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Ancient Chinese PhilosophyFreedom of AssociationVarious schools of Chinese Philosophy contribute to society’s understanding of the right to free association.

Legalism, with its adherence to strict punishments for any violation of the law, limits the liberty of citizens to freely associate. At its core, Legalism restricts the ability of citizens to act freely, as under the philosophy individual’s lives become entirely controlled by administrative acts (MacCormack, 62). Furthermore, the legalist state was not concerned with the liberties of civilians. Rather, legalists focused their efforts towards strengthening the economic and military strength of the state through authoritarian power (MacCormack, 63). Thus, in the school of Legalism, there is little tolerance for associations that counter the laws of the state, undermining the right to free association. Consequently, Confucianism emphasizes the ability of citizens to rebel against the emperor (Peek, 523). This bolsters the right to free association, as individuals are encouraged to join other political parties in the face of an unjust regime.

Though, more similarly to Legalism, additional elements of Confucianism vastly undermine the right to free association. As Confucianism evolved, the belief system began to emphasize a strict code of ethics, creating a rigid social structure (Peek, 532). This limited the ability of followers to freely associate, as they were confined to following a strict code of behavior. Thus, while Confucianism initially appears to support the right to free association, its development as a belief system has constricted the liberties of followers. While Taoism does not discredit the right to free association, it does weaken the importance of associations as a whole. Advocating that individuals put aside their distinguishing characteristics, Taoism stresses that there “is one underlying and uniting all phenomena” among human beings (Chan, 316). Furthermore, Taoists argue that human beings must transcend their personal distinctions, diminishing the value of individuals’ associations. Thus, while Taoism does not proclaim individuals should not be able to associate themselves with certain groups, it does argue that associations are ultimately meaningless.


Wing-Tsit Chan, "19. Neo-Taoism" In A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy edited by Chan, 314-335. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

MacCormack, Geoffrey. “The Legalist School and Its Influence upon Traditional Chinese Law.” ARSP: Archiv Für Rechts- Und Sozialphilosophie / Archives for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy 92, no. 1 (2006): 59–81.

Peek, John M. “Buddhism, Human Rights and the Japanese State.” Human Rights Quarterly 17, no. 3 (1995): 527–40.
Aristotelian thoughtFreedom of AssociationAristotle, in his book Nicomachean Ethics, wrote that “Friendships are also important parts of our childhood and adult experience. Without them, we struggle to discover, shape, and pursue our ideas of what constitutes a good life. But, again, friendships can take many forms for many reasons, not all of which are grounded in mutual affection and convivial warmth” (Brownlee and Jenkins 2019). Friendships here form the basis of our associations in life; he ultimately argues that we as humans require association and assembly in our lives.

Aristotle argues that not all forms of association are political, particularly those that stem from material needs, including family, the market, and alliances for mutual defense/benefit- these can be organized into libertarian and capitalist principles.

According to one’s needs, individuals are free to associate and disassociate within their own means of persuasion and trade, and none of this is political- or in other words, the government should have no business with the private associations of the people (Johnson 32, 2001). Regarding politically, he further argues that “It is not the case . . . that people come together for the sake of life alone, but rather for the sake of living well” (3.9.1280a31) and “the political community must be set down as existing for the sake of noble deeds and not merely for living together” (Johnson 32, 2001). He takes a stance against the dominance of individuals associating merely for political protection and gain, but he believed that the state should do more in its concern for the citizen, encouraging virtue and discouraging harm and vice (Johnson 32, 2001). He argues that the best political regime best delivers the “good life-” production and distribution of goods, both goods of the body and of the soul. Within this theory, Aristotle considers the production and distribution of bodily goods as private and the production and distribution of spiritual goods as public: “The primary goods of the soul are (1) moral and intellectual virtue, which are best produced by public education, and (2) honor, the public recognition of virtue, talent, and service rendered to the city. The principle of distributive justice is defined” (Johnson 38-39, 2001). Aristotle’s theory about freedom of association is that political associations’ ultimate goal is to help foster the virtues that are necessary in the pursuit of justice and happiness; therefore, “no legitimate regime can be indifferent to the virtue of the citizens” (Johnson 44, 2001). The polis is both the most inclusive and authoritative community according to Aristotle, seeing as Aristotle's polis is a mixed concept, fusing the political state with civil societal attributes “including economic, religious, and other forms of association” (Miller 878, 1996).


Kimberley Brownlee and David Jenkins, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Freedom of Association”:

Gregory R. Johnson, “The First Founding Father: Aristotle on Freedom and Popular Government,” 2001:

Miller, Fred D. “Aristotle and the Origins of Natural Rights.” The Review of Metaphysics 49, no. 4 (1996): 873–907.
Benthamite UtilitarianismFreedom of AssociationBentham approached freedom of association as he did free expression: as a means of political advocacy and dissent. In Chapter IV Section 24 of A Fragment on Government, he advocates for “the liberty of public association; or the security with which malecontents may communicate their sentiments, concert their plans, and practise every mode of opposition short of actual revolt, before the executive power can be legally justified in disturbing them.”


A Fragment on Government:
BuddhismFreedom of AssociationThe Five Precepts of Buddhism condemn activity relating to “sexual misconduct, falsehoods, and intoxicants” (Peek,529), possibly limiting the ability of individuals to associate with certain behaviors or activities. While Buddhism does warn against disobeying the Five Precepts, as this may result in bad Karma, it ultimately asserts that it is the choice of the individual to decide whether or not they wish to follow the declarations of the Five Precepts (Peek, 529). Furthermore, Buddhism’s focus on moral authority, in which the individual is not subordinate to the Five Precepts, can be interpreted as allowing individuals freedom in regards to association. Demonstrated by this, although Buddhism provides guidelines for what followers ought to avoid associating with, these are merely suggestions. Thus, emphasizing the freedom of the individual, Buddhism can be seen to support the right to free association.

Though, the traditions of Buddhist monks reveal how certain Buddhist practices restrict freedom of association. As explained by Holmes Welch, “According to the Buddha’s rule, when people become monks and nuns they lead a collective life. Not only is there no private property, but there is no thought for oneself. To take thought for oneself is to keep hold of the ego” (Welch, 146). Noted by Welch, upon entering monastic life, Buddhists are expected to relinquish all previously held associations. Therefore, observed through the expectations of monks, elements of Buddhism confine free association.

Looking to Buddhist leaders, freedom of association is ultimately upheld. For example, in a 1993 Washington address, the Dalai Lama demonstrated his admiration for the principles of democracy, particularly the liberties, such as freedom of association, it guarantees to civilians. The Dalai Lama asserts, “Irrespective of whether we are rich or poor, educated or uneducated, belonging to one nation or another, to one religion or another, adhering to this ideology or that, each of us is just a human being like everyone else.” Through his words of acceptance, the Dalai Lama conveys that Tibetan Buddhism supports the ability to freely associate with many identities. Thus, while the Five Precepts and monastic codes appear to restrict the liberties of followers, the Dalai Lama’s words affirm them.


Dalai Lama, “Buddhism and Democracy,” Washington DC, 1993:

Peek, John M. “Buddhism, Human Rights and the Japanese State.” Human Rights Quarterly 17, no. 3 (1995): 527–40.

Welch, Holmes. “The Reinterpretation of Chinese Buddhism,” The China Quarterly, 1952
Feminist ThoughtFreedom of AssociationHarriet Taylor, a feminist philosopher from the 19th century, wrote about the restrictions that limit women to the private sphere. Men, according to Taylor, decided that the private and domestic sphere is women’s “proper sphere”; however, she argues that any group’s proper sphere is the “largest and highest which they are able to attain to” (Taylor). Taylor argues that this is not possible without complete liberty and, if men are convinced of their mental superiority, should not be an issue if women and men are afforded the same opportunities (Taylor). This argument can be adapted to freedom of association because it essentially concludes that both women and men have the equal opportunity to associate with organizations if he or she can prove his or her worth. In the Constitution, there are two interpreted freedom of associations. The First Amendment includes the freedom of expressive association. The Fourteenth Amendment includes the freedom of intimate association. Intimate association is an individual’s right to form/maintain close personal relationships without interference from the government (Hudson, 2009) . Expressive association, recognized in NAACP v. Alabama ( 1958) , refers to the right of individuals to congregate or association for expressive purposes, such as advancing a political opinion (Hudson, 2009) . In Roberts v. United States Jaycees ( 1984) , Justice Brennan wrote the majority opinion. Brennan concluded that the Jaycees could not exclude women from membership because their purpose as an economic organization for the advancement of young men was not jeopardized if women were members (Bernstein, 2009) . Justice O’Connor concurred, but distinguished between expressive and non-expressive groups, which exist for other purposes (Bernstein, 2009) . O’Connor concluded that the Jaycees primarily existed for economic reasons, not expressive ones, and, as such, could not exclude women on the basis that it would compromise their mission (Bernstein, 2009) .
Hobbesian ThoughtFreedom of AssociationHobbes distinguishes between public political networks, or bodies politic, which are authorized by the commonwealth (states and provinces, for example), and private associations (251). Hobbes is not particularly skeptical of small, private organizations made for harmless, known purposes. However, he distrusts larger organizations with nefarious or unknown intentions. He states that, “Irregular Systemes, are those which having no Representative, consist only in concourse of People; which if not forbidden by the Common-wealth, nor made on evill designe, (such as are conflux of People to markets, or shews, or any other harmelesse end,) are Lawfull. But when the Intention is evill, or (if the number be considerable) unknown, they are Unlawfull” (252). Regarding bodies politic, Hobbes argues that their representation must be limited and determined by the commonwealth, since the commonwealth’s ultimate authority cannot be supplanted (252).

Hobbes identifies groups that we would today call private political associations: groups formed “not by obligation of one to another, but proceeding onely from a similitude of wills and inclinations” (265). He distrusts these groups, arguing that they are “for the most part unnecessary, and savour of unlawfull designe; and are for that cause Unlawfull, and go commonly by the name of factions, or Conspiracies” (265).


Hobbes, Leviathan
KantianismFreedom of AssociationIt is natural for people within society to surround themselves with people who are like-minded and develop associations based on these commonalities that allow them to pursue experiences that they believe will benefit them. It is this natural grouping that provides the framework for the freedom of association that society values because of its ability to connect people on another level without the government regulating the practices and the function of the group. Immanuel Kant believed that individuals should be allowed to pursue their own life experiences and find joy in the things that they do, paving the way for allowing a sort of freedom of expression within his version of society. Throughout his various works, Kant describes the conditions for allowing freedom of association, despite being cautious of the effects of allowing multiple associations within society.

The freedom of association does not come without limitations within Kant’s political theory of the state. Kant claimed that, “The state thus does not have the right to arrange the inner constitution and church affairs according to its own view of what seems advantageous and to prescribe or command the faith and rituals of worship (ritus) (for this must be left entirely to the teachers and chairmen that the people has chosen), but, rather, the state has only the negative right to keep the influence of the public [religious] teachers away from the visible, political commonwealth, which could be detrimental to public peace; hence the state has the right in internal conflicts or conflicts among the various churches not to allow civil harmony to be endangered, which is thus a right of the police” (Kant 2006, 125). It is his introduction of an inner constitution that implies that there is a freedom of association based on voluntary terms. Outside of the simple definition of a church as an institution with extreme influence based on a belief in a higher authority, religion can be seen as an association since people with the same beliefs come together due to their commonalities in the things they believe. Due to this, Kant believes that there is a freedom of associations that may come together, yet they are still subjected to the public laws and the civil constitution established by the state. Kant also notes that the government is still obligated to allow the association to do as they please, but they cannot develop social laws and norms that the people must follow according to the law. All involvement in external affairs outside the state are simply joined on a voluntary basis since Kant’s focus was on the enjoyment one could derive from their life experiences, even if it meant joining another institution. Furthermore, Kant noted that “A third kind of right is necessary for the preservation of the state-the right of inspection (ius inspectionis). This requires that no association which could influence the public welfare of society (publicum), such as an association of political or religious illuminati, may be kept secret; at the request of the police, it must not refuse to disclose its constitution. But only in cases of emergency may the police search anyone's private residence, and in each case, they must be authorized to do so by a higher authority” (Kant 2006, 123). Despite the freedom of association noted before, it does not mean that such associations are free from any sort of government intervention. Kant allows such government involvement when the state believes that the institution in question can pose a threat to the commonwealth and the rule of law. Kant claims that the state can only impose negative liberties on these associations since, as noted before, they have their own inner constitutions that allow them any sort of positive liberties outside the ones given to all by the government. In addition, these institutions must be public to allow the state to monitor its affairs to again make sure that it does not interfere with the government laws or the welfare of the community. The idea of freedom of association is still a strong pillar within Kant’s vision of society and like the people consenting to the government rule, these associations must be consented to by the people who choose to associate themselves with it.

The state’s involvement in public affairs whether they are a part of the association is necessary for the preservation of the individuals within society that allows them to follow their own life path. Due to this sentiment, Kant wrote that “In the case of a crime on the part of a subject that makes any association with him a danger for the state, the ruler has the right of banishment (that is, deportation) to a province in a foreign country where he will not enjoy any of the rights of a citizen” (Kant 2006, 134). Kant’s main concern is the well-being of the rest of society outside the association and the ways that the association will affect those outside and around the association in question. Therefore, the state has the obligation to monitor the associations and interfere when the rights of others are violated, putting the civil constitution above any inner constitutions. This contributes to Kant’s purpose of the government, which is to consent to the social contract in exchange for protection of rights from the government against others. The state must take responsibility for the rights and liberties that individuals have even if it means involving themselves in the lives of the people to protect them. In addition, when discussing the history of humankind, Kant claimed that “At the level of culture at which the human race still stands, therefore, war is an indispensable means of bringing about progress in culture. And only after culture has been perfected (only God knows when this would be) would a lasting peace be salutary for us and only through such culture would it become possible. We are thus, as concerns this point, most likely ourselves to blame for the ills about which we so loudly complain. And the holy scripture is completely right to portray an amalgamation of peoples into a single society and their complete liberation from external threats as a hindrance, since their culture had but hardly begun, to all further culture, and as a descent into incurable corruption” (Kant 2006, 35). Although Kant’s approves of the freedom of association, he remains skeptical about what allowing these groups to come together means for the rest of society and for the state. He acknowledges that these communities form to create their own culture and remains skeptical because he recognizes that without plurality or too much plurality within society, problems arise. Specifically, he claims that with associations there is always a risk of corruption since people are trying to spread their lifestyle to others, imposing on others’ freedoms and liberties to do as they please. Kant wants to make sure that there is a freedom to associate, but with this right is the necessity for it to stay public and for the government to involve itself in the matters of the community to make sure that the possibility of corruption does not become a reality. Regardless of this possibility, Kant does believe that society can create associations that will not affect the individuals outside of the group and therefore allows for association among the people.

Despite allowing freedom of association within society, Kant sees the dangers behind it and the way that the group can affect the whole society. His main concern is the corruption that could be a result of the groups that will change the way that people enjoy the liberties that the government has been tasked with to protect. Due to the belief in pursuits for personal satisfaction, Kant believes that this includes pursuing associations that satisfy the individual so long as it adheres to the standards set by the government and if it does not interfere with the interests individuals outside of the association. Most of Kant’s examples pertain to the obvious religious associations within society but also reference the unions, family, political parties, corporations, and other civil society associations, all of which change the way that society functions and the way individuals choose to live their lives. Kant believes in the freedom of association with the belief that the government and the overall well-being of society should transcend the needs and the beliefs set forth by the associations.


Kant, Immanuel, Pauline. Kleingeld, Jeremy. Waldron, Michael W. Doyle, and Allen W. Wood. Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Lockean Thought/English EmpiricismFreedom of AssociationLocke made little mention of free expression. However, one can draw inferences based on his views on religion and association, especially since there is substantial overlap between expression and association and religion. One can infer that, if Locke advocates for certain doctrinal limitations on churches and other associations, he would support limits on the expression of those doctrines. After all, forming associations that exist to further certain viewpoints is a form of expression (take the concept of “expressive association” in US jurisprudence). In A Letter, Locke establishes some respect for freedom of opinion, writing that if an opinion does “not tend to establish domination over others, or civil impunity to the Church in which they are taught, there can be no reason why they should not be tolerated” (36). Scholars disagree strongly over the extent to which speech would be regulated in a Lockean society (Daniel 2013, 1).


Daniel, Alex, "Speech Locked Up: John Locke, Liberalism and the Regulation of Speech" (2013). Student Works. 154.

Locke, John. “A Letter on Toleration”
MarxismFreedom of AssociationOne central idea of Marx’s theory is the free association of producers. That is, workers are able to freely determine what associations and organizations they can form to contribute to the economy (Fetscher, 1973, 459). Though this is not what one would conventionally describe as free association - which usually refers more to civic and political groups - it is an interesting contribution to the study of free association.

In Volume One of Capital, Marx states the following: “The lifeprocess of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan. This, however, demands for society a certain material groundwork or set of conditions of existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development” ( 1867) .


Fetscher, Irving “Karl Marx on Human Nature,” Social Research Fall 1973; 40, 3; Periodicals Archive Online

Marx 1867:
Millian UtilitarianismFreedom of AssociationWhile Bentham’s free association is a political right, in On Liberty, Mill advocates for near-universal free association: “from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived” (Mill 1859, 16). In his introduction, Mill makes clear that his ideas of liberty come from utilitarianism, not natural rights, stating that, “I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being” (14).


On Liberty: Schofield:
Reformation ChristianityFreedom of AssociationAs mentioned above (section 1), John Locke’s 1689 “Letter Concerning Toleration” is widely believed to be the first written source to address, albeit indirectly, the right to freedom of association. While it is true that no source written prior to 1689 specifically explores the right in its entirety, there were a number of Reformation-era thinkers whose work formed the basis for Locke’s belief in the benefits of granting the right to free religious association. These sources were primarily English, written by such philosophers as Richard Hooker and Thomas More, though there is some evidence that Locke drew on themes from John Calvin as well. Among Locke’s most prominent sources of inspiration and guidance is Richard Hooker’s influential work, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. This book, much of which was published posthumously in the late 1590s, was Hooker’s attempt to defend the fledgeling Anglican Church against attacks from the growing population of English Puritans. It explores a number of religious topics, one of which is the concept that all Churches, including those of “Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, England, and so the rest...are public Christian societies. And of such properties common unto all societies Christian, it may not be denied, that one of the very chiefest is Ecclesiastical Polity” (Hooker, 178). This idea that religious groups could be considered a “society” of people is advanced in Locke’s “Letter,” which takes the work one step further by examining one’s freedom to belong to these various religious societies. Hooker also explores this idea to some extent when he writes that “we rather incline to think it a just and reasonable cause for any Church, the state whereof is free and independent if in these things it differ from other Churches, only for that it doth not judge it so fit and expedient to be framed therein by the pattern of their example, as to be otherwise framed than they” (Hooker, 275).

In this passage Hooker essentially argues that different sects of Christianity ought to be allowed to practice their preferred faith in peace, provided they similarly respect other branches’ rights to believe and associate. Perhaps is not a surprising statement to find in a defense of the Anglican Church after it broke away from Catholicism, but Hooker’s conviction that “Churches are rather in this case like divers families than like divers servants of one family” nevertheless seems to have profoundly influenced Locke’s work in the same area (Hooker, 277).

In addition to this conceptual framework, Locke also seems to draw on Hooker for an interpretation of John Calvin’s teaching. Hooker’s Fourth Book of Laws quotes Calvin, who supposedly writes that, “Yea, sometime it profiteth and is expedient that there be difference, lest men should think that religion is tied to outward ceremonies. Always provided that there be not any emulation, nor that Churches delighted with novelty affect to have that which others have not.” (Hooker, 276). This, Hooker says, provides a basis of acceptability for different religious sects to profess their religions differently. By arguing in favor of different churches practicing differently, Hooker also implies a support for citizens’ right to belong to various churches according to how they wish to worship. It is possible that Hooker was referring to Calvin’s statement in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which says that that “it is a well-known doctrine, and one as to which all the pious are agreed,—that the right consideration of signs does not lie merely in the outward ceremonies, but depends chiefly on the promise and the spiritual mysteries, to typify which the ceremonies themselves are appointed.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter 16, 2). Calvin’s work then proceeds to explain the parallels between circumcision in the Jewish faith and Baptism in the Christian ones, before concluding that “Baptism has been substituted for circumcision (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter 16, 4). While this does not mean that Calvin believed in one’s right to belong to the association or religion of one’s choice, its influence on Hooker’s statement is apparent. In concert with Hooker and a number of other influences, Calvin’s philosophy guided Locke in his exploration of religious freedom and, by extension, freedom of association.

Locke’s “Letter” also displays some degree of influence from the writings of Thomas More, another Reformation-era thinker whose work addresses the citizen’s role in various religious associations. More’s famous work, Utopia, tells of a fictional country in which society is ordered and governed according to the way that More believed was best. Included in these guidelines are the principles of religious freedom, which likely had some influence on Locke’s thoughts on free association. Sanford Kessler’s “Religious Freedom in More’s ‘Utopia’” notes that “Locke's work contains arguments that are remarkably similar to More’s,” and explains that “In Utopia, religious freedom checked the threat of religious conflict by transforming a plethora of squabbling sects into tolerant, stable supporters of the government” (Kessler, “Religious Freedom”). The actual text of More’s work states that the founder of the mythical society in Utopia had “left matters open, making each person to follow his own beliefs,” (More, 110). While this does more to imply More’s support for religious freedom than for freedom of association, the idea that citizens should be able to belong to whichever religion they choose is certainly evident in Locke’s work on toleration.

Freedom of association was not directly addressed prior to Locke’s work on toleration, but it is clear that Reformation-era philosophers influenced his work. Hooker’s thoughts on religious freedom and the relationship between religious societies shaped the way that Locke thought about religious toleration, and ideas from Calvin and More also influenced his work.


Calvin, Jean, and Henry Beveridge. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Christian Classics Ethereal Library,1845, Religion.pdf,

Hooker, Richard. Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. George Routledge and Sons, 1998, V.pdf.

Kessler, Sanford. “Religious Freedom in Thomas More's ‘Utopia.’” The Review of Politics, vol. 64, no. 2, 2002, pp. 207–229. JSTOR, Accessed 8 July 2020.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Translated by Dominic Baker-Smith, Penguin Classics, 20012.
Rousseau's ThoughtFreedom of AssociationRousseau’s political philosophy is generally based on his assessment of familial association and its effect on human society. Most of his works describe the family as the basic form of human interaction, the creation of which is one of the first steps that the “savage man” takes toward civilization. His work does not deal with the right to freedom of association as it exists in modern political discourse, but it does reveal a support for mankind’s tendency to gather into groups with which to live, work, and prosper.

Association itself is key to Rousseau’s political philosophy because in his mind it is a building block for political society. In The Social Contract he writes that humans come together to form communities by surrendering certain “natural” rights and liberties in favor of certain “civil” rights and liberties, such as the protection of private property or the adherence to general ideals of justice. “The problem,” he says, “is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” (43). While the “association” of which Rousseau writes here does not resemble the right to association that most modern states protect in one way or another, the author’s thoughts on this kind of community-building clearly influence his views on the creation of social associations within the broader community. In his “Discourse on Political Economy” Rousseau writes that Every political society is composed of other smaller societies of different kinds, each of which has its interests and its rules of conduct: but those societies which everybody perceives, because they have an external and authorised form, are not the only ones that actually exist in the State: all individuals who are united by a common interest compose as many others, either transitory or permanent, whose influence is none the less real because it is less apparent, and the proper observation of whose various relations is the true knowledge of public morals and manners. The influence of all these tacit or formal associations causes, by the influence of their will, as many different modifications of the public will. (“Discourse on Political Economy,” 211)

In this passage the modern conception of political association is more easily identified. He seems to view the formation of these “smaller societies” which exist within the State and influence the public will as more or less inevitable, though he does not express any disapproval of their existence. Rousseau expands upon these views in his discussion of the social “circles” within Genevan political society, which he describes in his “Letter to Monsieur D’Alembert on the Theater” as the Genevan equivalent of social clubs in England. Again, he points out that the formation of these circles is a natural consequence of communal association, and points out that they do not pose any great danger to the State. “Of all the kinds of relations which can bring individuals together in a city like our own,” he believes that “the circles form incontestably the most reasonable, the most decent, and the least·dangerous ones, because they neither wish nor are able to be hidden, because they are public and permitted, because order and rule prevail in them” (“Letter to Monsieur D’Alembert, 108). These “circles” serve more of a social purpose than a political one, and Rousseau notes that they could potentially have negative consequences by encouraging men to drink too much or women to gossip in excess. He believes that they can influence the general will that governs an ideal community, but these associations do not form with specific political goals in mind. Having weighed the costs and benefits that they bring, Rousseau recommends that the Genevan state should “preserve the circles, even with their faults. For these faults are not in the circles but in the men who compose them; and there is no imaginable form of social life in which the same faults do not produce more harmful effects.” (“Letter to Monsieur D’Alembert,” 110). While his advocacy for the circles’ preservation does not directly indicate Rousseau’s support for freedom of association, his work at least shows an unwillingness to restrict people’s access to associational interaction within political society.


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Collected Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Translated by Allan Bloom, Publ. for Dartmouth College by Univ. Press of New England, 2004, m_20 1811/ Rousseau%20-%20%27%27Letter%20to%20D%27Alembert%27%27%3B% 20Politics%20%26%20the%20Arts%20[Allan%20Bloom].pdf.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and G. D. H. Cole. The Social Contract; and Discourses. Dent, 1963, Online Library of Liberty,
TranscendentalismFreedom of AssociationThe transcendentalist movement started in the 1800s and centers itself around the individuality of mankind and the ways that they adhere to their moral standards. This sense of individuality advocated for was challenged by the growing associations and the inevitable developments of the era in which the world continuously relied on one another. Alongside the freedom of association, transcendentalists were tasked with writing their theory based on the changes and the development of these new phenomena. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller all represent the thoughts of the transcendentalists as they try to describe their own version of society while remedying the present problems. With some exceptions and some flexibility on the issue, most transcendentalists would agree that there should not be freedom of association since these groups stifle the moral integrity of the individual by putting the efforts of the group above the individual.

Henry David Thoreau discusses the presence of associations within society and the ways that they affect the moral standards people hold themselves to. Specifically, Thoreau said, “I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of editors, and men who are politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision they may come to, shall we not have the advantage of his wisdom and honesty, nevertheless? Can we not count upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in the country who do not attend conventions?” (Thoreau 1849, 13). Thoreau specifically has a problem with the morality of society and the way that just because majorities form, it does not mean that justice is achieved in society. Thoreau says that humans need to hold themselves accountable when it comes to being morally just and with the presence of associations, people no longer hold themselves accountable morally. He says that associations influence one another rather than making decisions for themselves and because of this justice cannot be fully achieved. One fundamental pillar of transcendentalism is the solitary aspect that allows the individual to become their best selves morally and breaking down large institutions like the government. When discussing associations that fall under the political discussion, Thoreau notes above that it is the independent individual that can make the best most reasonable decision based on their morals and their own personal integrity. For this reason, freedom of association would infringe on this integrity because people would no longer need to hold themselves accountable and would rely on the institution for their own morals even though it might not mean achieving justice. Thoreau continues his discussion on associations as he notes that, “You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself, always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs” (Thoreau 1849, 23). Thoreau and the transcendentalists all concur that that best way to become the best an individual could be is through the solitary efforts to live life as one pleases rather than intertwining themselves with the lives of others and living life according to their standards. Specifically, Thoreau notes that individuals should not have many affairs meanings that associations they have should be limited to the necessities of human life therefore limiting the freedom of association. Thoreau’s overall objective is to be morally sound according to one’s own principles and this could be achieved by righting the wrongs one commits and by standing up for the things one might believe are wrong. It was this concept of civil disobedience that contradicts the concept of freedom of association since humans do not stand up to their community out of fear of being excommunicated. With this fear, people are not as likely to commit acts of civil disobedience as Thoreau encourages to maintain a moral standard within society.

Other transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson carried the conversation about associations forward, by even allowing some associations while remaining skeptical of their effects on society. He initially disproves of associations claiming that “We think all other distinctions and ties will be slight and fugitive, this of caste or fashion for example; yet come from year to year and see how permanent that is, in this Boston or New York life of man, where too it has not the least countenance from the law of the land. Not in Egypt or in India a firmer or more impassable line. Here are associations whose ties go over and under and through it, a meeting of merchants, a military corps, a college class, a fire-club, a professional association, a political, a religious convention;—the persons seem to draw inseparably near; yet, that assembly once dispersed, its members will not in the year meet again. Each returns to his degree in the scale of good society, porcelain remains porcelain, and earthen earthen. The objects of fashion may be frivolous, or fashion may be objectless, but the nature of this union and selection can be neither frivolous nor accidental” (Emerson 1844, 387). In describing what is reality when it comes to freedom of association, Emerson notes that most interactions between people are surface level and have no true moral value to the people involved. Emerson understands that associations are not necessary and might cause more damage to society by numbing people from taking accountability for their actions in society. He also understands that by joining these associations individuals no longer focus on their own self-reliance and begin to need one another more, when people should be living off their own thoughts and capabilities according to Emerson. Emerson focuses on the fact that being self-reliant will contribute to a person’s higher self and therefore the people should actively pursue their own version of what would be their higher self. However, being a part of associations or institutions, would stifle this potential because rather than pursuing a higher individual self, based on individual actions, people become geared towards an agenda that is not of their own and therefore in no way contributing to the development of their higher self. Emerson even notes above that these associations have no other value than what society assigns to them considering that these people can separate themselves from one another for an extended period and when they reconvene nothing has changed. It is the fact that Emerson believes that these associations are very disposable and surface level that makes him question whether these associations are good for society and should be allowed. Emerson carries this thought forward as he notes that “Friendship and association are very fine things, and a grand phalanx of the best of the human race, banded for some catholic object; yes, excellent; but remember that no society can ever be so large as one man. He, in his friendship, in his natural and momentary associations, doubles or multiplies himself; but in the hour in which he mortgages himself to two or ten or twenty, he dwarfs himself below the stature of one” (Emerson 1844, 456- 457). Emerson holds the idea of self-reliance, as Thoreau does, but differs in his approach to freedom of association. Emerson holds that these types of associations should be allowed to exist so long as people retain their individuality and use the associations to further their capabilities within society. However, Emerson is still cautious of these institutions since the ones present were corrupt and lost sight of the original mission of forming the association in the first place. Emerson still believes, as the others do, the importance of being self-reliant but allows these associations for the sole purpose of allowing people to pursue their higher faculties. He believes that in an ideal world, these associations can be good, but the problems come when people begin to rely on them for everything rather than doing things themselves. Emerson concludes that there should be freedom of association with limitations, which differs from the other transcendentalists, but resembles the others in that the associations one forms are toxic and should be secondary when compared to the ability to advance one’s higher self. This is to say that Emerson remains pessimistic about the presence of associations but acknowledges that they have a place within society.

Margaret Fuller puts the discussion of association into different terms as she criticizes institutions and similar associations as harmful to minorities. She carries this notion and criticism of institutions forward as she notes that “This author, beginning like the many in assault upon bad institutions, and external ills, yet deepening the experience through comparative freedom, sees at last that the only efficient remedy must come from individual character. These bad institutions, indeed, it may always be replied, prevent individuals from forming good character, therefore we must remove them” (Fuller 1855,76). Fuller concludes that institutions are detrimental to the state of society due to the oppressive nature they take when it comes to minorities like women and the slave population. Fuller takes more of a feminist approach to the transcendentalist movement in the ways that she describes the way that society in general has abused women and minorities, hence why she believes that being more self-reliant is important. To her, self-reliance frees the oppressed from the chains of discrimination as people can move away from the abusive environments and into a sphere where the individual can live as they please. Although Fuller’s work specifies about the status of women, most transcendentalists were also abolitionists and again used the same argument that the institutions society formed, stifle the progress of the individual and should therefore be relinquished to do as they please. Like the others, Fuller is concerned with the moral character of the individual and the way that the individual should hold themselves accountable for their moral being. However, she notes that one cannot achieve sound principles because these institutions instill the same values within people so that they do not come to their own conclusions about what principles and ideologies they want to live by. Fuller would have a problem with freedom of association since it is these associations that keep people oppressed and prevent them from moving towards a higher moral standard. Furthermore, in his discussion of resembling sentiments from others, Fuller notes that “Fourier says, As the institutions, so the men! All follies are excusable and natural under bad institutions. Goethe thinks, As the man, so the institutions! There is no excuse for ignorance and folly. A man can grow in any place, if he will. Ay! but, Goethe, bad institutions are prison-walls and impure air, that make him stupid, so that he does not will” (Fuller 1855, 124). Continuing Fuller’s sentiments from before, is the idea that these institutions make people unpleasant due to the things individuals are taught within these institutions. However, what is worth noting is the interchangeability between the words “institution” and “association”. Institutions usually are pillars within society that hold significance and influence the rest of society, while associations are groupings according to similarities between individuals and may or may not influence the rest of society. Fuller specifically names religion as one of the institutions that stifle human progress in society, but from the early discussion of what an association is, religion can be classified as an association as well. It is because of the similarity between the two word’s definition that implicitly asserts that Fuller would not be in favor of the freedom of association because of the brutal treatment of minorities within society.

Fuller values the moral standing of the individual and believes that it only progresses through the individual and the decision they make through their own personal actions and decisions. Like most of the other transcendentalists, freedom of association is not encouraged since they value independents acting in their own moral interests rather than the interests of society.

