GV4B7      Half Unit
The Liberal Idea of Freedom

This information is for the 2015/16 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Laura Valentini


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

This course is capped at two groups. The deadline for receipt of applications will likely be between Friday 25 September and Friday 9 October 2015, depending on the course. The exact deadline for applications will be confirmed at your programme induction.


Basic familiarity with concepts and methods in normative political theory.

Course content

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 conceptions of freedom, including negative freedom, 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 and third part of the course, we will turn to substantive debates surrounding: (i)  the value of freedom and how this relates to other liberal values (e.g., equality, security) and (ii) specific liberal freedoms (e.g., freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of movement etc.). We will address questions such as: Why is freedom valuable? Are there good reasons to curtail freedom for the sake of equality or security? 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? Might membership in certain associations be denied to those who belong to particular groups (e.g., women) on 'freedom of association' grounds?

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


20 hours of seminars in the LT.

Two-hour sessions in the LT are comprised of a 90-minute class discussion and a 20-minute lecture.

There will be a reading week in week 6 of the LT for advice and feedback.

Formative coursework

All students are expected to submit one formative (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); Phillip Pettit, A Theory of Freedom; I. Carter, ‘The Independent Value of Freedom’, Ethics, 105 (1995), 819-45; Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia; G. A. Cohen, ‘Capitalism, Freedom and the Proletariat’ in Miller (ed.) Liberty; J. Waldron, ‘Security and Liberty: The Image of Balance’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 11 (2) (2003); John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ch. 2; G. Sapir and D. Statman, ‘Why Freedom of Religion Does not Include Freedom from Religion’, Law and Philosophy, 24 (5) (2005); Joseph Carens, ‘Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders’, in The Review of Politics, 49 (1987).


Essay (100%, 4000 words).

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

Student performance results

(2011/12 - 2013/14 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 13.8
Merit 67.5
Pass 16.2
Fail 2.5

Key facts

Department: Government

Total students 2014/15: 42

Average class size 2014/15: 15

Controlled access 2014/15: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Communication