by Emrys Westacott
The concept of individual freedom has been central to political philosophy since the time of John Locke, who published his groundbreaking Two Treatises on Civil Government in 1689. Before then, other values were paramount—for example: conformity to God's will, the cultivation of moral virtue in the population, social stability, national power, material prosperity, the quality of the culture, or the glory of the sovereign. These are criteria by which a society might be judged and compared to other societies. The happiness of the population can also be added to this list, although this is usually assumed to be a direct consequence of some of those other goods.
But the modern liberal tradition, which begins in the 17th century with thinkers like Locke, is virtually defined by the central importance given to individual freedom and individual rights. And these come to be viewed as deal-breakers. It doesn't matter how stable the society, or how materially prosperous, or how happy the population; the fundamental rights and liberties of individuals should not be sacrificed just to secure these other goods.
Of course, who should count as an individual endowed with sacrosanct rights has, from the outset, been a topic of controversy. Even now, when no respectable thinker would defend the denial of equal rights on grounds of sex, race, or religion, there are still controversies over the rights of immigrants, children, prisoners, convicted felons, and animals.
The exact meaning of freedom has also never been agreed upon. John Stuart Mill's "harm principle" provides a basic starting point: each person should be free to do as they please so long as they do no harm to anyone else. But specifying what constitutes "harm" is difficult. Am I harming my neighbors if I erect a hideous sculpture on my front lawn? Am I harming you if I say something that offends you? Am I harming society, or a section of it, if I advocate racial segregation or deny the Holocaust?