Understanding Liberalism: Philosophy 101

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Justice" by Michael Sandel. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is liberalism in philosophy? What is the basic tenet of liberalism?

The school of the political philosophy of liberalism developed during the Enlightenment (a period of rapid scientific and ideological change in 17th- and 18th-century Europe). Yet, it still strongly influences many modern political institutions with its emphasis on reason.

Keep reading to learn about the key tenets of liberalism and the different views within the school.

Maximizing Reason: Liberalism

In political philosophy, liberalism tries to separate politics from people’s personal backgrounds, identities, and moral beliefs. Instead, liberals argue that people should use logic and reason to discuss politics, law, and justice. Much like libertarians (an offshoot of the liberal tradition), liberals argue in favor of a “value-neutral” state that avoids promoting any one moral code over another and leaves people free to live their lives as they see fit. To this end, liberalism supports freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, and universal laws that apply equally to everyone regardless of their identity, background, or beliefs. 

(Shortform note: To understand why liberal philosophers argued for a “value-neutral” state, it helps to consider the history of liberalism. Liberalism mainly derives from John Locke’s response to contemporary events. Specifically, Locke was responding to the European wars of religion—decades of internal and external conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. At the time, religious and political questions were linked, as the dominant ideology of Europe was the theory that monarchs were appointed by God to rule (known as divine right monarchy). Locke believed that mixing religion and politics led to the horrible violence of his time, and that a political ideology independent of any specific religion would help preserve stability.)

Sandel discusses two philosophers to represent the classic and modern views of liberalism: 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant and 20th-century American philosopher John Rawls.

Classic Liberalism: Kantianism

Kant’s moral and political views emphasize reason above all else. Sandel explains that according to Kant, actions aren’t moral unless you decide on them through purely rational deliberation. Kant argues that if you don’t make a choice entirely through reason, then you’re making it due to innate instincts and preferences—things you have no control over. Therefore, that choice wasn’t freely made.

For example, if you work at your job to make money for groceries and a place to live, then Kant argues your choice to work isn’t freely chosen and therefore isn’t a moral action—it’s not motivated by your purely rational view of what’s morally best, but rather by your self-preservation instinct to seek food and shelter.

Kant explains that to freely make a moral choice, you must dutifully and unconditionally obey a moral law that you create for yourself. Or, to put it more simply, you must do what’s moral only because it’s the moral thing to do and not for any other reason. 

Kant argues that to be entirely rational, moral laws must meet two standards (called the “categorical imperative”):

1) Moral laws must work universally. To test if a moral law derives entirely from reason, consider how it would function if everyone followed it. If it doesn’t work universally, then it’s based at least partially on personal preference rather than entirely on reason. For example, John is furious at his annoying neighbor and thinks, “I should hurt people who disrespect me.” However, if everyone dutifully followed that law, there would be massive and perpetual cycles of violence. Therefore, John’s law is based on preference and isn’t moral. 

2) Moral laws can’t use rational beings as a means to an end. As previously explained, a moral law that you follow for its own sake has inherent value—you follow it because it’s the morally right thing to do, not because it gets you something else. Kant argues that human life is the same way: Rational humans live life for its own sake and not for some other external goal. And since we live just to be alive, then living must have inherent value. Therefore, Kant believes that moral laws must respect the inherent value of human life. This means recognizing that human life is an end in itself and not using others (or ourselves) as a means to an end.

For example, John wants to punch his annoying neighbor. However, if he did that he’d be using his neighbor as a means to the end of getting out his anger and feeling better about himself. Therefore, according to the categorical imperative, John punching his neighbor is immoral. 

Modern Liberalism: Rawlsianism

For a more contemporary example of liberalism, Sandel discusses 20th-century American philosopher John Rawls. While Rawls has the same goal as Kant—defining justice entirely through reason—he approaches it in a different way. Instead of appealing to universal moral laws, Rawls focuses entirely on how a group of equally competent and entirely rational individuals would organize society. This organization would determine the distribution of benefits (wealth, political power, rights) and obligations (laws, expectations). Essentially, Rawls tries to define justice in a way that he says any rational and self-interested person could agree with.

To that end, Rawls creates a thought experiment he calls “the original position.” In the original position, everyone comes together as rational, self-interested equals to debate the definition of justice until they find one that everyone agrees with. In this hypothetical, people don’t know the specific circumstances of their lives—things like wealth, religion, race, sexuality, and so on. This means people will argue for terms that apply fairly to everyone regardless of their circumstances. For example, in the original position, Tom doesn’t know how wealthy he is. Therefore, he won’t argue for terms that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor—for all he knows, he’s poor (or could become poor). 

Rawls suggests that the original position results in two terms (or something similar to them):

  1. Everyone has guaranteed basic individual rights. 
  2. Inequalities of power and money can exist, but only when they benefit the less fortunate (and the least fortunate most of all).

Term one ensures that nobody will be oppressed or denied freedoms for the benefit of others. Term two ensures that people can get ahead socially or economically, but not at the expense of leaving other people behind to suffer. Much like Kant, Rawls’s rules are universal—he believes that they can justly resolve any political question.

Understanding Liberalism: Philosophy 101

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  • A philosophical look at the goal of our society and its laws
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  • Sandel's suggestions for how to create a more moral world

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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