Transcendentalists face the problem of retaining a level of individuality in a world that is increasingly becoming reliant on one another, playing out the exact problem that the authors describe above. The world now has become increasingly corrupt as Emerson describes and people submit themselves to the agenda of their associates rather than thinking and developing for themselves and for their own private efforts. Transcendentalists now would push for the independence of the individual from associations that they claim poison the integrity of society, preventing people from fully developing their higher beings.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1940. The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson edited by Brooks Atkinson. The Modern Library New York.

Fuller, Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century : and Kindred Papers Relating to the Sphere, Condition and Duties, of Woman. Massachusetts: J. P. Jewett ; Jewett Proctor & Worthington ; Sheldon, Lamport, 1855, 1855.

Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. New York, New York: Open Road Media Integrated Media, 2015.
Roman Legal and Political ThoughtFreedom of ExpressionFreedom of expression was seen as an essential virtue of Roman citizenship at the time of the Roman Republic. This altered in the early Roman Empire when freedom of expression was contested and eventually suppressed. Octavius Augustus (rule 30 BC-AD 14), first emperor of Rome, “established an autocratic form of government, where he was the sole ruler and made all important decisions”. Although Romans had long maintained that political dominance by one person was the opposite of liberty, Augustus portrayed his dictatorial rule of the Roman state as a democratic act. In Augustus' opinion, he had returned liberty (libertas) to Rome by first liberating the Roman world from the senators who had taken power by assassinating Julius Caesar, and then by eliminating the threat of foreign domination presented by Cleopatra and her lover Marc Antony (Watts, 2020, p.13, para.3). As Augustus and his allies understood it, liberty meant freedom from internal conflict and foreign intervention, which could only come with the security and political stability that Augustus gave.

Officials regularly banned or destroyed objectionable literature during the period, and they punished, banished, or executed anybody who published anything negative of the emperors or the government. It is difficult to tell how later Romans governed political discourse. For most of the Republic, elite political speech was protected, but social customs and career possibilities meant that most elite Romans nevertheless maintained significant self-censorship (Watts, 1970, pp.159-60).

During his consulate in 59 B.C., Julius Caesar (rule 49 BC-44 BC) mandated the recording of regular procedures of senate proceedings. Under his orders, these stenographic reports, known as acta senatus, were published alongside the populi acta diurna, Europe’s first newssheet. Even after the civil war, Caesar allowed the senatorial sessions to be published indefinitely. Citizens of the Roman Empire generally enjoyed freedom of expression and the freedom of publishing writings. Augustus put an end to this practice, never again resumed in the history of Rome (Lintott, 2015, p.83, para.3). After that, the acta diurnal published only those sections of the senatorial discussions that the imperial emperor deemed suitable to print. By removing the full publicity that senate opponents had enjoyed since 59 B.C., Augustus deprived his senatorial opponents of the right to publish their opinions alongside those of the monarchic side in the official bulletin (Cramer, 1945, p.161).

The legislation was the same as it had been in the past, but other subjects fell within its jurisdiction, such as betrayal of an army, encouraging the common people to insurrection, or, more broadly, maladministration in public office (Cramer, 1945, p.170, para.1). Words were not penalized, but actions were. Augustus was the first to expand the scope of this legislation to include literature criticizing the administration. The new restrictions on free expression went even further. Censorship began to infiltrate educational classrooms. Professors found themselves in hot water after debating two sides of Augustus' official stance in class. For example, the case of professor Corvus showed the full ferocity of the new anti-freedom of expression and writing campaign (Cramer, 1945, p.170). Corvus once gave a public talk about the pros and cons of a woman's advice to married women to have no children. Augustus was particularly sensitive about birth control and celibacy. He has often advocated for legislation to reverse the trend of Rome's declining birthrate, particularly among the aristocratic class. Corvus was hauled into court for having harmed the state. Consequently, it became a standard practice to submit to school students of oratory the following topic for composition: “Cicero considers whether he should burn his writings, as Anthony promises him life if he does so” (Cramer, 1945, p.173, para.4).

Though no death sentence was meted out for just verbal or written criticisms on the government during Augustus' lifetime, the legal instrument for future executions was now formed (Cramer, 1945, p.171). After a formal judgement of guilty was given against their creator, a new sort of penalty was created for the new type of crime, the burning of the incriminating writings. In minor crimes, a guilty author's works may be sentenced to the stake; in graver cases, his whole lifework may be consigned to the flames under such a judgment. It was not long before the next obvious step was taken private ownership of condemned publications, as well as reading them, became a crime.

Because there was no clear system for identifying and punishing even traitorous statements, most restrictions on free speech in late antiquity stemmed from self-censorship rather than real imperial actions (Watts, 1970, p.159). People occasionally made the decision not to express what they want because they believe their words will have negative impacts. This makes self-censorship during the Roman Republic difficult to trace since it is, at its most basic, the act of a person anticipating a reaction to what he thought but never felt comfortable speaking or writing. Thus, authors often refuse to speak out or publish writings under circumstances when doing so may advertise their own weakness.


Lintott, A. W. (2015). The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford University Press.

Watts, E. J. (1970). Introduction: Freedom of speech and self-censorship in the Roman Empire. CORE.

Watts, E. J. (2020). Mortal Republic: How Rome fell into tyranny. Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC.

Cramer, F. (1945). Bookburning and Censorship in Ancient Rome: A Chapter from the History of Freedom of Speech. Journal of the History of Ideas.
Ancient Chinese PhilosophyFreedom of ExpressionNoted by Daniel Bell, professor of ethics and political philosophy and director of the Centre for International and Comparative Political Philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Confucius emphasized the importance of free political speech in The Analects. Conveyed by Bell, Confucianism supports civic engagement through political debate, a key element of free expression. Though, several other areas of the Analects dismiss certain forms of speech. For example one section of The Analects pronounces, “Crafty speech disrupts virtue” (The Analects of Confucius). While sections such as these condemn specific types of speech, they do not enforce a legal framework for restricting them. Thus, although Confucianism provides a framework for what qualifies as just speech, it does not explicitly urge followers to refrain from engaging in certain types of dialogue. In this way, Confucianism appears to promote freedom of expression.

On the contrary, Legalism, with its focus on strong authoritarian power, promotes restrictions on free speech, weakening the right to free expression. Legalist scholar Han Feizi emphasizes this, stating, “Accordingly, in the country of an enlightened ruler there are no texts written in books and on bamboo strips, but the law is the teaching; there are no “speeches” of former kings” (Pines, 16). As noted by Han Feizi, within the legalist society, there are no teachings and works to be produced other than the laws created by the ruler. Thus, the principles of legalism directly counter the development of the right to free expression, as civilians are restricted by law from expressing themselves. Furthermore, these Legalist notions are emulated in contemporary China, where the communist party rampantly restricts the right to free expression. Taoism upholds intellectual freedom, promoting followers to use their creativity to express themselves. Though, discussed by You-Sheng Li in "A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy", “Taoist Freedom of thought is different from the Western concept of free speech, free expression, and free press. The latter are all concerned with the social space in which free thoughts are expressed, and therefore are part of modern society. Taoist freedom is concerned with the individual himself.” Thus, Taoist philosophy asserts that while individuals should be entitled to the freedom of thought, this liberty is not necessarily applied to society. In this way, Taoism supports the freedom of the individual to express themselves, but not the universal legal entitlement to free expression.


“Daniel Bell: What Would Confucius Make of Free Speech in the Internet Age?” Free Speech Debate,

The Analects of Confucius.

Pines, Yuri. “Legalism in Chinese Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 16 Nov. 2018,

Freedom of Expression in China: A Privilege, Not a Right.” Freedom of Expression in China: A Privilege, Not a Right Congressional-Executive Commission on China,

Sheng-Li, You. “A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy.” Google Books, Google,
Aristotelian thoughtFreedom of ExpressionAristotle’s theories on the freedoms of men influenced the common theories of human rights that we know today; however, this may seem implausible at first glance, considering Aristotle did not consider individual freedom to be of the highest political value. He actually supported using state coercion to morally improve citizens. He also did not view democracy as the best form of government (Johnson 30, 2001). However, Aristotle’s “Politics” which subordinates individual freedom to collective goals imposed by ruling elites inspired the foundations of the guided freedoms we enjoy today.

Within Aristotle’s political arguments and analyses, unlike Locke, who often writes about the preexisting natural rights of all men, Aristotle describes rights given to men within the “polis” or society against other individuals, rulers included, but not against the polis itself, referring to the government. Within this theory, justice can only be found in its truest form through the polis. However, Aristotle did recognize rights in the political community- a theory which eventually inspired the theories of natural rights (Miller 880, 1996). In his writings, Aristotle focuses less on the extents of and limits to freedom of expression and more on the value of what is said within the bounds of the freedom and the function of speech. Within freedom of expression, Aristotle focuses on the most important aspect: “logos,” the root word of the English word “logic” which means both “speech” and “reason” (Clayton 2020). Aristotle believed the ultimate purpose of speech, which was specifically assigned to men and no other animal by nature to be to determine what is right and wrong, just and unjust. In doing so, we make it possible for humans to live together justly and in pursuit of lives of virtue. Writing that we are, by nature, political animals, Aristotle claimed: “We must figure out how to live together for ourselves through the use of reason and speech, discovering justice and creating laws that make it possible for human community to survive and for the individuals in it to live virtuous lives. A group of people that has done this is a city: “[The virtue of] justice is a thing belonging to the city. For adjudication is an arrangement of the political partnership, and adjudication is judgment as to what is just” (Clayton 2020). In living according to the laws of the polis, pursuing justice, and using the virtues that separate us from other animals to form a functioning society, we can achieve individual virtue and happiness. Aristotle’s theory suggests that men are not free solely because they live in a free society, but men have certain freedoms, such as the freedom of expression, that help to govern them responsibly in the pursuit of happiness and virtue (Johnson 36, 2001). In order to attain true happiness, the free speech of a free man has a large stake in his moral virtue. Moral virtue can only be attained by a free man because an action is only moral if it is chosen. This theory can be called somewhat of a “virtuous circle of cause and effect. It implies a natural capacity for virtue that has to be actuated by virtue — a capacity for freedom that requires the exercise of freedom” (Mansfield 2018). There can be no freedom at all without the freedom of choice, and having the choice to speak freely is inherent in our society for our pursuit as a collective of virtue, justice, and happiness.


Aristotle and the Origins of Natural Rights, Fred D. Miller Jr., 878, 880, Philosophy Education Society Inc., 1996 United States.

Aristotle: Politics, Edward Clayton, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2020 United States.

The First Founding Father: Aristotle on Freedom and Popular Government, Gregory R. Johnson, 30, 32, 36, 38-39, 44, Hoover Institution Press, 2001 Stanford.

The Value of Free Speech, Harvey C. Mansfield, American Enterprise Institute, 2018 Washington D.C.
Benthamite UtilitarianismFreedom of ExpressionTo Bentham, the purpose of free expression, especially press, is to identify and censure government abuses, which Bentham believed would have more positive than negative consequences. Like other liberties in Bentham’s thought, it is an instrumental right, not an intrinsic right (Niesen 2019, 4). He worried that a chilling effect would prevent the press from serving its purpose, and he opposed censoring of “bad sentiments” (something Blackstone supported) because he did not trust society’s ability to identify them. Bentham not only advocated for the protection of true statements, but of false ones, provided they were not “‘groundless’ and made with ‘wilful mendacity, accompanied with the consciousness of its falsity, or else with culpable rashness” (Niesen 5). A “wilful mendacity” standard resembles the “actual malice” standard of contemporary American jurisprudence on libel of a public figure.


Niesen, P. ‘Speech, truth and liberty: Bentham to John Stuart Mill.’ Journal of Bentham Studies, 2019, 18(1), pp. 1–19. DOI: https://doi. org/10.14324/111.2045-757X.046.
BuddhismFreedom of ExpressionThe ancient spiritual tradition of Buddhism is rooted in practices and teachings that promote enlightenment and ultimately reaching a state of nirvana or peace. The tradition quickly became a school of thought that heavily influenced east Asian societies and laws. Although, not traditionally accredited to influencing modern Western ideals and expressions of modern democracy and human rights, reform Buddhism does justify human rights law, and particularly the freedom of expression. Although often used synonymously, within the right to freedom of expression, the freedom of speech is an important component that is more directly addressed by the teachings of Buddhism.

In 2010, the Dalai Lama was awarded a Democracy Service Medal for his commitment to democratic principles and upholding and defending human dignity. The Dalai Lama connects the modern practice of democracy with traditional Buddhist teachings. In his 1993 speech entitled “Buddhism and Democracy,” the Dalai Lama stated, “The institution the Buddha established was the Sangha or monastic community, which functioned on largely democratic lines. Within this fraternity, individuals were equal, whatever their social class or caste origins.” According to this idea of equality, the Buddhist concern for the well-being of all justifies rights to all freedoms of belief, expression and conduct” (Caney 2001, 68). Along the Buddhist ideals of equality and the freedom to exercise control of one’s life paired with the democratic ideals of freedom and commitments to human rights, the two practices are conjoined. And although there is no specific, equivalent word in Buddhism for the word “rights,” rights are understood as a subjective entitlement (Husted, Keown, & Prebish 2012, 20). According to Charles Taylor, in Buddhism, “human rights don’t stand out, as they often do in the West, as a claim on their own, independent from the rest of our moral commitments” (Taylor 1999, 110). These rights are somewhat implicit in understanding the philosophy of Buddhism. In reaching enlightenment, one who practices Buddhism is to follow The Eightfold Path – the ultimate guide to life. The Eightfold Path outlines that followers should practice “1. Right understanding and viewpoint (based on the Four Noble Truths), 2. Right values and attitude (compassion rather than selfishness), 3. Right speech (don't tell lies, avoid harsh, abusive speech, avoid gossip), 4. Right action (help others, live honestly, don't harm living things, take care of the environment), 5. Right work (do something useful, avoid jobs which harm others), 6. Right effort (encourage good, helpful thoughts, discourage unwholesome destructive thoughts), 7. Right mindfulness (be aware of what you feel, think and do), and 8. Right meditation (calm mind, practice meditation which leads to nirvana)” (United Religions Initiative 2020). Number 3 on the path outlines the necessity of right speech, which adds a layer of responsibility to the freedom of speech – a component which is not explicitly outlined in most Western descriptions of the right to freedom of expression. Within the Buddhist teachings, lies, half-truths, insults, and gossip are strictly prohibited; ultimately, being truthful is only one component to the freedom of speech, but also non-exploitation of oneself and of others is a central principle to Buddhism (Ekachai 2015). This responsibility is what allows for each person to be not only equal, but also to have the same opportunity and potential to be who and what they desire to be. As a result, the Dalai Lama states that, “Thus not only are Buddhism and democracy compatible, they are rooted in a common understanding of the equality and potential of every individual” (Dalai Lama 1999).

In his teachings, the Buddha stresses the importance of following the Eightfold Noble Path, which consists of cultivating eight essential areas of behavior. Within the Eightfold Noble Path, the Buddha asserts the need to practice “right speech” (Walton). When following right speech, also known as Wise Speech or Virtuous Speech, one focuses on expressing themselves in meaningful and genuine ways. When our words are moral, the Buddha states, our actions will follow, resulting in flourishing morality throughout the universe. Urging followers to engage in right speech, Buddhism condemns several forms of dialogue. In this way, the codes of Buddhism can be interpreted as a hindrance to the right to free expression, as certain types of discussion are excluded from qualifying as right speech. Defined as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from from idle chatter” (Roth), right speech upholds censoring hostile or false dialogue. While the Buddha emphasizes that the intention of right speech is to promote harmony, the doctrine of right speech nevertheless condemns words associated with political or social dissent. Thus, by providing a framework for proper speech, Buddhism undermines individuals’ entitlements to free expression. Though, despite the provisions of right speech, Buddhist leaders are expected to listen to the words of their people, upholding freedom of expression. As explained by John Peek in Human Rights and the Japanese State, “The enlightened ruler need not fear being deposed if he cultivates the traits of integrity, self-control, forbearance, generosity, gentleness, selflessness, non obstinacy, and nonviolence…the King will listen carefully to the wishes of the people, Just as this is to be a government by the people, it is also to be a government of the people” (Peek, 534). Portraying a system in which individual voices are supported by leaders, Peek asserts that Buddhism welcomes free expression. Thus, while Buddhists are guided to follow right speech, Buddhist leaders are expected to respect individual expression, regardless of if they believe it to be hostile or malicious. This contributes to the belief that free expression is a human right that must be protected by governments.


Buddhism and Democracy, Bstan-dzin-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama XIV, His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, 1993 Washington D.C.

Buddhism and Free Speech, Sanitsuda Ekachai, Bangkok Post, 2015 Bangkok.

Buddhism and Human Rights, Wayne R. Husted, Damien Keown, Charles S. Prebish, 20, Curzon Press, 1998 Richmond.

Buddhism, Asian Values, and Democracy Journal of Democracy, vol. 10 no. 1, Bstan-dzin-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama XIV, 4, Johns Hopkins Press, 1999 Baltimore.

Buddhism: Basic Beliefs, United Religions Initiative Editors, United Religions Initiative, 2020 San Francisco.

Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights, Charles Taylor, 101, Verso, 1999 New York.

Human Rights and Global Diversity: Human Rights, Compatibility, and Diverse Cultures, Simon Caney, 68, Taylor and Francis Group, 2007.

Peek, John M. "Buddhism, Human Rights and the Japanese State." Human Rights Quarterly 17, no. 3 (1995): 534. Accessed July 8, 2020.

Roth, Beth. “Right Speech Reconsidered - The Eightfold Path.” Tricycle, 29 Jan. 2020,

Walton, Matthew J. “What Did the Buddha Mean by 'Right Speech'?” Free Speech Debate, 10 Feb. 2015,
Early Modern RationalismFreedom of ExpressionTThe late seventeenth century was a period of great philosophical advancement. Falling roughly at the close of the Enlightenment movement, the late 1900s and early 1700s saw an expansion in the European discourse on rights and liberties within political society. While rationalists during this time period generally did not deal with specific freedoms of the citizens in their writings, writers like Leibniz and Spinoza do reveal a tendency in the early-modern rational tradition to consider the benefits of citizens’ unrestrained expression. Sources do not indicate that these philosophers were thinking of free expression in terms of right or liberty, but their writings nevertheless reveal shades of support for the concept. Leibniz was a prolific writer who produced a plethora of work spanning a wealth of topics, but some of his most important work relating to freedom and liberty occurred in the field of political philosophy. In his “Reflections on the Common Concept of Justice,” he explains his thoughts on justice within political society and the transfer of right between citizen and state. In response to Hobbes’ argument in Leviathan, Leibniz explains that he thinks it impossible for an individual to transfer all of their freedom unto a sovereign in exchange for membership and security within a state. “In the end,” he writes, “in spite of what Hobbes says, each one has retained his right and his liberty regardless of the transfer to the state, and this transfer will be provisional and limited, that is, it will take place to the degree that we believe our safety is involved” (Leibniz, 573). This does not deal specifically with the right to liberty of expression, but it certainly implies that there are certain freedoms that the citizen retains within the context of wider society. Coupled with his definition of justice as “a constant will to act in such a way that no person has reason to complain of us,” it is not unreasonable to conclude that freedom of expression could be included in the set of liberties that Leibniz believes are not transferred to the sovereign in political society. (Leibniz, 566).

Of course, Leibniz never directly argues in favor of the protection of the right to freedom of expression, so it is unclear whether he viewed it as an inalienable, natural right. The idea that certain forms of expression could potentially give a person “reason to complain” of another was certainly familiar to early-modern Europeans; defamation and libel laws had existed in England since the reign of Edward I (Statutes of the Realm). This means that Leibniz would have understood how certain forms of expression could be harmful to political society, and it is possible that he would have viewed certain forms of expression as unjust and therefore unprotected by natural right. Ultimately, Leibniz would have based his views on freedom of expression in his classification of the right itself. If he thought of it as an intrinsic natural right which citizens were incapable of giving up, then he likely would have viewed state restrictions on speech or demonstration as inherently impermissible. Unfortunately, Leibniz does not address specific rights, such as that to freedom of expression, within his discourse.

Spinoza, on the other hand, deals somewhat more specifically with the freedom of expression, though he also refrains from advocating for it outright. Spinoza’s support for free expression within society stems from his belief that the state can never truly force belief upon its subjects. He does not address freedom of thought and expression; he sees them as inevitable. In his Theological-Political Treatise, h e discusses the rights and liberties that the individual surrenders to the state when he or she enters into political society under the sovereign. When he considers the state’s ability to impose belief upon its citizens, he concludes that “the individual justly cedes the right of free action, though not of free reason and judgment; no one can act against the authorities without danger to the state, though his feelings and judgment may be at variance therewith; he may even speak against them, provided that he does so from rational conviction” (Spinoza, 195). Elsewhere in the Treatise, he writes that:

“I have thus shown:—I.That it is impossible to deprive men of the liberty of saying what they think. II.That such liberty can be conceded to every man without injury to the rights and authority of the sovereign power, and that every man may retain it without injury to such rights, provided that he does not presume upon it to the extent of introducing any new rights into the state, or acting in any way contrary to the existing laws.” (Spinoza, 199)

Like Leibniz, Spinoza does not take issue with an individual’s freedom of belief, nor does he see any reason that a citizen’s right to express themself should be restricted. It is important to note that both thinkers limit the citizen’s liberty, whether it relates to speech or not, to action that does not break any of the sovereign’s laws. Neither philosopher believed that a sovereign’s word was always morally just, but both nevertheless took issue with a citizen’s blatant violation of the law.


Britain., Great. “The Statutes of the Realm : Printed by Command of His Majesty King George the Third, in Pursuance of an Address of the House of Commons of Great Britain. From V.1.” HathiTrust,

Johns, Christopher. “The Grounds of Right and Obligation in Leibniz and Hobbes.” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 62, no. 3, 2009, pp. 551–574. JSTOR, Accessed 30 July 2020.

“Reflections on the Common Concept of Justice (1702[?]).” Philosophical Papers and Letters, by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Leroy E. Loemker, Kluwer Academic, 1989.

Spinoza, Benedictus de, and R. H. M. Elwes. The Chief Works of Benedict De Spinoza. G. Bell, 1891, oll
Feminist ThoughtFreedom of ExpressionFeminist theory, at times, seems to be at odds with the principles of free expression. It is commonly acknowledged that limitations on freedom of speech are less strictly-enforced in academic settings because the freedom of exchanging ideas, without consequence or censorship, is essential to the marketplace of ideas (Cornwell, 107, 1998). The marketplace of idea, essentially, centers on the belief that some opinions will rise in merit, while lesser ideas will sink and be disqualified (Cornwell, 107, 1998). Feminist theory recognizes that there may be underlying power dynamics within a classroom setting that ultimately threaten the viability of the marketplace of ideas, namely that hate speech could perpetuate “the inequalities and injustices that feminist pedagogy attempts to overcome” (Cornwell, 107, 1998). To understand the study of free expression within feminist theory, one must understand that feminist scholars do not examine freedom of expression as an individual right, but instead “the social relations between individuals” (Cornwell, 110, 1998). Cornwell recognizes that speech, within a social relationship, creates “differentiations in power and the dominant becomes the standard by which the ‘other’ is defined” (110, 1998). Ideas about free speech, including the marketplace of ideas, were created and perpetuated by white males for over two hundred years, according to feminist theories, and, as such, so have the understanding of hate speech (Cornwell, 111, 1998). Cornwell, as such, recommends that academic settings, instead of using the marketplace of ideas theory to regulate freedom of speech, use the “ethic of care” principle (Cornwell, 113, 1998). The ethic of care essentially means an individual’s shift “towards an orientation of social life constituted by the relationship between individuals lays the groundwork for reorienting speech rights, so that they are not simply extensions of individual rights” (Cornwell, 113, 1998). Instead of viewing freedom of speech as an individual right, it “should be viewed as part of the social relation between individuals and, consequently, attention should be paid to the social implications of that relationship” (Cornwell, 113, 1998). Within the context of the ethic of care, hate speech is communication that creates a meaning of bigotry and discrimination—it changes the social relationship between two individuals to cause harm (Cornwell 113, 1998). Since speech creates meaning in a relationship that can define the two individuals, a relationship with hate speech “constructs a ‘truth’ about the victims of hate speech that invariably impacts on their liberty” (Cornwell, 113, 1998). Thus, within feminist theory, hate speech ought to be combated within the academic setting through “revealing and engaging with power, and community building in the classroom” (Cornwell, 111, 1998).


Cornwell, Nancy C. “Rethinking Free Expression in the Feminist Classroom: The Problem of Hate Speech.” Feminist Teacher 12, no. 2 (1998): 107–18.
Hobbesian ThoughtFreedom of ExpressionHobbes never advocates for a right to free expression. Rather, he argues that a commonwealth should censor opinions and publications promoting doctrine that undermines its wellbeing. He states that it is “annexed to the Soveraignty, to be Judge of what Opinions and Doctrines are averse, and what conducing to Peace; and consequently, on what occasions, how farre, and what, men are to be trusted withall, in speaking to Multitudes of people; and who shall examine the Doctrines of all bookes before they be published. For the Actions of men proceed from their Opinions; and in the wel governing of Opinions, consisteth the well governing of mens Actions, in order to their Peace, and Concord” (202). Despite Hobbes’ often totalitarian views, Hobbes advocates at least some liberty of expression, religion, and association. Hobbes only supported restrictions on liberty when it would have a tangible benefit to the state. In Elements of Law, he argues “that there be no restraint of natural liberty, but what is necessary for the good of the commonwealth” (1640, 9-4). In Behemoth, he even argues that “suppression of doctrines does but unite and exasperate, that is, increase both the malice and power of them that have already believed them” (Hobbes 1681). Although Hobbes’ preference is liberty, he does not seem to have a particularly high standard for classifying ideas as seditious. He considered Christian views that violating conscience is a sin and that sanctity and faith are achieved through relations with the supernatural, not reason, to be seditious (Curley 1). One can see how these views would hurt a state - the idea about violating conscience could promote disobedience. Still, these views are nowhere near problematic to meet the standards for censorship employed by most modern Western governments.


Leviathan: Curley:

Elements of Law:

Lockean Thought/English EmpiricismFreedom of ExpressionLocke made little mention of free expression. However, one can draw inferences based on his views on religion and association, especially since there is substantial overlap between expression and association and religion. One can infer that, if Locke advocates for certain doctrinal limitations on churches and other associations, he would support limits on the expression of those doctrines. After all, forming associations that exist to further certain viewpoints is a form of expression (take the concept of “expressive association” in US jurisprudence). In A Letter, Locke establishes some respect for freedom of opinion, writing that if an opinion does “not tend to establish domination over others, or civil impunity to the Church in which they are taught, there can be no reason why they should not be tolerated” (36). Scholars disagree strongly over the extent to which speech would be regulated in a Lockean society (Daniel 2013, 1).


A Letter Concerning Toleration:

MarxismFreedom of ExpressionFree expression is not a central tenet of Marxism. However, Marx’s early writings display a distaste for censorship. In 1842 he wrote that “the real, radical cure for the censorship would be its abolition” (Marx 1842). Though he strays from this topic in his later writing, he never repudiated his earlier opinions (Heinze 2018). Heinze argues that the idea that Marxism is inherently anti-free-speech is a misconception (regardless of how some specific Marxist regimes have operated). Marx rejected some rights - property rights - because they served the interests of the wealthy and powerful. But free speech is different because it does not serve an underlying interest that Marx opposed.


Marx 1842:

Heinze 2018:
Millian UtilitarianismFreedom of ExpressionJohn Stuart Mill elaborates on utilitarian ideas of using free speech in furtherance of better governance; he argued that all opinions should be allowed because public discourse will separate good ideas from bad ones (Niesen 7). This is known as the “marketplace of ideas” argument. Under this theory, even false beliefs have their place (Mill believed opinions could have truth or falsity), because they can lead public discourse to discover truth (Niesen 9). Mill makes little distinction between opinion and fact because they complement each other (Niesen 10). In Law of Libel, Mill argues that finding true ideas requires an understanding of facts (Niesen 12). Mill would not guarantee the right to voice untrue facts (Niesen 12). There is scholarly debate as to whether there is room in Mill’s thought for governments to limit the expression of true facts in certain situations. Niesen cites a thought experiment put forth by Jonathan Riley, where someone publishes pornographic material of an ex-lover, an act which conflicts with the other party’s right to self-determination. Niesen argues that this could plausibly be considered an expression of fact whose purpose is not to aid in the formation of public opinion, and a Millian government may ban this form of speech.

US courts, including the Supreme Court, have invoked the marketplace of ideas theory hundreds of times over the past century (Schultz & Hudson 2017). For a recent example, in 2017, the Supreme Court invalidated a federal law banning offensive terms in trademarks, drawing on the marketplace of ideas theory in its unanimous opinion (Hudson 2017).


Niesen, P. ‘Speech, truth and liberty: Bentham to John Stuart Mill.’ Journal of Bentham Studies, 2019, 18(1), pp. 1–19. DOI: https://doi. org/10.14324/111.2045-757X.046.

Schultz and Hudson:

PhysiocratsFreedom of ExpressionAlthough Physiocrats stress the importance of economic freedom, critics place them within the realm of enlightened despotism. Tocqueville classifies the physiocrats as having “little liking for political freedom” (Cavanaugh 38). Physiocrats believed that a central authority figure was needed to create prosperity by following the principles of natural law (Cavanaugh 42). Most physiocrats’ research examines their economic stances, in fact, it overwhelmingly focuses on their economic theories. However, using their economic perspectives, one can extrapolate their beliefs on general rights and liberties. The physiocrats fundamentally believe in laissez faire—that the economy was over-regulated and taxation was overwhelmingly indirect. They believed that the government should take a hands-off economic approach and let the market regulate itself. This can be expanded into their views of personal rights and liberties. The physiocrats believed in the natural, inherent rights of man and believe these rights should not be regulated except in the instance where man infringes on the rights of others (Higgs 1897). The physiocrats do not believe that men do not compromise on rights in any instance, including when they enter into a social contract (Higgs 1897). Thus, even the state must be subservient to the rights of man. This philosophy is based on the idea of society collectively benefitting or losing based on the actions of individuals (Higgs 1897). Men can maintain all of their rights, with the understanding that an infringement on another individual’s rights would be collectively bad for society in which they both reside (Higgs 1897).


Henry Higgs, The Physiocrats (1897)

Cavanaugh, Gerald J. “Turgot: The Rejection of Enlightened Despotism.” French Historical Studies 6, no. 1 (1969): 31–58.
Reformation ChristianityFreedom of ExpressionThe Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sparked new discussions about mankind’s freedom of the conscience, belief, and to some extent, expression. Reformers from all over Europe produced writings on these freedoms, but they generally thought about these rights as they related to questions of theology. As a result, Reformation discourse focused more on a Christian’s freedom of conscience than on the citizen’s right to express their beliefs. The right to freedom of expression was explored, but much less broadly. English philosophers Thomas More and Thomas Wilson are two of the only Reformation-era thinkers to directly address the right, but their work influenced England’s political development regarding free speech over the next several centuries. Wilson’s support for the Reformation guided his views on the necessity of free expression, while More’s views were less religiously-motivated. More, who would eventually be martyred for his refusal to renounce Catholicism, made his most significant contribution to the English discourse on the right to free expression before the Anglican Reformation even began. In 1523, eleven years before English King Henry VIII announced a split from the Catholic Church, his newly-appointed Speaker of the House of Commons made a petition for freedom of speech within Parliament. The Speaker was none other than Sir Thomas More, who would later oppose Henry’s Anglican Reformation at the cost of his own life. He argued that Parliament could not be expected to form effective policy if its members were not allowed to speak honestly, saying that “it may therefore like your most abundant Grace, our most benign and godly King, to give to all your Commons here assembled your most gracious licence and pardon, freely, without doubt of your dreadful displeasure, every man to discharge his conscience, and boldly in everything incident among us to declare his advice, and whatsoever happen any man to say” (More, 1523). More’s insistence on the value of free speech within a legislative body is far removed from advancing the citizen’s right to freedom of expression, but it reveals that English Reformation-era thinkers were beginning to reconsider the permissibility of magisterial censorship as early as the 1520s. While More was ultimately executed for remaining loyal to the Catholic Church during the Anglican Reformation, his conviction that one ought to be able to speak their mind without fear of legal retribution endured.

About twenty years after More’s speech, Thomas Wilson made a similar statement about freedom of expression in his 1553 work, The Arte of Rhetorique. Wilson was an English writer whose Protestant views led Catholic Queen Mary I of England to summon him out of his mid-sixteenth century exile in Italy to stand trial for heresy, and his Protestant tendencies seem to have guided his thoughts on freedom and liberty. In an introduction to The Arte of Rhetorique, George Herbert Mair asserts that “there is no mistaking [Wilson’s] zeal for the Reformation. It shines through everything he wrote, and the reader of the Logike and the [Rhetorique] will have no cause to wonder at the papal persecution of his works” (Mair, 1908). Perhaps this avid support for the Reformation movement influenced his thoughts on freedom, not only of the conscience but also of speech itself. A passage from The Arte states that “Freeness of speech is when we speak boldly and without fear, even to the proudest of them, whatsoever we please or have list to speak. Diogenes, herein did excell..this world wants such as he was” (Wilson, 1553). Like More, Wilson understood the value of free speech. Though he does not speak in this passage of a citizen’s right to freedom of expression, he was at least aware of the potential benefits that this liberty could have within political society. In fact, according to a 1981 article in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Wilson advanced the discourse on freedom of speech by “claiming that freedom of speech is a generally acknowledged duty to be exercised by anyone, not restricted to parliamentary debate” (Parkin-Speer, “Freedom of Speech in Sixteenth Century English Rhetorics”).

