Rights, Liberty and Equality


  • “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” – declaration of human rights. Fundamental starting point for all modern Western communities.
  • Moral rights – held by all humanity. Supported by classical liberals – essence of individuality. Contrast theory – protect these rights in return for obligation to the state. Rousseau – property rights – capacity to pursue your desires. American Dream.
  • Development – Greek notion of rights based upon universal truths Aristotle. Hobbes not interested in rights as long as individuals were free and protected from anarchy. Modern rights derives from Enlightenment – applied concept of  moral rights. Locke – natural rights based around life, lib and property. French Revolution – Tom Paine – progressive thinker for rights.
  • Conservative and Utilitarian thinkers rejects moral basis of rights. Credential obligation – we are morally obliged to obey therefore no contract that gives us status rights. Duty and obligation. Trial of Socrates – his duty to die. Don’t see atomistic society but an organism.
  • Modern ideas of rights now secular - ECHR/UN declaration.
  • Welfare rights – rights such as employment, education, healthcare. “positive” rights as opposed to negative one which protect from tyrannical state.
  • Mill and Locke believed the greatest threats to these rights is the state – classical liberals believe the state becomes bloated with too much involvement.
  • By 20th Century fear was of economic and social forces from which the people had little protection.
  • Are there rights realistic? Habermas – legitimation crisis – one of the problems of Western society is the clamouring of rights and lack of money of government to impose.
  • Relationship between rights and duties – mixture of the two in liberal society. If someone has an entitlement, another must have a duty.
  • Legal rights – enjoys recognition and protection in law. Existence is dependence upon recognition and enforcement by a particular state. Backed by utilitarianism – Bentham regarded universal moral rights as “nonsense on stilts”. Hohfeld identified 4 types of these rights: liberty, claim, legal powers and immunities. In UK legal rights were seen as residual, based on common law legal protection.
  • Natural rights – God given rights deemed applicable to all humans. Locke, Jefferson.
  • Human – secular updating of natural rights theory – universality of rights. Moral rights but codified into various international declarations.
  • Animal rights – attempts made to draw up codes relating to the relationship between humans and animal world. Singer and Regan – worry about dangers of speciesism and there is a necessity to change human perceptions on the sanctity of all life and equal worth. Marginal rights – treating animals in same way as mentally disabled humans.
  • Changing views on rights – left wing – rights collectively help by particular classes. Therefore sought to promote the rights of the proletariat. Social democrats now accept need for individual rights which a greater emphasis on social rights. After Nazism, modern conservatives accept human rights.
  • Sources of obligations – Social Contract – Plato – example of Socrates trial – accepted benefits of Athenian citizenship thus must comply with its determined punishment. Hobbes – absolute obligation to obey is better than living in barbaric state of nature. Locke – obligation as long as state protects natural rights – tacit consent to be governed but can be removed. Rousseau – obligation based upon a society governed by General Will. Based on equality, Rousseau’s view is that individuals should obey the contract as long as it is equal and they all have an equal role to play.
  • Natural duty – teleological theories – utilitarian people obey as it will ultimately serve their interests ‘greatest happiness of greatest number’. Conservative ideas – some born to rule and others to be ruled (Burke). See society as organic and recognise that it is shaped by internal forces beyond the capacity of any individual control.  Socialists see social duty to conform to needs of collective society. Anarchists recognise that a healthy society demands a sociable, cooperative and respectful behaviour from its members – Proudhon, Bakunin.


  • Philosophers refer to freedom as the property of the will – thus do individuals possess free will? Desire linked to freedom.
  • Sociologists/economists – freedom about social relations – to what extent are humans free agents with regard to their dealing with society?
  • Political theorists – see it as ethical ideal – how can society maximise freedom? Individual freedom or collective?
  • Liberty can be divided into two forms: Benjamin Constant:
  • Liberty of the ancients – direct and collective participation in political process. Rousseau – political freedom is “obedience to obey to laws on prescribes to oneself”. Freedom to vote etc.
  • Liberty of the moderns – independence from government and other encroachments. Classical liberal stance.


  • Berlin – “an area within which a man can act unobstructed by others”. Mill’s self-regarding actions.
  • Hobbes – liberty is the “silence of the law”.
  • Absence of external constraints – laissez-fare state, minimal intervention in freedom of the individual. “Night watchman”. State to mediate and ensure freedoms aren’t encroaching on others.
  • Mill – freedom of CHOICE.
  • Opponents claim it allows “freedom to starve” Rawls. Theory of social justice is central to this. Exponents of positive freedom believe that negative is an example of a government not undertaking its responsibilities. Positive is a justification for welfare. In practical terms, people are only free to starve. Rowntree and Booth – poverty is not necessarily because of the individual – they need support. Negative allows people to suffer economic injustice. Nozick and Hayek believed welfare creates a lazy workforce though. Wealth from top will trickle down to the poorer.


