Towards progressive liberalism: A moral discourse on liberty and freedom

by Zhen Lee


Our contemporary and often misunderstood concept of liberalism in its pursuit of individual rights and entitlements has been a source of our moral decline. As a graduating student and hence my final contribution to the IHEID community, I thought it may be timely to put to light the notion of freedom or liberty that we collectively aspire towards and whether the way we understand it continues to serve us individually and for our society. My opinion piece here aims to examine our liberal values, which I believe that there has been a misunderstanding. It is also an attempt to appeal to our governments and social institutions globally to include and account for moral duties and responsibilities derived from the means of achieving a truer meaning of liberty and freedom. 

A sense of duty and responsibility overridden 

In general, as a free moral person, one is free to act in accordance with one’s will without bound with any ties of history, tradition, or inherent status as long as the universal principle is adhered to where nobody else is harmed by the act (Mill, 1859). 

One fundamental implication of my claims of misunderstanding of liberty is governments taking a neutral stance on a plethora of moral obligations (given the belief of the necessity to respect differences in morality) except to ensure laws are in place to protect individuals’ rights and their freedom from coercion. 

The central point here is the risk of sidelining other moral pursuits of duties and responsibilities which is overshadowed by the promotion of liberty in our society, where individual rights are said to be the most important part of morality. Given that individuals and businesses are free to act independently and in accordance with their own moral choosing (or the lack thereof) in line with  the law, this then leaves no room for civic and moral obligations to be imposed considering the notion of moral relativism and hence the risks of coercion. 

In this state, the government, for the sake of tolerance in promoting liberty, adopts neutrality and is not able to advance substantive civic duties and responsibilities deriving from societal or communal values such as shared prosperity and corporate responsibility that may enhance a society’s quality of life. The citizen, in the view of governments, has no moral obligations to other fellow citizens, apart from universal and natural duty to not commit injustice. 

The repercussions from the moral absence of liberty

One of the misunderstood examples of liberal values is the promotion of market-liberal policy towards equity and fairness – Is it fair to say that the people who succeed and those who fail equally deserve their status as a result of their own doing? The widening of the income gap and the segregation of public life between the rich and the poor has created a strong sense of economic and social injustice towards liberal elites by the poor and the marginalised. Moreover, in our promotion of liberal values, money can and has very clearly sidestepped many moral/civic obligations in today’s society, which significantly disadvantages the poor. These feelings of being ‘left behind’ being the current standpoint of the rise against the woes of economic liberalism of capitalism and free trade are not unjustified (Sandel, 2018). The feeling of injustice is further aggravated when redistribution of incomes to the less well-off are not endorsed in liberal values due to the risks of coercion. Are these the liberal values we stand for?

Freedom as autonomy to act in accordance with reason

How then do we reconcile the liberal values that we collectively aspire for with duties and responsibilities? One important aspect of freedom is being able to liberate ourselves from our natural inclinations of self-interests ie., of putting oneself above others. To simplify it further, it means being free from acting immorally. Here, the way we achieve freedom is about being autonomous, which  is about our ability to set our own ways of conduct through reasons. Our actions, if truly ours or deemed to be autonomous, are henceforth our own duties and responsibilities we personally choose, and these should be universally applicable and would respect the dignity of individuals and humanity (see Kant’s ethical theory). It can be said that one is not exercising their freedom when their actions are influenced by an external force or ‘enslaved’ by bad desires (heteronomy). Therefore, this notion of freedom or liberty is not only about the rights we are privileged with and the freedom from coercion granted to us by the government, it is also about how we act in the society, our duties and responsibilities that will enhance liberty — ours and others. 

(Picture of Immanuel Kant, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

The key point here is that our aspiration towards liberty does not mean minimal standards of law, but rather, to act in accordance with the duties and responsibilities we set for ourselves that are in favour of humanity. To do so, on one hand, governments should persistently encourage us to exercise our capacity to reason what these duties and responsibilities entail; and on the other hand, we, as civil societies, should call for governments to establish institutions to fulfil our duties and responsibilities we collectively reason towards. Liberty is not about eschewing morality and ethics, permitting individuals to fully express their capacity in the determinants of humanity. It is about acknowledging and embracing them in public discourse, because, sometimes, we do not know what these entail, given the dynamic melting pot of cultures we live in. 

Towards progressive liberalism

I believe, therefore, that the current issues arising from socioeconomic inequalities I put forth earlier are a misunderstanding of the principles of liberty and not with liberty itself. They are a result of a system that is irrational and thus unjustified. Since they do not follow universal principles or respect for humanity, they are acting in a selfish way and not in the name of liberty or freedom. 

For example, the ability of the rich to have advantageous positions at all walks of life eg., to jump queues, to have better access to healthcare and education, to lobby and have a better social standing/ bargaining position, is a violation of the liberties of the poor. It is not an act of freedom of the rich; rather, it is a violation of their duties. 

Nevertheless, one could argue that the rich, rationally, want the best for themselves too. But it is more on the social institutions that are responsible for discharging our collective duties and responsibilities, to provide more respect and inclusion for those who were left behind economically and socially and rightfully so. This includes, for example, a strong and well-designed welfare state, education and healthcare system, and a public transportation system which would make for a thriving society. These, I believe, are the liberal values we stand for.

The call here is for the governments and social institutions to legislate and to account for our progressive duties and obligations towards the communities and humanity rather than avoiding them. The doctrine of such duties and obligations will not arise from a vacuum but from proactive discourse and engagement that should be at the heart of our public policy and decision-making process. It is a misunderstanding to say that an act of liberty is to remain neutral, because promoting neutrality itself is to say liberty equates to promoting moral avoidance to its utmost possibility.

Hence, I hope to have sparked a slight shift in the mindset of the understanding of liberty so as to call for governments and social institutions to instil the duties and responsibilities derived from our own collective reasoning of what a thriving society can be. This is inevitable and necessary as the stance for neutrality around civic obligations is one with undesirable repercussions. More importantly, it fails in fulfilling our duties and responsibilities and therefore, by definition, it prevents us from being truly free.  


  1. Mill, J.S. (1859). On liberty (2nd ed.). London.
  2. Sandel, M. (2018). Populism, liberalism, and democracy. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 44(4), 353-359.
  3. Kant, I.  (1781). Critique of Pure Reason.

Zhen Lee is a recent graduate from the Master in Development Studies programme

Cover photo from Creative Commons

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