Both More and Wilson made important contributions to the Reformation-era discourse on freedom of expression, but neither would live to see England’s official legislation of the right to freedom of speech within Parliamentary debate. This only occurred after the Glorious Revolution, in which William, Prince of Orange and newly crowned King of England, signed the English Bill of Rights in 1689. The Bill reflected England’s newfound stability within the European religious community by declaring the country a “Protestant Kingdom” and forbidding any Catholic from taking the throne or marrying into the royal family (English Bill of Rights). It also became the first early-modern document to legislate freedom of expression when its text guaranteed “that the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament” (English Bill of Rights). The document went into effect near the end of the Anglican Reformation movement, over a century after Wilson’s death, so it is unclear to what extent he or More influenced its creation. While The Arte of Rhetorique w as known in academic circles, its call for freedom of speech was not fully answered by the Bill, which only guaranteed that right within Parliamentary debate. The Bill’s text more closely resembles More’s 1523 speech, which specifically refers to freedom of speech within Parliamentary debate. Scholarship has yet to establish a direct link between the Bill and either of the two documents, but it is nevertheless important to note the importance of both writers’ work in advancing English discourse on the right to freedom of expression.


Avalon Project - English Bill of Rights 1689,

More, Thomas. “Thomas More Petition for Free Speech, 1523.” The Center for Thomas More Studies, eech.pdf.

Parkin-Speer, Diane. “Freedom of Speech in Sixteenth Century English Rhetorics.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 12, no. 3, 1981, pp. 65–72. JSTOR.

Wilson, Thomas. “The Arte of Rhetorique, with ‘Introduction.’” Edited by George Herbert Mair, The Art of Rhetoric, Renascence Editions,
Rousseau's ThoughtFreedom of ExpressionIn his First Discourse, Rousseau elaborates on the problems of moral inequality that he believes have arisen out of unrestricted expression by elites in art, science, and philosophy, determining that “the pernicious inequality created among men by the distinction of talents and the debasement of virtues” gives rise to humanity’s moral decay. Elite control over what information is deemed important in society “corrupts our judgment” and teaches children “everything but their duty” to their families and communities (The Essential Rousseau 1974, p. 222). At the end of the Discourse, Rousseau encourages readers to deny elite priorities in favor of an emphasis on local, communal, and individual needs:

“Let us not pursue a reputation which would escape us and which, in the present state of things, would never repay us for what it had cost us, even if we were all qualified to obtain it. Why should we seek our happiness in the opinion of our fellow men if we can find it in ourselves? Let us leave to others the task of instructing peoples in their duties, and limit ourselves to fulfilling our own; if we have that, we have all the knowledge we need” (p. 227).

Similarly, in The Social Contract, Rousseau offers a political system to address part of this problem, outlining that the institution of his ideal body politic depends upon the “complete surrender of each associate, with all his rights, to the political community” and the allocation of each person “and all his power...under the supreme control of the general will” (p. 17). While Rousseau posits that ensures equal political conditions for all and disincentivizes decisions that do not benefit the whole community, such a system also includes harsh restrictions on individual freedom of expression as it is conventionally understood today.

While Rousseau endorses open debate and dissent during the lawmaking process, censorship plays a prominent role in the enforcement of newly-created laws to more easily keep subjects content and make legislation better reflect the general will: “although the law does not regulate morals, it is legislation that gives birth to them…censorship can be useful for preserving morals, but never for restoring them” (p. 105). To Rousseau, the majoritarian nature of the sovereign “always tends toward the public good” and leaves little opportunity for dissent in the political process after laws have been passed (p. 26). The role of the “government” in Rousseau’s thought also imposes coercive restrictions on individual expression. In carrying out its responsibilities as an executive force, Rousseau believes that the government ought to compel individuals to abide by the decisions of the general will and suppress those who speak out against it–a responsibility Rousseau recognizes as vital to the continual existence of the sovereign (p. 52).

Censorship is also a prominent element of the responsibilities of Rousseau’s lawgiver, the societal first mover who ought to “concern himself” with the “morals, customs...and public opinion” of a people in secret to maintain social order (p. 47). While debate and dissent concerning religious speculation ought to be tolerated, the moral authority outlined by the lawgiver must go unquestioned, as “open dissent from these opinions can be understood as at best a declaration of independence from the community and at worst a declaration of war against it” (Kelly 1997, 1241).

Suppression of the minority opinion in Rousseauian society severely encroaches upon individual autonomy and the incentivization of censorship immediately following the legislative process further suppresses the ability for individual thought to exist outside of what is deemed legitimate by the legislative assembly.


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and Lowell. Bair. The Essential Rousseau. New York: New American Library, 1983.

Kelly, Christopher. “Rousseau and the Case for (and Against) Censorship.” The Journal of politics 59, no. 4 (1997): 1232–1251.
Absolute IdealismFreedom of ReligionHegel never addresses 'freedom of religion' by name. But if we examine the contents of this notion in its modern, liberal manifestation, including the freedom of religious practice and the prohibition of state adoption or encouragement of any particular faith (the latter not always being included in this right), we find Hegel has much to say (ACLU, 2023). His discussion of the relationship between religion and state is isolated mainly within §270 of his socio-political treatise, "The Philosophy of Right." In this section, Hegel criticizes both theocracy and a liberal separation of church and state. His disputes are both theoretical and practical. Ontologically speaking, religion and the state are different forms of the same rational activity of "Geist" (spirit or mind) coming to know "absolute truth." Thus, they should not be wholly alienated from one another. And practically speaking, Hegel believes that religion instills in the citizenry an allegiance to the common interest towards which the state aims, making it an essential form of education for any healthy state. But this is not to say that the law should hand over its authority to subjective religious opinion. In Hegel's view, the state retains the right to determine duties, rights, and laws that dictate "worldly life" but may heed religious doctrine insofar as it does not obstruct its rational operations.

We should first understand where the state and religion stand within Hegel's philosophical system. The state falls under the umbrella of "objective spirit;" it is a manifestation of spirit's rationality and freedom in concrete or 'objective' reality (i.e., it takes the form of state institutions and laws). The state, properly understood, is spirit existing in a way that is not only rational but inherently ethical. For this reason, Hegel makes it the highest manifestation of what he calls "ethical life," the stage at which ethics springs from its subjective, 'abstract' form (e.g., that of Kant's abstract morality) and becomes embodied in concrete social and political arrangments, rules, and institutions. As Hegel puts it, the state is "the building of reason into reality;" it is an objective expression of our free, rational spirit where the "end is the universal interest as such and the conservation therein of particular interests” (Hegel 1820, §270).

Hegel acknowledges that one might see the state's outward, worldly domain as distinct from the spiritual, inward orientation of religion. In his view, religion is defined by "intuition, feeling, representational knowledge, [whose] concern is God as the unrestricted principle and cause on which everything hangs;" its realm is the heart, and its object is divinity (Hegel 1820, §270). From this interpretation, one might assume that religion is fundamentally disinterested in the worldly concerns of the state. Yet, Hegel contends that the state and religion are not wholly distinct, differing in "form" but sharing the same "content" (Hegel 1820, §270) The two share the same "content" in being relations of spirit to "absolute truth." Explicating what Hegel means not only by "absolute" but also by "truth" is beyond the scope of this essay. But for simplicity, the reader might think of it as a complete, unified knowledge of reality. Religion is the spirit coming to know the "truth" of God, while the state is the "truth" of spirit rationally expressing itself in the external world. Both enterprises differ in their respective forms truth takes: in religion, knowledge comes in the form of feeling, faith, and mental representations, whereas in the state, knowledge becomes concrete in law, duty, right, and political institutions (Hegel 1820, §270). Religion and state, to Hegel, are the same free, rational truth manifesting in different shapes. Thus to imply, as liberalism does, that the religious and political realms should be completely separate is to deny that these are expressions of a common principle.

But despite this relationship, Hegel warns that religious sentiment should never have authority over the secular state. Because knowledge of the divine takes the form of "subjective idea and feeling… [that] draw a veil over everything determinate," to base the "enduring" character of laws and institutions on it will doom a state to "instability, insecurity and disorder" (Hegel 1820, §270). The religious opinion is internally disclosed and backed only by faith; it is thereby subjective and unfalsifiable (though not necessarily false). Anyone who "seeks guidance from the Lord" may claim that the dictates of the state are immoral and to be opposed (Hegel 1820, §270). Of course, this opposition to the state may remain an unexpressed belief. But it may also devolve into fanaticism that seeks to make religion equivalent to the state, i.e., to establish a theocracy. Hegel notes that when religion usurps the secular sovereignty of the state, "opinion and capricious inclination are to do the deciding" (Hegel 1820, §270). No state can be stable when the mercurial beliefs of religious zealots determine its laws, and thus an equivalency between church and state must be avoided (Hegel 1820, §270).

However, Hegel accepts that the state can incorporate religious ideas into its operations, though ultimately, the state has the final say over whether religious tenets are fit to be incorporated into law. Hegel contends that in the state, religion's "subjective truth" gets comprehended in "determinate thought" rather than faith or feeling (Hegel 1820, §270). For example, a state can make the religious precept "thou shalt not murder" into law, but not because religion says so. The state may look to religion as inspiration for or confirmation of this principle, but ultimately it must make sure this principle is rational of its own accord. To Hegel, the state has no authority over one's inner religious convictions. However, he argues that "when doctrines touch on objective principles, on thoughts of the ethical and rational, then their expression eo ipso brings the church into the domain of the state" (Hegel 1820, §270). So, the state may look to religion as a fount of ethical truth but retains sovereign authority as a secular institution over what religious convictions may rationally become law.

Finally, Hegel supports a relationship between religion and the state on practical grounds. He claims that religion is an "integrating factor in the state, implanting a sense of unity in the depths of men's minds," it imbues the citizenry with a sense of communal belonging that supports the state's function (Hegel 1820, §270). From here, Hegel makes a claim that deeply violates our notion of freedom of religion, claiming that a state should "require that all its citizens to belong to a church" (Hegel 1820, §270). In contemporary liberal thought, freedom of religion implies freedom not to worship. Though Hegel specifies that the state can not establish an official church for its citizens, he seems to believe it holds the authority to mandate participation in religious activities.

We have mapped out a hazy outline of Hegel's views on religion and state: a conception that rejects both a complete separation of church and state and a theocratic unity of religion and law. Religion and state are expressions of the same underlying "absolute truth," and thus should not be wholly alienated from each other. Likewise, religion holds practical benefits for the state, making men conscious of the communal good that the state exists to promote. However, subjective religious ideas can not, as it were, 'take the reins’ of the secular state and its laws. This would, in Hegel's view, lead to a fundamentally irrational and despotic state. It seems Hegel envisions a state whose authority remains independent from religious institutions while still drawing on the truth revealed by religion as such. Further, Hegel shows an inkling of religious tolerance (insofar as a doctrine does not reach into the state's worldly domain). However, he does not respect the right to abstain from religious practice. Hegel's picture of the relationship between religion and state diverges from our modern notion of church-state separation and personal freedom of religious practice, though he is far from supportive of religious principles holding sway over secular, political rationality.


Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and Stephen Houlgate. Outlines of the Philosophy of Right. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford [UK] ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Benthamite UtilitarianismFreedom of the PressJeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an English philosopher whose work would prove foundational to the development of modern liberalism, as both a moral and a political vision. Bentham’s unique brand of liberalism is most strongly associated with his guiding principle of utilitarianism: that what is best is what brings the most utility to the greatest number of people. Despite what might today be recognized as problematic implications of an absolute adherence to this principle, Bentham’s utilitarianism made him a strong advocate of social and political freedoms, under the reasoning that these freedoms are a net good to society.

Bentham defines his utilitarian philosophy in his 1781 tract An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. By his central concept of utility, he means “that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing), or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered” (Bentham 1781, 14-15). Notably, he insists that utility can only accrue to the individual: “The interest of the community is one of the most general expressions that can occur in the phraseology of morals: no wonder that the meaning of it is often lost. … The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting, as it were, its members. The interest of the community then is, what is it? —the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it” (Bentham 1781, 15). Therefore, a good government is one that acts in the ultimate interests of its individual constituents, and not for some vague notion of the good of the community or the state.

Presaging his protege John Stuart Mill, Bentham seeks to defend press freedom through the lens of his utilitarian ideal. Bentham identifies an unfettered press as the essential guarantor against what he terms misrule, by ensuring protection against government oppression and the accountability of leaders to the people they represent. This is perhaps best seen in his commentary on the suppression of liberal movements in Spain, and by extension in his native England as well. Referring to a report of a Madrid newspaper editor being prosecuted for his work, Bentham declares that “whatsoever evil can ever result from this liberty [of the press], is everywhere, and at all times, greatly outweighed by the good” (Bentham 1820). This is because the liberty of the press “operates as a check upon the conduct of the ruling few; and in that character constitutes a controlling power, indispensably necessary to the maintenance of good government” (Bentham 1820). To Bentham, the benefits of good government are “plainly infinite” (Bentham 1820).

Bentham does not further elaborate on these benefits in his letter on the situation in Spain, but elsewhere in his work he consistently identifies good governance with participatory democracy, with the ability of the people to impact their government, and consequently with freedom in the broadest sense. For Bentham, “in the late stages of his long career nothing was more important to ‘good politics’ than the influence of public opinion on those with political power” (Cutler 1999, 322). He even wrote of an (allegorical) Public Opinion Tribunal that would issue “judgments” of politicians, to ensure that politics takes the people’s unfiltered and all-inclusive sentiments into account: “No one can know her interests better than herself. Thus, if a utilitarian public policy is to emerge from an aggregation of those interests, the constitution should provide the institutions that permit all persons to communicate their interests to government equally” (Cutler 1999, 324). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bentham places such high value on government by and for the people, that he insists that the government has a duty to be responsive to the people even when public opinion is misguided. He was not naïve; to him, “[self-determination] does not require certainty in [the people’s] judgments of prospective utility … The institutions of government, therefore, ought to allow the public to react to what their government is doing, constantly steering closer and closer to providing for their interests” (Cutler 1999, 324).

When it comes to the purported harms of a free press, Bentham points out that prosecutions for criticizing the government are traditionally justified as a response to an insult to the honor of the state or its functionaries, and that this is regarded as a threat to the integrity of the state (Bentham 1820). Indeed, rulers have historically tended to punish defamation of the government or its representatives more harshly than defamation of private individuals, and to treat aspersions cast on the government as a whole or on a higher ranked official as more serious than those cast on a lower ranked official. Bentham considers this nonsensical: he argues that the harms to a discrete number of high-profile individuals who may find themselves maligned are far eclipsed by the much greater benefits that a free press brings to a much wider range of people. He even notes that public figures who find themselves unfairly targeted by the press have a built-in remedy commensurate with the rank of their position, since their status affords them distinct advantages in rebutting any allegations, which a private person does not have (Bentham 1820).

Moreover, far from handicapping the function of the state by impugning its reputation, a free press actually does the opposite. For a real world illustration of his reasoning, Bentham points to the United States, where the freedom of journalists to speak against the government is not only constitutionally protected but considered inalienable from public life, but which he nevertheless considers better governed than even his own country; he even calls the young nation the only country that truly has good governance. Thus, Bentham elucidates a utilitarian account of freedom of the press: the cumulative benefit to individuals is far greater than the cumulative harm. Put another way, in an ideal government where one can feel assured that the laws are just, a good citizen’s aim should be “to obey punctually; to censure freely” (Schofield 2019, 43).

Bentham does recognize narrow circumstances where the press can be censured for defamation, but he holds that this punishment should be applied in the reverse of how it has typically been: defamation of a private person should be treated as more severe than defamation of a state official. In fact, Bentham lays out a standard of proof for defamation of a public figure that is remarkably similar to the actual malice standard laid out by the US Supreme Court more than a century later: namely, the statement in question must be not just untrue but “the result of willful mendacity, accompanied with the consciousness of its falsity, or else with culpable rashness” (Schofield 2019, 45). Presumably, he would likewise support the modern jurisprudence that mere negligence of the falsity of a statement is sufficient proof in the case of a non-public figure.

Benthamite utilitarianism, it must be said, does not necessarily anticipate all the problems with today’s mass media and its role in guiding the reins of government. For one thing, Bentham does not consider that the press does not just report public opinion but shapes it (often quite intentionally); he also does not ask how public policy should incorporate the views of experts when they conflict with the public mood, or how it should protect the right of minority views to also be heard and compete for influence. Nonetheless, Bentham’s work offers a straightforward and persuasive account of the value of a press free from state interference, giving a highly compelling defense of this fundamental human right at a time of conservative retrenchment and reaction throughout Europe.


Bentham, Jeremy. 1781. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Kitchener, Ontario, Canada: Batoche Books Limited, 2000.

Bentham, Jeremy. October 7, 1820. “To the Spanish People: Letter I.” Classical Utilitarianism Website, University of Texas, September 24, 2003,

Cutler, Fred. “Jeremy Bentham and the Public Opinion Tribunal.” Public Opinion Quarterly, 63, no. 3 (1999): 321-346,

Schofield, Philip. “Jeremy Bentham on Freedom of the Press, Public Opinion, and Good Government.” Scandinavica, 58, no. 2 (2019): 39-57,
Continental Philosophy/Frankfurt SchoolFreedom of ReligionThe notion of the freedom of religion is difficult to situate within the work of the Frankfurt School. In the early 20th century, a group of Western Marxist intellectuals founded the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University Frankfurt, an interdisciplinary research initiative that implemented a new approach to the social sciences (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Their distinctive "critical theory" revised "traditional theory," which sought merely to establish timeless, universal truths around specific subjects, seeking instead to further interpret scientific findings in a normative light (Horkheimer, 1937, 199). In other words, where traditional theory tells us merely how things are, critical theory tells us how they are and how they should be. This new project was, thus, in a sense, a radical marrying of philosophy and social sciences. As most of its 'first-generation' members took a Marxist or Freudian approach to their research, a 'freedom of religion' was not much discussed, perhaps more due to their suspicion of 'private liberties' than disdain for religion. However, we find in the work of the school's 'second-generation' thinkers (particularly in the work of Jurgen Habermas) a more complex philosophical discussion of both human rights and the relationship between religion and the state.

The “First-Generation” Members of the so-called 'first generation' of the Frankfurt School saw value in religion's inclination towards social justice and concern for objective, 'non-instrumental' knowledge. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, two of the school's most notable theorists, were deeply critical of "instrumental reason," human rationality directed towards mere means rather than proper ends (Horkheimer, 1944). Their critique is too detailed to be fully treated here, but simply put, instrumental reason reduces rationality as a tool for exploiting nature and fellow man (particularly as a tool in capitalism) (Horkheimer, 1944). Prioritizing this form of reason reduces the value of knowledge to mere 'usefulness' or 'practicality' at the expense of bedrock, "objective truth" (Horkheimer, 1944, 156). To the intellectuals of the early Frankfurt School, religion shared with critical theory a concern for truth about the ends of human life and society (e.g., the nature of justice and goodness), topics lost in the thoughtless dogmatism of an age defined by instrumental rationality. Further, religion also shared a spirit of practical social activism, seeking not only to outline the 'ideal world' but also to realize it (Brittain, 2012, 207). Where capitalist society had dogmatically accepted that one's ultimate aim was to use instrumental reason to extract value from nature and man, religion offered a necessary alternative towards higher truth and worldly justice. A critical theory of religion, then, could provide unique value for the project of critical theory as a whole. However, first-generation theorists largely ignored the discussion of universal human rights. We might attribute this fact to Marx's cynical view on private liberties, as expressed in his essay "On the Jewish Question." In this work, Marx claims that personal rights create a harmful division between the private or "civil sphere" and the public or "political sphere" (Marx, 1843). Such rights allowed individuals to retract from a concern for the universal, communal good into a private sense of happiness (Marx, 1843). As such, religious freedom was harmful in encouraging individuals to value their religion over their "species-being," their being part of a unified humankind (Marx, 1843). With this in view, we can understand why the early Marxist critical theorists might have discussed the value of freedom of religion: perhaps rights were irrelevant to their vision for society.

The "Second-Generation" Most of the so-called "second-generation" critical theorists (whose work began in the 1970s) put less emphasis on religion, though we can see parallels with the first-generation views in the later work of Jurgen Habermas. Early in his career, Habermas reduced religion's status to that of a primitive socializing force (Habermas 1981). The need for religious attitudes was to be overcome by secular rationality in the form of his theory of communicative action, a philosophical system Habermas hoped would ground "the social sciences in a theory of language (Habermas 1988, xiv). In the mid-1980s, Habermas became less disparaging of religion, recognizing it as a source of necessary consolation for a suffering world (Habermas 1990). This positive view continued to develop through his later career, with Habermas eventually recognizing that religious ideas were a well of moral truth necessary in combating the moral decay of the techno-capitalist age (Habermas 2006). Though Habermas continued to advocate for a separation between law and religion, he believed that the public sphere could gather valuable moral intuition from religious teachings (Habermas 2006). Though nothing like a theocracy (the direct imposition of religious authority into the state apparatus) should exist, a respectful friendship between religion and state could prove essential in preserving society's ethical integrity. Furthermore, the later Habermas also defends the individual's right to freedom of religious practice (Habermas 2006). We see here both a growing similarity and marked difference to the first-generation theorists' view of religion, with Habermas acknowledging the value of religious teachings while also endorsing a more classically liberal respect for the freedom of religion.

Human rights Habermas also engaged in a comprehensive discussion of human liberties per se. His treatment of rights is situated within his "discourse theory," in which he seeks to resolve various epistemological, political, and ethical issues by analyzing inter-subjective communication (Habermas 1992, between facts and norms). Broadly speaking, Habermas asserts that society maintains itself over time only when its constituents view it as legitimate (Habermas 1996). The dawn of modernity, with its growing differences in religious and philosophical opinions, presents a challenge here: groups seek to impose their personal views of justice and happiness on others to their detriment and embitterment (Habermas 1996). Therefore, spheres of private freedom needed to arise to resolve this tension. Insofar as individuals can pursue their own visions of happiness (without interfering with the freedom of others), society can maintain its legitimacy (Habermas 1996). Rights are the legal feature that maintains such spheres of personal liberty. But for these private rights to be legitimate, individuals must have a say in the system that grants and manages them (Habermas 1996). This demand for public rights (i.e., the right to participate in government) makes democracy "co-original" with private rights; they rationally presuppose one another (Habermas 1996). The fundamental freedoms to be protected are determined through the rational deliberation of a constitutional democracy.

We find in Habermas a more coherent account of both rights and the freedom of religion than we do in the first generation of the Frankfurt School. Thinkers like Horkheimer and Adorno saw great value in a critical analysis of religion, but they left the notion of freedom of religion largely untreated. Though Habermas never gives a systematic account of why freedom of religion ought to be a sanctioned right, he asserts its intuitive importance to a healthy and just society. He also gives us much more to think about when it comes to the concept of human rights as such. This is not to say that first-generation critical theorists provide no insight into the relationship between religion and society. One can indeed gain much understanding of the topic from both scholarly eras, though later work gives us a more robust treatment of the freedom of religion.
KantianismFreedom of ExpressionThe right to free expression is a notion central to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. In his eyes, the unrestricted, public articulation of one's ideas is of vital importance: it is a prerequisite for humanity to realize its social and political ends. At the outset, we must be careful not to assume that Kant shares in our modern, liberal conception of this right. We must also refrain from implying a unified interpretation of this freedom among nations where it is constitutionally codified. This would be empirically false: the form and scope of free expression varies widely across liberal democracies. However, a general account might be gleaned by examining the definitions given by well-established international human rights organizations. Article 19 of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers" (UDHR, 1946). Generally put, freedom of expression is the right to publicly voice one's opinions, especially critical ones, without state interference. There are several exceptions to this principle, including public expression that incites violence, threatens national security, promotes indecency, is libelous, or constitutes hate speech. These restrictions arise from a practical tension between the necessity of free expression and the dangers it poses to society and the state. Kant's view on freedom of expression is no exception. His arguments balance the rational need for guaranteed free expression with our duty to respect the will of civil authorities.

Kant's treatment of the freedom of expression is inextricably linked to the project of the European Enlightenment. In his essay "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?," Kant describes the titular epoch, defining it by its motto of "Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding” (Kant 1784, 1). The era of Enlightenment constituted an awakening from Europe’s long-held state of "immaturity," in which institutional dogmatism monopolized public thought (Kant 1784, 1). Individuals had historically put their faith in public institutions and authorities, whether political, religious, medical, academic, or otherwise, to shape their beliefs and way of life (Kant 1784, 1). Enlightenment was the end of such dependency; it was the process of learning to use one's own reason or to think for oneself. To Kant, this promulgation of critical thinking was necessary for humanity's social and political progress; without it, humankind threatened to become ideologically stagnant. Kant claims that the sole condition for this awakening is the freedom of expression. In his own words: "nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters" (Kant 1784, 2). Overcoming blind dogmatism demanded that people voice their ideas without legal restriction (Kant 1784, 2). Without this protection, the light of reason could neither spread nor become practically meaningful, as critical thinking only benefits society if it can be publicly communicated. This view constitutes Kant's general conception of freedom of expression, the right to express one's opinion publicly.

However, Kant distinguishes two forms of expression to address the tension between public criticism and civil obedience. Kant is a staunch defender of public reason, but he defines this concept narrowly. Public reason is the "use that anyone as a scholar makes of reason before the entire literate world" (Kant 1784, 2). This contrasts with the "private use of reason," by which Kant means acts of intellectual dissent within a civic bureaucracy, a form of expression he forbids (Kant 1784, 2). For instance, police officers are obligated to enforce laws even if they agree with them, with the only alternative being resignation (Kant 1784, 3). They may criticize the legal system outside their post but must faithfully perform their roles when 'on the job.' Kant argues that for civic institutions to effectively achieve their intended ends (i.e., to preserve the commonwealth, protect rights, and promote collective happiness in accordance with personal freedom), they must not be obstructed by those appointed to operate them (Kant 1784, 3). Qua citizen, critique is healthy and necessary, but qua official, censure both practically obstructs and formally contradicts the very notion of a political appointment (Kant 1784, 3). We see here that freedom of expression has an inherent potential for conflict with public authority, one which Kant hopes to solve by differentiating public and private reason.

Kant takes this concern further by describing the ideal relationship of the sovereign to free expression. To him, a good ruler neither represses discourse nor caves to public opposition. Instead, they follow the policy: "argue as much as you like, but obey!" (Kant 1784, 2). Public reason allows citizens to voice criticisms of a regime, which is essential for a monarch to bring his rule in line with civil freedom and the public good (Kant 1784, 2). However, this does not justify recalcitrant resistance to the government. In his essay “Theory and Practice,” Kant argues that subjects should only exercise the "freedom of the pen… within the limits of esteem and love for the constitution," meaning their criticisms should proceed with respect for both the public good and the sovereign's authority in mind (Kant 1793, 302). In-kind, a ruler must listen to the voice of his subjects but never cede his own interpretation of justice to theirs (unless their appeals convince him) (Kant 1793, 302). The sovereign is a trustee and not a delegate of the people. Even when he errs, obstruction and rebellion are never justified, only the exercise of public reason.

The degree of overlap between Kantian and contemporary conceptions of freedom of expression is difficult to parse. Because Kant never specifically treats freedom of expression vis-a-vis speech, the press, peaceful assembly, petition, and association, we need to extrapolate from his larger argument to infer his views on the matter. Because he expresses no specific restrictions on the mode of expression, freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, press, association, and petition appear permissible as long as they are peaceful and lawful. But other forms of expression less universally accepted as a right, such as conscientious objection, are a more complicated matter. As we have seen, Kant suggests that if a civic worker's duties conflict with his ethical obligations, he must resign. But in the case of conscription, there is no such option: one serves or faces the penalty, creating a conflict between one's political and ethical obligations. Moreover, Kant does not directly discuss the typical restrictions of 'public reason,' when it constitutes a danger to individual safety or national security. Because our modern understanding of these rights is the product of two centuries of evolving political thought, it may be useless to judge precisely what Kant would say of them. But regardless, there is still something to be gained in this comparison. By examining Kant's discussion of "public reason," we can clarify the foundational motivations and conflicts that inform debates surrounding this freedom today: the right to free expression is essential for societal flourishing, yet this must be balanced with the social and political consequences it presents in its extreme forms.


Kant, I., & Wood, A. (1996). On the common saying: That may be correct in theory, but it is of no use in practice (1793). In M. Gregor (Ed.), Practical Philosophy (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, pp. 273-310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511813306.011

Kant, I., & Wood, A. (1996). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment? (1784). In M. Gregor (Ed.), Practical Philosophy (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, pp. 11-22). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511813306.005

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Medieval JudaismFreedom of ReligionThe concept of freedom of religion in Jewish philosophy initially seems to be a modern innovation, especially since the term does not appear in Jewish holy texts. At the same time, however, there is some sense of a freedom of religion in Jewish thought, in a way that could be said to prefigure the secular conception of that idea.

Fundamentally, Judaism teaches that all people are made in God’s image, and its holy texts emphasize the value of tolerance in multiple places. Perhaps most well-known is Leviticus 19:18, which says “love your neighbor as yourself.” Even more prescriptive is Leviticus 19:34, which commands to the people of Israel that “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” These lines formed the basis for one of the most famous anecdotes in Judaism, where Rabbi Hillel (active in the first century BCE) summed up all of Jewish teaching as “that which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow. That is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary” (Shurpin n.d.).

Hillel’s dictum is often referred to as the Golden Rule, which is found in one form or another in every other world faith, but his precise wording is unique. The Golden Rule is typically stated as some variation of “treat others the way you want to be treated,” but Hillel inverts this by giving a negative formulation – i.e., how not to treat others. This phrasing is very revealing when it comes to a Jewish freedom of religion: from this, it is easy to see that one should not mistreat others because of their religious beliefs, because one would not want be treated that way by others.

As with any faith that aims to guide people’s spiritual lives, Judaism necessarily tells its adherents what they should believe, so total freedom of religion (the freedom to believe whatever one wants) is not possible within the faith. Judaism holds that anyone born to a Jewish mother is Jewish, so one doesn’t stop being a Jew if, for example, one declares that one doesn’t believe in God, but such a belief would traditionally be considered incompatible with being a “good” Jew. Possibly the single most foundational Talmudic scholar of the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides (died 1204), outlined thirteen fundamental principles of the Jewish faith, and all concern different aspects of believing in God and other beliefs; they are customarily recited in the format “I believe…” (Chabad n.d.).

Nevertheless, a fundamental idea of freedom of thought can be seen in traditional Jewish philosophy. As far back as the medieval period, Jewish scholars sampled from as wide a range of schools of thought as possible, including classical, Christian, and Muslim thought, in their pursuit of the ultimate truth. Since the greatest intellectual centers of the medieval Jewish world were Muslim-ruled Spain and the Middle East, Jewish philosophers were especially heavily influenced by their Islamic contemporaries, and by extension, by classical Greek texts that they encountered via Arabic translations. One particularly revealing example is Saadya Gaon, who was active in the Middle East over a century before Maimonides’ birth: “Saadya was not committed to any particular philosophical school. Existing philosophical schools were the heritage of a non-Jewish culture, the rich influence of which Saadya did not try to reject. But being a Jew [in contrast to his Muslim contemporaries], he felt free to collect material gleaned from various sources” (Stroumsa 2003, 80). Evaluations of Saadya Gaon’s body of work suggest an overarching commitment to reason over dogma; to the conviction that “the praiseworthy wise person is he who makes reality his guiding principle and bases his belief thereon,” and that “the reprehensible fool … is he who sets up his personal conviction as his guiding principle, assuming that reality is patterned after his beliefs” (Stroumsa 2003, 76). To him, this free inquiry was unquestionably compatible with Judaism. Another example of this intellectual diffusion is the Jewish Neoplatonists, foremost among them Isaac Israeli (Saadya Gaon’s contemporary) and Solomon ibn Gabirol, who both drew from and refuted the pagan worldview that the original Neoplatonist school promoted (Pessin 2003, 91-106). Maimonides himself may have been more discriminating about drawing from non-Jewish traditions, but the profound influence of Aristotelian philosophy on his thought is nevertheless widely acknowledged: even in the many places where Maimonides disagreed with Aristotle, his “philosophical starting point is Aristotle, and it is from Aristotle that he develops his own philosophical positions” (Frank 2003, 145).

Moreover, a major difference between Judaism and other Abrahamic religions is that Judaism is largely unconcerned with what non-adherents believe, and thus affords a strong degree of freedom of religion to those outside the faith. In contrast to both Christianity and Islam, where it has traditionally been considered incumbent upon those faiths’ adherents to work for the conversion of people of other faiths, Judaism is decidedly not a proselytizing religion, so much so that many modern Jews regard trying to convert others to the faith as inappropriate and disrespectful. Conversion to Judaism is deliberately a difficult and drawn-out process, meant to ensure that those who seek to convert are doing so out of genuine belief.

According to Rabbi Reuven Firestone of Hebrew Union College, the Jewish aversion to proselytization came about by necessity, to protect their communities throughout the long history of Jews living as a persecuted minority in Christian and Muslim states. Starting under the Roman Empire and continuing throughout the medieval period, entire communities could be severely punished for proselytizing to the majority faith: “The rule of survival in each context required that Jews not proselytize, upon pain of death. … Such a length of time [as a minority faith] can deeply acculturate an aversion to engaging in an act that could easily bring death and destruction to the community. So proselytism, while not forbidden anywhere in Judaism, came to feel foreign and strange” (Firestone 2019).

