is not self-evident from the point of view of a liberal or indeed a social liberal. There could be two sources of resistance. First, a liberal may not be cosmopolitan, as I indicated in the previous section, and thus have reservations about the extent of our obligations to people elsewhere in the world. Or he might have theoretical reservations about whether the current generation can have obligations to future generations who do not yet exist (there is quite a philosophical literature about such skepticism and there is no reason why a liberal might not be persuaded by this!). My earlier arguments about open morality extending as far as our capacity for effective agency extends applies in both cases. And if there was ever a case of collective self-interest requiring urgent collective action, the case of climate change is it. The argument that future generations don’t exist and we don’t know who they will be seems irrelevant if one considers that one day they will exist and when they exist they will have their well-being, needs and rights and that seems to make them relevant objects of our concern  if what we do can affect them. (The fact that they cannot reciprocate seems irrelevant since reciprocity is not the only or even main basis for ethical relations.)

Most likely a liberal will not be tempted by these two lines of thought. However she might well accept the scope of sustainability (everyone present and future) but be much more optimisic about the possibility of business, development or life conceptions as usual, and so propose less radical solutions to our environmental problems. Here our differences are not ethical or theoretical but based on significantly different empirical or factual readings of our environmental situation (perhaps she is even a climate sceptic!). If so the discussion has to move into a scientific investigation into the facts of the matter (where one hopes that open debate will, as Mill noted, lead to the truth on these matters). All that remains for me to say, as an ethical theorist interested in liberalism, is this: whatever the liberal’s ‘take’ on the empirical facts about our environment, the main thing is the moral commitment to sustainability as I have outlined it, and then to asking in the light of that commitment ‘what can I advocate that I honestly believe is achievable?’.


I have outlined an approach to liberalism in the tradition of new/social liberalism which stresses both that for liberty to have its full value, background conditions need to be in place which enable th effective exercise of liberty, and these background conditions require more than the minimal state and things such as progressive taxation to fund education, free health service and so on. It also acknowledges that liberty is not mere an end in itself but a means to the realization of a range of other human goods. It also recognizes that as individuals in society we have obligations to provide the conditions of liberty; we are not isolated individuals whose rights to liberty act as side-constraints to what other may do. To this basic conception of social liberalism I have added a number of further aspects which whilst not strictly entailed by social liberalism, are reasonable additions. First, a commitment to political liberty as an expression of active citizenship. Second, a commitment to multiculturalism and a recogntion of the right/liberty of groups as well as of individuals. Third, a recognition of the importance of freedom of thought residing in the greater likelihood of truth emerging rather than in the claim that there is no truth to emerge (relativism). Fourth, an understanding of liberalism as cosmopolitan both is regard to a broadly universal idea of agency and choice as valuable and in regard to trans-boundary obligations both to support and not to undermine human well-being elsewhere. Fifth, an account of sustainability as a commitment to doing what we can to enable all people present and future to enjoy the conditions of a reasonable life. No modest task but this is what we owe to our fellow human beings.


Marshall, T. H. (1973). Class, Citizenship and Social Development. Westport CN: Greenwood Press.

Miller, D. (1999). ‘Bounded citizenship’. In K. Hutchings & R. Dannreuther (eds) (1999). Cosmopolitan Citizenship. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2000). Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pogge, Th. (2002). World Poverty and Human Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 

Rawls, J. (1993). Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rawls, J. (1999). The Law of Peoples. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Sen. A. (1999). Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shue, H. (1996). Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.


“Unlocking Liberalism” was published in 2014 and can be ordered through any bookseller by quoting ISBN: 978-178456-091-1. It can also be ordered by post, for £9.50, from Liberal Futures, 4, Church Road, Bo’ness, EH51 OEL.   

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