A Short Introduction to Universal Liberalism

Essay originally from Counterweight.

James E. Petts


The term “liberalism” has been used to refer to many different and often incompatible political and ethical theories. This is not an attempt to document those different theories: anyone interested in the academic debates on the topic will find the entry on liberalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy worth reading. Rather, this is a short description of a particular conception of liberalism, universal liberalism, setting out what it is and why it matters.

The fundamentals of universal liberalism

The basic principle of universal liberalism is that everyone has a right to be free of coerced social conformity that is not demonstrably productive of the greatest good for the greatest number. Coerced social conformity includes, but is not restricted to, control by a state or government. It also includes coercion exercised by private individuals, whether acting alone or in groups, and non-governmental organisations of all kinds.

Universal liberalism is not anarchism. It does not hold that any and all political authority and coercion is illegitimate. Rather, it holds that coercion is justified when – and only when – the harms that coercion of all kinds inevitably cause are outweighed in the particular case by benefits such that the particular coercion in fact produces the greatest good for the greatest number. A paradigm – but not the only – case of justified coercion is to restrain unjustified coercion. Thus, laws prohibiting violence are not merely justified on the basis of avoiding harm resulting from injury: they are justified also on the ground that they restrain illegitimate coercion, even in cases where there is no possibility of injury. Likewise, laws prohibiting the threat, rather than only the actuality, of violence are justified, along with prohibitions on blackmail and deliberate harassment and abuse.

Universal liberalism does not require every decision about everything to be made on a case by case basis and thus exclude the application of more general principles other than itself. It is not necessary, for example, to decide individually whether each specific instance of theft should be subject to punishment. Where the greatest good for the greatest number can be achieved by the adoption of a general rule or principle, universally applied (as, for example, in law), then the application of this rule or principle is justified.

Universal liberalism and reason

Fundamental to universal liberalism is the primacy of reason. This is in part because only reason can meaningfully answer the question of what is in fact productive of the greatest good for the greatest number (and, more fundamentally, what it means for something to be good and why it matters in the first place). Thus, anyone not accepting the primacy of reason is less likely to endorse a principle whose application depends on the constant application of reason than those who do so accept.

However, the primacy of reason is not a consequence of adopting universal liberalism. The primacy of reason is logically prior to liberalism or any other kind of political or ethical principle: it is logically impossible to make justifiable decisions or to persuade (rather than intimidate or deceive) anyone of any political or ethical (or indeed any other sort of) claim without reason. Rather, universal liberalism is a product of adopting a fundamentally rational approach to the domain of ethics; any other approach is itself inherently unethical.

The only further premise necessary to add to the starting point of a purely reason based set of ethical principles to reach the fundamental principle of universal liberalism outlined above is that, all other things being equal, coercion is inherently harmful to those coerced. While it is theoretically possible that somebody might disprove that claim, it is highly doubtful that anyone who knows what it is to be coerced (and that is everyone reading this, for there will be nobody alive and able to read who has not been coerced at least as a child) would seriously and in good faith dispute that premise.

It is from the primacy of reason that the universality in universal liberalism comes. Because reason is inherently universal, so too are the principles derived by applying reason to reality. That does not mean that it is rational to regard every situation as identical: it is not. Rather, it means that it is rational to treat one situation differently from another when and only when the differences between the situations mean that the reason for treating one situation in one way is the same as the reason for treating another situation in a different way: in other words, the different treatment arises because of the consistent application of the same fundamental reasons.

Universal liberalism in practice

The two principal enemies to universal liberalism in practice are power and prejudice, particularly concentrated, coercive power and widespread, shared prejudice.

Power: the state

In relation to government, the principle of universal liberalism requires that state power, which is by its nature a concentration of coercive power, be restrained. Democracy and the principles of the rule of law, freedom above the law and equality before the law, as well as the separation of the powers are all important forms of restraint, although these are by themselves insufficient. It is also necessary, to prevent unjustified, abusive use of the concentrated coercive power of the state, to prevent either the removal or dilution of democracy, the rule of law, the separation of the powers or any other necessary checks and balances by politicians even if they have been democratically elected, and also to prevent what is sometimes called the “tyranny of the majority”.

