GV4B7      Half Unit
The Liberal Idea of Freedom

This information is for the 2013/14 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Laura Valentini


This course is available on the MSc in Human Rights, MSc in Political Theory and MSc in Political Theory (Research). This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

Analysis and critical assessment of conceptions of freedom in contemporary (liberal) political thinking.

The concept of freedom is often invoked in political life. Many policies and broader political agendas are justified in its name. In fact, an entire political ideology, ‘liberalism’ (arguably the dominant one in the Western world) appears to be built around the idea of freedom. But what, exactly, does freedom mean? Is freedom best understood in terms of absence of interference or in terms of non-domination? Is one made unfree only when one’s rights are violated? Does poverty constitute a constraint on freedom? And could citizens of an authoritarian regime be described as free? In the first part of the course, we will address these questions by analysing different prominent conceptions of freedom, including negative freedom (moralized and non-moralized), positive freedom, republican freedom and freedom understood in terms of capabilities. In doing so, we will explore the work of prominent contemporary political thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin, Charles Taylor, Philip Pettit, Robert Nozick and Amartya Sen.

In the second part of the course, we will turn to substantive debates surrounding specific liberal freedoms and their value. We will address questions such as: What are the limits of freedom of religion? Might parents withdraw children from school at a young age on religious grounds? Why is freedom of speech valuable, and what types of speech may be legitimately outlawed by the state? What justifies freedom of movement, and what constraints might be permissibly placed on it?

The overall aim of the course is to allow students to critically assess the quality and strength of the different theorists' conceptions of freedom and to deploy those conceptions in the analysis and justification of the particular freedoms defended within the liberal state.


20 hours of seminars in the LT.

Two-hour sessions in the LT are comprised of an 80 minute seminar and 40-minute lecture.

Formative coursework

All students are expected to submit one non-assessed essay.

Indicative reading

Isaiah Berlin, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ in Berlin, Liberty (edited by Henry Hardy); Gerald MacCallum, ‘Negative and Positive Freedom’, in Philosophical Review, 76 (1967); Ian Carter, A Measure of Freedom; Phillip Pettit, A Theory of Freedom; Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia; G. A. Cohen, ‘Capitalism, Freedom and the Proletariat’ in Miller (ed.) Liberty; David Miller, ‘Constraints on Freedom’, in Ethics, 94 (1983); Jeremy Waldron, ‘Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom’, in U.C.L.A. Law Review 39 (1991); William A. Galston, ‘Two Concepts of Liberalism’, in Ethics, 105 (1995); Richard Arneson, ‘Democratic Autonomy and Religious Freedom: A Critique of Wisconsin v. Yoder’, in Shapiro, Hardin (eds) NOMOS 38, Political Order; John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ch. 2; Daniel Jacobson, ‘Mill on Liberty, Speech and the Free Society’, in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 29 (2000); Joseph Carens, ‘Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders’, in The Review of Politics, 49 (1987).


Essay (100%, 4000 words) in the ST.

The extended essay will be based on a topic examined in the course.

Student performance results

(2009/10 - 2011/12 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 16.1
Merit 60.7
Pass 23.2
Fail 0

Key facts

Department: Government

Total students 2012/13: 32

Average class size 2012/13: 16

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Communication