How Far Does Individual Freedom Reach? – with Daniel Jacobson

Daniel Jacobson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan

Self-sovereignty is a main pillar of belief for classical liberals. University of Michigan Professor of Philosophy Daniel Jacobson discusses individual freedom and its role in liberal philosophy as part of our video series with Big Think on the core concepts of classical liberalism.

Liberalism was a movement in political philosophy in the history of ideas. It’s not really useful to try to locate it on some political spectrum.

– Daniel Jacobson, University of Michigan Professor of Philosophy

The best way to understand liberalism is as individualist, he argues, not statist. When this movement began, liberals were united by a few common values: individual rights, personal responsibility, and democracy. Democracy was particularly crucial because it is the rule of the people, by the people.

“Liberals thought that . . . there were limits to what legal authority could do to the individual, how they could compel the individual,” Dr. Jacobson says.

John Stuart Mill is an essential theorist to turn to in order to understand these concepts. According to Mill, the sphere of liberty—the liberty to associate consensually and freedom of speech, as examples—is sacrosanct. He ultimately believed that paternalistic legislation that is designed around compulsion is fundamentally illegitimate.

“Not because he thinks there aren’t bad choices,” says Dr. Jacobson. “But because, he thinks, it’s up to individuals to choose whether they’re going to do the things that are best for them.”

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill by London Stereoscopic Company, c1870

Trade-offs exist between different forms of good. Dr. Jacobson illustrates the example of mandatory vaccinations in society. While there are some people who would object to this compulsion, most contemporary liberals would see these vaccinations as worthwhile despite the sacrifice in individual freedom.

Individual Freedom

The crucial point for liberalism then isn’t so much whether you’re going to be an absolutist about self-sovereignty . . . it’s that liberty ought to be the assumption, the default, that it should be hard to justify compulsion, especially about these most fundamental aspects of the way that we live our lives.

– Daniel Jacobson, University of Michigan Professor of Philosophy

This video is one in a series about the core concepts of classical liberalism. Additional articles, videos, and content on this topic and others can be found on the Institute for Humane Studies blog.

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