There are a number of important divisions within the liberal tradition. At the most abstract level, there is a deep disagreement over how to justify liberalism’s core principles. It is all well and good to talk about principles such as individual freedom or equality, but imagine you were speaking to someone for whom these are unfamiliar or strange ideas. How would you convince them of the rightness of the liberal vision? Liberals have given many answers to this question over the years. The two most important are utilitarianism and rights-based liberalism.
Utilitarianism, despite the ‘-ism’ suffix, is not a political ideology as such; rather, it is the label we give to a family of ethical theories. These theories hold that, when making important choices, the priority should be creating the most happiness possible. Jeremy Bentham stated in 1780 that ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do’ (Bentham, 1988). Therefore, in deciding which ideology best serves human beings, we should choose the ideology which, when implemented, will maximize overall societal happiness. For many liberals, that is exactly what liberalism will do (note that we do not need to argue that liberalism will make everybody happy; rather, happiness is ‘maximized’ if a liberal society results in a higher level of overall total happiness in the society under any other system. This model still leaves room for plenty of unhappiness, in theory).
Why can liberalism be thought to maximize overall happiness? At root, the case is straightforward. As an individual, you know better than anyone else what will make you happy. You may not get this right every time – we all make mistakes – but if you are left alone, free to make your own choices in life, the outcomes will be more likely to result in happiness than if parents, priests, or governments manage your life for you, even with the best of intentions. It follows that we should leave people alone to freely run their own lives if we wish to build a society with the happiest possible people in it. This, then, is a utilitarian argument for the core liberal principle of individual liberty. And so utilitarian liberals argue that a liberal society will be the happiest overall society. This is why we should defend liberal principles.
A whole other approach centres on the intrinsic value of liberal principles, irrespective of their real-world consequences (such approaches are often called ‘deontological’). When the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant quotes the Latin phrase Fiat justitia, pereat mundus – ‘let justice be done, though the world perish’ – he captures the idea that justice has such high value for its own sake that we cannot allow any ‘real-world’ considerations to distract from our commitment to it (Kant, 2006). The effects of our choices, including the happiness or unhappiness produced, are less important than the principles that inform those choices. For liberals in this tradition, human beings just do have rights – rights to freedom, due process, security of the person, and so forth. To violate individuals’ rights is, on this view, wrong in and of itself. There is an inherent worth to the human individual that cannot be compromised for greater gains in happiness, prosperity, or other considerations. Rights-based liberals argue that liberalism is the best ideology because it protects these rights better than any other alternative.
John Locke, for example, famously argued that humans once lived in a ‘state of nature:’ a world without government. In this world, people had ‘natural rights’ to do as they pleased. While he thought that, on the whole, people would respect what he called the ‘laws of nature’ – basic moral principles about how to treat other people – he acknowledged that there was no way, absent government, to ensure they would. Some people would be predatory, stealing our property or otherwise threatening our lives and liberty. Sometimes people would honestly disagree over how to treat each other. There is no way to arbitrate such disputes without government. So, Locke concluded, in order to better protect our natural rights, human beings agree to establish governments and to abide by their laws. This principle, whereby we agree to limit our natural freedoms under laws enforced by governments, Locke called ‘the social contract.’ The key, of course, is that the entire point of creating governments is to better protect our rights, which Locke saw as God-given. A government that consistently fails to protect our rights, or, worse, makes itself a threat to them, breaks the terms of the contract. We are no longer obligated to obey such a government. Indeed, Locke said, we can justly overthrow it (Locke, 2003).
Locke published his works long before the distinction between utilitarianism and rights-based (or ‘deontological’) liberalism had emerged. His own writing freely mixes the two levels of argument. But thought experiments like his ‘social contract’ have been influential among later generations of rights-focused thinkers. John Rawls, the most important liberal thinker of the postwar era, argued that if we want to know what a just society would look like, we should imagine ourselves deliberating with others about the basic rules of our society behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ concerning our actual situation in life. Not knowing whether we were rich or poor, for instance, would allow us to settle upon genuinely fair principles of economic organization unaffected by our vested interests. And, as a good rights-based liberal, one of the key principles he thought we would agree on is that individual freedom and equality of persons should be afforded strong protection by the society. Indeed, they should have ‘lexical priority’ over considerations of happiness. In other words, they should come first, having primacy over other values. Knowing that, once the veil of ignorance was lifted, we might end up as members of a vulnerable minority, for example, would motivate us to build very strong protections for freedom and equality into our society (Rawls, 1999).
As noted above, this is a fairly abstract distinction. Not all arguments between liberals have been so rarified. The most important division within the liberal tradition – the break that has mattered the most to ordinary people’s lives, as opposed to debates between political theorists – is between classical and reform liberalism.