“Give me liberty or give me death!” – The philosophical case for civil liberties


At Conservatives for Liberty, we defend civil liberties passionately, and our supporters back us because of that. We believe that individual freedom and having certain rights which the government should not curtail, are a fundamental part of living in free, democratic societies, and are also historically entwined with British values and rights afforded to British citizens for many hundreds of years. But as much as we may claim that liberty is a good thing – why should you believe us? What makes liberty, and civil liberties in particular, so great? Why wouldn’t it be easier just to have some authoritarian force telling us all what to do and making life so much easier for us all, after all, having to make our own decisions all the time is tiring…isn’t it?

So what are civil liberties in the first place? Today, we take many for granted, the most notable perhaps being freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and crucially, freedom of speech. The list itself goes on, but I’m sure you get my gist already. It was these ideas that the great classical liberals of the 18th century extolled. The founding fathers of the United States of America wrote their Constitution in order to establish and defend these rights for their people. One of the most famous revolutions in history pitted the forces of liberty against tyranny. But why would the founding fathers of America create a republican, liberal democracy in place of monarchy?

Liberty tends to be divided between two main schools of thought, which sometimes overlap, but are generally dichotomous. These are the concepts of “positive liberty” and “negative liberty”. Positive liberty is generally considered to be the granting to people the right to fulfil their own potential and act on their free will. The man who coined the terms, Isaiah Berlin, described the outlook of the positive liberal as “I am my own master”. A positive liberal will generally see social blights such as racism and sexism as constraints on their free will, and will pursue progressive social policies in order to allow certain people to have more of a voice in politics. Therefore, positive liberty has generally been associated with modern social liberalism, and the centre to moderate centre-left brand of liberalism that it is associated with. Negative liberty, on the other hand, is more of an “I will not be anyone’s slave” attitude. It is the belief that people should be free from external constraints imposed by others. For a long time, negative liberty was the brand of liberalism subscribed to by the greatest political philosophers, and its practice can be seen in the policies of more modern politician too; Margaret Thatcher famously held up Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty declaring “This is what we believe in!” These previous thinkers adopted a negative liberal position mostly because it is derived from a fundamental moral position, which I will explain below.

So it is generally considered that in modern times, social liberals have tended towards positive liberty while classical liberals tended towards negative liberty. Positive liberty is founded to an extent in modern egalitarianism. Negative liberty’s argument for freedom from restraint is founded in moral philosophy. When considering what is “right” and what is “wrong” by moral standards, many people are guided by different things. Different religions have different outlooks based on cultural and historical definitions of morality. In Britain, even though we are living in an increasingly secular society, it is would be fair to say that the vast majority of British people retain a sense of what is right and wrong, regardless of whether they are religious or not. I’m also fairly confident in saying that the vast majority of people would agree with me that any action which does harm to another human, especially if it is without any good reason, is morally wrong. It’s for these reasons that we have the law – to prevent people from causing harm to others, and punish them by removing them from society and limiting some of their previous freedoms as they learn how to be a part of a functional society.

Civil liberties that are most commonly upheld in Western liberal democracies are entwined with the concept of negative liberty. Guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of the press and other such freedoms guarantees no repression or restrict on an individual’s right to present his opinions and conduct his way of life as he sees fit. It was not initially out of ideology that the American revolutionaries rose up against the British, but out of a desire for moral treatment. If civil liberties are restricted then we, as people, are harmed. If our freedoms are restricted, then we are either living under a tyranny or we are on the way to living under one. Tyranny is fundamentally morally harmful, because it controls individuals – it does not allow them to blossom freely, it seeks to programme and control them in line with the tyrant’s own wishes. Tyranny does not allow for free intellectual progression, not for the sharing of ideas, and it often degenerates into the physical harming of those who dissent to it. Therefore, for the state to be truly moral, and refrain from the harming of its citizens intellectual and physically, it must firstly, guarantee civil liberties, and secondly, it must punish and seek to rehabilitate those who infringe upon the liberties of others, physically or arbitrarily.

Now of course, restricting people from infringing on the rights of others means that some freedoms have to be restricted. As Burke said: “Liberty too, must be limited in order to be possessed” – but never did I advocate anarchy. The boundary for liberty is drawn at harm, physical harm, and harm of human beings as entities. Today we, along with the majority of other countries in the world, have commonly accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we have the means in the United Kingdom to uphold these rights through our own legislation. Why then do we allow our government to violate our right to privacy and begin to erode fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of speech?

Perhaps one of my favourite quotes of all time is that of the American revolutionary Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death!” as drastic as it sounds, it demonstrates the human desire for freedom, and our innate disgust of slavery, tyranny and maltreatment as a race. As our civil liberties become increasingly eroded by the passage of various “emergency” legislations in the coming months and years in both this country and abroad, it is only right to be there to speak out against those who would take away the liberties that we require to live in a progressive, functional country.

Freedom from restrictions on our fundamental liberal rights is what we need to fulfil our free will. As much as Isaiah Berlin liked to differentiate the two concepts of liberty, I think that in fact, once we are free from external constraints, the more people will be able to “become their own masters” and fulfil their own potential. The more we allow authoritarian forces to make decisions for us and abuse our freedoms, the more we are harmed as humans.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


This article is part of our ongoing ‘Why I am a Conservative’ series, in which supporters of CfL talk about their beliefs and values. If you would like to take part please email blog@con4lib