Although only Jews are obligated to follow Jewish law, Judaism does have a separate injunction for non-Jews, known as the Noachide Laws (Korn n.d.). Believed to have been given by God to Noah after the Great Flood, the Talmud regards these as universal laws that are binding on all of Noah’s descendants (all of humanity), thus making them the only instance where Judaism claims to prescribe the behavior of non-adherents. Five of the seven Noachide Laws concern actions and not beliefs – the command to establish courts to uphold the law, and the prohibitions on murder, theft, sexual immorality, and eating the flesh of a living animal. The remaining two, which prohibit blasphemy and idolatry, are potentially problematic when it comes to respect for foreign religious beliefs: while traditional Jewish philosophy would not have regarded blasphemy and idol worship to be genuine religious expressions, the practical definitions of those terms can easily expand to encompass the sincerely held beliefs of other people and their cultures.

However, it is still very notable that non-Jews who abide by the Noachide Laws are thought to have a share in the World to Come, the closest thing Judaism has to heaven, despite not believing in the Jewish God or following any of the Jewish commandments (Korn n.d.). Therefore, at least implicitly, Judaism recognizes that other faiths also can guide a person to live a good and virtuous life – that action is ultimately more determinative of personal morality than belief – and this idea can also be found in medieval thought. Particularly interesting is the apologia commonly known as The Kuzari, by Spanish Jewish polymath Judah Halevi (died 1141), which is framed as an account of a Khazar king convening a dialogue between practitioners of different faiths. (The Khazars were an Eastern European empire whose ruling class converted from paganism to Judaism for uncertain reasons; Halevi’s account, written centuries after their conversion, purports to tell how it happened).

In Halevi’s narrative, the king describes his spiritual crisis following a dream where an angel told him that “his intentions were pleasing to God, but his actions were not” (Kogan 2003, 112). Subsequently, the king tries to “make a more zealous effort to observe the rites of his pagan religion than before,” but the angel keeps returning with the same message (Kogan 2003, 112). Eventually, the king realizes “that God was commanding him to seek out those actions that would be pleasing,” and so he gathers representatives of all the different religions for counsel (Kogan 2003, 112). It is the Jewish response (no doubt a stand-in for Halevi’s view) that he ultimately finds the most convincing, thus spurring his conversion. In his advice to the king, the Jewish philosopher seems almost unconcerned with what belief system the king follows, but only that he act with reason and justice: “the philosopher urges the king, in general terms, to purify his soul of doubts and pursue knowledge of the true realities, while keeping to the path of justice… if he still wishes, he may either create a religion for himself or follow one of the intellectual nomoi [Greek for laws or conventions] of the philosophers” (Kogan 2003, 113). Overall, Halevi defends tolerance of other beliefs as a Jewish value. With the Reconquista and the Crusades as the backdrop of his life, Halevi seems to have felt the rising anti-Jewish persecution of his time deeply – the full title of The Kuzari is Book of Refutation and Proof on Behalf of the Despised Religion.

Although Jewish thought has not had to contend with a notion of freedom of religion, as such, until relatively recently, traces of the idea can be found going back to the medieval period. While ultimately it is hard to argue that unbounded freedom of religion can exist in Judaism, especially when it comes to freedom of religion within Judaism (as is the case for any belief system), Judaism does stand out in its tolerant attitude toward the beliefs of other religions. More broadly, a certain freedom of thought, including a freedom to hold nonconforming religious opinions, can be found in some of the most renowned Jewish scholars’ commitment to rational and diverse inquiry, and overarching emphasis on action over belief.


Chabad. “The Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith.” n.d. Accessed July 5, 2023.

Firestone, Reuven. “Why Jews Don’t Proselytize.” Renovatio. June 12, 2019. Accessed July 5, 2023.

Frank, Daniel H. “Maimonides and Medieval Jewish Aristotelianism.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, 136-156. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kogan, Barry S. “Judah Halevi and his use of Philosophy in The Kuzari.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, 111-135. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Korn, Eugene. “Noachide Covenant: Theology and Jewish Law.” Boston College Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. n.d. Accessed July 5, 2023.

Pessin, Sarah. “Jewish Neoplatonism: Being above Being and Divine Emanation in Solomon ibn Gabirol and Isaac Israeli.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, 91-110. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Shurpin, Yehuda. “Is Hillel’s Teaching the same as the Golden Rule?” n.d. Accessed July 5, 2023.

Stroumsa, Sarah. “Saadya and Jewish Kalam.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, 71-90. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Millian UtilitarianismVoting Rights and SuffrageJohn Stuart Mill’s widely read philosophical essay On Liberty uses Utilitarianism to analyze politics and civil society. Of the will of the nation, or the nation’s people, Mill says: “Let the rulers be effectually responsible to it, promptly removable by it, and it could afford to trust them with power of which it could itself dictate the use to be made.” In other words, Mill shares Bentham’s belief that a nation’s leadership must be responsive to the needs of its citizenry. Broad suffrage ensures that ineffective leaders are punished by a democratic removal from power. On Liberty indicates Mill’s endorsement of democratic ideals generally but says relatively little about which members of society should have the right to vote. Some of his later work, however, sheds more light on the subject.

Mill addresses the issue of gender inequality head-on in The Subjection of Women. He begins with the blanket statement that “The legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hinderances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality.” Mill demands proof from those arguing that the legal subjugation of women is somehow beneficial to society. He elaborates on his own reasoning in saying: “By leaving them the free choice of their employments, and opening to them the same field of occupation and the same prizes and encouragements as to other human beings, would be that of doubling the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity.” Mill’s Utilitarian outlook can be followed here, as he argues for social and legal changes that would maximize both pleasure of productivity throughout society. The piece, published in 1869, goes on to discuss the suffragette movement that had been occurring in England throughout that decade. Mill remarks that “recently many thousands of them, headed by the most eminent women known to the public, have petitioned Parliament for their admission to the Parliamentary Suffrage.” Mill did not only contribute to the movement through his writing, but took had taken a more active role in 1867 when he spoke to the House of Commons on the suffragettes’ behalf. While women’s suffrage was unpopular among most English men of his day, Mill argued boldly: “There is nothing to distract our attention from the simple question, whether there is any adequate justification for continuing to exclude an entire half of the community, not only from admission, but from the capability of being ever admitted within the pale of the Constitution.” John Stuart Mill’s written works and his advocacy in British Parliament demonstrates his commitment to the expansion of suffrage.


Mill, John Stuart. 1867. “On the Admission of Women to the Electoral Franchise.” Women’s Suffrage and the Media. May 20, 1867.

Mill, John Stuart. 1859. On Liberty. London: John W. Parker and Son, West Strand.

Mill, John Stuart. 1869. The Subjection of Women. London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer.
Modern CapitalismFreedom of ReligionAt first glance, the idea of freedom of religion seems tangential to modern capitalist philosophy. They are of course intuitively compatible, since under a system of free enterprise there is no reason why one shouldn’t have freedom of faith as well. Undoubtedly, capitalism became closely linked to freedom of religion in the political discourse of the Cold War, to draw a contrast with the suppression of religion under communism. Nevertheless, capitalism is fundamentally an economic philosophy, and most arguments for it are in economic terms, with a positive argument for freedom of religion apparently regarded as not essential to a capitalist value system. As Ludwig von Mises wrote, “one does not refute socialism by attacking the socialist stand on religion, marriage, birth control, and art” (von Mises 1990, 16).

That said, even if freedom of religion is not absolutely necessary to the capitalist model, leading capitalist philosophers have interacted with it in unique ways, ultimately showing that freedom of religion can be defended in terms of the free market. Precursors to this connection can be found even before modern capitalism had fully developed, as when Voltaire described how commerce fosters religious tolerance in his famous commentaries on English society: “Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word” (National Constitution Center 2023).

Milton Friedman, the preeminent modern philosopher of capitalism, would build on this idea by discussing how the underlying principles of capitalism naturally work to promote respect for freedom of religion. In his book Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman specifically highlighted the principles of free association and private enterprise, emphasizing that they have relevance to society in realms other than the economic: “By relying primarily on voluntary cooperation and private enterprise, in both economic and other activities, we can insure that the private sector is a check on the powers of the governmental sector and an effective protection of freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought” (Friedman 2002, 3). Elsewhere in his book, Friedman pointed to the importance of competition: “[T]he preserves of discrimination in any society are the areas that are most monopolistic in character, whereas discrimination against groups of particular color or religion is least in those areas where there is the greatest freedom of competition” (Friedman 2002, 109).

For Friedrich Hayek, the capitalist system was crucial in enabling free exchange of ideas that are in demand by the public, just as it enables the free exchange of goods and services. To Hayek, capitalism (in a broader sociopolitical sense rather than strictly in an economic sense) facilitates freedom, of which freedom of religion is necessarily a part. As he wrote in The Constitution of Liberty, “the man of independent means is an even more important figure in a free society when he is not occupied with using his capital in the pursuit of material gain but uses it in the service of aims which bring no material return” (Hayek 1960, 125). Among these aims are “the propagation of new ideas in politics, morals, and religion” (Hayek 1960, 125). Hayek subsequently emphasizes how the principle of competition necessitates religious pluralism, analogously to John Stuart Mill’s marketplace of ideas: “[T]here should be no monopoly here but as many independent centers as possible able to satisfy such [spiritual] needs… representatives of all divergent views and tastes should be in a position to support with their means and their energy ideals which are not yet shared by the majority” (Hayek 1960, 125). That said, Hayek noted that freedom of religion, like any freedom, cannot be absolute: “Since there is no kind of action that may not interfere with another person's protected sphere, neither speech, nor the press, nor the exercise of religion can be completely free. … Freedom does mean and can mean only that what we may do is not dependent on the approval of any person or authority and is limited only by the same abstract rules that apply equally to all” (Hayek 1960, 155). Even so, Hayek evidently did not regard such limitations as so significant as to curtail freedom of religion; they did not represent a conflict between freedom of religion and the capitalist model.

Other philosophers, however, were not so accepting of the role of religion in the capitalist system. Von Mises did, in some parts of his work, express a view similar to Friedman and Hayek, as when he wrote, “the freedom that the market economy grants to the individual is not merely ‘economic’ as distinguished from some other kind of freedom. It implies the freedom to determine also all those issues which are considered as moral, spiritual, and intellectual” (von Mises 1990, 9). On the other hand, he also apparently considered religion (or at least the institutions of organized religion) inimical to the development of capitalism. As von Mises said, “it would seem that only a negative answer can be made to the question [of] whether it might not be possible to reconcile Christianity with a free social order based on private ownership in the means of production. A living Christianity cannot, it seems, exist side by side with Capitalism. Just as in the case of Eastern religions, Christianity must either overcome Capitalism or go under” (Glahe and Vorhies 1989).

In The Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard denied the very existence of freedom of religion as a separate right, under his conception that all rights are fundamentally property rights. As he wrote, “the concept of ‘rights’ only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard” (Rothbard 1998, 113). For Rothbard, every right is a right to ownership (of one’s body, speech, beliefs, etc.); any other account of rights creates inevitable conflicts when one person’s right interferes with the rights of others. He believes that due to such conflicts all rights must be acknowledged as not absolute, and thus (in contrast to Hayek’s view) they become abridged. Using the example of the right to freedom of speech, or “the right of everyone to say whatever he likes,” Rothbard argued that “the neglected question is: Where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing” (Rothbard 1998, 113). Therefore “there is no such thing as a separate ‘right to free speech’; there is only a man's property right: the right to do as he wills with his own [property] or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners” (Rothbard 1998, 113). The same would thus be true for freedom of religion as a discrete right; presumably, it should likewise be subordinated to the interests of, and subsumed into, the capitalist right to property.

The most obvious real-life application of Rothbard’s stance seems to be in workplace accommodations for religious practice. In the United States, the courts have in fact rejected his view by recognizing a separate right to practice one’s religion as it relates to employment; this goes as far back as the 1963 case Sherbert v. Verner, where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman who had been denied unemployment benefits after being fired due to her Seventh-Day Adventist faith. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, religion is likewise a protected category when it comes to employment discrimination, in areas like hiring, firing, or advancement. Under the adversarial view described above, however, a business owner’s property is theirs to do with as they see fit, and they cannot be made to change the way they use their property to accommodate anyone’s beliefs; if the requirements of the job are intolerable to an employee’s religion, the business owner has no obligation to keep employing them. While the employee has the right to ownership of their beliefs, that does not extend to the right to practice those beliefs on someone else’s property.

In the thought of the leading philosophers of modern capitalism, one can find divergent views on the relationship that religion, and specifically the right to freedom of religion, has with capitalism. Nonetheless, these philosophers certainly had to contend with issues of religion, and from their writings it can be seen that freedom of religion has more relevance to a discussion of modern capitalist philosophy than may initially be apparent.


Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Glahe, Fred, and Frank Vorhies. “Religion, Liberty, and Economic Development: An Empirical Investigation.” Public Choice, 62, no. 3 (1989): 201-215.

Hayek, Friedrich. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. National Constitution Center. “Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733).” 2023. Accessed July 14, 2023.

Rothbard, Murray. The Ethics of Liberty. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

von Mises, Ludwig. “Human Action.” In Economic Freedom and Interventionism: An Anthology of Articles and Essays, ed. Bettina Bien Greaves, 12-19. Courtesy of the Online Library of Liberty, Liberty Fund, Inc., 1990.

von Mises, Ludwig. “The Freeman.” In Economic Freedom and Interventionism: An Anthology of Articles and Essays, ed. Bettina Bien Greaves, 3-11. Courtesy of the Online Library of Liberty, Liberty Fund, Inc., 1990.
PragmatismFreedom of ReligionPragmatism, a broad philosophical tradition that traces its origins to the United States, prioritizes action over doctrine, and holds that “an idea is like a tool developed in response to surrounding conditions, and the worth of an idea is tied to its practical effects” (Rorty et al. 2004, 1). The philosophy was pioneered by key figures like Charles S. Peirce and was later expanded upon by philosophers William James and John Dewey, among others, providing different interpretations and understanding of the movement. They utilized pragmatism as a lens through which to view public and social affairs, including human rights, liberties, religion, and ethics. For pragmatists, “theory answers to practice,” meaning that ideas such as the notion of human rights and liberties “must answer to their pragmatics, their use” (Luban 2013, 5-6). Through this approach, the right to freedom of religion is as useful as the effect it has on individuals and how it matters to us as humans, which pragmatists like James and Dewey saw as giving meaning to one’s life and shaping a moral order.

Founded in the 1870s, pragmatism is a philosophical movement that advances the idea that a claim or theory is true only if it has practical use or success and called for the testing of philosophies through the scientific method. Scholar Cheryl Misak identifies three notions that pragmatists commonly share: “that standards of objectivity are historically situated but their contingency does nothing to detract from their objectivity; that knowledge has and requires no foundation; and the importance of connecting philosophical concepts to everyday life” (Bacon 2012, ix). This last idea directly impacts how pragmatists interpret religion and the right of individuals to practice their faith, as they focus on the consequences of their existence and whether it is useful in one’s everyday life: “The pragmatist approach pushes [one] to focus on the practical effects of religion on one’s existence” (Romania 2016, 96). For a pragmatist, if the consequences of an individual practicing their religion are practical and beneficial to them then it is useful and has worth. Additionally, if the theory that all humans are born with fundamental rights, including the freedom of religion, has practical benefits and matters to individuals, then it too is useful and has worth.

William James, an American philosopher and psychologist, was an important figure in early pragmatism, with many of his works developing the tradition. He touched upon religion in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, where he wrote on “religious experience and defined it through the ecstatic experience of individuals in their real life” (Romania 2016, 96). Instead of focusing on religious doctrine and institutions, he focused on the experience of the individual, seeing “religion as a guiding principle in daily life” and useful (Romania 2016, 96). John Dewey, another early champion of pragmatism, similarly wrote in length about religion and social life. Dewey “conceived religion as a form of access to the universal values of humanity. He naturalized religion, extending its borders to any beliefs able to move people toward the realization of the highest humanistic ends” (Romania 2016, 96). This notion of the utility and practicality of religion became common in pragmatist thought, with religion being “conceived as possessing a noetic character opening the way to access an unseen moral order and to organize one’s life consistently” (Romania 2016, 96).

The relationship between human rights and pragmatism is dependent on their effectiveness in everyday life. As Joseph Betz writes in his 1978 journal article John Dewey on Human Rights: “Doctrines of social philosophy, like other concepts, are tools and instruments used to solve problems, social problems” (23). He further argues that Dewey believes that “rights make abstract freedom effective”, meaning that legal rights, such as the right to freedom of religion and expression, are necessary to make the notion of human liberties practical and applicable (Betz 1978. 28).

Through the context of pragmatism, the right to freedom of religion is worth protecting if its practical and has beneficial results. Pragmatists such as James and Dewey believe that an individual’s religion does have worth as it holds them to a moral standard: “Both William James and John Dewey conceive the existence of an unseen moral order as central to religious belief and practice” (Romania 2016, 99). They further saw it as giving meaning to the individual’s life, with scholar David Luban stating that, “the pragmatist function of religion is rather intended as a symbolic universe people use to give meaningfulness to their lives in the long run” (99). Pragmatists view the consequences of individuals practicing their faith as overall positive: “In conclusion, pragmatist accounts of religion showed some common features: moral neutrality, practice-centrality, emphasis on the experiential dimension, symbolism, individualization of faith. They do not discuss the origins of transcendent ideals but rather assess their social validity on the practical ground of subjective gratification” (Romania 2016, 104). James and Dewey also saw human rights as necessary and useful if they served their practical purpose to solve social problems. If an individual’s religion has useful and practical effects, and protecting an individual’s right to practice that religion successfully allows them to do so, then the right to freedom of religion is positive and supported by pragmatism.

Pragmatism prioritizes the practical effects of a theory or claim, believing its consequences and usefulness to be most important when evaluating its worth. They apply this to religion and the right of an individual to practice that religion. Early pragmatists such as William James and John Dewey wrote extensively on the subject of religion, believing its effects to be overall positive for an individual and society, proving its worth. The right to freedom of religion is useful as it allows individuals to receive those positive consequences that come from practicing their faith, and thus, in the context of pragmatism, the right to freedom of religion proves its worth.


Bacon, M. 2012 “Pragmatism: an introduction.” Polity.

Betz, J. (1978). John Dewey on Human Rights. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 14(1), 18–41.

Luban, David. 2013 "Human Rights Pragmatism and Human Dignity" Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 1317.

Romania, Vincenzo. 2016 “Pragmatism, Religion and Ethics: A Review Essay. H. Deuser Et Al, The Varieties of Transcendence: Pragmatism and the Theory of Religion, New York: Fordham University Press

Rorty, Richard, Hilary Putnam, James Conant, and Gretchen Helfrich. 2004. “What Is Pragmatism?” Think 3 (8). Cambridge University Press: 71–88. doi:10.1017/S1477175600001056.
Roman Legal and Political ThoughtFreedom of ReligionMaintaining order and power within the Roman Empire was a key aspect to the functions and elements within the roman legal and political spheres. Consequently, Roman legal and political thought has become very influential to modern law and legal systems. Those who posed a threat saw great consequences and persecution as the Romans highly valued loyalty to Rome. According to Cicero, “Rome’s power and success lay in the superiority of its religious system (Simón, 2022, 465).”

Romans were notoriously open to foreign religious influence and mobility throughout the Republic (Orlin, 2008, 232). “Religion played a decisive role in the circulation of ancestral wisdom and construction of civic identity that was deeply embedded in the political culture of the Roman Republic, (Simón, 2022, 466).” The Edict of Augustus demonstrates how the early empire contributed to the continuation of this openness in stating; “Since the nation of the Jews… have been found grateful to the people of the Romans... it seems good to me and to my advisory council, that the Jews shall use their own customs in accordance with their ancestral law, just as they used to use them in the time of Hyrcanus, the high priest of their highest god; and that their sacred offerings shall be inviolable and shall be sent to Jerusalem and shall be paid to the financial officials of Jerusalem… But if anyone is detected stealing their sacred books or their sacred monies, either from a synagogue or from a mens' apartment, he shall be considered sacrilegious, and his property shall be brought into the public treasury of the Romans (Caesar Augustus, 1 BCE).” Simon Price discusses the importance of how cults represented themselves in relation to the Empire. “Some practices related explicitly to the Roman Empire in different ways; at least compatible with Roman order, dedications, sacrifices, and prayers being offered for the well-being of the emperor (Price, 2012, 16).” As supported by the Edict of Augustus, loyalty to Rome was essential, with foreign and ethnic cults such as Judaism being allowed in this context by exhibiting that loyalty. Other polytheistic religions were tolerated as Rome expanded, absorbing diversity into its borders. Foreign and ethnic cults became popular and could be traced beyond the religious boundaries of Rome, with adaptations in respect to Roman religions being critical to their survival. However, tolerance was not constant throughout history, and at some points, even foreign cults such as the Cult of Isis were subjected to restrictions and edicts from the senate or emperors. “Octavian encouraged the worship of Isis but on Roman terms: only outside the pomerium. Octavian thus achieved a double aim: accepting Egypt with the sphere of the Roman empire but also demarcating the boundary between Romans and non-Roman to recreate a clear sense of Roman identity (Orlin, 2008, 245).” This train of thought further supports the idea that religions were tolerated in relation to Roman identity through restrictions that supported order and fostered loyalty to the original bounds of Rome, commonly in respect to the religious boundary that defined the sacred city limits. Augustus, as the first emperor, wrote his edict and established the precedent of tolerance within the empire that would last among the first few emperors. Tiberius being his successor, is documented by Tacitus to heavily follow the precedent set by Augustus by publicly stating his dependence on Augustan policies, as noted throughout the books of Annals, exemplified in Annals 1.77.3-4 (Cowen, 2009, 180). Therefore tolerance did not change dramatically in the beginning, until it was under Tiberius that the crucifixion of Christ occurred. “Jesus had undergone the death penalty from the Romans under the reign of Tiberius, by the procurator Pontius Pilate (Tacitus, Annals 44:5)” However, Jesus was not sentenced to death for being Jewish or Christian, but for accusations against him claiming opposition of payment to Caesar, and incitement of anti-Rome sentiments (Blumell, 2003, 14). This is also described in Luke 23:2. Following the death of Jesus, “Pilate reported to Tiberius not only the trial and condemnation of Jesus but also subsequent events indicating his divinity…On the basis of this report, according to Tertullian, Tiberius proposed to the senate Christ's acceptance among the deities of the Roman pantheon and his admission to the cult of the Empire. It is a well-known fact that during the Republican period, the Senate had absolute authority on religious matters. The Senate, however, rejected Tiberius' proposal. The emperor, recognizing the judicial consequences for the Chris- tians of this negative decision of the senate, seemingly tried to neutralize its effects by "threatening wrath against all accusers of the Christians (Bacchiocchi, 1998,7).” The disconnect between the senate and Tiberius here shows the legal formalities necessary for establishing tolerance amongst shared powers, and the neutralization of the decision with Tiberius’ threats. Following the rule of Tiberius was Caligula who made no changes to the status of religious freedom at the time, yet his successor Claudius was accredited to reestablishing Tiberian tolerance with the Edict of Claudius on Jewish Rights. “it is right that also the Jews, who are in all the world under us, shall maintain their ancestral customs without hindrance and to them I now also command to use this my kindness rather reasonably and not to despise the religious rites of the other nations, but to observe their own laws. (Claudius, 41 CE).” Despite this Edict, it is under the rule of Claudius that a Jewish uprising occurred resulting in the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, signifying the beginning of the Jewish diaspora (Bacchiocchi, 1998, 13). Following Claudius is Emperor Nero, who changes the way Jews and Christians are perceived for centuries when he becomes the ‘First Persecutor’ of Christians (Blummell, 2003, 16). According to Tacitus Nero blamed Christians as a scapegoat for the fire that occurred during his rule in Rome; “nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians... First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race (Tacitus, Annals, 5:44:3-7).” Following the Rule of Nero, ten emperors would go on to permanently receive the title of “persecutor” through the records of ancient Christian writings and accounts from those such as Tacitus and Tertullian (Blummell, 2003, 4). Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Maximin, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian would continue the persecution of Christians for the next two and half centuries until the Reign of Constantine finally allows for the religion again. Edicts and orders against the Christians took place throughout numerous rules, “Emperor Decius initiated and rigorously enforced an empire-wide persecution against the Christians commencing in 249 CE when he issued an imperial edict requiring all the inhabitants of the Roman Empire sacrifice to the gods Rome. As a result, Christians who refused to offer sacrifices were not only sought out, but they were either forced into exile or executed (Blumell, 2003, 5).” The Edict of Milan finally restored toleration for the Christians, issued by Emperor Constantine in 313, and ended the persecution of Christians. However, the acts and pursuits of punishing the Christians for centuries go back to the crucial principles of Roman political and legal thought that leadership felt necessary to maintain order; that being loyalty to Rome. Jesus and the monotheistic religions following him challenged that loyalty and security thus were perceived as a threat, therefore explaining the hostility and persecutions that took place to maintain loyalty and order as loyalty to the Roman Gods was considered loyalty to Rome. The different periods and leaderships of Rome demonstrated different levels of religious tolerance and to the extreme end, absolute intolerance. Regardless, it is an essential point to acknowledge that religion played a key part in Roman politics, survival, and identity, and for the most part, mobility and flexibility did occur with the integration of cults into the Roman religion.


Bacchiocchi, Samuele. 1983. “ROME AND CHRISTIANITY UNTIL A.D. 62". Andrews University Press. Vol. 21, no. 1: 3–25.

Blumell, Lincoln. 2003. “ The Early Roman Emperors and The Christians: an Examination of Early Emperors Ascribed Position and Persecutors of the Christians" 1-134

Cowan, Eleanor. 2009. “Tacitus, Tiberius and Augustus.” Classical Antiquity 28, no. 2 (October): 179–210.

Orlin, Eric M. 2002. “Foreign Cults in Republican Rome: Rethinking the Pomerial Rule.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 47: 1.

Orlin, Eric M. 2008. “Octavian and Egyptian Cults: Redrawing the Boundaries of Romanness.” The American Journal of Philology 129, no. 2: 231–53.

Price, Simon. 2012. “Religious Mobility in the Roman Empire.” The Journal of Roman Studies 102: 1–19.

Simón, Francisco. 2022. “Religion and Rituals in Republican Rome,” January (January), 455–69.

Tacitus. 98 AD. “The Annals” 1937 translation. Book 1-16.

“Roman Sources on the Jews and Judaism, 1 BCE-110 CE.” n.d.
Scottish EnlightenmentFreedom of the PressScholarly discourse on the impacts of a free press was one major contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment. The influential ideas of David Hume and Francis Hutcheson, among others, helped shape our understanding of the role of the press in politics and society. The preeminent scholars of 18th century Scotland were generally supportive of free and protected press for the sake of facilitating public discourse and maintaining a standard of public accountability for government officials and their conduct.

David Hume’s essay Of the Liberty of the Press remains one of the period’s most important works of advocacy for a free, uncensored press. Hume bases his argument in concerns about maintaining societal function and avoiding societal breakdown. In explaining the function of the press in the public arena Hume writes:

The spirit of the people must frequently be roused in order to curb the ambition of the court, and the dread of rousing this spirit must be employed to prevent that ambition. Nothing so effectual to this purpose as the liberty of the press, by which all the learning, wit, and genius of the nation may be employed on the side of freedom and everyone be animated to its defense.

Put simply, Hume asserts that a free press helps protect against threats to liberty. When the public has open information about the conduct of their officials, citizens are better equipped to question what political behaviors actually seek to improve society. A free press therefore introduces new incentives for political behavior, and guards against infringements on freedom otherwise unknown to the public.

A 2018 essay by Eckhart Hellmuth provides useful context for Hume’s work on press freedoms. The first prime minister of Great Britain, Sir Robert Walpole, instituted strict policies for publication from 1722 to 1725. According to Hellmuth, “Walpole did not limit himself to encouraging journalism that supported his policies, but went further and also tried to obstruct the opposition press” (p.106). Hume therefore developed his ideas in a political context “Where there was always a danger of the authorities exceeding their power, where permanent vigilance was required, [and] it made sense to use the press as a vehicle to balance power within the state, and this is exactly what Hume did” (Ibid., p.179). The British politics of Hume’s day exemplify the need for a free press as a check on centralized authority. However, the press serves another function within civil society at a more individual level.

The second benefit of a free press, according to Hume, is that it helps prevent certain parts of society from becoming radicalized against their government. By facilitating open discourse about political affairs, the press provides a nonviolent opportunity for the public to air their grievances. “For Hume, consumption of the printed word was a rational act with a tempering effect. ‘A man’, he wrote, ‘reads a book or pamphlet alone and coolly. There is none present from whom he can catch the passion by contagion’” (Ibid., p.179). Here, Hume posits that a free press reduces the chances that citizens will be susceptible to the mob mentality and radicalization. This speaks to the broader theory that states who acknowledge political dissent experience less turmoil and violence than those who isolate it.

Professor of political philosophy Marc Hanvelt has focused much of his research on Hume’s views on politeness, public discourse, and the press. He agrees with Hellmuth’s points about the press tempering public sentiments in calling it “a forum for the opposition of interests (...) by deflating factional bigotry” (2012, p.627). Hanvelt also provides his analysis of Hume’s Of the Liberty of the Press, paying close attention to the differences between the original and edited versions. The essay’s original conclusion declares a more explicit support for a free press: “Through the guarantee of liberty of the press, Hume argues, 'it is to be hope, that men, being every day more accustomed to the free discussion of public affairs, will improve in the judgment of them, and be with greater difficulty seduced by every idle rumour and popular clamour’” (Ibid., p.629). The omission of this sentence from Hume’s final version does not indicate a backtracking on his belief in a free press. Instead, the edit was made in an effort to “[bring] the essay into line with his philosophically-grounded objection to unbounded liberty” (Ibid., p.630). The introduction of a free press has many benefits, but it also exposes a society to the dangers of irresponsible journalism. Hume sought to acknowledge the dangers of both extremes and to add subtly to his support for press freedoms. In Hanvelt’s view, Hume still upholds the argument that an uncensored press benefits public discourse.

While David Hume may have written the most direct commentary on the freedom of the press, he was not the only Scottish Enlightenment thinker who made contributions in that area. Francis Hutcheson is known for his work on moral philosophy, yet his theories can be applied in several ways to freedom of information and the press. A blog by the Centre for Privacy Studies in Denmark parsed the connections between morality, privacy, and modern press freedoms. According to Hutcheson, morality is dictated by what is happening around us, therefore we must be informed about the conduct or behavior of others in order to uphold common moral standards. The piece explains Hutcheson’s views on privacy by saying: “Hutcheson implies that following what is ‘natural’ or ‘nature’ is a way to achieve happiness, or else by being ‘virtuous’. (...) One could here infer, that hiding shameful vices is unnatural; so, in this sense, privacy is unnatural” (Moral Philosophy and Privacy 2020). This would be especially true with respect to the vices of government officials, which to some extent have an impact on all of society. Hutcheson also supports the use of speech in line with the common interest, suggesting that the press should be granted sufficient liberties as a medium of public speech. Furthermore, Hutcheson’s moral paradigm favors transparency, which remains one of the primary goals of a free press. The blog post paraphrases: “We must use speech with truth and fidelity in conversations otherwise we lose this advantage of social life (...) Hutcheson insists particularly on the fact that maintaining veracity in all our conversation is important to society” (Moral Philosophy and Privacy 2020). Despite not addressing the press directly, the moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson contains theories on privacy, transparency, and truth that offer relevant insights on press freedoms.


Hanvelt, Marc. 2012. “Politeness, A Plurality of Interests and the Public Realm: Hume on the Liberty of the Press.” History of Political Thought 33 (4): 627–46.

Hellmuth, Eckhart. 2018. “Towards Hume – The Discourse on the Liberty of the Press in the Age of Walpole.” History of European Ideas 44 (2): 159–81.

Hume, David. “Of the Liberty of the Press.” In Essays: moral, political, and literary, edited by Eugene F. Miller. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

“Hutcheson’s Moral Philosophy and Privacy.” 2020. Centre for Privacy Studies. April 16, 2020.
Thomism and medieval ChristianityFreedom of ReligionFreedom of religion, as one understands it today, is a relatively modern concept that arose from the work of Enlightenment philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, despite its relative modernity, theoretical arguments related to freedom of religion in its most simplified sense (i.e., the right to accept or deny faith in any sense) have existed for centuries. Medieval Europeans did not enjoy freedom in choosing or refusing religion, as ecclesiastical structures were employed and amended to bolster political systems. Symbiotic relationships between church and state were a key characteristic of Medieval Europe and were seen to be a natural continuation of their respective roles in society. In analyzing the extent to which freedom of religion was respected or restricted in the Medieval period, one cannot expect to find evidence for the clear pro or contra argument in texts and sources. One can, however, apply modern logic and understanding of what freedom of religion constitutes to theoretically comprehend how Medieval theologians would have viewed and treated freedom of religion. By analyzing the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Francisco de Vitoria from the 13th and 16th centuries, respectively, one can see the theoretical beginnings of freedom of religion as a natural right to be enjoyed by all peoples.

Thomism refers to the teachings and beliefs of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a prominent Catholic theologian and philosopher whose works were heavily influenced by classical Greek and Roman thought. Much of Thomas’ work is based on a reconciliation of faith and reason to obtain true knowledge of the world and, if employed properly, of God. Freedom of religion was a nonexistent concept during the period Aquinas lived through. Despite this, one can see that spiritual arguments of the 13th century were focused on personal interpretation versus the organizational doctrine of Christianity. His magnum opus, Summa Theologica, is a systematic theological tome of what Aquinas believed to be the sum of all known learning. He employs Aristotelian logic processes to explain the relationship between God and man and how man can use faith and reason to understand God's natural world and workings.

