Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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The morphology of liberalism

The study of ideologies also alerts us to another kind of multiplicity. Ideologies, liberalism included, clump ideas together in certain combinations that have a unique profile, a distinct morphological pattern. They arrange political concepts such as liberty, justice, equality, or rights in clusters. The clusters at the liberal core will be those that appear in all the known versions of liberalism and without which it would be unrecognizable. Anticipating the discussion in , we can arrive at a provisional statement based on the analysis of what liberals have actually said and written (see ).

Those seven core elements are the nucleus around which all liberalisms revolve. However, the differences among liberalisms then begin to make themselves felt. First, the proportionate weight accorded to each of these concepts within the family of liberalisms may differ. For instance, some liberalisms might recognize the role of emotion and slightly demote rationality; others might play down the innate sociability of people; others again might prefer a strong form of individuality over a pronounced concern for the general interest. The basic ingredients of the liberal cocktail may be similar, but the quantity of each ingredient may change.

Second, every one of those concepts carries more than one meaning. To give an example, liberty could refer to the absence of external constraints that permits self-determination. But it could also relate to the possibility of cultivating one’s personal potential in order to facilitate self-development. It could further signify the emancipation of a group or nation due to the combined efforts of their members to rid themselves of external control, or a free-for-all among unrestrained individuals that results in anarchy or social chaos. Because all political concepts have many conceptions, there is endless contestation over which is the most appropriate to a given set of circumstances. One of the key roles that ideologies perform is to decide which conception to endorse within each of the concepts they contain. In other words, they decontest the essential contestability of those concepts by conferring a certainty on one of those meanings, however questionable and illusory it might be. Different cultures across the globe will rule some meanings in and others out. Nor is the choice of one meaning necessarily due to deliberate deception. It may be sincerely held or unconsciously assumed. Ultimately there is no correct formula, no totally objective view, from which to ascertain once and for all what exactly liberalism ought to incorporate and signify. Yet in living our lives we need to create certainties, however fleeting or erroneous, because without them we cannot make sense of the world or reach decisions when confronted with conflicting choices. Liberalism supplies one of the numerous maps available as people attempt to navigate through their social and political environments, and it is a map that has guided many individuals, governments, and societies. We will re-examine this conceptual approach to liberalism in .

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