  • "being one’s own master” – Berlin. You have government support to follow your own destiny.
  • Different view is it relates to the idea of self-realisation – individuals reaching full potential – notion of society. Mill – though an advocate of negative – said that there is the potential of liberty through education.
  • Rousseau Social Contract – freedom is “obedience to a law one prescribes oneself”.
  • T. H. Green – ability for people to “make the most and best of themselves” – positive role of state.
  • Critics argue it removes drive and enthusiasm – individuals have no control over economic and social circumstances – “nanny state”.
  • Removal of the “veil of ignorance” – Rawls.
  • Berlin claimed positive is a threat to independence and Rousseau’s General Will believe to be tyrannical – “forcing people to be free”. Contentious.

Can freedom be excessive? Anarchist – no – in a good communal environment no one would want to hurt anyone. New Right – hardly ever – Nozick state should not limit unless absolutely necessary. C. Liberals – sometimes – individual freedom can be over the top. M. Liberals and Socialists – yes – if individual freedom is paramount then it is already excessive.

Licence – extreme form of freedom. Notion of unlimited freedom. Supported by anarchists. Most see this as the point in which freedom becomes excessive. Anarcho-libertarianism – Nozick with economic point of view – no state interference. Relevant to rights as freedom is closely related to the notion of rights in liberal political thought.

  • Degree of permissiveness.


  • A willingness to accept the views and actions of others even if you disagree with them.
  • Distinct from permissiveness which is based on moral indifference.
  • Voltaire – “I disagree with what you say, but I defend to my death your right to say it”.
  • Locke – promotion of toleration in political and social terms by arguing the state had no right to get involved in the “care of men’s souls”.
  • Mill – defended toleration in all spheres – rejected state education as it led to “dull conformity”.
  • Some limits on toleration – Locke and limit to Catholicism – Rousseau – argued for Censorial Tribune to police society’s morals and rejection of organised religion that was at odds with loyalty to the state.
  • Conservatives always placed limits on toleration where political freedom and the right to free speech seen to threaten mainstream cultural values.


  • Equality not about ABSOLUTE – more about levelling out the conditions of social experience. Even Marxists recognise need for some diversity: “each according to their ability and for each according to their needs”.

Foundational/formal – emerged out of natural rights theories – all born equal – equal by virtue of humanity.

  • Legal equality – the rule of law – law does not discriminate. Supported by classical liberals and most mainstream ideologies.
  • Political equality – universal suffrage and equal value of votes.
  • Attacked by Anatole France – “the majestic equality of the law which forbids rich and poor alike to steal bread and to sleep under bridges”. Rich have no need to do that and therefore the law victimises the poor.
  • Formal equality doesn’t address problems of institutionalised racism (don’t prevent prejudices) – Marx attacked.

Equality of opportunity – everyone has equal chances. For social democrats is the cornerstone of social justice. First developed by Plato.

  • Idea of a classless society based on merit.
  • Natural inequality due to differing talents and efforts considered morally right, but inequalities bred by social circumstance = wrong.
  • Appears attractive, extending individual freedom. Yet if applied rigorously could lead to extensive state intervention.

Equality of outcome - Refers to an equal distribution of rewards

  • This type of equality requires dramatic restructuring of society and is advocated by few today
  • Often linked to material equality – some evidence of it in redistribution of wealth
  • Supported in principle by Rousseau (‘no citizen shall be rich enough to buy another and none so poor as to be forced to sell himself’)
  • Modern social democrats linked to this, although recognition of some measure of inequality to maintain incentive to work
  • Revolutionary socialists go further (Marx –common ownership; also ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China)
  • Some say this type of equality can be justified as it enhances individual liberty and is necessary for social harmony and stability (RH Tawney and his rejection of the ‘tadpole philosophy’)
  • Critics argue that it leads to stagnation. New Right attacked the lack of incentives (Hayek, Nozick, etc)

Relationship between Liberty and Equality

  • Traditional left right division -Right emphasising liberty and left equality
  • Yet some consensus – Traditional liberals and conservatives accept foundational equality as compatible with negative liberty for all (see Locke and Friedman)
  • Traditional liberals and Conservatives reject equality of opportunity as counter to natural inequality (‘right to be unequal’ Thatcher)
  • Modern liberals and social democrats see a consensus around equality of opportunity and positive liberty (see Beveridge and removal of obstacles to liberty). This is normally associated with ideas of social justice (see Rawls) and affirmative action campaigns.
  • Revolutionary socialists reject individual liberty (bourgeois liberty – Marx) in return for collective liberty for economic classes that can be made compatible with equality of outcome (Marx and common ownership) New Right however reject this as ‘social engineering’.
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