VOL. 4, NO. 1, PGS. 8–15


Liberalism as a Philosophy and as a Political Order: What it Is, and What it Is Not
A conversation with John Skorupski

This interview was conducted by Javier Toro.

John Skorupski is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London.

From a philosophical point of view, what are the canons of the liberal order?

I would like to make a distinction between the liberal order and philosophical liberalism. The liberal order is a political order, which people may or may not accept regardless of whether they are, philosophically speaking, liberal or not. The basics of the liberal order, I would say, are the rule of law with a law that is sufficiently strong to protect the equal rights of everybody, a distinctive liberty principle of thought and discussion, and the entrenchment of these principles into a strong legal order. That is what I would call the politics of liberalism. Philosophically, liberalism is a more ambitious programme. The first thing we should mention is its emphasis on individualism in ethics, which is the view that everything that is valuable reduces to the value of or for individuals or to the rights of individuals. The second thing is that it is a doctrine of equal respect toward human beings based on the belief that they are equally capable of governing themselves —self-government. And the third thing is that it is a doctrine of liberty of thought and discussion, which is based on the idea that people are sufficiently rational to be able to get to the truth, which, I must say, seems to be a fairly optimistic doctrine. All in all, as you can see, there is a) a philosophy of liberalism and b) a political order.

Is liberalism a philosophy of the right, or the left? If it is neither of the two, what do the right and the left stand for that liberalism does not?

Obviously, we have to ask first what is the right and what is the left. And here I would distinguish between an economic dimension and a cultural dimension. As far as the economic dimension is concerned, on the left, you have socialism; on the right, free-market capitalism and prosperity. I don’t think liberalism has a position there because I think it regards this as an empirical issue. John Stuart Mill, for instance, provided a good economic argument in favour of free markets and a good argument in favour of socialist enterprises in free markets. So, is that the right or is that the left? Well, it is not easy to say. Regarding the cultural dimension, I think things are quite different there. It is there where there is a really important philosophical issue which is not often explicitly discussed. It is the issue of what I call “impartial individualism”: every value has to be justified in some way by the value to individuals, where each individual counts equally. I think a lot of conservatives, whom I take as the right-wing, are not individualists, culturally. They think that there are important supra- or trans-individual entities to which we have obligations. Among these entities, which I call “social wholes”, we have the nation, the union, the club, the church, the community. On the left, by contrast, liberals emphasise freedom of the individual and what is good for individuals.

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