My favourite definition of liberalism

Joel Feinberg, in his stunning Harm to Others (Volume 1 of his four volume The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law), provides a definition of liberalism I can strongly identify with.

We can define liberalism in respect to the subject matter of this work as the view that the harm and offense principles, duly clarified and qualified, between them exhaust the class of morally relevant reasons for criminal prohibitions. Paternalistic and moralistic considerations, when introduced as support for penal legislation, have no weight at all. (p. 14)

Feinberg then spends the next few thousand pages, over the course of four books, defending this view, with his usual collection of nuance, topical examples and thoughtfulness.

I don’t often associate with labels or principles – but, if forced to, I’d called myself a liberal in this, specific sense; it would only be of the Feinberg variety (which is a kind of modern, refined Millian take).

Feingberg doesn’t think criminal law is or should be entirely premised on “harm” as Mill and most others understand it; but he doesn’t think it should be based on other things either that are common, such as offence, immorality (loosely defined), and so on. He wants substanial proof that an act is actually harmful and in a significant way, before asking for criminal prosecution; indeed, even then, Feinberg says we should look for alternatives to prosecution and incarceration, if such alternatives exist and are demonstrably more effective.

We shouldn’t be defaulting to criminal responses and punishment, since we do that too often and can do too much and hurt too many. Indeed, as Feinberg highlights, this could itself be immoral: a good example is criminalising marijuana (and indeed most drugs) possession, which creates more harm as a response than the initial crime.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    I would suggest that this definition, while true, is not a sufficient description of the importance and priorities of the historical liberal agenda. As well as seeking to limit unnecessary restrictions, liberalism has also historically sought to broaden the class of those considered “fully human” and thus deserving of rights. The path has roughly gone from the non-aristocracy in the 18th century, to slaves in the 19th, to women and non-Westerners in the 20th, to LGBTQ today. And there are signs in the future that, in the next century, the lines will be drawn even farther out do include members of other species. I think any definition of liberalism needs to include that consistent struggle to broaden the circle of humanity.

    The thing that makes me most confident that this fight has been the same one throughout the centuries, is that the people on the other side have always looked exactly the same, and used the same arguments against us.

    • Tauriq Moosa says

      First, I’d say not “fully human” but “fully persons” and perhaps “under the law”. Second, that might be fine I suppose but Feinberg specifically says: “We can define liberalism in respect to the subject matter of this work“. I’ve yet to read all four volumes to determine whether he links it to what Singer would call the “expanding moral circle”, but I’m certain it is.

      I’d probably not use your addition since it might unnecessarily complicate this more simple definition and how it’s honed in its focus. This doesn’t deny or undermine the point and the importance of that expanding inclusion, but I’d prefer as simple as possible.

      Thanks for the pointing this out, though.

    • sathyalacey says

      I definitely think that along with sexual and gender minorities (presented in not particular order) immigrants, children, pregnant women, incarcerated people, mentally handicapped people, and physically handicapped people could benefit from a ‘broadening of the class of “fully human” ‘ in modern American society.

      Any others?

      • says

        Yes. People who use recreational drugs other than the majority-approved ones, as the author suggests at the end of the OP. Not just cannabis; all recreational drugs, including, perhaps especially, the more dangerous and demonised ones like heroin and crack.

        Also, depending on where you go, the poor and working class may turn out to be in dire need of being recognised as fully human too.

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