The Standing Invitation

Enforcing Freedom

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One of the central tenets of liberalism, perhaps the central tenet, is tolerance: letting other people go about their business, as long as it doesn’t affect you. But there are limits. If you look across the courtyard and see a scene of domestic violence through the window of a neighbouring flat, should you exercise tolerance? Should you respect the rights of self-determination for the abuser and his victim? Certainly not. To do so would be a moral failure. There are some things that no good liberal should tolerate.

This, then, is the dilemma of liberalism: how far should one’s liberal principles extend to people around you? In particular, should they extend to those who do not share your enlightened values?

Imagine you live in your country alongside a religious sect that oppresses some of its members. Pick any oppression of any group you like, as long as it appals you. Say, for example, that women are treated as objects and ritualistically beaten; they are forbidden from speaking to men until their parents have married them off, and they must spend the rest of their lives veiled, mute and obedient.

Imagine that you can be born into this sect; and imagine that the penalty for apostasy is death.

Should this state of affairs be allowed to continue? As long as that last paragraph holds, I say certainly not. If this is something you can be born into and can never leave, then it is a form of imprisonment. There is can be no more fundamental human right than the freedom to escape unjustified coercion, and it is the duty of a liberal society to facilitate this escape in others.

So a government can, I believe, justifiably enact laws that break down these barriers to freedom.

Imagine now that the death penalty for apostasy has been abolished. Anybody who feels oppressed and wants to leave the sect is now free to do so.

Imagine that there are some who choose not to. The women decide they prefer their traditional roles. They continue to be covered from head to toe. They remain ignorant of men and sex. And they continue to be beaten. They have chosen to remain oppressed.

Here we enter tricky ground. These women are oppressed, but since they are legally entitled to leave, is it wrong to do more? Should we respect their choice to remain enslaved? Or should we, essentially, force them to be free?

Ultimately, their choice must be respected; but it’s important to recognise that there are mental barriers to freedom as well as legal ones, and choice is only really choice when it’s an informed choice. You cannot force people to be free and should not try. But you can enforce awareness of the available options, by breaking down censorship and insularity, and by demanding good standards of education.

If, having been exposed to pros and cons of other ways of living, they go back to their traditional lives, so be it. It should be the duty of liberal societies everywhere to give people that option.


The SEP’s entry on liberalism is well worth a read, particularly section 4, which poses the question to which this essay is my attempt at an answer.


Written by The S I

September 8, 2011 at 11:59 pm

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