Has liberalism attached too much importance to individual liberty at the expense of other values?
There is debate over the issue that individual liberty (our little personal bubble so to speak) as become the thing we must preserve even if it means that we should sacrifice other values such as; morality, justice or the greater good. This issue has risen out of the movement of western society towards a liberalist position when it comes to tackling political issues. We can still see in modern society that some eastern cultures including China, North Korea and Russia are more willing to submit their individual liberty to a supreme leader in order to retain equality, justice (that is a justice that seems to fit the system and maybe not the justice we are thinking of) and the greater good for society, so it isn’t necessary for us to be liberal so why do we choose to follow this school of thought? What advantages does having individual freedom grant us that outweighs other important values?
It would be useful to begin by first defining what we mean when talking about liberalism. Liberalism is as the name suggests the political ideology that supports liberty (freedom). It strongly holds the idea that liberties as an individual and as a society are needed. These liberties include those such as; liberty from certain authoritarian laws, liberty from state intervention and liberty from economic control (money being an object that controls our actions and not a product of them). Another liberal idea is that progress should be supported and preserving history is close to tyranny as it limits our liberties.
So why is liberty such an important thing to have? What things does it allow us to do that are so great? First of all it allows us to live by the heart, following our desires by granting us the liberty to travel to any far, exotic land we wish to do so; liberty to express ourselves in speech or written form without fear of persecution (unlike those who suffered under the hands of Hitler’s Nazi state); liberty to practise any religion or belief we wish (unlike the Muslims and Jews by the Spanish and Roman inquisitions of Renaissance Europe). These are the advantages that western society support so strongly that they are willing to abandon other values in the name of liberalism since it allows us to reach happiness through answering our desires. But the main debate is over whether placing so much importance on individual liberty in place of other values is actually healthy or are we moving away from an ideal state where morality and justice are ignored?
As great as liberalism sounds in promising us happiness through liberty it does contain its flaws. One of them includes the inconsistency in whether we should preserve individual Liberty under Mill’s harm principle. According to the harm principle the state should only ever interfere with individual liberty if our action(s) is going to cause harm to another, so in the case of drunken men demanding beer at the local tavern it is completely acceptable for the law to step in and say “sorry you’ve had too much already we are now stripping you of your liberty to enjoy a beer until you sober up.”, this is because drunken men are quite capable of starting a violent dispute with an innocent member of the public causing significant physical harm.
However Mill doesn’t make explicit as to whether offence also counts as a form of harm so if someone shouts at the top of their voice “Oi fish face!” to someone across the room would cause them offence and emotional harm but according to the vagueness of the principle that offender is still allowed to retain his liberty.
Devlin questions this claiming that public offence should be avoided as well as physical harm as it goes against morality, a value the law has been put in place to preserve. As the offence causes pain and not happiness it is an immoral act and should therefore be forbidden but for the liberal it should be permitted in order to retain our personal liberty of speech. This means that liberalism is placing liberty over morality and is willing to allow morality to be dismissed if it limits liberty.
The well known political philosopher Marx also had his opinions on whether liberalism goes to far with individual liberty. He claims that if we let liberalism continue then we are setting up a false equality where we may all have the same liberties but all of us may not be free to enjoy them, hence our liberty and equality is merely an illusion. Liberalism as mentioned earlier encourages progress so it supports a capitalist approach to life, unless we are talking about communist-liberalism but for now we shall remain with general liberalism. Under capitalist thinking those who make the most progress are allowed to make the most money whereas those with the least skill and make very little progress are to become poor and gain little economic power. Marx comments on how this develops a hierarchal system for society destroying equality, a value many people in western society would hold dear as it allows them to bet treated fairly and not discriminated on account of race, class, gender et cetera. Also if others are gaining more money than others not only is it destroying equality but it is also eating away the balance of liberty since we all have the right to travel but only those with money are entitled to enjoy it under law, because by law anything not paid for legitimately is theft which would be immoral under Kant’s theory of universalisability. Again not only do we now have a system where we are unequal, but also either immoral (if we are allowed to steal a flight to another country) or unfree (if we are forced by law to pay for the flight but cannot due to the little progress we make in society).
To conclude we can see that liberalism, despite it enticing promise of equality through individual liberty from the law and the state, actually leads us astray from the ideal state. It destroys morality by allowing us to pursue acts of offensive behaviour, violence and theft in order to preserve individual liberty. Under an immoral state there would be little need for law, which is a tool to support justice and so justice as well as morality would soon crumble. Also its emphasis on progress undermines its idea of equality eating away at another value many western societies see vital for the ideal state as it stops discrimination and assists justice alongside law. So we can now see that the advantages are merely rose-tinted lenses and the truth is that liberalism places too much emphasis on individual liberty, and liberty in general, thus other vital values for an ideal state are ignored leading towards a possible decline into an anarchistic regime.