It is important to note that while Aquinas forms his arguments for a Christian audience, he does offer insight into broader faith-centered topics, like how to define heresy and man’s right to a free conscience. To Aquinas, heresy was something that only Christians could commit, as “heresy is the species of unbelief that belongs to those who profess the Faith of Christ but corrupt its dogmas” (Summa Theologica II-II, q. 11, a. 1). Those who are not Christian cannot be heretics, based on the definition of heresy being inherent to the Christian faith. Aquinas explains further that “it is irrelevant to the corruption of the Christian Faith if someone holds a false opinion in matters that do not belong to the Faith, e.g., in geometrical matters or others of this sort, which cannot in any way pertain to the Faith. Rather, it is relevant only when someone has a false opinion with respect to the things that belong to the Faith” (ST II-II, q. 11, a. 2). Therefore, through omission, Aquinas acknowledges that peoples of other faiths are not contrary (or heretical) to Christianity, but rather believers of something else entirely. This is not to be confused with unbelief, which according to Aquinas, is a sin since that implies unbelievers are completely “without faith” (ST II-II, q. 10, a. 1).

If we can infer from the Summa that only Christians are capable of heresy, where does that leave Thomist views of freedom of religion? As established earlier, freedom of religion in our modern sense was not understood in the same way by Medieval Europeans. However, it is important to establish that Aquinas believed in a moral order that “is prior to and superior to the legal order; and this moral order is what he calls the ‘natural law’" (Thiry, 174). Humans can't act contrary to this human or natural law, as Aquinas “conceived of human beings as… possessing natural liberty in terms of self-mastery, or natural dominium” (Cornish, 559). In synthesizing Aquinas’ arguments, he “contended that all human beings, Christian or not, had a moral obligation to follow even an erroneous conscience. This principle applied to everyone never previously exposed to the Christian message… [however] it did not apply… to Christian defectors—heretics and apostates—who… should be punished” (Little). Therefore, we can conclude that while not a proponent of freedom of religion per se, Saint Thomas Aquinas did believe in the idea of a free conscience that man was obliged to follow, so long as he was not committing Christian heresy or living with an absence of faith.

Several decades after Aquinas’ death and prompted by the actions of the insurgent French King Philip, Pope Boniface VIII issued the Papal bull, Unam Sanctam, or “One Holy.” In the theoretical context of the extent of freedom of religion in Medieval Europe, this declaration put square limitations on the operational ability of political capabilities when challenged by spiritual controls. While the Unam Sanctam changed little for the average European Christian, it marks a turning point in the way in which organized religion interacted with temporal structures. Boniface explained that:

"We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal. For when the Apostles say: ‘Behold, here are two swords‘ [Lk 22:38] that is to say, in the Church, since the Apostles were speaking, the Lord did not reply that there were too many, but sufficient. Certainly the one who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not listened well to the word of the Lord commanding: ‘Put up thy sword into thy scabbard ‘[Mt 26:52]. Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest" (Papal Encyclicals Online).

Here for the first time in Christian history, the pope ordained that the political and temporal “sword” should be squarely subordinated and at the mercy of the Catholic church. In concluding his bull, Boniface stated, "Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff" (Papal Encyclicals Online). Every human creature, regardless of race, creed, location, or language, was now to be governed by the spiritual (and political through subjugation) sword of the pope in Rome. While this bull was issued after Thomas Aquinas lived, this document would prove to be an instrumental point of contention for neo-Thomists in the late-Medieval period when the question of freedom of religion ceased to be purely theoretical and began to have practical implications due to the colonization of the New World.

Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546) was a crucial figure in the Spanish Scholasticism movement and a founder of the School of Salamanca, a neo-Thomist school of thought that produced innovative analyses and teachings on Spanish colonialism, Catholic superiority, and natural rights of all peoples. While Vitoria and Aquinas are formidable religious theorists, their philosophies emerged within different social, political, and religious contexts. While neo-Thomist in nature, Vitoria's works were heavily influenced by the social and political issues created by Spanish colonialism and its interactions with indigenous (non-Christian) Americans.

Drawing on Thomist beliefs in freedom of conscience and the superiority of human (or natural) law to temporal powers, Vitoria was a staunch advocate for respecting the inherent humanity of those that the Spanish encountered in the New World. Vitoria “treated [the] law as made by ‘reason and enlightenment’, not just the will. Natural law, derived from eternal law by reason, was binding on all humanity; its principles applied to mutable situations and different peoples. God was the indirect cause of human laws, which were binding on the conscience of individuals” (Izbicki et al., 2019). So, despite the different faiths of the Spaniards and indigenous Americans, human law was omnirelevant in neo-Thomist philosophy.

The second part of Vitoria’s theoretical argument focuses on the limitations of the Pope as the head of Christendom and the spiritual and temporal controls available to him. Vitoria’s arguments were set directly against what was laid out in the Unam Sanctum of 1302; he argued that the Pope did not enjoy infallible temporal and spiritual power over non-Christians. Vitoria was keen to point out that “…the Pope 'has no temporal power over the Indians or over other unbelievers’” … because “Christ had no temporal power, and so neither can his representative [i.e., the Pope] on earth’” (Ruston, 11). Unlike the two-sword metaphor used to explain the powers available to the Pope in the early 14th century, Vitoria draws the line to exclude “unbelievers” and removes them from the Pope’s jurisdiction. Here again, we see the vital importance of man’s free conscience and the role of natural law in rudimentary accounts of freedom of religion. However, Vitoria did not believe that temporal power was superior to spiritual, just that Christian laws from the Pope did not bind all humanity equally (Izbicki et al., 2019). Vitoria was a Christian and a contemporary of Saint Thomas Aquinas by two and a half centuries. Still, he was able to remove personal religiosity from his political and social opinions in a way that did not become conventional until much later in history. Vitoria took Thomist beliefs of human law and free will one step further than Aquinas in his practical arguments related to the protections indigenous Americans should enjoy in the face of the Spanish conquistadors exploring the New World.

The arguments presented by Saint Thomas and Francisco de Vitoria have surprisingly modern applications in examining their theoretical applications to contemporary understandings of human rights and freedoms. As expressed earlier, because it would be impossible to draw a straight conclusion to support or contradict how they viewed freedom of religion within the social, political, and religious climates of Medieval Europe, we must analyze their works from a theoretical perspective. Suppose we can take the (neo-)Thomist emphases on the importance of free conscience as the primary basis of freedom of religion and man’s right to have a clear conscience. In that case, we can conclude “that when a government seeks to delimit the range of free behavior so that religious beliefs and practices regarding God are excluded or suppressed, the state necessarily acts against the very structure of deliberative human freedom itself, with respect to both its deepest initial inclinations and its ultimate transcendent horizon" (White, 1159). While Thomas and Vitoria would not have shared our contemporary understanding of freedom of religion, their appreciation for the necessity of free conscience over that of ecclesiastical or political restrictions translates well to modern arguments for freedom of religion as a natural and inalienable right to be enjoyed by everyone.

REFERENCES Aquinas, Thomas. New English Translation of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (Summa Theologica). Translated by Alfred Freddoso. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2023.

Cornish, Paul J. “Marriage, Slavery, and Natural Rights in the Political Thought of Aquinas.” The Review of Politics 60, no. 3 (1998): 545–61.

Gundacker, Jay, and Noah Rosenblum. “Historical Context of Thomas Aquinas.” Historical Context of Thomas Aquinas; The Core Curriculum. Accessed June 20, 2023.

Izbicki, Thomas and Matthias Kaufmann, "School of Salamanca", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Keys, Mary M. “Aquinas’s Two Pedagogies: A Reconsideration of the Relation between Law and Moral Virtue.” American Journal of Political Science 45, no. 3 (2001): 519–31.

Little, David. “Christianity and Religious Freedom in the Medieval Period (476 – 1453 CE).” Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. Accessed June 20, 2023.

O’Neill, Taylor Patrick. “Self-Destruction and the Sin of Heresy.” Church Life Journal, November 26, 2020.

Pagden, Anthony. “Human Rights, Natural Rights, and Europe’s Imperial Legacy.” Political Theory 31, no. 2 (2003): 171–99.

Pope Boniface VIII. “Unam Sanctam (1302).” Unam Sanctam One God, One Faith, One Spiritual Authority, April 27, 2017.

Ruston, Roger. “Justice, Peace and Dominicans 1216-1999: IV—Francisco Vitoria: The Rights of Enemies and Strangers.” New Blackfriars 80, no. 935 (1999): 4–18.

Sarmiento, Edward. “HUMAN DIGNITY IN THE THOUGHT OF VITORIA.” Blackfriars 27, no. 319 (1946): 378–87.

Thiry, L. “The Ethical Theory of Saint Thomas Aquinas: Interpretations and Misinterpretations.” The Journal of Religion 50, no. 2 (1970): 169–85.

White, Thomas Joseph. “The Right to Religious Freedom: Thomistic Principles of Nature and Grace.” Nova et Vetera 13, no. 4 (2015): 1149–84.
TranscendentalismFreedom of ReligionA religious, philosophical, and literary movement; Transcendentalism emphasized true freedom

through individual discovery by “rejecting materialism and confining religious doctrines, and instead embracing intuition, spirit, and self (Baratta, 2012).” The movement also introduces the idea that finding truth through individual experience and self-revelation provides the sincerest form of religion and liberates us from the worldly bounds of organized faiths. Freedom of religion can be found within the core of the transcendentalist movement; being born of men who left their religion as they felt that the principles and laws of their church did not fulfill what they knew to be more. Ralph Waldo Emerson, resigning from his ministry in 1832, felt that people should have “a religion through [personal] revelation, and not through history and tradition,” and “demand their own works and laws and worship (Atkinson, 1940, 6).” Emerson began to share his thoughts and encourage others to do the same, thus marking the birth of Transcendentalism. The ideas that Emerson expressed for others to understand his logic of this individual journey, showed emphatic value on truth and ultimate freedom. “Emerson always adhered to a basis for religious truth that answered to the reality of a spiritual realm (Hurth, 2003, 484).” Hurth analyzes his sermon, The Last Supper, and concludes that Emerson’s thoughts on “the reliance of religious self-consciousness liberated religion by appeal, not to worthless ‘forms’ in a historical embodiment from biblical revelation; but rather referring to a man’s sense of the inwardness of faith (Hurth, 2003, 486).” In The Last Supper, Emerson tells us that “I am not engaged to Christianity by decent forms, or saving ordinances…What I revere and obey in it is its reality… and the persuasion and courage that come from it to lead me upward and onward [is that] freedom is the essence of this faith. It has for its object simply to make men good and wise. Its institutions then should be as flexible as the wants of men. (Atkinson, 1940, 117).” Emerson tells us here that the principles of freedom found within this organized faith should allow men to be free to find their own religious beliefs, however, the historical and traditional concepts within the faith take away the freedom as man must adhere to the laws of the church that Emerson chose to move away from. Also leaving behind his church membership, Emerson’s mentee, Henry David Thoreau, became another contributing voice to the founding of transcendentalism. Both men, still being considered religious and spiritual, viewed God in a non-traditional sense and each found a connection to religion through freedom away from the church. To both men, divinity, and relation to a higher power can be found by connecting with the natural world. However, where Emerson sought to look beyond nature, Thoreau actively immersed himself in it and chose to look within. “To Thoreau ‘the realm of spirit is the physical world, which has a sacred meaning that can be directly perceived. Accordingly, he seeks “to be always on the alert to find God in nature’” (Furtak, 2023).” The differences between the two men’s ideas support the individualistic emphasis within transcendentalism; finding one’s own religious beliefs. However, similar to Emerson, Thoreau rejected the traditional doctrines of Christianity and found that the purpose of organized religion and its teachings was to “foster allegiance and conformity (Hodder, 2003, 96).” Also like Emerson, Thoreau’s emphasis on facts and reality led him to look outside of the traditional forms of worship. In his famous works of Walden, Thoreau states, “Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe… through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, ‘This is.’ If you stand right front and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. (Thoreau, 1971, 97)” Therefore, the values of truth, goodness, reality, and self are the emphasized concepts behind transcendentalist freedom, used to encourage the finding of one’s own divine connection. These concepts feed into the overarching idea of ultimate religious freedom, instead of through the traditional binds of organized religion. The lives and works of Emerson and Thoreau showcase how transcendentalism allows anyone the autonomy to explore and construct their own relationship with God, thus making freedom of religion a fundamental concept to the religious beliefs of transcendentalism.

Atkinson, Brooks. & Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Complete Essays and Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Random House Inc. 1940.

Baratta, Christopher. “Mountaintops and Riverbanks as Pulpits: A Transcendental Return to Nature” Transcendental Ideas: Religion. Binghamton University, NY. 2012. 2012.

Hodder, Alan D. 2003. “Thoreau’s Religious Vision.” Ultimate Reality and Meaning 26, no. 2 (June): 88–108.

Furtak, Rick Anthony, "Henry David Thoreau", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2023 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), URL = <>.

Hurth, Elisabeth. “Between Faith and Unbelief: Ralph Waldo Emerson on Man and God.” Amerikastudien / American Studies, vol. 48, no. 4, 2003, pp. 483–495,

Thoreau, Henry. 1854. “Walden, Or, Life in the Woods. by Henry David Thoreau.” 2018.
Weberian ThoughtFreedom of ExpressionRegarded as one of the founders of the field of sociology, the influence of Max Weber (1864-1920) on contemporary thinking about politics and society has been immense. Throughout an extensive body of work, perhaps the main theme of Weber’s thought is the rapid political and economic evolution that European society was undergoing in his lifetime, and the question of how freedom can still exist in this increasingly rationalized and bureaucratized new order.

When describing his fears for the survival of freedom in the modern world, Weber refers to “individually differentiated conduct” and “individualistic freedom” being curtailed by the process of rationalization (Levine 1981, 16). Since expressing oneself and one’s sentiments is what individualized (i.e., unique to and illustrative of one’s personal qualities) conduct fundamentally consists of, Weber’s concern for individual autonomy can be translated as a concern for freedom of expression. However, one significant difference between Weber and other philosophers of freedom, from John Locke to John Rawls, is that Weber does not think of freedom in terms of rights that one is entitled to. For Weber, freedom of expression is akin to the agency to express ideas and bring them to fruition: it is less a right everyone has simply by virtue of being born, and more a quest to fulfill.

Not only that, but Weber’s ultimate focus is on the state rather than the individual: while his goal is the realization of individual expression, he regards this goal as something to be achieved through developments on a national or societal level, instead of on a personal one. Politics, for him, is “a uniquely human activity, one with the potential both to create and to manifest the responsibility and dignity of individuals in an increasingly secularized world” (Warren 1988, 31).

In his 1919 address “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber begins his exploration of how politics functions in the modern day with his famous formulation that a state is defined by its monopoly on the legitimate use of force: “the modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination” (Weber 1919, 4). This view certainly lacks the idealism of theories grounded in the idea that the state is under a social contract with its people to uphold their rights. Nevertheless, what is often missed is that Weber’s theory requires not just for the state to be more powerful than any competitors who might also seek to exert force, but for it to exercise power in a way that is (or at least widely recognized as) normatively legitimate.

This discussion of state legitimacy would, it should be noted, have felt particularly prescient to audiences in Weber’s native Germany. Weber delivered his address only a year after the end of World War I, when the monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II had been broadly discredited by the devastating loss of the war, and the German people had found themselves living in a vaguely democratic republic that many on both the right and left felt had no grounds to claim their allegiance. In “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber presents three possible sources of legitimate authority: one based on tradition, one on a system of rules or laws, and one on a leader’s “extraordinary and personal gift of grace (charisma)” (Weber 1919, 2). It is this last one that is of most interest concerning how freedom of expression fits into Weber’s views. According to Weber, charismatic legitimacy consists of “absolutely personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation, heroism, or other qualities of individual leadership.” Historically, it has been displayed by “the elected war lord, the plebiscitarian ruler, the great demagogue, or the political party leader” (Weber 1919, 2).

Charismatic legitimacy is, therefore, most relevant to Weber’s vision of the fulfillment of freedom of expression through the state – one where both leaders and those under them interact with politics as a vocation, or (per his term) a calling, a word with distinctly religious connotations. Weber further defines a calling by distinguishing between ‘occasional’ and vocational political engagement: “we are all ‘occasional’ politicians when we cast our ballot or consummate a similar expression of intention, such as applauding or protesting in a ‘political’ meeting, or delivering a ‘political’ speech, etc. The whole relation of many people to politics is restricted to this” (Weber 1919, 5). Political expression requires politicians or other politically engaged people to approach politics as a vocation – as a spiritual mission that one lives to fulfill.

However, to Weber, charismatic leadership alone is insufficient for the popular will to be expressed. Although Weber is cognizant of the problems of bureaucracy, he recognizes that a charismatic leader ultimately needs an effective state apparatus to carry out their promises. To him, “the bureaucratic state order is especially important; in its most rational development, it is precisely characteristic of the modern state” (Weber 1919, 4). The seeming contradiction can potentially be resolved if one considers that throughout his works Weber invokes two distinct types of freedom, each of which interact differently with the inescapable process of the rationalization and bureaucratization of society. One is ‘situational’ freedom, referring to external constraints on one’s movements or actions; the other is freedom in the much more expansive sense of autonomy, or “the condition in which individual actors choose their own ends of action” (Levine 1981, 16). While it is easy to imagine how the rise of factory jobs and big government would restrict situational freedom, Weber believes that the modern state’s effect on personal autonomy is actually positive. This conception of autonomy can be more broadly defined as the ability to be guided by one’s own ideas; Weber calls it “a series of ultimate decisions through which the soul…chooses its own fate” (Levine 1981, 21). It can thus be said that to have autonomy, by Weber’s definition, is to have freedom of expression.

In “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber identifies a state bureaucracy as ultimately critical for the state to enable citizens’ political aspirations to come to fruition – for citizens to have autonomy, in the sense of choosing their own fates. Weber expounds on this idea in other writings on bureaucracy, as in his statements that bureaucratic organization “has usually come into power on the basis of a leveling of economic and social differences,” and that it “inevitably accompanies mass democracy” (Gerth and Mills 1946, 224). This is because mass democracy necessitates “the characteristic principle of bureaucracy: the abstract regularity of the execution of authority” (Gerth and Mills 1946, 224). Weber further elaborates on this with phrases like “‘equality before the law’ in the personal and functional sense,” the “horror of ‘privilege,’” and “the principled rejection of doing business ‘from case to case’” (Gerth and Mills 1946, 224). In today’s terms, this concept might be summarized as the rule of law: having institutions in place to ensure the state effectively and consistently carries out its functions. Weber certainly seems right that a bureaucracy in this sense would be a precondition for popular expression. As an example, in “Politics as a Vocation,” he approvingly cites the 1883 Civil Service Reform Act as creating a professional bureaucracy in the United States, replacing the “spoils” system where successive administrations distributed offices based on political allegiance (Weber 1919, 7).

Nonetheless, Weber’s account of freedom of expression, where the effective operation of the state serving as the avenue for expression of public sentiments, still seems lacking in other ways. Under Weber’s conception of the state, the people’s voice is only expressed indirectly: “the demos itself, in the sense of an inarticulate mass, never 'governs' larger associations; rather, it is governed, and its existence only changes the way in which the executive leaders are selected and the measure of influence which the demos, or better, which social circles from its midst are able to exert upon the content and the direction of administrative activities by supplementing what is called 'public opinion'” (Gerth and Mills 1946, 225).

Then again, this may not have been as much of a concern for Weber. For Weber, political expression entails a progression towards political maturity; the realization of the people’s aspirations is more of a responsibility on their part than a right. Indeed, throughout his body of work, Weber displays a deep pessimism about the political capacities of the German people. According to him (as he wrote in the 1890s), if there is any hope, it lies in the economically ascendant but politically unassertive bourgeoisie: the decaying aristocracy can no longer be trusted with power, while the working classes are led by those who “have no organic connection with the class they claim to represent” and whose “revolutionary posture in fact acts against the further advancement of the working class towards political responsibility” (Giddens 1972, 17).

Giddens goes on to explain Weber’s viewpoint thus: “Weber saw as the principal question affecting the future of Germany [as] that of whether the economically prosperous bourgeoisie could develop a political consciousness adequate enough to undertake the leadership of the nation. … there could be no question of refounding German liberalism upon a 'natural law' theory of democracy. He rejected, moreover, the classical conception of 'direct' democracy, in which the mass of the population participate in decision-making.” Ultimately, “in the modern state, leadership must be the prerogative of a minority: this is an inescapable characteristic of modern times. Any idea 'that some form of democracy’ can destroy the ‘domination of men over other men’ is ‘utopian’” (Giddens 1972, 18).

Perhaps an even bigger problem with Weber’s freedom of expression is that he necessarily views the expression of the popular (which is to say, majority) will as entailing the expression of the individual will. In his address, he never considers situations where they might not, in fact, be one and the same – where an individual might dissent from the majority. Weber’s inattention to the protection of minority views is a consequence of his lack of discussion of individual rights, or indeed of any other limits on government power (like independent legislative and judicial branches, or even regular competitive elections). He may have died before he could see them, but the 20th century would provide numerous examples of how the unfettered state is anything but conducive to freedom, by any definition of the term. While the aim of “Politics as a Vocation” may just be to explain how the state functions and acquires legitimacy, its failure to consider any substantial limits on what the bureaucratic state can do is ultimately a second reason why it is lacking as an account of freedom of expression.

In his book, Mommsen describes Weber’s view thus: “Max Weber considered the natural-law justification of democracy and the liberal constitutional state to be outmoded and an insufficient basis for a modern theory of government. The ‘rights of mankind’ were… ‘extremely rationalized fanaticisms.’” Weber acknowledged that the principle of human rights had done much good, but felt its value was limited in the modern reality: “[Weber] believed that he believed that the axioms of natural law were no longer providing clear directions for a just social order under the conditions of higher capitalism. He also felt that ‘the old individualist principles of inalienable human rights’ had lost much of their power of persuasion under the conditions of modern industrial society. He did not hesitate, on occasion, to set them aside” (Mommsen 1984, 392-393).

Another review describes these shortcomings in Weber’s vision of freedom of expression as less flaws in Weber’s reasoning, and more “symptoms of real challenges for democratic theory” (Warren 1988, 31). Weber may very well have been correct in his preoccupation with the inadequacies of democracy in modern society. Nonetheless, as Warren puts it, “these conflicts would have been less had Weber elaborated his liberal commitments in substantially democratic directions rather than the elitist direction he in fact chose” (Warren 1988, 32). As the world learned from bitter experience, the problems of democracy can only be addressed by expanding democratic participation and rights, to as wide a range of people as possible, and not by restricting them.

There is much in Weber’s political thought that is insightful, and even prescient. In his warnings of the dangers that a hyper-rationalized society posed to freedom of expression, Weber stands out from the Enlightenment thinkers who came before him, for whom rationalization must invariably lead to freedom by liberating humanity from the tyranny of dogma and superstition (Levine 1981, 5). That being said, even if it may have seemed reasonable at the time and much of the criticisms of it come with the benefit of hindsight, his account of freedom of expression is incomplete, in that it only envisions an indirect political expression for the vast majority of citizens, and neglects to recognize the need to protect dissenting voices from the state through robust limits on state power.


Gerth, Hans H., and C. Wright Mills. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.

Giddens, Anthony. Politics and Sociology in the Thought of Max Weber. London: Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1972.

Levine, Donald. “Rationality and Freedom: Weber and Beyond.” Sociological Inquiry, 51, no. 1 (1981): 5-25,

Mommsen, Wolfgang. Max Weber and German Politics, 1890-1920. Translated by Michael Steinberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Warren, Mark. “Max Weber’s Liberalism for a Nietzschean World.” The American Political Science Review, 82, no. 1 (1988): 31-50,

Weber, Max. 1919. “Politics as a Vocation.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited and translated by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 77-128. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946,
Ancient Chinese PhilosophyFreedom of ReligionThe three primary ancient Chinese philosophies, Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism, represent various attitudes regarding the rights to religious freedom.

Founded on the premise of reforming a corrupted society during the Spring and Autumn period, Confucianism initially strongly opposed the customs of other belief systems. For example, noted by Robert Cummings Neville, in their attempts to strengthen their philosophy, Confucians actively worked to suppress beliefs such as superstition, which persisted throughout Chinese culture at the time (Neville, 26). Additionally, noted by Neville, Confucianism has a self-serving definition of toleration. Neville asserts, “Relative to toleration, the principle is that anything in the wider environment can be tolerated so long as the narrower environment can flourish” (Neville, 30). Witnessed through this narrow denotation of “tolerance”, Confucianism emphasizes a sense of dogmatic ethnocentrism, in which other religions may be permitted, but only to the extent that Confucianism can thrive as the prevailing belief system. In this way, Confucianism undermines the idea of unfettered religious freedom.

Legalism, which focuses solely on preserving the strength and stability of the state, emphasizes that “law should replace morality” (Winston, 313). Furthermore, Legalist scholar Han Feizi emphasizes law to be within total control of the sovereign, undermining the individual liberties of citizens (Winston, 315). While not directly related to freedom of religion, the Legalist sovereign's unilateral power over the law emphasizes that individuals have no natural entitlements. This weakens the perceived strength of civilians’ rights to religion, as through Han Feizi’s teachings, civilians would only be permitted to worship as directed by the Sovereign.

Contrary to Confucianism and Legalism, Taoism, which emphasizes peace and harmony, is more tolerant of other groups, encompassing the principles of the right to religious freedom. Explained by Liu Jinguang, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Religious Research of China, unliked other belief systems, “Chinese Taoism has the fine tradition of upholding and promoting harmony… mutual respect and peaceful co-existence of different culture, nationalities and religions are the foundations for building a harmonious word” (Jinguang, 207). As Taoism embraces not only toleration, but acceptance, of other faiths, it upholds the necessity of religious freedom for world harmony. Therefore, Taoism distinctly argues the importance of religious rights, allowing for the co-existence of numerous religious groups.


Liu Jinguang, “The Tolerance and Harmony of Chinese Religion in the Age of Globalization,” Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 77 (2013) 205 – 209

Robert Cummings Neville, “Confucianism and Toleration.” Journal of East-West Thought, 4/3 (September 2014). Pp. 25-38.

Kenneth Winston. 2005. THE INTERNAL MORALITY OF CHINESE LEGALISM. Singapore Journal of Legal Studies (12): 313-347
Aristotelian thoughtFreedom of ReligionAristotle disagreed strongly with the concept of religion, but he believed people’s religious belief could be used both in the state’s favor. Regarding the relationship between politics and religion, in the work “Politics,” Aristotle writes, “A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side” (Cline 2019). He believed that implementing religion into the workings of a government gives a tyrant the ability to keep people at a distance, ignoring their disapproval of how they are being ruled and any challenges to the structure of the government itself. When sanctioned by divine order, people find a government much more difficult to question, let alone change (Cline 2019).

Aristotle’s views inspired the Thomastic principles that “the maintenance of any orderly society required adherence to defined rules of conduct… From this requirement some basic laws could be deduced, such as laws forbidding murder and theft. Such laws did not have to be revealed by divine inspiration” (Wallace 537-538, 2009). These natural laws could be rationally produced and would serve as the basic moral framework necessary for the success of that society and natural, collective good while divine law would require certain revelations that are only relevant to those who accept it for their eternal good. Based upon this belief, there was clear and rational justification for a state that ran independent of central religion (Wallace 537-38).


Aristotle on Politics and Religion, Austin Cline, Dotdash Learn Religions, 2019 New York.

Justifying Religious Freedom: The Western Tradition, E. Gregory Wallace, 537-538, Faculty Scholarship at Campbell University School of Law, 2009 Raleigh.
Benthamite UtilitarianismFreedom of ReligionBentham’s utilitarianism was often fervently anti-religious; as Jake E. Crimmins writes, “ always the aim in view was to test the institutions, practices, rituals, doctrines, and beliefs of religion against the standard of utility. The results of this test were invariably negative and stand as a compelling testimony to Bentham's unmitigated atheism and to his desire to sweep away all religion in order to construct society anew according to the principles of his secular utilitarianism” (1986, 96). Bentham’s writings support greater religious freedom. For example, he argued in favor of a law tolerating Unitarianism, against blasphemy laws and laws criminalizing religious dissent, and against citizens being forced to take religious oaths (96). He argued that the state should recuse itself from all matters of religion, arguing unambiguously for both the separation of church and state and universal free exercise. In his Constitutional Code, Bentham writes that in his ideal state, the following would be true:

“For the business of religion, there is no department: there is no Minister. Of no opinion on the subject of religion, does this Constitution take any cognizance. It allows not of reward in any shape for the professing or advocating of any particular opinion on the subject of religion. It allows not of punishment in any shape for the professing or advocating of any particular opinion on the subject of religion. It leaves to each individual, after hearing any such arguments as he chooses to hear, to decide for himself on each occasion, what opinion has the truth on its side” (Bowring).



Crimmins, James E. “Bentham on Religion: Atheism and the Secular Society.” Journal of the History of Ideas 47, no. 1 (1986): 95–110.
BuddhismFreedom of ReligionEncouraging religious toleration, Buddhism is often seen to promote religious freedom. This belief is rooted in the teachings of the historical Buddha, who is believed to have preached the importance of allowing individuals to worship other religions. Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke emphasizes this, claiming “The Buddhist attitude to other religions has from its inception been one of critical tolerance” (Freiberger, 187). As noted by Jayatilleke, toleration is foundational to Buddhism, demonstrating the belief system’s adherence to the principles of free religious exercise.

Though, as explained by Oliver Freiberger, this tolerance is primarily institutional rather than dogmatic (Freiberger, 186). While Buddhism condemns the persecution of other religious groups, it does not necessarily accept the practices and beliefs of other religions to be valid. Thus, as framed by Freiberger, while Buddhism promotes religious freedom, emphasized by its tenets of toleration, it does not approve of the practices of other religions. In addition to toleration, the inclusivity practiced by Buddhists connects the belief system with religious freedom. Noted by Kirstein Beise Kiblinger, modern Buddhists aim to include others in their practices, using Buddhist excerpts to justify inclusivity as a core tenet of their belief system (Freiberger, 188). Permitting anyone the ability to convert to Buddhism, the belief system stresses the importance of the freedom to select one’s religion, an essential aspect of the right to free religious exercise. Ultimately, the tenets of Buddhism can be used to bolster rights to religious freedom, the texts and practices of the religion upholding inclusivity and toleration. Throughout history, Buddhism has been characterized by a broad, decentralized variety of different teachings; thus, sometimes depending on the context and specific text, there can be differing views on freedom of religion within the Buddhist tradition (Borchert 5, 2016). The opinions of the appropriate rights for Buddhists may emphasize and support advocacy for religious freedom for Buddhists or may justify restrictions upon the religious freedom of non-Buddhists to persecute, drive out, and/or convert them (Borchert 10, 2016). More often than not however, freedom of religion is strongly encouraged within the Buddhist tradition. Just as humans have a free mind in choosing between good and evil, we also have a free mind to choose what to believe, and each person should do so in: “healthy mind and knowledge” (Khareng, Awang, Rahman, Machae, Ismail 317, 2014). Within Buddhism, freedom of religion is described in the Tripitaka, the Buddhist most sacred text, and this text describes ten lessons for the “healthy mind” in evaluating the truths of other religions or schools of thought: “(a.) be not led by report (Ma Anusasawen), (b.) be not led by tradition (Ma Paramuprai), (c.) be not led by hearsay (Ma Itikirai), (d.) be not led by the authority of texts (Ma Pithoksamupathanen), (e.) be not led by mere logic and argument alone (Ma Takukahettu), (f.) be not led by inference (Ma Nayahettu), (g.) be not led by considering appearances (Ma Akorpariwitkuken), (h.) be not led by the agreement with a considered and approved theory (Ma Thitthinichamanokkukhanuthitaya), (i.) be not led by seeming possibilities (Ma Phapuphrutai) and (j.) be not led by the idea, ‘this is our teacher’ (Ma Sammanornokhruti)” (Khareng, Awang, Rahman, Machae, Ismail 317, 2014). Throughout recent history, Buddhist thinkers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as the Dalai Lama or Walpola Rahula, view the Buddhist concern of alleviating suffering as a rationale to justify Buddhist concern for human rights (Borchert 55-56, 2016). In the Dalai Lama’s “The Importance of Religious Harmony,” he writes: “Each religion has its own philosophy and there are similarities as well as differences among the various traditions. What is important is what is suitable for a particular person. We should look at the underlying purpose of religion andnot merely at the abstract details of theology or metaphysics. All religions make the betterment of humanity their primary concern… Whether we like it or not, we have all been born on this earth as part of one great human family. This is not to say that all human beings are the same or that because everyone wishes for happiness that the same things will make each of them happy. Brothers and sisters resemble each other without being identical” (Borchert 66, 2016). The Dalai Lama here clearly supports religious freedom, even pointing out the similarities in differing religions. This message highlights that human dignity, equality, and freedom, which are the basics of accepted human rights are intrinsic to the ideal of Buddhist teachings. Although the UDHR’s ideas on human rights are considered Western in nature, the Buddhist teachings of the Five Precepts and the six directions champion human rights without ever coining the exact phrase. Stretching back to the third century BCE, Buddhist Emperor Asoka of India states in the 12th Edict of Asoka: “One should not honor only one’s own religion and condemn the religions of others, but one should honor others’ religions for this or that reason. In so doing, one helps one’s own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of others too. In acting otherwise one digs the grave of one’s own religion and also does harm to other religions” (Chanawangsa 4 then 9, 2011).