That a majority of people on election day support an act of coercion or vote for politicians who subsequently decide to engage in an act of state coercion does not mean that such an act is in fact justified, so there is justification in imposing restraints on the power of even democratically elected politicians to prevent abuse of that power, including restraints on their ability to remove or circumvent the restraints. Historically, such restraints on the power of the state have included bills of rights (that in the United States of America being the most well known) and human rights treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights. The effectiveness and appropriateness of these particular instances are outwith the scope of this article: the significant thing for present purposes is that there are substantial historical precedents for the restraint of the power of democratically elected governments to prevent abuses of power, and that some such restraints are justified.

Power: freedom of expression

An important consequence of the principle of universal liberalism is the importance of the freedom of expression, particularly the freedom to manifest ideas, to communicate facts and to challenge rigorously others’ ideas and factual claims. This is because it is important, in order for people to be able to make informed judgments about what claims to accept and reject, and thus what instances of coercion may or may not be justified, for people to have complete and accurate information, and freedom to communicate information and manifest and challenge ideas and that the marketplace of ideas that that freedom creates is more likely to yield a world in which people tend to have complete and accurate information and well considered ideas than one in which there is widespread censorship. It is also because censorship (in the sense of restraining the communication of fact or the manifestation and challenging of ideas and factual claims) is an act of coercion that can rarely, if ever, be justified as being productive of the greatest good for the greatest number, precisely because it stifles the marketplace of ideas necessary to maximise the extent to which ideas and claims are thoroughly tested before being accepted.

Importantly, the universal liberal commitment to freedom of expression does not require anyone to accept the naïve factual premise that nobody will ever lie or spread misinformation or that nobody will ever be persuaded or deceived by a bad idea into harming others. Rather, it is founded on the premise that allowing concentrated coercive power to dictate what ideas may be manifested or challenged and what factual claims may be made is one where the inherent danger of the abuse of that power with the intention and effect of entrenching misinformation and bad ideas far outweighs such danger as there may be from bad ideas or misinformation spreading in a state of freedom from censorship, and that the much safer and more effective means of dealing with bad ideas and misinformation is to permit (and, indeed, encourage) rigorous, reasoned scrutiny of all factual claims and ideas. There is no need to pretend that such a strategy will work perfectly in every instance in order to conclude that its net effect is infinitely preferable to the net effect of censorship.

The universal liberal commitment to freedom of expression, however, does not mean that there can never be justified coercion to restrain any act of speech or communication. It is justifiable to prohibit deliberate lies (e.g. fraud), providing that whether any given statement is in fact a deliberate lie is determined on a case by case basis by a rigorous judicial process, free from the possibility of any influence by legislature or executive and preferably involving a jury. It is also justifiable to restrain intimidation, the intentional incitement of crime, and deliberately abusive conduct directed towards particular people, not least because such behaviour is itself a form of unjustified coercion which needs to be restrained in order to protect people’s freedom to manifest and challenge ideas.

Power: economics

Economics is fundamentally about resources, and resources are fundamental to power. It is therefore not surprising that unjustified coercion (i.e., that which is not productive of the greatest good for the greatest number) is common in economic contexts.

In England in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, liberals successfully dismantled a network of royal monopolies, which prohibited a huge range of worthwhile activity except on payment of a fee to the Crown in exchange for a licence to provide that service. The origin of the word “ferry”, for example, now used simply to refer to a short distance boat service, is the ancient royal monopoly on river crossings intended to siphon money from essential economic activity by coercion, a form of rent-seeking. The effect was that essential services were more expensive for everyone in order to enrich the aristocratic elites of the day. Another example from the UK in the 18th and early 19th centuries is that of the “Corn Laws”, which prohibited the importation of corn, a staple food product, at below a certain price in order artificially to inflate the price of UK grown corn, to enrich landowners (who were at the time the only people allowed to vote) at the expense of everyone else.

