Chapter 9 :   Social Philosophy

Liberalism and Conservatism

(NOTE:  You must read only those linked materials that are preceded by the capitalized word READ.) 

The debate between liberals and conservatives is quite active in contemporary society.  How much you pay in taxes of all types is the outcome of that ongoing debate.  There are many other ways in which the ideas associated with those social and political views have consequences in the lives of all members of society.  It is important to have some idea of the meaning of those terms and the ideas associated with those movements. 

Today the term 'liberal' has come to be associated with a variety of principles, concepts and programs.  Liberals are often associated with ideas related to a WELFARE STATE and a system of taxes, subsidies, deductions, payments, regulations, restrictions, permissions, refunds, entitlements and other such ideas and programs.  The term was not always so associated. 

Liberal meant to "liberate" or "free" and as applied to social questions meant that individuals should be as free from interference from the government as possible.  There were and remain a number of theories that are based upon placing a very high value on human AUTONOMY, freedom or liberty.  In social affairs it was taken to mean that individuals were to remain free to pursue their own interests and to work and to keep the results of their labor, that individuals had a right to property and to pursuit of what would make the happy.  The ideas of the Utilitarians, Bentham and the Mills, contributed heavily to this view of how social life ought to be arranged.  Along with it came the idea that government should not interfere with individual’s earnings and with businesses.  There was the idea of Laissez- Faire economics.  These ideas were supportive of capitalism. 

Links on Capitalism

Many of these ideas are linked to what are called "conservatives" in contemporary American society.


Among the most radical defenders of this view has been Ayn Rand and her ideas which are titled: OBJECTIVISM.

Links related to Ayn Rand

Her views oppose state regulations as a form of collective interference.  She is opposed to socialism and to all forms of collectivism and the Marxist ideal of taking from each according to ability and providing to each according to need


Links on Collectivism:



 By Peter W. Hauer

SOCIAL LIBERALISM- This view holds that the division of social product is best left to impersonal, efficient, decentralized workings of free market.  It is based on a number of assumptions including that people act out of enlightened self-interest and that they are not only autonomous agents but also prudent rational agents.



In contemporary American society many liberals came to argue for more government intervention and their ideas came to be accepted by legislators and by the Supreme Court, when the Court sustained one act of New Deal legislation after another, asserting that individual citizens must be protected against overpowering economic groups and from disasters they have not brought on themselves. More and more laws were passed to provide for old-age and survivors insurance, unemployment insurance, federal control of various financial interests, minimum wages, supervision of agricultural production, and the right of labor unions to organize and bargain collectively. This all amounted to a radical change from the original ideas of European Liberals on the role of government.

Despite the metamorphosis in the philosophy of liberalism since the mid-19th century, almost all modern liberals agree that their common objective is enlargement of the individual's opportunity to realize full potentialities.  This has become a hallmark of liberalism today.  This is an idea consonant with the ideas of John Rawls. 

Rawl’s Theory of Justice: Outline

The most widely discussed theory of distributive justice in the past three decades has been that proposed by John Rawls in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice. (Rawls 1971) Rawls proposes the following two principles of justice:

(1) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

(2) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and

(b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Rawls’ ideas are quite supportive of the notion of a welfare state. Why is it that people are thought to have a right to what they have not worked to earn for themselves?  Why is it that there is a law hat requires those who do work to provide for those who do not work or are unable to work?  We find the answers to those questions in the works of those who defend the welfare state.   

Argument in favor of WELFARE STATE  by Robert E. Goodin in

Reasons for Welfare:The Political Theory of the Welfare State 

Robert Goodin passionately and cogently defends the welfare state from current attacks by the New Right. But he contends that the welfare state finds false friends in those on the Old Left who would justify it as a hesitant first step toward some larger, ideally just form of society. Reasons for Welfare, in contrast, offers a defense of the minimal welfare state substantially independent of any such broader commitments, and at the same time better able to withstand challenges from the New Right's moralistic political economy. This defense of the existence of the welfare state is discussed, flanked by criticism of Old Left and New Right arguments that is both acute and devastating.

In the author's view, those possessing discretionary control over resources that they require best justify the welfare state as a device for protecting needy--and hence vulnerable--members of society against the risk of exploitation. Its task is to protect the interests of those not in a position to protect themselves. Communitarian or egalitarian ideals may lead us to move beyond the welfare state as thus conceived and justified. Moving beyond it, however, does not invalidate the arguments for constantly maintaining at least the minimal protections necessary for vulnerable members of society. There exists Special Obligations that are voluntary and Strong Obligations, such as with family, that are non-voluntary.  These Strong Obligations are based upon vulnerabilities of others. Family and others assist the vulnerable through voluntary charity, however, STATE (WELFARE) as “backup to the backup” assists the vulnerable and in this manner the vulnerable are dependent on the STATE.  Therefore it is possible to vest that vulnerable person with legal ENTITLEMENT to assistance.

Materials on Contemporary Welfare States

Today we appear to have reversed associations with many of the ideas originally associated with the terms “liberal” and “conservative”. 



Individual Freedom

Social Order Preservation

No Government Interference

Governmental Action

No Taxes



Governmental Restrictions

Individuals are rational and prudent

Individuals are in need of assistance-imprudent, incapacitated, victimized

Individuals are self interested

Social Welfae is primary interest

These ideas are now associated with the groups that are bearing the opposite titles so that, for example, liberals are arguing for more government restrictions and provisions and the taxes to support those programs which protect people from themselves and from others. 

The questions of who gets to say what the laws will be and what the government will do is taken up under the heading of "Political Philosophy" and that is the subject of the next chapter.


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Introduction to Philosophy by Philip A. Pecorino is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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