Borchert, Thomas, “Buddhism and Religious Freedom: a sourcebook.” Berkeley Center at Georgetown, 2016.

Somseen Chanawangsa, “A Buddhist Perspective on Freedom of Religion,” The Journal of the Royal Institute of Thailand, Volume III, 2011

Freiberger, Oliver. “How the Buddha Dealt with Non-Buddhists.” In Religion and Identity in South Asia and Beyond: Essays in Honor of Patrick Olivelle, edited by Steven E. Lindquist, 185–96. Anthem Press, 2011.

Mutsalim Khareng et. al., “Freedom of Religion in Islam and Buddhism: A Comparison Study of the Barriers That Determines the Freedom of Religion,” Asian Social Science; Vol. 10, No. 22; 2014
Early Modern RationalismFreedom of ReligionThe early-modern rationalist tradition has its roots in the European Enlightenment movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Though famous philosophers like Kant and Descartes came to define the era through their work on method and idealism, thinkers like Spinoza and Leibniz were also influential in their writings on metaphysics, religion, and political philosophy. Both thinkers’ works contributed to a developing discourse on the rights and duties of the sovereign within political society.

It is important to note that the early-modern definition of a “right” differs significantly from its modern meaning. Leibniz’s work, for example, was influential in his time because of his conviction that “right” implies an intrinsic moral permissibility in an actor to complete an action that does not negatively impact society. In an article entitled “The Grounds of Right and Obligation in Leibniz and Hobbes,” Christopher Johns explains that “for Leibniz right (jus) is a permissive power, that is, the power of doing whatever is consistent with public utility” (Johns, 2009). Ultimately, Leibniz is especially significant because his works of political philosophy are some of the first to assert that a sovereign’s “right” to do something does not necessarily imply moral justification. In his “Reflections on the Common Concept of Justice,” the German philosopher writes that “the error of those who have made justice depend upon power comes in part from their confusion of Right with law. Right cannot be unjust; this would be a contradiction. But law can be, for it is power which gives and maintains law; and if this power lacks wisdom or good will, it can give and maintain very bad laws” (Leibniz, 564). This idea that a sovereign is not justified in all of its actions clashes with that of earlier theorists like Thomas Hobbes, and both Leibniz and Spinoza use it to imply that the sovereign ought not to wield unmitigated power over its subjects. Leibniz asserts this idea as a general theory which can apply to religious freedom, though his near-contemporary Benedictus de Spinoza dealt more specifically with the issue.

While Spinoza also generally refrains from arguing against the sovereign’s right to do as it pleases, his writings do imply an understanding that a sovereign’s ability to dictate laws to its citizens is not entirely justified. In fact, his Theological-Political Treatise reveals his strong support for religious toleration. Spinoza’s exploration of the intersection between faith and sovereignty within this work leads him to first conclude that no sovereign entity can claim to rule a society simply by religious right. This is because humans are so prone to disagreement within religious discourse, meaning “the rights of the state would be dependent on every man’s judgment and passions” if sovereignty based its authority in divine right (Spinoza, 163). Through an analysis of the Biblical Hebrew state he further proposes that: “We may now clearly see from what I have said:— I. How hurtful to religion and the state is the concession to ministers of religion of any power of issuing decrees or transacting the business of government: how, on the contrary, far greater stability is afforded, if the said ministers are only allowed to give answers to questions duly put to them, and are, as a rule, obliged to preach and practise the received and accepted doctrines.” (Spinoza, 182)

In addition to laying out one of the earliest arguments in favor of the separation of church and state, this Spinoza passage lays the groundwork for his assertion that the state ought not to compel its citizens to follow any one religion. Near the end of his discourse he states that though the government may have the “right” (or at least, the ability) to dictate whatever terms it pleases to its subjects, “a government would be most harsh which deprived the individual of his freedom of saying and teaching what he thought; and would be moderate if such freedom were granted” (Spinoza, 195). Ultimately, both Spinoza asserts the impermissibility of a sovereign’s use of power to force belief or faith upon its subjects. Taken together, writings from early-modern rationalists like Leibniz and Spinoza present interesting arguments about the rights of sovereign and citizen as they relate to religious freedom. Leibniz’s declaration that the sovereign’s laws are not necessarily just opens the door for a discussion about the permissibility of lawbreaking, while Spinoza’s conclusion that rulers err when they attempt to dictate religion to their citizens give philosophers license to question state-enforced religious homogeneity. Though neither philosopher states unequivocally that a citizen has an innate right to practice whatever religion they choose, both seem to have agreed that the state is not morally justified in all of its attempts to control certain aspects of its citizens’ lives. Leibniz argues this point very generally, while Spinoza speaks specifically to the dangers of religious influence over a sovereign within political society.


Britain., Great. “The Statutes of the Realm : Printed by Command of His Majesty King George the Third, in Pursuance of an Address of the House of Commons of Great Britain. From V.1.” HathiTrust,

Johns, Christopher. “The Grounds of Right and Obligation in Leibniz and Hobbes.” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 62, no. 3, 2009, pp. 551–574. JSTOR, Accessed 30 July 2020.

“Reflections on the Common Concept of Justice (1702[?]).” Philosophical Papers and Letters, by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Leroy E. Loemker, Kluwer Academic, 1989.

Spinoza, Benedictus de, and R. H. M. Elwes. The Chief Works of Benedict De Spinoza. G. Bell, 1891,
Feminist ThoughtFreedom of ReligionFreedom of religion has been a pillar within the American culture from the very moment the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. However, upholding this idea has been relatively controversial since people need a religion to explain their existence or explain why things do and do not happen. For feminist theorists, religion exists as part of the reason why the patriarchy rules over women, subjecting them to the unfair treatment that they experience in their day to day lives due to the values set forth. It is for this reason that most feminist theorists are conflicted when it comes to freedom of religion, especially since their conversation about religion surrounds the ways that Christianity disenfranchises women.

When it comes to religion, feminist theorists have the same consensus that religion reinforces the patriarchy within society and that religious freedom is important for the liberation of women. Martha Nussbaum said that “Thinking of this problem, then, we can insist that universal norms of religious toleration, freedom of association, and the other liberties are essential in order to prevent illiberal subgroups from threatening legitimate forms of pluralism” (Nussbaum 2000, 52). It is for this reason that Nussbaum believes that pluralism will free women since it will open the door for women to enter the conversation and input their ideas, but such inclusion only happens if the patriarchy is willing to embrace other ideas put forth. To the feminists this includes being plural about religious ideologies as well since if society is to accept other minority groups such as women, then all minority groups need to be allowed, including religious minorities. By giving all groups, religious or other, a setting for their voices to be heard, they eliminate the chance for a single group to rise above and dominate society by oppressing the other opposing groups. Furthermore, Charlotte Perkins Gilman noted that “It is the recognition of a new order of duties, a new scale of virtues; or rather it is the practical adoption of that order long since established by the facts of business, the science of government, and by all great religions. Our own religion in especial, the most progressive, the most social, gives no sanction whatever to our own archaic cult of home-worship" (Gilman 1904, 313). Gilman emphasis throughout her work is the importance of the home to the woman, as a place of oppression and as a place where women can fight the patriarchy by creating change within the home first. It is within the home that Gilman paints a picture for individual religious choice and expression because the home is completely private from society. However, she notes that society cannot be blind worshippers and therefore, a deeper understanding of Christianity needs to be explored within the different sects in order to liberate women and create the equality she describes. Gilman does paint a picture of religious freedom, accompanied by the idea that religion is a choice to be made by the individual in the best interest of the individual.

The feminist definition of freedom of religion follows alongside the idea that people, regardless of religion or gender, should be allowed to do as they please and live life in the manner they believe will satisfy their needs in life. It is for this reason that Nussbaum noted that, “Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing self-expressive works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to search for the ultimate meaning of life in one’s own way. Being able to have pleasurable experiences, and to avoid non-necessary pain” (Nussbaum 2000, 79). Nussbaum contributes the freedom of any religion in order to lay the groundwork for the idea that anyone should be able to do as they please regardless of their gender or their personal life choices. In this excerpt specifically she notes on the idea that people have the liberty to make their own life decisions and that they should therefore be tolerant of the decisions that others decide to make for themselves. She goes on to describe the type of relationship the government should have with religion within different countries, pointing out the problems of having a non-secular government. For this reason, proposes the solution of a secular government that imposes moral constraint and treats one another as ends. She recognizes that religion and the values of patriarchy are closely aligned and therefore religion and women’s rights are not compatible, yet she still embraces religion since as states before, she recognizes that religion is an important institution within society. Mary Wollstonecraft went as far to say that “Yes, virtue as well as religion, has been subjected to the decisions of taste” (Wollstonecraft 1891, 85). Wollstonecraft adds to this point that would within different religions, women have different rights and liberties and by embracing all religions, there is a possibility that women will be freed from the oppressive state they reside in. However, Wollstonecraft’s version of freedom of religion is the freedom to choose among the Christian denominations. Evidence of this is shown throughout her work as she disproves of atheism and Catholicism, yet is willing to embrace other Christian sects. Wollstonecraft’s idea of personal preference when it comes to religion is something that most feminists would agree with since as stated before women might have different freedoms within different religious sects. In Her discussion of religion, matters of the influence of the patriarchy and the hold men have on institutions prevails as she describes the manner in which men maintain control.

Aside from the literal and most common forms of religion people tend to think of, feminists like MacKinnon, Friedan, and Paglia introduce a new kind of religion that they want to address within their works. It is the way people hold one another to their gender roles that creates this new institution that people follow religiously, wielding the same faith and commitment religion gets. In its essence, these specific theorists name these oppressive gender roles as the new religion because of the way people religiously adhere to these gender roles and gender stereotypes that oppress women. In this definition of religion that most feminists attempt to address rather than the literal religions that people think of when it comes to defining the freedom of religion. In this case, feminist theorists advocate for the complete abolition of this religion since it is part of the aesthetics of society that keep women oppressed and does not give them the equality they are entitled to. Despite this alternative religion, feminist theorists advocate for a complete freedom of religion within society in order to address the inequalities women face in society.


Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Home, Its Work and Influence, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. England: William Heinemann, 1904, 1904.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 2000. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge University Press

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. No place, unknown, or undetermined: Humboldt Publishing Co., 1891.
Hobbesian ThoughtFreedom of ReligionDespite Hobbes’ often totalitarian views, Hobbes advocates at least some liberty of expression, religion, and association. Hobbes only supported restrictions on liberty when it would have a tangible benefit to the state. In Elements of Law, he argues “that there be no restraint of natural liberty, but what is necessary for the good of the commonwealth” (1640, 9-4). In Behemoth, he even argues that “suppression of doctrines does but unite and exasperate, that is, increase both the malice and power of them that have already believed them” (Hobbes 1681). Although Hobbes’ preference is liberty, he does not seem to have a particularly high standard for classifying ideas as seditious. He considered Christian views that violating conscience is a sin and that sanctity and faith are achieved through relations with the supernatural, not reason, to be seditious (Curley 1). One can see how these views would hurt a state - the idea about violating conscience could promote disobedience. Still, these views are nowhere near problematic to meet the standards for censorship employed by most modern Western governments.


Leviathan: Curley:

Elements of Law:

Lockean Thought/English EmpiricismFreedom of ReligionIn A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke advocates for religious freedom, albeit with qualification. He claims that toleration is the “chief characteristic mark of the true Church” (Locke 1689, 3). Locke justifies toleration by arguing that religious controversies cannot be solved by human beings, and since no religion has an objective claim to truth over another (not just between Christian denominations, but between, in the example he uses, Muslims, Christians and Jews), all religions must be tolerated (Kessler 1985, 490-91).

However, Locke prioritizes following the law over free worship, condemning religiously motivated illegal acts (Kessler 493). The following passage from A Letter demonstrates Locke’s view that humanity cannot identify a true religion: “For every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical. For whatsoever any church believes, it believes to be true and the contrary unto those things it pronounce; to be error. So that the controversy between these churches about the truth of their doctrines and the purity of their worship is on both sides equal; nor is there any judge, either at Constantinople or elsewhere upon earth, by whose sentence it can be determined” (13-14). Locke separates “speculative” and “practical” beliefs, the former of which applies merely to conscience, and the latter of which influences action. Locke argues that speculative beliefs should always be respected, but identifies certain practical beliefs that should not be (Locke 30-31). These include beliefs incompatible with morality, that induce disloyalty to the state, and atheism (Kessler 494). He condemns non-belief because, “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist” (Locke 36). He also argues for a separation of church and state, claiming that peace and security are incompatible with “religion propagated by force of arms” (Locke 15). Though a devout Christian, he rejects the application of Biblical law to modern societies; ‘“Hear, O Israel,” sufficiently restrains the obligations of the law of Moses only to that people” (Locke 28). He is unambiguous and absolute on separation, stating that “church itself is absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth and civil affairs. The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable. He mixes heaven and earth together, things most remote and opposite, who confuses these two societies, which in their origin, their end, and their whole substance are utterly and completely different” (Locke 15).

Locke does not argue for religious freedom because it is a fundamental right, but rather as a means of maintaining a free society in general. He argued that state enforcement of religious doctrine could serve as an excuse for tyranny. Locke believed that the large number of churches in a free society would maintain that freedom because these churches would be too varied for one to subjugate others and because they could collectively rise up against a threat to their freedom (Kessler 502). Finally, Locke embraced a form of civil disobedience when the government oversteps its bounds in making laws that restrict religion. As Locke argues in A Letter, “If the law, indeed, be concerning things that lie not within the verge of the magistrate’s authority (as, for example, that the people, or any party amongst them, should be compelled to embrace a strange religion, and join in the worship and ceremonies of another Church), men are not in these cases obliged by that law, against their consciences” (33). The following passage from A Letter demonstrates Locke’s view on the benefits of religious freedom and pluralism: “Take away the partiality that is used towards them in matters of common right; change the laws, take away the penalties unto which they are subjected, and all things will immediately become safe and peaceable; nay, those that are averse to the religion of the magistrate will think themselves so much the more bound to maintain the peace of the commonwealth as their condition is better in that place than elsewhere; and all the several separate congregations, like so many guardians of the public peace, will watch one another, that nothing may be innovated or changed in the form of the government, because they can hope for nothing better than what they already enjoy—that is, an equal condition with their fellow-subjects under a just and moderate government” (38-9).

Locke describes churches in A Letter as “a society of members voluntarily uniting (Locke 9). He argues that churches should have the right to exclude members (12), and to create their own bylaws (10). Locke’s respect for association is not restricted to churches; A Letter advocates for no difference in governmental treatment between associations for philosophy, business, religion, or recreation (38). He states that, “Neighbourhood joins some and religion others. But there is only one thing which gathers people into seditious commotions, and that is oppression.”


Sanford Kessler, “John Locke's Legacy of Religious Freedom,” Polity 17:3, Spring 1985

Locke, Letter Concerning Toleration
MarxismFreedom of ReligionMarx famously described religion as “the opiate of the masses.” Despite his personal rejection of religion, he was less keen on establishing an atheist society than many believe. First, Marx did not view religion as an evil in it of itself. Rather, he viewed religion as an unfortunate symptom of the prevailing social order whose overthrow he sought (Lobkowicz, 1964, 319-20). Lobkowicz argues that Marxist governments, unlike Marx himself, saw religion as “antirevolutionary,” preventing society from charting Marx’s course (323). In his “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx argues that “everyone should be able to attend his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in” (1875).


Lobkowicz, N. “Karl Marx's Attitude Toward Religion.” The Review of Politics 26, no. 3 (1964): 319–52. doi:10.1017/S0034670500005076.
Medieval Islamic ThoughtFreedom of ReligionUpon the founding of Islam, Muslims saw human beings as divided into two distinct categories: "Muslims and infidels (kuffār)" (Crone 2004, 358). Furthermore, the world itself is also divided into two using the same distinction, "Muslims lived in dār al-Islām, the abode of Islam," while "infidels lived in dār al-kufr, the abode of unbelief, also known as dār al-Harb, the realm of war" (Crone 2004). This idea of believers and non-believers was taken very seriously by some sects of Islam, mainly the Khārijites. The Quran states that a non-believer can be "killed and/or enslaved, exposed to random slaughter, and robbed of their possessions" (Crone 2004, 386). Islam was a religion both born through and spread by the sword, or Jihad; therefore, non-believers deserved to be slaughtered because they did not submit themselves to God.

However, there eventually came into existence: "an intermediate category of dār al-ahd, the abode of the treaty" (Crone 2004, 359). As the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates spread their faith and demesne across the Middle East and North Africa, Muslims were outnumbered by practitioners of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and several other minor religions. This expected population disparity all over the eventual borders of the Caliphate led Muhammad to decree the existence of an intermediate realm. Due to the similarities between Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, Muhammad decided that a pact or treaty could be made with these Ahl al-Kitāb or People of the Book. This treaty decided that the "kitābī's were eligible for dhimma, legal protections to match that of the Muslims themselves" this allowed these fellow believers in the one God to "live on a permanent basis in the Muslim world" and practice their religion as they pleased, as long as they "[recognized] Muslim sovereignty and [displayed] their position of inferiority by paying poll-tax (jizya)" (Crone 2004, 359). This allowed the cousins of Islam to live in their ancestral homes as long as they respected their new Islamic overlords.

Alfarabi, an influential 9th and 10th-century Islamic political philosopher, concluded in his work that "what is intended by… the human being is that he obtain happiness" (Butterworth 2015, 65). This happiness comes from accepting and learning about Muhammad's revelation in the mountains outside Mecca. In order to achieve this, humans must first receive the primary cognitions, or the first intelligible, given to them by the active intelligence (Butterworth 2015). Alfarabi says that for humans to submit to god, they first must learn the basic concepts of how the world works, and they will conclude that there is one God and that Muhammad brought the most complete revelation from Allah to the people. However, to achieve this revelation, humans must first be exposed to the evidence that proves these facts about Islam. Without these cognitions being presented to the people by god, people will be unable to achieve true happiness and submit to God. There could also be people who received all of the necessary evidence but just interpreted it differently from others; therefore, they will also not achieve true happiness (Butterworth 2015). These two examples could be allusions to Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, people of the book who do not accept (or have not received in full) the revelations of Muhammad, and the different branches of Islam: Sunni, Shia, Ibadi, and others. The way to unify these groups into a functioning city in which people can achieve their happiness which varies "in quantity and quality in accordance with the variation in [their]... civic actions," (Butterworth 2015, 71), such as attending the Friday prayer or paying the jizya, depending on who you are. Therefore, even the non-true believers will not be able to achieve the complete happiness of accepting the revelation for themselves; they can achieve a piece of the true happiness through participating in the obligations they have when living in the city of the true Islamic faithful.

The final reference Alfarabi makes to the idea of religious freedom is a parallel when talking about his “ideal city” to the three realms created by Muhammad. The three inhabitants being the two accepted citizens of the city and the threat to the city's security: the Grass, The Weeds, and The Beasts (Butterworth 2015, 76). The Grass represents the true believers for whom the city is for and where they are nurtured to achieve their true happiness. These are the inhabitants of dār al-Islām, the true believers. Next, The Weeds, while taking up space within the city and limiting the amount of grass that can grow, is still not dangerous and are actually a diverse population, something essential for any city to be natural and healthy. These are the inhabitants of dār al-ahd, the people of the book who have accepted part of the revelation but not the whole truth. Finally, there are The Beasts or "the people who are bestial by nature"; these people are "not citizens, nor do they have any civic associations at all" (Butterworth 2015). They may be "domesticated" like slaves or hunted and slaughtered freely like wild beasts. These people are the inhabitants of dār al-kufr, the pagans who refuse to accept any part of the revelation, making them dangerous and unnecessary for the Islamic world.

Avempace also discusses the ideas of The Weeds and their relationship to the perfect Platonic city. According to Avempace, a "perfect city is that [which] is free from Weeds" (Lerner 1963, 127). However, this perfect city is an impossible utopia where everyone gets along so well that there is no need for either a "doctor nor judge," where everyone does their job, fits in their class, and does not diverge from "the opinion of the citizens" (Lerner 1963). However, this society is impossible. Therefore, Avempace accepts that "The Weeds can… exist in the four ways of life" (Lerner 1963, 128). He does not seem happy about it, saying that the more the opinions of The Weeds differ from that of the true citizen, the more apt the name is. However, Avempace also seems to think that in an imperfect city where The Weeds, the doctors, and the judges all exist, good governance should still look out for these Weeds and assist them in achieving as much happiness as possible. However, this depends "on how far [their] insight takes [them] or on (a belief) that had seized [them]" (Lerner 1963). Whether these weeds have achieved a partial revelation through other prophets, or have understood Muhammad's revelation differently, all of the citizens within the city deserve to have their happiness preserved. He describes it as "medicine of the soul," deriving from an ancient Greek physician and philosopher, Galen, who prescribed astrology and alchemy to preserve the soul and its happiness. Still, for The Weeds to have their happiness considered, they must be at least similar to the citizens or The Grass and not differ too significantly, or else they may be seen as diseasing or disintegrating the city (Lerner 1963).


Butterworth, Charles E. 2015. Alfarabi: The Political Writings, Volume II. New York. Cornell University Press.

Crone, Patricia. 2004. God’s Rule: Government and Islam. United Kingdom. Edinburgh University Press Ltd.

Lerner, Ralph and Muhsin Mahdi. 1963. Medieval Political Philosophy. New York. The Free Press of Glencoe.
Millian UtilitarianismFreedom of ReligionIn On Liberty, Mill argued against any attempt to impose religion on another person:

“The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious, was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and, if admitted, would fully justify them. Though the feeling which breaks out in the repeated attempts to stop railway travelling on Sunday, in the resistance to the opening of Museums, and the like, has not the cruelty of the old persecutors, the state of mind indicated by it is fundamentally the same” (Mill 1859, 84).


On Liberty:
PlatonismFreedom of ReligionAccording to Platonic thought, there is no freedom of religion, all men and women are required to worship the Greek gods. In ancient Hellenic city-states, gods dictate each city's laws, and usually, a specific god such as Zeus for the Cretans and Apollo for the Lacedaemonians are accredited with giving the founding kings their laws (Plato 2013). The gods are the origin of law and order in the Hellenic world, meaning that going against a city's laws will also be going against the "holy" laws created by the gods. In Plato's Laws, the three older men discussed the proper way to govern a city taking a whole book to discuss how to properly deal with the atheism some youth end up practicing due to their disconnection to the gods. They saw this as a grave issue that would bring down the natural order of the city. They said these evil men undermine "the city's greatest laws" (Plato 2013). Their solution was to give the youth music and stories when very young in order for them to be able to always look back upon the tales displaying the divinity of the gods (Plato 2013).

However, Plato knew how poorly many myths displayed the Greek gods. When creating his "city in speech," Plato discusses the dangers of poets, such as Homer, and their interpretations of the gods, specifically regarding the guardians of the city. Plato believes the city cannot run unless the gods and their stories are adequately depicted so the ordinary people can follow them; otherwise, there will be no justice and virtue. Specifically for the guardians, Plato wished for them to be raised fearing "slavery more than death," in order to do this he suggested that the poets be censored, deleting passages that make the afterlife sound like the worst possible place to end up (Plato 2004, 67). Plato wished for his Kallipolis to have not just the laws but the inner workings of the city’s citizens’ minds to be guided by the gods and their perfect divine image. This is also shown in Plato's Myth of Er, a story of a murdered soldier who returns from the dead to tell the common people what the afterlife is. This story is supposed to convince the citizens of the Kallipolis that the crimes committed by the Hellenes dictate an afterlife. However, Er recalls that while he was sitting in the judging room of the deceased that "the greater [punishments] for impiety or piety toward gods or parents" (Plato 2004, 321). This is meant to keep Greeks in line with worshiping the gods because it is a tale-telling of the fate of the impious to be eternal suffering in hades.

More evidence is given on how deeply the idea of strictly following religion affected the Greek states. In The Apology, Socrates was "tried for impiety" (Plato 2018, 29). Socrates was brought to trial and eventually sentenced to death on suspicion of going against the city's religion. The Apology shows how essential Greeks thought piety and religion were and how closely related the state religion and laws were.


Plato. 2004. The Republic. Translated by C. D. C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Plato. 2013. Laws. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Laws.

Plato. 2018. The Apology. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Indian River State College Libraries.
Reformation ChristianityFreedom of ReligionFreedoms of expression, religion, and conscience were not formally addressed in Reformation Christian thought, but discourse on rights and liberties relating to speech, press, and belief are apparent in Reformation thinkers’ writings and speeches. Leading figures in the Lutheran and Calvinist movements began to explore the permissibility of disagreement with Catholic dogma and the Pope himself. This usually arose, not from a discussion of rights and liberties, but rather from the idea that one ought not to be compelled to profess a faith in which they do not believe. The right to freedom of religion, often referred to as one’s “freedom of conscience” in early modern texts, is partially rooted in the writings of Martin Luther during the early decades of the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s “Open Letter to the Christian Nobility” provides the basis for the Lutheran doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” which explains that all Christians have the capacity to understand and interpret God’s messages without the need of ordained Church officials. In his “Letter” Luther writes that “all Christians are truly of the ‘spiritual estate,’ and there is among them no difference at all but that of office” (Luther, 1520). This idea that all Christians have the right to decide for themselves what to believe about their faith was important to the Reformation movement because it was used to justify the vast expansion of different religious denominations that formed over the next few centuries. If Christians were free to believe what they felt was true, then they would have no problem forming new religious communities based on various interpretations of sacred texts. Later in his life Luther would rein in the “priesthood of all believers” doctrine as various beliefs sprang up which he considered heretical, but the doctrine survived to influence subsequent thinkers’ ideas about religious freedom and the rights of believers. Luther further affected the discourse on religious freedom when he faced down the Catholic authorities against whom he had written in his “Letter.” He famously expressed an unwillingness to retract a heretical statement in the face of Catholic scrutiny at the Diet of Worms. The Diet was called in order to determine whether or not the German monk had broken Church law in the creation of his ninety-five theses, and it ultimately found Luther’s work heretical and asked him to revoke his statements. In response, Luther declared that, “if I were to revoke what I have written on that subject, what should I do but strengthen this [pope’s] tyranny, and open a wider door to so many and flagrant impieties? Bearing down all resistance with fresh fury, we should behold these proud men swell, foam, and rage more than ever!” (Luther, 1521) The idea that Luther could strengthen the pope’s unjust authority by revoking statements that he believed to be true imply his belief that in a just society, a person should be able to profess their beliefs without fear of punishment. While Luther’s speech did not propose any theory of inalienable liberty or right to freedom of belief, it did contribute to a discourse addressing the permissibility of religious restriction.

Interestingly, Luther’s disagreement with traditional church dogma also led some of his opponents to think about the utility of religious discourse between opposing viewpoints. In a famous exchange of ideas in a series of open letters, Northern Renaissance thinker Desiderius Erasmus engaged Luther in a debate on human free will. The contents of the debate did not themselves have much to do with the origins of the right to religious freedom, but Erasmus’ words in his opening letter imply that the Dutchman at least supported the free exchange of ideas among religious groups. When opening his letter Erasmus writes that “I do not consider Luther himself would be indignant if anybody should find occasion to differ from him, since he permits himself to call in question the decrees, not only of all the doctors of the Church, but of all the schools, councils, and popes” (Erasmus, 1524). This passage, which at first glance seems nothing more than a jab at Luther, takes on new meaning when Erasmus subsequently proposes that the two men “pursue the matter without recrimination, because this is more fitting for Christian men, and because in this way the truth, which is so often lost amid too much wrangling, may be more surely perceived” (Erasmus, 1524). By framing the debate as a mutually beneficial effort to find religious truth rather than a contest between opposing religious viewpoints, Erasmus implies a support for the free exchange of religious belief, if nothing else. His words do not betray any innate support for religious pluralism or toleration, but the appeal to debate as “the way to truth” nevertheless went on to influence subsequent scholars such as Locke and Voltaire, both of whom championed ideas of toleration and religious pluralism.

Three decades after Luther initially resisted the Church’s attempts to censor him, Theodore Beza began to explore ideas of rights and responsibilities as they relate to magistrates and subjects. Beza was a French theologian living in Geneva during the Reformation, and historians widely view him as the pseudo-successor to John Calvin. His work, On the Rights of Magistrates, explains his views on tyranny and a subject’s responsibility to resist it. While Beza’s work does not specifically mention a citizen’s right to freedom of religion it further advances the idea that a regime cannot justifiably restrict its citizens’ expression or belief. After explaining that magistrates should not be able to restrict citizens’ faith in Chapter Ten of Rights, Beza writes that “if [a magistrate] acts otherwise I declare that he is practicing manifest tyranny; and with due allowance for the observations made above, (his subjects) will be all the more free to oppose him as we are bound to set greater store and value by the salvation of our souls and the freedom of our conscience than by any other matters however desirable” (Beza, 1574). While this “opposition” according to one’s freedom of conscience does not specifically refer to a subject’s ability to practice religion against the ruler’s wishes, it does imply a certain level of basic freedom to express one’s beliefs in the face of tyranny. Like Luther, Beza saw Catholic dogma and papal absolutism as an expression of such tyranny, which both reformers felt a responsibility to resist. Luther, Erasmus, and Beza all explored the idea that one might justifiably hold beliefs that conflict with religious authorities or regimes. While they certainly proposed this idea in the hopes of preserving their own doctrines and beliefs, their effort provided a base upon which subsequent thinkers could expand theories of free conscience and religious practice. This would not be integrated into the rhetoric of rights and liberties for another century or so, but these sources reveal that the modern right to freedom of religion can trace certain roots all the way back to Reformation Christianity.


Beza, Theodore. Theodore Beza, On the Rights of the Magistrates. Edited by Patrick S. Poole. Translated by Henry-Louis Gonin,

More, Thomas. “Thomas More Petition for Free Speech, 1523.” The Center for Thomas More Studies, eech.pdf.

Luther, Martin. Martin Luther’s Speech at the Imperial Diet in Worms (18 April 1521). San Jose State University,

Luther, Martin. An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility by Martin Luther (1483-1546).Translated by C. M. Jacobs, “On the Freedom of the Will: A Diatribe or Discourse by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.”

Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, by Martin Luther et al., Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Accessed 7 July 2020.
Roman Legal and Political ThoughtFreedom of Religion{{{contents}}}
Rousseau's ThoughtFreedom of ReligionRousseau’s works of political philosophy are among the first modern sources to discuss at length the rights of the citizen within political society. A contemporary of such thinkers as Voltaire and Locke, his work contributed to the growing Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Rousseau’s work conveys an air of skepticism about the importance and centrality of religion as a cornerstone for a successful society. Indeed, while his “Discourses on the Origin of Inequality” and The Social Contract certainly affirm the existence of a Supreme Being and even seem to advocate for the Christian faith at times, his discussions of rights and religion ultimately conclude that it is both unnecessary and even destructive for states to impose any belief upon their citizens.

One of Rousseau’s most important contributions to political theory is his description of the “Social Contract,” an arrangement by which various citizens agree to live in a community governed by the collective “Sovereign,” thereby giving up certain natural rights and liberties in exchange for civil rights and liberties. He writes that “What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses” (The Social Contract, 47). The Sovereign governs according to the General Will of the people, which is collectively determined by all citizens living together under the social contract. In Rousseau’s words, “the social compact sets up among the citizens an equality of such a kind, that they all bind themselves to observe the same conditions and should therefore all enjoy the same rights” (The Social Contract, 55). The equality of rights that the social contract creates among citizens is the basis of Rousseau’s belief in religious toleration. It implies that the community does not have the legitimate right to limit any citizen’s religious belief because as a citizen, a member of a minority religion would not wish to restrict religious freedom. Thus, the general will could never legislate against an individual’s religious beliefs.

Of course, there are a number of cases in which Rousseau more directly advocates for religious toleration within the ideal political society. Being native to Calvinist-dominated Geneva, it would have been easy for Rousseau to praise religious homogeneity as a republican virtue. He did not do so, however, because he did not view religion as a strong base for sustainable government. In The Social Contract he notes that while Christian states often grow to be very strong, “the sacred cult has always remained or again become independent of the Sovereign, and there has been no necessary link between it and the body of the State” (The Social Contract, 1 29). Rousseau even goes as far as to imply that Christianity is incompatible with the creation of a perfect state because it opens the state up to abuses from figures like Cromwell and Cateline, bad Christians who brought turmoil to their Christian states (The Social Contract, 1 32). In the end, he concludes that religion should be practiced freely, because “the dogmas of that religion concern the State and its members only so far as they have reference to morality and to the duties which he who professes them is bound to do to others. Each man may have, over and above, what opinions he pleases, without it being the Sovereign’s business to take cognisance of them” (The Social Contract, 133). His position becomes even more clear in his “Letter to Monsieur D’Alembert on the Theater,” in which he writes that “in general, I am the friend of every peaceful religion in which the Eternal Being is served according to the reason he gave us. When a man cannot believe what he finds absurd, it is not his fault; it is that of his reason” (“Letter,” 11). Simply put: because a person cannot be forced to believe any one religion, it is unreasonable for a state to refuse religious liberty to its citizens.