That is not to say that universal liberalism does not admit of any coercive measures in relation to economic matters: as with all spheres of life, in economics, coercion is justified when and only when the long-term net effect of a specific form of coercion produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Coercion is justified to prevent fraud and theft and to enforce contracts, without which much worthwhile economic activity with widespread benefit would be practically impossible, and is justified to restrain unjustified coercive economic behaviour, such as extortion by people or organisations in the position of a monopoly.

Coercion is also justified to require the contribution by those who have money to spare to fund the necessary mechanisms to uphold democracy and the rule of law (and thereby be effective in the prevention of illegitimate coercion), and also to require those with disposable income to contribute a portion of it to beneficial activities, such as the relief of extreme poverty, when the net effect of the coerced contribution and the activities themselves produces over the long-term the greatest good for the greatest number.

However, there is a particular danger of abuse of power in the case of large numbers of people making compulsory payments to the same body, which can thereby amass truly extreme levels of concentrated economic power as a result and which can use that power corruptly, especially if combined with political power. Such bodies are liable deliberately to spend it on projects which benefit those who have control of the very large sums of money (or those with the power to influence those with such control), rather than those which are in fact productive of the greatest good for the greatest number. This abuse is sometimes colloquially termed “pork barrel politics”, although the phrase is historically sometimes confined to this sort of abuse only when committed by a local, rather than national, government. History demonstrates that democracy itself is insufficient to prevent this abuse. Universal liberalism requires stringent controls to prevent anyone from being in a position to commit such abuses, whether local, national or otherwise.

Prejudice: social norms and diffuse coercion

Although the greatest danger of unjustified coercion arises from the concentration of coercive power, such as in the state, coerced social conformity that is not productive of the greatest good for the greatest number can also arise from diffuse coercion: many small acts of disapproval, ridicule or even intimidation committed by large numbers of people acting independently. Each individual act may be insufficient to coerce anybody, but the cumulative effect of large numbers of people all behaving in this way in response to the same behaviour can in fact be powerfully coercive against that behaviour in all but those who care least about others’ opinions of them and do not depend on those others for income or essential goods or services.

Many things not formally prohibited by law have been significantly suppressed by diffuse coercion of this nature. Historical examples include pre-marital sex, homosexuality, even not involving behaviours which were actually prohibited by law at various places and times in history, and, more recently, transsexuality. The significance of the suppression of the latter by diffuse coercion is demonstrated by the much larger numbers of people now emboldened publicly to manifest transsexuality than was so even a decade ago as a result of a much more widespread acceptance of transsexuality as something that does not warrant disapproval of any sort. Even more sinister than coercion aimed at suppressing particular behaviours, widespread diffuse coercion may be applied to particular categories of people however they behave, as in widespread racism, with the implicit intent of driving people in those categories away entirely. The modern concepts of “micro-aggressions” and “cancel culture” both in substance amount to attempts to describe – and criticise – the unjustified use of diffuse coercion.

As with all other forms of coercion, not all forms of diffuse coercion are unjustified. Diffuse coercion is justified where – and only where – the net effect of the coercion itself combined with its ability to prevent undesirable or mandate desirable behaviours is productive of the greatest good for the greatest number. It follows from that that diffuse coercion aimed at entire categories of people no matter how they behave can never be justified. Examples of justified diffuse coercion include widespread public disapproval of drunk-driving and widespread public disapproval of racism, although the latter has to some extent in recent times been hijacked by extremist activists to promote a sectarian agenda entirely unconnected in all but the most superficial respects to genuine and principled disapproval of anything that can accurately be termed racism; but that must not be allowed to diminish the importance of public disapproval of racism properly so called.

Also as with all other forms of coercion, it is a legitimate use of coercion to restrain illegitimate use of diffuse coercion. Measures such as legislation prohibiting prejudice-based discrimination, the effective prohibition of deliberate harassment and intimidation of all kinds, as well as the use of diffuse coercion to restrain unjustified diffuse coercion (e.g., by withdrawing funding, support and custom from and refusing to co-operate with institutions that deliberately tolerate or participate in unjustified diffuse coercion) are justified to prevent illegitimate uses of diffuse coercion.

