GV4B7      Half Unit
The Liberal Idea of Freedom

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Bruno Leipold


This course is available on the MSc in Human Rights, MSc in Human Rights and Politics 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 applications is 17:00 on Tuesday 1 October 2019. You will be informed of the outcome by 17:00 on Wednesday 2 October 2019.


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? These are some of the questions addressed in this module. Depending on the particular year in which the module is taught, the approach taken may be either historical or contemporary-analytic or a combination of the two. Consequently, authors discussed may include key historical thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, as well as contemporary scholars such as Isaiah Berlin, Charles Taylor, Philip Pettit, Quentin Skinner, Amartya Sen and others. The overall aim of the course is to enable students to assess the quality and strength of different theorists' conceptions of freedom and to deploy those conceptions in the analysis and justification of some core institutions within the liberal state.


20 hours of seminars in the MT.

Two-hour weekly sessions in the MT.

There will be a reading week in week 6 of the MT 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; John Stuart Mill, On Liberty; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract; Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan; John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals.


Essay (100%, 4000 words).

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

Student performance results

(2015/16 - 2017/18 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 23.1
Merit 59.3
Pass 14.3
Fail 3.3

Key facts

Department: Government

Total students 2018/19: 31

Average class size 2018/19: 15

Controlled access 2018/19: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Communication