Because unjustified diffuse coercion arises principally from prejudice, an important means of minimising the risk of unjustified diffuse coercion in the long-term is to eliminate prejudice wherever it arises. Prejudice is the attitude of pre-judging: in other words, judging what characteristics that a person or thing has generally on the basis of only a few superficial characteristics in circumstances where there is no logically necessary connexion between the two. Racism is an obvious example: concluding that because a person has dark skin, he or she is inherently inferior to somebody with lighter skin, or, that, because somebody has light skin, he or she is inherently racist are paradigm instances of prejudice. In essence, prejudice is irrationality.

Thus, diffuse coercion in the form of widespread public disapproval of prejudice and irrationality of all kinds is necessary and justified in order to minimise the instances of unjustified diffuse coercion. Indeed, there is good reason to suspect that an excessive willingness on the part of those who generally consider themselves to be liberal to tolerate superficially relatively harmless forms of irrationality has significantly contributed to the fragility of liberalism in recent decades, and that this needs to be reversed if liberalism is to have a chance of continuing to achieve the immense benefits for humanity that only it can achieve.

Another important bulwark against prejudice is for people to be in a position to equip themselves with the thinking tools necessary for a rigorous, reason- and reality-based understanding of the world, especially critical thinking skills, and unhesitatingly to reject any idea or claim that is not demonstrably supported by sufficient reason and evidence. This is so not least because only the rigorous application of reason can meaningfully distinguish which acts of coercion are legitimate or not, and therefore which acts of coercion to restrain illegitimate coercion are themselves legitimate. This principle is the fundamental justification for law and justice systems.

Prejudice: individuals and groups

A common application of unjustified coercion, both from concentrated power and of the diffuse kind, is in support of sectarianism. In simple terms, sectarianism is the behaviour of favouring one group of people over another when making decisions, including decisions about whether coercion is justified in any particular instance.

Sectarianism is fundamentally opposed to universal liberalism, in that universal liberalism requires all coercion ultimately to be justified by reference to the greatest good for the greatest number, rather than the greatest good for some arbitrary subset of the greatest number as is the case in sectarianism.

Sectarianism may be cynical in origin (e.g., politicians in a national government trading off an arbitrarily large amount of harm to people who cannot vote them out of office for an arbitrarily small benefit to those who can vote them out of office), based entirely on prejudice, or a complex combination of the two (e.g. people adopting a racist attitude towards immigrants whom they believe will increase the pool of available workers and thereby prevent their own wages from increasing, without taking into account the well-being of the immigrants themselves, even where some individual manifestations of this racism may not stand any chance of benefiting the person manifesting it).

Sectarianism tends to be supported by human cognitive biases that probably evolved to support tribal living, and in many instances is or at least involves a form of prejudice. Universal liberalism requires that nobody be in a position to coerce others on sectarian grounds, and that sectarianism in general and of all kinds (not just specific instances of it) consistently be subject to widespread and strong social disapproval.

Why universal liberalism matters

Universal liberalism matters because it is a principle which, by definition, requires the promotion of the greatest good for the greatest number. Any principle which does not require this is inherently liable to produce net harm compared with a principle that does if applied in practice.

Empirically, the application of universal liberal principles has in fact resulted in enormous gains for humanity. The repeal of the Corn Laws in the UK in 1846 after a sustained campaign by liberal reformers benefited 90% of the population at the expense of the wealthiest 10%. The precipitous decline in both proportion and absolute numbers of people living in extreme poverty in recent decades is in large part a result of global free trade (i.e., the reduction of unjustified coercion preventing trade across national borders). The enormous advances in medical science made possible by the free exchange of ideas has more than doubled world average life expectancy since the start of the 20th century. The increased social tolerance of a wider variety of sexual behaviours and orientations since the mid 20th century has permitted millions to live fulfilling personal lives where otherwise they would have been repressed and unsatisfied. The standards of living and personal autonomy enjoyed by billions of people the world over are as a direct result of the application of universal liberal principles, and the continuation of these standards of living and this autonomy requires these principles to continue to prevail.

Those who seek to coerce others in circumstances where the coercion does not demonstrably promote the greatest good for the greatest number knowingly put at risk the benefits already achieved and purposely obstruct continued progress towards achieving more. To defend universal liberalism is to defend the common interest of all humanity.

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