Rousseau’s toleration did have one limitation, however, which he shared with his pseudo-contemporary John Locke. Rousseau believed that the State ought not be able to dictate its citizens’ religions to them, but he did hold that all members of a political society should at least believe in a divine being of some kind. The Social Contract states that “it matters very much to the community that each citizen should have a religion,” because “that will make him love his duty” (133). Rousseau believed that good citizens must have some kind of religion to hold them accountable under the Social Contract. He advocates for the State to establish some basic moral code to which its citizens must abide, arguing that “while [the Sovereign] can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them—it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty.” (The Social Contract, 133). Even in this caveat, however, it is evident that Rousseau’s problem is not with atheism itself. His objection is to the inclusion of any citizen who cannot be trusted to look out for their fellows’ best interests within the context of the wider political society. As long as one is capable of this, he believes, the citizen should be free to practice whatever faith they desire.


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Collected Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Translated by Allan Bloom, Publ. for Dartmouth College by Univ. Press of New England, 2004, m_201811/Rousseau%20-%20%27%27Letter%20to%20D%27Alembert%27%27%3B% 20Politics%20%26%20the%20Arts%20%5BAllan%20Bloom%5D.pdf.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and G. D. H. Cole. The Social Contract; and Discourses. Dent, 1963, Online Library of Liberty,
Weberian ThoughtFreedom of ReligionMax Weber is best known for his work on sociology, economics, and religion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While most of his work focused explicitly on the socio-economic dynamics that define post-industrial western capitalism, his work on religious influences within capitalist systems provides some insight into his thoughts on religious toleration and diversity. He does not write broadly of rights or freedoms within a political society, but his thoughts on religion in general seem to indicate a tacit support for basic religious toleration.

Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is one of his better-known works, in which he addresses the apparent advantages that Protestants enjoy within a capitalist system over members of various other Christian and non-Christian religious traditions. As in other works Weber seems to regard religious diversity within various nations as something of an inevitability, and as a result he does not address freedom of religion as a concept, much less as a right. However, one small passage in his introduction to The Protestant Ethic which implies that Weber held a deep personal respect for all the world’s religious sects. He stated that:

“The question of the relative value of the cultures which are compared here will not receive a single word. It is true that the path of human destiny cannot but appal him who surveys a section of it. But he will do well to keep his small personal commentary to himself, as one does at the sight of the sea or of the majestic mountains, unless he knows himself to be called and gifted to give them expression in artistic or prophetic form.” (Weber, 36) It is difficult to surmise what exactly Weber would have thought about essential rights and freedoms of the citizen because he never explicitly addresses them in his work. However, passages like this one seem to indicate that at the very least, he would not have approved of religious intolerance within a political society.

Another theme in Weber’s work which implies that he would at least oppose a society’s enforcement of religious homogeneity is his apparent ambivalence toward religious belief in general. His focus throughout The Protestant Ethic remains more on the social influences of various religious traditions, rather than the doctrines and dogmas of the faiths themselves. This becomes obvious when he writes that the capitalist system “no longer needs the support of any religious forces, and feels the attempts of religion to influence economic life, in so far as they can still be felt at all, to be as much an unjustified interference as its regulation by the State” (Weber, 62). Given the fact that Weber clearly did not view religious dogma as a necessary influence on post-industrial capitalist society, one might conclude that Weber would have viewed any attempt to limit religious freedom as an frivolous endeavour. At the very least, Weber might have been ambivalent toward religious homogeneity within political society, and therefore more likely to support religious freedom as a basic concept, if not a right.


Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Florence: Routledge, 1930.
TranscendentalismFreedom of the PressTranscendentalism and Freedom of the Press

To the transcendentalists, the matters of self-cultivation and social change were integral to the flourishing of the soul. Part and parcel of this process of becoming a self that is in harmony with natural divinity and a unity with itself is the discovery and articulation of truth as it is experienced by the individual. Transcendentalists engaged in lectures, discussions, and publication of ideas in intellectual circles throughout New England. The focus on issues of politics, religion, and the rights of human beings came into the public sphere through journals, newspapers, and other periodicals that published the works of various transcendentalist thinkers. (Andrews).

A famous example, though almost entirely inconsequential at the time, of transcendentalist use of free expression was Henry David Thoreau’s tax evasion. Thoreau had stopped paying his taxes in 1842 as a means of protesting slavery and the looming conflict of the Mexican-American War. When the war had actually broken out, Thoreau publicly made his anti-war position known, and was promptly prosecuted for his tax evasion, which had been more or less condoned by local authorities until his opposition to the war. Thoreau spent just one night in jail before an anonymous relative paid his due taxes, but the experience paved the way for his justification for his actions in 1849 with “Civil Disobedience” (or “Resistance to Civil Government” as it was titled before his death).

The role of transcendentalists in publishing in intellectual, activist, and abolitionist circles in New England also contributed to the importance of a right to free press and expression in the transcendentalist tradition. Notably, William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, the Liberator, was the source of abolitionist content as it related to the intersection of the cultivation of the self, theology, and spirituality more broadly.

This sentiment is further demonstrated in the works of one of the transcendental writers at the forefront of the intellectual movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his essay “The Poet,” Emerson makes a call for an artist to express candidly the truth of the experience of nature and goodness, but also makes reference to the imperative of sharing and publishing such a thing. He writes:

“The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth. The young man reveres men of genius, because, to speak truly, they are more himself than he is. They receive of the soul as he also receives, but they more. […] For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression. Notwithstanding this necessity to be published, adequate expression is rare.” 

For Emerson, who is serving here as mouthpiece for the transcendental movement more broadly, the use of a free press and publication are essential to becoming ourselves. That’s a fairly esoteric concept, but the broader point stands that the free press is an essential and productive thing for society.


Andrews, Barry M. Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul. University of Massachusetts Press, 2017. JSTOR,

Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The Poet” (

Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
Continental Philosophy/Frankfurt SchoolFreedom of the PressThe scholars of the Frankfurt School wrote much more on the mass culture and its effects on the public sphere rather than the freedom of the press. However, they believed that the press was an instrument by which citizens are informed and pushed to think critically, thus make decisions, and should remain so. Some of these scholars lived to witness how the Nazis employed mass culture to instill subordination to fascist culture and society. While in exile in the United States, members of the Frankfurt school came to believe that American ‘popular culture’ was similarly ideological, and that it worked to promote American capitalism's interests. In Dialectic of Enlightenment ( 1944) , Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, provided a trenchant critique of modern culture, establishing the term ‘culture industry’ to describe mass cultural forms that, in the wake of capitalism, transform the individual from an active thinking individual into an unthinking, passive consumer. Similarly, in 1962, Jürgen Habermas published Structural Transformation of The Public Sphere an Inquiry Into A Category Of Bourgeois Society, his critical investigation and analysis of the public sphere in civil society.

Jurgen Habermas expanded on Adorno and Horkheimer's ‘culture industry’ analysis. In providing historical context for the culture industry's triumph, Habermas emphasized how bourgeois society in the late 18th and 19th centuries was marked by the emergence of a “[public] sphere between civil society and the state, in which critical public discussion of matters of general interest was institutionally guaranteed”, and which mediated between public and private interests (Habermas, 1989, p.11). Individuals and groups could finally shape public opinion, giving direct expression to their needs and interests while influencing political practice. The bourgeois public sphere made it possible to form a realm of public opinion that opposed state power and the powerful interests that were coming to shape bourgeois society.

Habermas was fascinated by the transition from opinion to public opinion, as well as the latter’s socio-structural change. The rise of the mass press, according to him, was founded on the commercialization of the people’s engagement in the public sphere. As a result, much of the original political nature of this ‘extended public sphere’ was lost in favor of commercialism and entertainment (Habermas, 1989, p. 169). This trend may be seen in the press, which is the most important entity of the public sphere: Habermas diagnoses the merging of the formerly distinct domains of journalism and literature, as well as a blurring produced by the mass media’s response to the rise of a consumerist culture. He argued that “Editorial opinions recede behind information from press agencies and reports from correspondents; critical debate disappears behind the veil of internal decisions concerning the selection and presentation of the material.” (Habermas, 1989, p.169)

The introduction of electronic mass media into the public sphere exacerbated the situation. The news is made to resemble a story from its own structure down to stylistic detail, thus the boundary between truth and fiction is increasingly being discarded (Habermas, 1989, p.170). However, while they have a greater influence than print media, their format effectively limits interaction and deprives the public of the opportunity to disagree and think critically, leading Habermas to the conclusion that “The world fashioned by the mass media is a public sphere in appearance only”, at the same time “the integrity of the private sphere which they promise to their consumers is also an illusion.” (Habermas, 1989, p.171). Adorno and Horkheimer agree with Habermas on this point, for them, “Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944, p.121, para.1)

Habermas notes the contradiction between “the liberal public sphere’s constitutive catalogue of ‘basic rights of man’ and their de facto restriction to a certain class of men” (Habermas, 1989, p.11). The public sphere's character is becoming progressively limited; the media serve as tools of establishing and controlling consensus and promoting capitalist culture rather than fulfilling their original purpose as organs of public discussion. In favor of a staged performance, publicity loses its critical role, ideas are transmuted into symbols to which one cannot react by debating but only by identifying with. Unlike the coffee houses, Habermas pointed, “[they] were considered seedbeds of political unrest: Men have assumed to themselves a liberty […] to censure and defame the proceedings of the State” (Habermas, 1989, p.59). Throughout Structural Transformation, Habermas maintained that the mass media have evolved into monopolistic capitalist institutions. Their role in public debate has evolved from disseminating trustworthy information to shaping public opinion. To counter these developments and as a condition for a pluralist democratic debate in an open society that is not entirely dominated by the mass media. Habermas emphasized the importance of a vital and functioning public sphere, a sphere of critical publicity distinct from the state and the economy, consisting of a broad range of organizations that represent public opinion and interest groups.

From this, it is obvious that Habermas, Horkheimer and Adorno advocated for freedom of the press and freedom of speech, a press that is free from the monopolistic capitalist corporations and the influence of the state. One that informed citizens and left them to criticize freely. Habermas argued that “the press was systematically made to serve the interests of the state administration” (Habermas, 1989, p.22). At the same time, Habermas also argued that the elimination of censorship in England in the years of 1694 and 1695, gave some liberty to the press, even by a slight margin. “The elimination of the institution of censorship marked a new stage in the development of the public sphere” He stated, “It made the influx of rational-critical arguments into the press possible and allowed the latter to evolve into an instrument with whose aid political decisions could be brought before the new forum of the public” (Habermas, 1989, p.58). In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas stated clearly and explicitly that “Freedom of the press, radio, and television, as well as the right to engage in these areas, safeguards the media infrastructure of public communication; such liberties are thereby supposed to preserve an openness for competing opinions and a representative diversity of voices.” (Habermas, 1996, p.368, line.9)

Nevertheless, in comparison to the emerging media of the twentieth century, like film, radio, and television, the degree of economic concentration and technological coordination in the newspaper business appeared to be modest. Indeed, the funds for the media of the twentieth century appeared to be massive, and their propagandist power so intimidating, that in certain countries, capitalist or not, the development of these media was controlled by the government from the outset.


Adorno, T. W., & Horkheimer, M. ( 1944) . Dialectic of enlightenment . Verso.

Habermas, J. ( 1989) . The structural transformation of the public Sphere an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. MIT Press.

Habermas, J. ( 1996) . Between facts and norms: *contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. MIT Press.
Feminist ThoughtFreedom of the PressFreedom of the press is an issue proving to be more relevant in the modern era as the media influences the public and changes the way people make decisions within their life. It is for this reason that feminist theorists have briefly addressed this right as they recognize the power the press has for the feminist movement and the advancement of women's rights legally and socially. The notion of freedom of press is addressed by Betty Friedan and briefly Martha Nussbaum to explain the role the media plays when it comes to women achieving their rights and equality within society. When it comes to certain rights like freedom of press, the feminists are somewhat unclear about their stance on the issue although inferences can be made based on the implicit arguments made throughout their works.

The notion of freedom of press is interesting according to the feminist perspective because of the unclear answer they have on whether this right should exist within society. Specifically, when talking about the press, Friedan noticed that “At the first press conferences after the law went into effect, the administrator in charge of enforcing it joked about the ban on sex discrimination. ‘It will give men equal opportunity to be Playboy bunnies,’ he said” (Friedan 1973, 368). Friedan points out the problems with the media and journalism in the country to help demonstrate the power men have in most institutions in America. She notes that journalism within a nation is important and should be allowed to do as they please so long as they put the right information forward. Despite being her expectation for the media, her example of how journalism is conducted shows that society’s intention is not towards the female empowerment agenda and therefore makes it hard to make a clear statement on freedom of the press. Like the other institutions Friedan discusses, the press is riddled with oppressive people who again will not use their power to help women. As Friedan notes above, the media had the chance to help encourage the ban on sex discrimination, but instead made a joke out of it and therefore discrediting the ban that could help enforce legal equality for women. Had the media approved of the ban, then it would have been received batter by society and may have even helped create more support for women and their efforts towards equality. Furthermore, Friedan notes “In Washington I found a seething underground of women in the government, the press, and the labor unions who felt powerless to stop the sabotage of this law that was supposed to break through the sex discrimination that pervaded every industry and profession, every factory, school, and office. Some of these women felt that I, as a now known writer, could get the public’s ear” (Friedan 1973, 369). Friedan notes the blatant discrimination women face in the government and the way that they are given the low jobs that are necessary for society to work the way it does, but she also notices that these women wish to be given the proper recognition they deserve. It is for this reason that Friedan would claim that there should be a freedom of press that conveys the right and appropriate message to the public about the state that women are in. It is this underground network of women in government that get cast aside by the men in society and Friedan believes that it should be the press to rediscover and report on the work that these women do in every single organization. Friedan recognizes the power the press must tell the stories of these women and their efforts to help society while not being given the recognition they deserve. Friedan believes that if the press can report about the discrimination and the problems women face and therefore challenge society into changing their views on women, then maybe there will be a possibility for change.

It is from the brief descriptions of instances from which one can derive an answer about whether freedom of press should exist within society. Friedan writes noticeably that “In fact, the media’s, political muckrakers’, and even feminists’ obsession with such charges, which originated as an expression of women’s new empowerment, now begins to seem almost diversionary” (Friedan 1973, 7). On the other end of her discussion of the media is the harm that the media can cause for women if it does not stay on the message that is trying to be conveyed. She notes that media and the press today might distract the public from the true message at hand and pull away from achieving social justice because society might focus on the details that are not that important or necessary. In other words, she understands that people contort the facts to achieve their own intentions which might also cause problems because again it takes away from the goals and the intentions of reporting about women’s issues. In addition, speaking to rights in general, Nussbaum notes that “Thinking of this problem, then, we can insist that universal norms of religious toleration, freedom of association, and the other liberties are essential in order to prevent illiberal subgroups from threatening legitimate forms of pluralism” (Nussbaum 2000, 52). Although the freedom of press is not specifically referenced by Nussbaum, it still follows the idea that feminist theorists follow the other liberties enshrined in society leaving the space for the possibility of freedom of press despite the unclear conclusion from the feminist perspective. Specifically, it is Nussbaum’s support of pluralism that supports the notion of freedom of press since allowing people to share and report on what they like adds to the notion of being plural with one’s opinions and what they share. To the feminist perspective, any right or liberty exists, it is just about how the right or liberty is used and encouraged to either help women or reinforce the patriarchy.

What is most interesting about the feminist political theory is the way that the rights people have only retain as much importance as society has assigned to it. In other words. Feminist theorists are not so much in political commentary, despite criticizing it, but have interests in the way society functions and therefore equate societal institutions and political ones. When it came to freedom of the press, then if it was mentioned, it was in terms of the way society has implemented it and how it affects women of the modern era and therefore why there is no explicit conclusion made about freedom of the press.


Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. Dell Publishing Company INC. 1973

Nussbaum, Martha C. 2000. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge University Press
KantianismFreedom of the PressIn his seminal essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?, Kant states that enlightenment is when an individual attains the “spirit of rational respect for personal value and for the duty of all men to think for themselves” (Kant, 1991, p. 55). To be enlightened is to no longer believe things because that is what the authority prescribes, rather one is to find the truth by oneself. The final element to achieve enlightenment for Kant is using reason freely with others: “For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom[,]…freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters” (Ibid.). One’s personal enlightenment is dependent upon the willingness with which the individual shares his judgements with others. Gert Van Eekert in his explanation on Kant’s view of free expression states: “…enlightenment implies that one not only must have the courage, but also must enjoy the freedom to submit one’s opinions to the critique of all others…Intellectual independence of freedom of thought cannot exist without the freedom to think in community with others, and hence without the freedom to speak and write without constraints” (Van Eekert, 2017, p. 132).

It is along these lines that insights towards the right to freedom of the press can readily be made. A free press is a tool which allows for an individual’s own enlightenment, and this occurs through the criticism one opens oneself by publishing a piece of writing, as well as the opportunity to critique the writings and ideas that others make. The effects of a free press is then the enlightenment of society which Kant believes necessarily results from the opening of freedom: “The public use of man’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men,” (Kant, 1991, p. 55).

Interestingly for Kant, a free press is beneficially for a leader because it contains criticisms of them. In his essay On the Common Saying: 'This May Be True in Theory, But It Does Not Apply in Practice' , Kant describes the good ruler has his subjects suffer only by mistake and ignorance, and therefore it is the subject’s duty to express his opinion of the ruler’s actions that way the ruler can correct it. Because of this duty, Kant states: “Thus freedom of the pen is the only safeguard of the rights of the people,” with the caveat of: “although it must not transcend the bounds of respect and devotion toward the existing constitution, which should itself create a liberal attitude of mind among the subjects” (Kant, 1991, p. 85). Kant therefore has a certain idealism as to the interaction between ruler and subject with the freedom of the press. The relationship certainly is a critical one where the subject criticizes the ruler’s actions, though the relationship is not antagonistic. The liberal ruler agrees with the values of the liberal subject, and the ruler uses the subject’s input to rule in a just way. Reciprocally, the subject also has the duty to follow the laws that the ruler bestows: “In every commonwealth, there must be obedience to a generally valid coercive laws within the mechanism of the political constitution” (Ibid., pg. 85).


Kant: Political Writings (ed. Reiss)

Geert Van Eekert, "Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Self-Expression, and Kant’s Public Use of Reason," Diametros 54 (2017): 118–137 doi: 10.13153/diam.54.2017.1136
Millian UtilitarianismFreedom of the PressJohn Stuart Mill’s work of On Liberty ( 1859) argues against government forcing ideas on the public and argues for the liberty of the press. This would allow for the free reign of ideas and knowledge in society without coercion from the public or their government. This argument allows for inclusion and argues against the censorship of any idea or opinion, no matter the stance or status of the individual. This argument would say that if the power of coercion is exercised, the government or institution is illegitimate and the only way a government can be legitimate is through granting the liberty of the press and of speech.

“The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defense would be necessary of the ‘liberty of the press’ as one of the securities against corrupt of tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in [the] interests with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear… the government, whether completely responsible to the people or not, will often attempt to control the expression of opinion, except when in doing so it makes itself the organ of the general intolerance of the public…Let us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves, or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate.” (Mill, On Liberty, chapter 2 pp. 20-21).

Mill’s argument is that coercion is the source of illegitimate government and liberty of the press and speech allow for the free flow of opinions, ideas and knowledge that is the basis for political legitimacy. Government interference in this free flow is how government institutions stray from the public and cause illegitimacy. Mill argues for the freedom of the press and has this be the basis for political expression in legitimate governments.

Mill argues that the suppression of opinions by any person is to assume that this person has absolute certainty. This idea robs other humans from forming their own opinions about the first idea and if this suppression takes place, it says that the original idea is false because one person said so, not because the majority of people believe so. This act of suppression robs people of the right to form their own opinion and prevents majority opinions from being formed. Liberty, is then impossible because of this suppression of ideas, making freedom of the press vital to utilitarian ideals and public opinion in general (Mill, On Liberty, chapter 2 pp. 22-24).


Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Essays. 1859. Oxford World’s Classics, edited with introduction and notes by John Gray, 1991, pp. 20-24.
PostmodernismFreedom of the PressWith the various applications of postmodernism--architectural, aesthetic, literary, and many others—central to its (varied) perspective on the right to freedom of the press is its philosophical and theoretical insistence on, as Jean-Francois Lyotard stated in The Postmodern Condition, the “incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard, 1984, p. xxiv). Such metanarratives are complete explanations of ourselves and reality which were historically offered by religions, the sciences, and politics (Woods, 1999, p. 20). Examples include the insistence of the Enlightenment that reason would carry humanity towards greater progress, or Marxism’s analysis that material conditions of people is the driver of historical events. The postmodernist rejects all-encompassing narratives because of the realization that all knowledge is severely limited by the inheritance and context of the individual. The “whole story” is inaccessible to the individual who creates a metanarrative. In his short essay Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?, Lyotard concludes: “The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name” (Lyotard, 1984, p. 82). By “the unpresentable”, Lyotard means an expression or subject that is not accounted for under the metanarrative that is currently accepted. Along with the rejection of metanarratives, so too are any objective truth claims thrown out as the assumption that reality can be understood is its own limited, contingent narrative. With these metanarratives out of the way, all that is left are local, micronarratives and, important to the postmodernist, are the micronarratives which explicitly contradict the metanarratives that are accepted.

With this analysis, postmodernism gives two main insights towards the right to freedom of the press—one flattering or supportive to the right, the other critical and deconstructive. The first, supportive, insight is that the right to freedom of the press allows for the dissemination of countless micro or small narratives. The right actively prevents the “violent and tyrannical” metanarratives from imposing their “false universality” (Woods, 1999, p. 21) onto the margins that do not have the same confirming experience. A free press entirely attacks the self-legitimation which these narratives perpetrate.

The second, more cynical insight is that the right to freedom of the press is at least an important mechanism for a metanarrative and at most a metanarrative itself. In Zühtü Arslan’s account of postmodernism’s interpretation of human rights, he claims: “[T]he most important feature of the postmodern discourse which makes impossible a friendly relationship with human rights is its hostility to the concept of the autonomous subject and to the idea of universality” (Arslan, 1999, p. 196). The human subject, with his autonomy and moral importance, is one that was constructed by the contexts and contingencies of the modernists that theorized him. With this, the universalization of this right fails before it even began. Moreover, any attempt by a government to establish such a right, as well as argue for its existence, is merely an attempt at self-legitimization of its own power. The right to freedom of the press is then, counter to the first insight stated above, an attempt to defend the metanarrative already established.

In the end, postmodernism gives two contradictory insights on the right to freedom of the press. One in which the freedom of the press is a tool for the micronarratives of the marginalized to express their points of view which contrast the tyrannical meta narrative, and the other in which the freedom of the press merely another expression of the dominant metanarrative already assumed and taken for granted.


Arslan, Zuhtu. “Taking Rights Less Seriously: Postmodernism and Human Rights.” Res publica (Liverpool, England) 5, no. 2 (1999): 195–.

Lyotard, Jean-François, Geoffrey Bennington, and Brian Massumi. The Postmodern Condition : a Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Woods, Tim. Beginning Postmodernism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.
PragmatismFreedom of the PressDefined broadly, pragmatism is an American philosophical tradition which posits that the truth value of a statement or belief is dependent on its “successful practical consequences” (Talisse, 2008, p. 61). What makes a belief true is not how clearly or equally the belief maps onto reality, rather it is comparing the expected consequences that a belief will give us, and then comparing that expectation with what actually occurs. If the expectation and outcome are the same, that belief is considered to be true.

John Dewey was the pragmatist philosopher who dealt with politics in the most systematic way. Dewey saw democracy as a way of life and the moral ideal for human beings which led to the good life (Talisse, 2014) . Dewey states: “[D]emocracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community of community life itself” (Dewey, 1973, p. 623). What works for the community is kept and what does not work is changed and adapted, and this dialectic never concludes: “[T]his translation is never finished. The old Adam, the unregenerate element in human nature persists” (Dewey, 1973, p. 627). It’s only through communication between the members of society that this “old Adam” is challenged—a communication where “shared interest in the consequences of interdependent activities may inform desire and effort and thereby direct action” (Ibid.). The result is a society which addresses all issues and problems of human life, including all virtues. Talisse describes this as perfectionism: “Perfectionists hold that it is the job of the state to cultivate among citizens the dispositions, habits, and virtues requisite to human flourishing”, later stating: “the perfectionist project is a task for all modes of human association” (Talisse, 2014) .

The right to freedom of the press fits clearly into Deweyan democracy, both because of its inherent sociality, as well as its nature of reasoning or problem solving. The right allows for the issues of the society to be freely expressed and then debated by citizens amongst themselves in a nationwide. This free discourse then determines which particular elements of the society should be taken out, adapted or kept, thus allowing for a constant improvement. Moreover, the expression found in a free press is what specifically allows for the criticisms and improvements of societies to be noticed and realized in the first place: “There can be no public without full publicity in respect to all consequences which concern it…Without freedom of expression, not even methods of social inquiry can be developed” (Dewey, 1973, p. 633-634).

Pragmatist Richard Rorty similarly defended democracy, and by extension the free, though he does so for radically different reasons. In fact, Rorty believed that an attempt to justify democracy and its accompanying rights was a distraction. Democracy and rights are experiments. Particular hypotheses we have towards how we will act and expected consequences that come therefrom: “If the experiment fails, our descendants may learn something important. But they will not learn a philosophical truth, any more than they will learn a religious one. They will simply get some hints about what to watch out for when setting up their next experiment” (Rorty, 1992, p. 270).


Dewey, John, John J. McDermott, and John J. (John Joseph) McDermott. The Philosophy of John Dewey. New York: Putnam Sons, 1973.

Rorty, Richard. “THE PRIORITY OF DEMOCRACY TO PHILOSOPHY.” In Prospects for a Common Morality, edited by GENE OUTKA and JOHN P. REEDER, 254–78. Princeton University Press, 1993.

Talisse, Robert B., and Scott F. Aikin. Pragmatism : a Guide for the Perplexed. London ;: Continuum, 2008.
Feminist ThoughtPrivacy RightsVVarious feminist theorists have often been forgotten because of their role as women and the fact that society sees their input as invalid because of the long history of their treatment. However, despite the oppression and the push to exclude them from political conversations, women have entered the conversation claiming that the true problem in life is patriarchy. Their commentary surrounds the involvement of men within the government and how the male-dominated government suppresses women. They can generally agree on most political discussions like the right to privacy, but that is not to say that it does not come without variation as all political theory usually does. The consensus among the feminists is that the private realm maintains the oppression of women and propose the elimination of the private realm to remedy the problem at hand, despite some thoughts on the return to the private realm once the problem has been solved socially first.

Most feminist political commentary and theory is centered around the critique of the relationship between the private and the public spheres that inherently treats women as less than compared to their male counterpart. In her political commentary Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia noted that “He has no personal life. He completely identifies private with public interest. Hence, he is unstoppable. Such men can be political geniuses or monsters” (Paglia 1990, 214). In fact, Bell Hooks would go as far to claim that men are told to dominate the private sphere despite giving women the belief that the home and the private realm will be theirs to dominate and to rule over (Hooks 1984, 120). Paglia and Hooks both demonstrate the point that the feminists paint a picture where the power of the public outweigh the power of the private and since women are taught that the private will be their realm, they are inherently less important compared to their male counterparts. Paglia also details something important in the fact that the men of society can either help or hurt women because of the power they possess in the public and the private, yet most feminists would argue that they choose to abuse women within their spheres because of the way that Hooks says that they are encouraged to dominate women any way that they can. These sentiments reflect the critiques of the relationship between the private and public spheres that dominates the arguments made by feminists on the matter of the right to privacy and hence why some are skeptical about maintain that right. Susan Moller Okin’s work Justice, Gender, and Family noted that, “If there were a clear sphere from which the state refrained from intruding, that sphere would have to be defined, and its definition would be a political issue. But in fact, the state has not just "kept out of family life. In innumerable ways, the state determines and enforces the terms of marriage” (Okin 1989, 129). To Okin, the dichotomy between the private and the public realms is central to her argument for the elimination of the private sphere because of the lack of justice maintained within this sphere. Okin uses this to further the point that there is no separation because of the state’s involvement in issues like women’s bodies and marriage that make the separation unrealistic since within the minds of men, the two are automatically linked without any clear distinctions. The feminists use examples of abortion and marriage to further prove that the lines between the state and the home are blurred and often nonexistent because the state makes decisions without consulting women or even acknowledging the boundary that should be there. Okin even claims that the boundary is artificial and only created based off the different principles that the men have on these matters. However, she highlights the lack of justice for women due to the difference in principles in men that allow them to abuse their women and belittle them from reaching their full potential within society. Some theorists see the role of the traditional woman with her duties and her obligations to the family as invasive and a problem when it comes to the right to privacy for a woman. Written in 1903, Charlotte Perkins Gilman makes the claim that, “The mother—poor invaded soul—finds even the bathroom door no bar to hammering little hands. From parlour to kitchen, from cellar to garret, she is at the mercy of children, servants, tradesmen, and callers. So chased and trodden is she that the very idea of privacy is lost to her mind; she never had any, she doesn't know what it is, and she cannot understand why her husband should wish to have any "reserves," any place or time, any thought or feeling, with which she may not make free” (Gilman 1903, 36). Gilman makes the assertion that the role women have taken on within the home means that there is no such privacy for the woman whatsoever. It is because she has other obligations as a mother, as a wife, as a caregiver that something is always expected from her and that her needs are irrelevant because she “rules” the home. She claims that there is also no possibility for individual privacy because there is no specific space for just the individual unless they are living alone. However, within the family, the individual is crowded by those around, and as stated before the role of the woman is to serve everyone and everything according to the standards set by the man. She adds that if the individual was truly private, there would be no scrutiny or judgement because the individual is truly private about their thoughts and their feelings, but this concept of privacy is only applicable to the man who rules the home and is always free to express themselves within the home. It is the woman who is continuously repressed in and out of the home and is in constant contact with the other women and servants of the neighborhood with whom they share and continuously violate the idea of privacy. In Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach by Martha Nussbaum, Nussbaum noted that, “It goes without saying that in poor families where five or six people share a single room, there is no such thing as the privacy of the individual in the middle-class American sense – although poor people will frequently seek solitude for the purpose of defecation, walking considerable distances from their dwellings” (Nussbaum 2000, 259). Nussbaum and Gilman both illustrate the life of the woman in which she is subjected to the needs of the family and expected to run the household without being given the respect that should come with the role. She continues the argument by claiming that individuals have the right to privacy within their decisional liberties, but for women and in general the home limits the space where the individual can carry out their liberties simply because the lack of space. Nussbaum decides to remedy this by claiming that the state should be allowed to intervene so long as they do so to protect only the privacy the individual has in the form of decisional liberties the individual holds. Even though she speaks in broader terms about the individual, she emphasizes the fact, as Gilman points out, that the role of the women is far more extensive than that of the man within the home and therefore, her privacy is severely more limited than that of the man within the home. In the process of the state protecting the liberties of the individual, Nussbaum would claim that the needs of the woman need to be acknowledged and enforced in order to maintain her decisional liberties. Alongside the critique of the public and private spheres mentioned above, theorists propose a reconstruction of the public and private life that would eventually liberate women from the abuse and violence they face. In her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects by Mary Wollstonecraft, she noted that “To render women truly useful members of society, I argue that they should be led, by having their understandings cultivated on a large scale, to acquire a rational affection for their country, founded on knowledge, because it is obvious that we are little interested about what we do not understand. And to render this general knowledge of due importance, I have endeavoured to shew that private duties are never properly fulfilled unless the understanding enlarges the heart; and that public virtue is only an aggregate of private” (Wollstonecraft 1792, 291). Part of the larger and general feminist argument for privacy is the reconstruction of the private and public realms so that there could possibly be the existence of the private sphere once the problems are addressed. For Wollstonecraft, part of the progression of women is to form the new public sphere around the education of the women in order to maintain the public happiness. Wollstonecraft claims that the means of some private virtue is the same as the public happiness since whatever happens within the private is brought out into the public. For that reason, Wollstonecraft argues that the public and the private are utterly the same since the state already tries to solve the problems that take place within the private space of the home. However, within the home, she notes that the role of the woman is to please the man and because of this she is denied her public and civil duties which again can be rectified by educating women and men about the opinions and the manner which society enforces. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan noted that, “Their determination betrays women’s underestimated human strength and their urgent need to use it. But only the strongest, after nearly twenty years of the feminine mystique, can move on by themselves. For this is not just the private problem of each individual woman. There are implications of the feminine mystique that must be faced on a national scale” (Friedan 1963, 350-351). Friedan wanted to remedy the inequalities that she saw within the private life, by demolishing the line between the public and the private by exposing the inequalities that the women faced within the private life. In order to reform and reconstruct life to benefit women, her solution was to promote education and find something beyond the self to identify with. Her idea that was if women were able to reimagine themselves, they would be able to overcome the problems and show society the way that women should be treated. Freidan’s concept of the private however was aligned with Gilman and Nussbaum in that the duties of the woman prevent actual privacy, so she proposed another separate space away from the family in which the woman can achieve a sense of privacy. In order to reimagine themselves within the public, Friedan proposed private and public education like Wollstonecraft proposed, and suggested challenging the images of women proposed by the media. When it came to the media specifically, she wanted women to reimagine themselves using their own private image to facilitate what their version of what a woman looked like. Feminists in general proposed their own version of reconstructing the public to change the way women were viewed which usually involved exposing their problems to the public, completely ignoring the idea of the private individual. Despite the constant call for the barrier between the public and the private to be broken, there are some claims to a right to privacy made by the feminists. Catherine MacKinnon noted this in her work Toward a Feminist Theory of the State when she claimed that “The law of privacy treats the private sphere as a sphere of personal freedom. For men, it is. For women, the private is the distinctive sphere of intimate violation and abuse, neither free nor particularly personal. Men's realm of private freedom is women's realm of collective subordination.” (MacKinnon 1989, 168). Most feminist theorists agree to some sort of concept of the private and what that might look like. Most feminists were skeptical of the private because of all the abuse that took place within this sphere, hence why they wanted the government to intervene in the matters of the private. However, as MacKinnon pointed out, the private provided personal freedom that the public could not provide, hence why it was important to revisit the private sphere once the woman was reimagined and re-envisioned for the better. MacKinnon acknowledged the fact that there were legal protections about privacy for women since there were these protections for men but based on examples surrounding abortion and marriage concluded that even though it was legally available for women, it was not enforced. Specifically, the government rulings on issues like Roe v. Wade gave women the private right to choose, but she recognized that the fact that the government had a say on this matter, was an invasion of the privacy of the women to choose. Even the discussion of whether the government would fund abortions became a matter of government involvement on a woman’s decision to choose. After her discussion of this matter, she established that the right to privacy was necessary and continuously violated by the government in order to maintain control over women. Carole Pateman extends this argument within her work The Sexual Contract when she notes that, “Shultz states that there is a strong argument that private contract should not override the criminal law but, she writes, 'the idea of enforceable private agreements concerning violent sexual conduct is less offensive than a state declaration that violent sexual conduct is automatically acceptable in marriage.' Such a response begs the question about limitations to and alternatives to contract” (Pateman 1988, 185). Pateman specifically notes that the relationship between the government and the people on matters of private and public is something that is important for the safety of women and for the natural liberties for the individual. She notes that what calls the sexual contract is something women are subjected to where their abuse accumulates at home and sometimes within the public. She called for government intervention on matters of legally maintaining women’s liberties and for intervention when men within the private life continuously abused women. Pateman noted that the line between the public and the private was indefinite and used the system of marriage as an example of how the government was involved. She claimed that because the government had to keep records of marriage contracts between private individuals, marriage could be considered public, despite the specific agreements within the marriage contract is a private matter talked and agreed upon by the different parties. She still notes in the end that the government had some obligation within the private lives to reform the treatment of women and the inequalities that women face within the home, an attitude shared by most of the feminist theorists. The consensus among the feminists is that the private sphere is where women are subjects of abuse and inequalities that need to be exposed out in the public in order to help women overcome the view that men have of them. To these theorists' women face the same treatment within the public sphere as the patriarchy and the government make decisions on their behalf and subject them to the private life where they are expected to take care of the family. The primary role of the woman centers around the idea of the family and the way that the woman is supposed to take care of the family depriving her of her own privacy. Jean Bethke Elshtain adds an interesting perspective to this notion and considers that as women are liberated by their actions, the structure of the family will fall apart. She adds that the family dynamic is also changing as there are more single parent households or same-sex households that change the way the family has been thought of (Elshtain 1981, 323). This is an interesting notion as the thought of the private sphere changes for these women and the way that women are taking more charge within the world continuously challenging the private abuse at the hands of the man. The notion of the right to privacy is something constantly changing as situations change but should be broken down to expose the flaws within the system that negatively affect women.


Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought - Second Edition. NED-New edition, 2. Princeton University Press, 1981.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. Dell Publishing Company INC. 1973

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Home. New York Charlton Company. 1910

Hooks, Bell. 1984. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. South End Press

Mackinnon, Catherine A. 1989. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Harvard University Press

Nussbaum, Martha C. 2000. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge University Press

Okin, Susan Moller. 1989. Justice, Gender, and the Family. Basic Books Inc.

Paglia, Camille. “Shakespeare and Dionysus: As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra.” In Sexual Personae, 194–229. Yale University Press, 1990.

Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Stanford University Press, 1988.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Women with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Cambridge University Press
Hobbesian ThoughtPrivacy RightsThe right to privacy is a right that not many think of when they think of their natural rights. Specifically, most forget about this right and what it entitles when it comes to their basic political involvement and contribution to society. Although it is not always explicitly stated, multiple philosophers have had their fair share of commentary on the right to privacy and what this right should look like within their form of government and civil society. Thomas Hobbes, author of The Leviathan, writes about the absolute power the monarch should have over the citizenry, offering commentary on the specific right to privacy within his version of society. Even though, Hobbes outlines some sort of privacy within the state of nature, Hobbes claims that there is no right to privacy on the premise that entering the social contract forfeits certain aspects of privacy in order to contribute to the public conscience and the laws made by the government.

Hobbes makes the argument that within the state of nature there is this sense of privacy that allows the people to make judgements and decisions for themselves in the name of self-preservation. Hobbes specifically noted that, “That every private man is Judge of Good and Evill actions.” This is true in the condition of meer Nature, where there are no Civill Lawes; and also under Civill Government, in such cases as are not determined by the Law” (Hobbes 1651, 277). Hobbes makes the point that without a government system there is a form of privacy that allows individuals the ability to pass judgement as they please because they are within a state of war where individuals must fight for their own self-preservation. Hobbes then claims that as soon as one enters the social contract in which the people consent to being governed that the privacy is altered because the government is responsible for the preservation of the people. Hobbes hopes that with the emphasis on religion within the conscience, people outside the government can make just decisions for the better of the commonwealth. To Hobbes, once entering the social contract every citizen is responsible for the common good which is only molded when the government can see into the lives of the people and make their decisions for the betterment of society. The state of nature for Hobbes is one of war in which people must be private in order to protect themselves from others and defend their own interests, but since the government will be involved to help protect such people, there is no need for privacy anymore and therefore the government needs to be involved in the people’s lives. Furthermore, Hobbes added to this argument claiming that, “The RIGHT OF NATURE, which Writers commonly call Jus Naturale, is the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himselfe, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing anything, which in his own Judgement, and Reason, hee shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto” (Hobbes 1651, 106). Hobbes’ depiction of the state of nature justifies the reasons why one must be private as it relates to the protection of his life and his pursuits that will in turn ensure his right to life and liberty. As his arguments progress, he will make the argument that the state should be involved in the lives of the people because the government is the greatest representation of the people and their desire for self-preservation. He depicts this point to show that within the state of nature, there are some aspects of life that are necessary for the survival of the individual and then why consenting to the social contract means giving up some of these liberties to the government in exchange for the preservation that people naturally seek in life. To Hobbes, the state of nature is a place individuals need privacy in order to protect themselves from the dangers of those around them, hence why once people enter the social contract, they sacrifice their rights to such privacy as there is no longer a need for it since the government is protecting individual interests. Despite his version of the state of nature calling for some sort of privacy based on self-preservation, once the citizenry has consented to being governed, the sphere of privacy is absent to a certain extent to put the needs of the public first. For example, Hobbes noted that, “For a mans Conscience, and his Judgement is the same thing; and as the Judgement, so also the Conscience may be erroneous. Therefore, though he that is subject to no Civill Law, sinneth in all he does against his Conscience, because he has no other rule to follow but his own reason; yet it is not so with him that lives in a Common-wealth; because the Law is the publique Conscience, by which he hath already undertaken to be guided. Otherwise in such diversity, as there is of private Consciences, which are but private opinions, the Common-wealth must needs be distracted, and no man dare to obey the Soveraign Power, farther than it shall seem good in his own eyes” (Hobbes 1651, 278). As Hobbes progresses in his argument, he makes the point that the government is to reflect the private sentiments of the people and therefore whatever conscience and thoughts they have, it must already be public since the government is to represent those thoughts and sentiments. However, Hobbes also makes the case that if there are other private sentiments within the public that are not made known, a toxic environment is formed around the privacy of thoughts because the government is unaware of the judgements being made and is therefore not a part of the absolute power over the people. It is for that reason that Hobbes believes that within the social contract there is no aspect of privacy because he believes that the government is the greatest absolute in society and needs to be absolute in order to preserve the people. Hobbes also notes that once entering into the social contract, all people have left is their conscience and judgements because all other private goods are given to the government to control and to protect. Hobbes would also make the point that if the people fail to follow the public conscience which Hobbes calls the law, then there would be a sort of anarchy in which power is no longer consolidated within the government as people rule their lives as they please ignoring the laws in place and possibly violating the rights of the people around them. In addition, Hobbes wrote that, “A private man has alwaies the liberty, (because thought is free,) to beleeve, or not beleeve in his heart, those acts that have been given out for Miracles, according as he shall see, what benefit can accrew by mens belief, to those that pretend, or countenance them, and thereby conjecture, whether they be Miracles, or Lies. But when it comes to confession of that faith, the Private Reason must submit to the Publique; that is to say, to Gods Lieutenant. But who is this Lieutenant of God, and Head of the Church, shall be considered in its proper place thereafter” (Hobbes 1651, 387). Even on matters such as religion, there is no sphere of privacy according to Hobbes because it is the responsibility of the government to care for the people and cater to the liberties of the people. Any time Hobbes discussed the state of religion, the government had some stake in allowing the employment of teachers and ministers according to the standard of the government and what they should and should not allow. The matter of religion to Hobbes was a private matter until entering the social contract in which the government owns the interests of the people including their interests on religion and the matter of salvation. Hobbes further depicts a society in which the government has access to the lives of the people and their interests as a means of protecting such assets and values. Hobbes sees the lack of privacy within the government and the people as a means of preserving the people and their values as they go through society making their own decisions. It is this private conscience that the people have access to, but that Hobbes claims is the least important compared to the public, government conscience. Hobbes does create some sort of private sphere within the silence of the laws and within the home life that the father rules over the family and the servants that does create a minuscule space for privacy. Specifically, Hobbes notes that, “Private Bodies Regular, and Lawfull, are those that are constituted without Letters, or other written Authority, saving the Lawes common to all other Subjects. And because they be united in one Person Representative, they are held for Regular; such as are all Families, in which the Father, or Master ordereth the whole Family. For he obligeth his Children, and Servants, as farre as the Law permitteth, though not further, because none of them are bound to obedience in those actions, which the Law hath forbidden to be done. In all other actions, during the time they are under domestique government, they are subject to their Fathers, and Masters, as to their immediate Soveraigns. For the Father, and Master being before the Institution of Common-wealth, absolute Soveraigns in their own Families, they lose afterward no more of their Authority, than the Law of the Common-wealth taketh from them. Private Bodies Regular, but Unlawfull, are those that unite themselves into one person Representative, without any publique Authority at all; such as are the Corporations of Beggars, Theeves and Gipsies, the better to order their trade of begging, and stealing; and the Corporations of men, that by Authority from any forraign Person, unite themselves in anothers Dominion, for easier propagation of Doctrines, and for making a party, against the Power of the Common-wealth" (Hobbes 1651, 199). Hobbes then goes on with his argument to explain how the sphere of privacy that may exist within society is within the home and within the family. However, this does not mean that individuals within the home are not subject to the laws that are considered the public conscience. Above all, it is this sphere of the public conscience which the government develops the laws that should not and cannot be ignored by the public even within the private sphere. What should be mentioned as well is Hobbes’ sense of freedom within the silence of the laws which may allow the individual to interpret the laws as they see fit and act based on their own judgement of the laws. Alongside this sentiment however is still the lingering opinion that the absolute government has the utmost and complete control over the people and the people must therefore follow this opinion. Hobbes even notes above that the father might be the head of the household and the reigning authority, but in the end, even the father must follow the wishes of the commonwealth and adhere to the laws put in place by the magistrate and the government. Carrying on the same sentiments, Hobbes wrote that, “...though he be carefull in his politique Person to procure the common interest; yet he is more, or no lesse carefull to procure the private good of himselfe, his family, kindred and friends; and for the most part, if the publique interest chance to crosse the private, he preferrs the private: for the Passions of men, are commonly more potent than their Reason. From whence it follows, that where the publique and private interest are most closely united, there is the publique most advanced. Now in Monarchy, the private interest is the same with the publique. The riches, power, and honour of a Monarch arise onely from the riches, strength and reputation of his Subjects. For no King can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure; whose Subjects are either poore, or contemptible, or too weak through want, or dissention, to maintain a war against their enemies: Whereas in a Democracy, or Aristocracy, the publique prosperity conferres not so much to the private fortune of one that is corrupt, or ambitious, as doth many times a perfidious advice, a treacherous action, or a Civill warre” (Hobbes 1651, 157). Hobbes describes the fact that people enjoy the private sphere more than the public and therefore, one would think that the existence of a private sphere is incredibly important. However, Hobbes further explains that within the privacy of thought there is a sense of selfishness that prevents people from making decisions in the best interest of the commonwealth and therefore, there should be no sphere that would allow people to adhere to their selfish policies. Hobbes further describes what would happen if the government were to take this selfish stance in which they would no longer do their job of preserving the population despite that being their only true duty. Furthermore, Hobbes connects the quality of the government to the quality of the public since according to him, the state of the government reflects the level of preservation that the citizenry endures. He uses this point to further the case of using a monarchy rather than a democracy or oligarchy because of the inability of a large body to make quick decisions on behalf of the public interest. Thomas Hobbes was an absolutist to the fullest extent. When it came to writing about government, he believed that the more consolidated the power was in the hands of the leviathan, the better off the population was going to be for making the best decisions for the people they ruled over. This meant, however, sacrificing certain rights to the government to preserve the citizenry to the best of their ability. Specifically, the right to privacy to Hobbes should not exist on the basis that the government needs to be involved in the lives of the people in order to figure out the public conscience and to make their decisions accordingly. By consenting to the government, the government has absolute power and control over the people and the decisions they decide to make and therefore, the government has direct access to the wishes and the lives of the people. The right to privacy to Hobbes is an interesting debate since his views on rights in the first place seem irregular due to the absolute power, he believes that the government has over the people and the way that there is no explicit right to rebel against abusive governments. The right to privacy is a topic to which there is no one answer, yet Hobbes tries to remedy with the solution that proposes the abolition of such a right in order to cater to the needs of the public.


Hobbes, Thomas. The Leviathan. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, INC. London: J.M. Dent and Sons Limited, 1950.
KantianismPrivacy RightsEven though Kant does describe privacy in very vague descriptions, Kant’s idea of the right to privacy is severely limited by the importance of the public sphere and the goals and laws set in place by the government and the public

Kant’s idea of the private sphere stems from his emphasis on the moral relationships within the public that create a sense of wellbeing for society and the people there to allow everyone to pursue their own interests. In his essay titled “Perpetual Peace” Kant wrote that, “For in their external relations, they have already approached what the idea of right prescribes, although the reason for this is certainly not their internal moral attitudes. In the same way, we cannot expect their moral attitudes to produce a good political constitution; on the contrary, it is only through the latter that the people can be expected to attain a good level of moral culture. Thus, that mechanism of nature by which selfish inclinations are naturally opposed to one another in their external relations can be used by reason to facilitate the attainment of its own end, the reign of established right. Internal and external peace are thereby furthered and assured, so far as it lies within the power of the state itself to do so. We may therefore say that nature irresistibly wishes that right should eventually gain the upper hand” (Kant 1795, 113). Kant’s emphasis is on the peace of the community and the ways in which community control their own personal morality to maintain the community and avoid the problems that are likely to arise. Due to this, it might be reasonable to assume that Kant would say that the individuals' morals are private since they must sacrifice their ideals for the public standard set by the community, leaving the private realm the only space in which individuals can subscribe to their own ideas of the good life. Specifically, Kant would say that whatever passions people have should be subjected to the private sphere to maintain a certain level of peace and stability within society. Kant even adds that maintaining a private or “internal” sphere for selfish interests helps benefit both the public and the private sphere so that there is balance in both spheres and the people maintain the peace. For Kant, the relationship between the public and the private is dependent on the morals people hold to maintain a standard within the community and prolong a state of establishment, which requires creating some sort of separation between the two spheres. However, it should be noted that Kant places an emphasis on the public to suggest that its importance prevails above the importance of matters within the private sphere. Furthermore, Kant said that “ we cannot simply conclude by a reverse process that all maxims which can be made public are therefore also just, because the person who has decisive supremacy has no need to conceal his maxims. The condition which must be fulfilled before any kind of international right is possible is that a lawful state must already be in existence. For without this, there can be no public right, and any right which can be conceived of outside it, i.e., in a state of nature, will be merely a private right. Now we have already seen above that a federative association of states whose sole intention is to eliminate war is the only lawfol arrangement which can be reconciled with their freedom” (Kant 1795, 129). The idea of the “internal” is continued in his analysis of the state of nature in which there is only matters of the private sphere. However, when theorists reference the state of nature, they usually provide some remedy because they believe that the state of nature is imperfect and needs to be fixed for the betterment of society. Therefore, it might be reasonable to assume that Kant believes that this state of privacy needed to be fixed by creating a society in which people needed to create more public relations and establish a state that revolves around the public sphere and the interests for the public. This is not to say that he wants to get rid of the idea of privacy altogether, but it further shows his preference for the public sphere rather than the private sphere. When it comes to the government and the private sphere, Kant emphasizes the use of government as public actors acting for the public rather than public actors acting within their own private interests. He believed that the officials of the government are merely public figures that adhere to the morals established by society and because of this again, like most of society, they leave their private reasonings within the public sphere especially when making decisions for the people. Kant does paint some pictures of privacy within the realm of private property, but his idea of private property does not come without exceptions and limits when it comes to the boundaries between the private, the public, and the government. In The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant said that “this supreme ownership is only an idea of the civil union, designed to represent through concepts of right the need to unite the private property of all members of the people under a universal public owner; for this makes it possible to define particular ownership by means of the necessary formal principle of distribution (division of the land), rather than by principles of aggregation (which proceeds empirically from the parts to the whole). The principles of right require that the supreme proprietor should not possess any land as private property (otherwise he would become a private person), for all land belongs exclusively to the people it also has a well-authenticated objective reality which can easily be demonstrated from particular instances as they arise” (Kant 1797, 147). The reiteration of a private sphere for Kant is reimagined in the form of private property. For Kant, private property is the space in which individuals can live out their personal, private morals they had to leave behind to maintain public moral standards and public peace. The realm of private property is the space in which the government cannot interfere with the people and for Kant something the government cannot and should not acquire for themselves. If the government were to obtain their own private property, the government would become private individuals no longer invested in the public morals or the public peace they are to represent and enforce. It should be noted that Kant’s version of government is a federation of civil societies, reemphasizing the lack of power the government should have. Therefore, it is logical for Kant to believe that the government should not even own property since their role is minimized within the civil society in which the people and the public control most of the affairs. Kant’s decentralized government reinstates the idea that the higher ups within society should not be allowed to interfere with the lives of the people, leaving matters of civil society to the people based upon public morals rather than private interests. This creates a third power within society, namely the civil society that reigns over the government and the private individual as that is where all matters take place and are negotiated among the individuals of society rather than another power. In addition, Kant noted “A third kind of right is necessary for the preservation of the state-the right of inspection (ius inspectionis). This requires that no association which could influence the public welfare of society (publicum), such as an association of political or religious illuminati, may be kept secret; at the request of the police, it must not refuse to disclose its constitution. But only in cases of emergency may the police search anyone's private residence, and in each case, they must be authorised to do so by a higher authority” (Kant 1797, 149). Although the government is not as important as civil society as discussed before, it does not mean that Kant believes that it should not have any duties to protect the public peace and the public morals. For this reason, Kant grants the government some powers to protect such interests like the right to inspect or enter private realms. Although this seems contradictory of his ideas discussed earlier, it must be noted that Kant believed that individuals must not interfere with one another and have the liberty to act within their own selfish interests. To maintain this standard, Kant tasked the government with creating laws that would create a sense of freedom in which the individual has the right to do as they please until their actions interfere with others' right to freedom. This therefore is the reasoning behind allowing the government to intrude in the private homes of the individual when there is a reasonable assumption that doing so would benefit the community and its aim for peace. Again, this establishes a boundary between the public and the private realms, implying that the people have this implicit limited right to privacy, but the concept of privacy is subject to the strives towards public peace and individual liberty. Kant’s main emphasis is the peace of society and is willing to put the needs of society above the interests of the private individual to achieve his main objectives of peace and liberty. The lines between the private, the public, and the government are further blurred in his discussion of rights and the public and government punishment for going against the morals set forward by civil society. Again, in The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant said that “The real definition would run thus: “Right in a thing is a right to the private use of a thing, of which I am in possession — original or derivative — in common with all others.” For this is the one condition under which it is alone possible that I can exclude every others possessor from the private use of the thing (jus contra quemlibet hujus rei possessorem). For, except by presupposing such a common collective possession, it cannot be conceived how, when I am not in actual possession of a thing, I could be injured or wronged by others who are in possession of it and use it” (Kant 1797, 49). Kant’s main emphasis is the liberty one must do as they please without limiting the liberty those around him have as well. For that reason, Kant defines “right” or liberty above as a private matter because it is his to do whatever he wants with it. It is his and no one else to determine what an individual does or thinks so long as it does not interfere with the liberty of the people around him. This is a broad interpretation of privacy especially since Kant emphasizes the needs and the wishes of the public above the individual which contradicts the very idea of the individual having the right to do as he pleases. Other than private property, every human has the private possession of this right without interference from anyone else around him. However, Kant makes it known that there are limitations to these rights in the form of adhering to the public standards of morality and upholding the peace of civil society. It is in these instances that the idea of privacy is questioned and limited because it directly contradicts the actions and the intentions of the public and the government. Besides this private right Kant describes, he wrote that, “The right of administering punishment is the right of the sovereign as the supreme power to inflict pain upon a subject on account of a crime committed by him. The head of the state cannot therefore be punished; but his supremacy may be withdrawn from him. Any transgression of the public law which makes him who commits it incapable of being a citizen, constitutes a crime, either simply as a private crime (crimen), or also as a public crime (crimen publicum). Private crimes are dealt with by a civil court; public crimes by a criminal court. Embezzlement or speculation of money or goods entrusted in trade, fraud in purchase or sale, if done before the eyes of the party who suffers, are private crimes. On the other hand, coining false money or forging bills of exchange, theft, robbery, etc., are public crimes, because the commonwealth, and not merely some particular individual, is endangered thereby. Such crimes may be divided into those of a base character (indolis abjectae) and those of a violent character (indolis violentiae). Judicial or juridical punishment (poena forensis) is to be distinguished from natural punishment (poena naturalis), in which crime as vice punishes itself, and does not as such come within the cognizance of the legislator” (Kant 1797, 104-105). Within the discussion of the right to privacy in relation to civil society, Kant discusses the ways in which the government are allowed and permitted to interact with the community. He thus concludes that when it comes to the concept of punishment, when the crime is committed in which there are no victims, the civil society will decide a punishment and in the cases in which more than one individual is involved, the state will decide a punishment. This again subjects the individual to another power, namely civil society, in which the individual not only sacrifices his own morals to, but also determines the standards for society and punishments as they see fit. This distinction between the public and the government creates another relationship between what is considered public to society and what is considered public to the government. Kant’s ideas suggest that the individual may be private from the government, but the individual cannot be private from the public in which they report to. Individuals can keep their morals private from the public, but in the end, the interests and the actions of the individual are public and subject to judgement from civil society. Compared to the relationship between the government and the people, the relationship between civil society and the private individual shows that the public is more important since it is invested in the life of the individual and since the individual is expected to subject itself to the morals established by the public. Kant’s emphasis on the public sphere and the clear difference between the public, the government, and the private sector reinstate the point that although the right to privacy is stated and valued to keep the government out of personal affairs, there are exceptions to this rule crucial for restoring justice within society.


Kant, Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals. Edited by Mary Gregor. Cambridge University Press. 1996.

Kant, Immanuel. Kant Political Writings. Edited by Hans Reiss. Cambridge University Press. 1970.
Lockean Thought/English EmpiricismPrivacy RightsThe issue of the right to privacy within the United States is a relatively new phenomenon following the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut in which the right to privacy was clearly established by the Supreme Court. However, it might be suggested that its origins and foundations can be traced back to the late 1600s when John Locke introduced the private sphere when it came to the conversation of religious tolerance. John Locke wrote “Letter Concerning Toleration” in 1689 that describes the way in which the right to privacy originates from the idea that the people can and should be separate from the government in certain aspects. Locke introduces the idea of a private sphere or the right to privacy when he discusses issues like religion since its discussion creates more problems preventing society from working efficiently.

Locke recognizes that there are very divisive issues that prevent people from working together effectively within society. Specifically referring to spreading religious beliefs, he wrote that “If by these means the offenders will not be reclaimed, and the erroneous convinced, there remains nothing further to be done but that such stubborn and obstinate persons, who give no ground to hope for their reformation, should be cast out and separated from the society” (Locke 1689, 30). Locke claims that the divisions within the public sphere over religion can be remedied by the complete separation of such matters from the state since religion is its own society. Religion dividing society is evident throughout history as nations and their people fought wars over their competing religious values and beliefs. For Locke the separation between the two and separating the state from religion was a way to avoid conflict within a nation and come to the general agreement that not everyone is going to agree on the matter of religion. However, Locke challenges his own idea of religious tolerance by saying that all religions except Atheists, Unitarians, and Catholics deserve tolerance because these groups prioritize religious law rather than political law. Locke recognizes the fact that a lot of the political issues revolve around religion and to focus on the commonwealth, matters of religion need to be subjected to the individual rather than being a concern of the state. Furthermore, upon the creation of the private sphere “ will be urged still that civil assemblies are open and free for anyone to enter into, whereas religious conventicles are more private and thereby give opportunity to clandestine machinations” (Locke 1689, 51). Locke develops the idea that all religions must be tolerated within the government in the best interest of the commonwealth, leaving the political conversation open for political conversation as to how the government should be run. If the state sphere should interfere with the individual sphere, Locke claims that greater problems would arise as the government wields a seemingly tyrannical power. Locke proposes this idea of the private sphere in order to avoid problems within the political sphere, but alongside this proposal, he builds the foundation for a right to privacy that is valued so much today. The rest of his arguments include the point that there is a realm of privacy in which the individual makes decisions that they believe will best benefit them. It was from Locke’s separation between the state and the individual that the right to privacy came to life off the premise that there is a place within society where the government should not be involved in the matters of the people. Locke continues for the advocation of a private sphere by claiming that, “In private domestic affairs, in the management of estates, in the conservation of bodily health, every man may consider what suits his own convenience and follow what course he likes best” (Locke 1689, 34). Throughout his letter of toleration, and through the rest of his theory, he is critical of government intervention in the affairs of the people and emphasizes this private sphere as a place to escape government intervention. This sort of foundation and sentiment expressed by Locke gave the people the perspective that the state is going to act within their own self-interest which might mean being involved in the actions of the people. Locke again remedies this problem with the private sphere as a space where the government cannot get involved in the choices of the individual when it comes to their lives. Specifically, Locke subtly turns the conversation slightly away from religion and into the idea of affairs, property, and health in general as a part of the private sphere that the government should not be a part of. To the rest of society, the government has always been involved in the lives of the people, so to have this idea proposed that people can and should be independent of government intervention changed the way the people saw the government and the power they had over the lives of the people. In addition, Locke then claims that when the magistrate makes laws, “...a private person is to abstain from the action that he judges unlawful, and he is to undergo the punishment which it is not unlawful for him to bear” (Locke 1689, 48). Locke paints a picture that the people can make decisions about the laws within this private realm that adds another dimension to the idea that the people have more power within their private space than they thought. Historically, the governments were involved in all affairs of the people, leaving them little room for voluntary actions that they wanted to pursue for themselves, and Locke’s sentiments provides them the space to become free thinkers outside of the government. Although his writings are in specific reference to religion being in the private sphere, the later sentiments expand to other areas of life that would be affected had religion been placed within the private sphere. This allows the people to believe that other aspects of their life that have been controlled by the government can enter the private sphere where the government will not have any control over the efforts of the people themselves. This created a life where the people had private lives, where the government was not involved in the lives of the people and where the people made decisions for themselves. As people saw the potential for the private sphere, the right to privacy became more prevalent as a boundary between the state and the people developed, despite the boundary between the public and the private being unclear sometimes. Although this line is imprecise, Locke’s notion of the private sphere when it comes to politics introduces the idea of the line in the first place and introduces a new level of understanding about the relationship between the people and the government. Locke created the idea of the private sphere based on the premise that doing so might help prevent a lot of the conflict that had been around during the time that created the bad relationship between the state and the people. However, by proposing this idea he shines light on the paradox on the relationship between rights in general and the government. It is the duty of the government to act within the interest of the people by providing them access to their rights regardless of what they are, but at the same time the government also wants to act within their self-interest to maintain law and order within society and therefore might see rights as an obstacle to their end goal. Furthermore, Locke writes about this topic in a time period where the legal framework looks incredibly different from what is present today and therefore writes from the perspective that religion causes these huge wars within nations and between major parties. All these factors contribute to the idea that the right to privacy has existed throughout history and throughout theory as criticism of government is an ongoing conversation that has many different perspectives and points of view. Locke’s writings about creating a private sphere for religion only reflect the sentiments known today as the right to privacy that has changed the way that people have viewed the relationship between the people and the government.


Locke, John. 1983. “A Letter Concerning Toleration”, edited by James H. Tully. Hackett Publishing Company Inc.
Millian UtilitarianismPrivacy RightsWhen it comes to the rights and liberties bestowed upon an individual, there are some that seem inherent according to society’s standards like the freedom of speech and religion, especially since some of these values are rooted in texts that have helped found the country. However, as time has progressed, there are new issues that expand the public’s definition of rights and liberties and gives them a new vision as to what they may or may not have a right to. One of these rights is the right to privacy, a right in which there are various opinions, all of which are relatively new, yet there is a hindrance of commentary on these issues. John Stuart Mill has written various pieces including but not limited to On Liberty and The Subjection of Women in which he writes about the rights people inherently have and the values that people should have within society. Although it could be assumed that Mill creates a private realm in which individuals pursue their higher faculties away from society, Mill’s view of privacy is extremely limited and whatever private realm there might be is subjected to teaching morals and values.

Based off an initial reading of Mill, it might be assumed that a private sphere might exist in order to develop higher faculties away from the public. For example, Mill notes that, “A person whose desires and impulses are his own—are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture—is said to have a character...Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment, through the newspapers” (Mill 1859, 67). From here the reader reasonably infers that Mill would advocate for individuals to remove themselves from the public in order to reach their higher faculties since if one is not in the public sphere, the conclusion is that they are in the private sphere. However, as Mill goes on to describe his argument, he uses various examples to explain his philosophy and how the issue of the private and public spheres should be addressed. In the end, he turns to uses his own harm principle to argue that the state and the government should intervene in instances where the decisions one makes affect the prospects and the lives of the people around them. Due to this belief, he argues that the private sphere is severely limited by the government’s interest to protect the people from other’s personal desires. Furthermore, Mill notes that “That, this being supposed, they cannot be acting wrongly in endeavoring to exclude the influence of solicitations which are not disinterested, of instigators who cannot possibly be impartial—who have a direct personal interest on one side, and that side the one which the State believes to be wrong, and who confessedly promote it for personal objects only” (Mill 1859, 110). Alongside this argument, Mill describes several examples where government intervention is allowed when the decisions of the individual interfere with the lives and the decisions of other people. With that being said, there can be no existence of a private sphere for the government needs to protect individuals from the impulses they have that in Mill’s philosophy warrant punishment by the government. The problem with the discussion of Mill and the private sphere is that he does not make any explicit claim about the right to privacy because of the necessity of government intervention from his point of view. Mill further describes this limited aspect of privacy in which the government is allowed to intervene so long as there is reason to intervene for the good of the rest of the population. For example, Mill writes that “The State, while it respects the liberty of each in what specially regards himself, is bound to maintain a vigilant control over his exercise of any power which it allows him to possess over others” (Mill 1859, 116). This statement alone, despite not referring to the topic at hand, states clearly where he would stand on the issue of the right to privacy. One might claim that there could still be a private sphere especially since Mill does not dismiss the idea all together, but what is important to mention is that the state cannot intervene in matters of right and wrong without letting the individual be somewhat public. He names another example in which he claims “If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer class of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them” (Mill 1859, 116-117). In these matters, Mill claims that the government can control and regulate the way that children pursue their higher faculties through education since it is their liberty and goal to reach these faculties for the betterment of their character and overall well-being. Mill maintains this point of view that every individual has the right to live their best life, which he believes is attainable so long as people make decisions for themselves only and the state makes decisions to make sure that others cannot infringe on the lives of others. He recognized the ways that people’s individual private actions could injure one another, despite operating within this realm of personal liberty. He saw the way that life needed regulation based on the harm principle which allowed the government to intervene on private matters and push for a stronger public sphere to share ideas. Mill by no means wanted the government to control every aspect of the life of the individual, he wanted to merely hold the individual accountable for the way their decisions affected those around them. Mill continues within his other works to paint a picture as to what he wants society to look like and describes the ways in which having a private or domestic sphere can create a form of the right to privacy. Within The Subjection of Women Mill notes that, “As regards the relations of private life it may be said generally, that their influence is, on the whole, encouraging to the softer virtues, discouraging to the sterner: though the statement must be taken with all the modifications dependent on individual character”(Mill 1861, 565-566). Mill’s main emphasis is on the morally correct and doing the necessary things in order to achieve this moral good, especially since he believes that the society around him is declining due to the lack of morality and tendency for people to avoid pursuing their higher faculties. Since women are subjected to the household and are not given a role within the public sphere, it could be argued that women then are responsible for what would have been the private sphere since the home is their responsibility to maintain. It could be asserted that there is a private sphere in which the women or those at home are responsible for the moral development of the children and those living within the home. Within his writing about the home, the government plays no role in dictating how the morals are taught, therefore alluding to this right to privacy based on the premise that the home is a private space in which the government cannot intervene. In addition, Mill adds that “There is no country of Europe in which the ablest men have not frequently experienced, and keenly appreciated, the value of the advice and help of clever and experienced women of the world, in the attainment both of private and of public objects; and there are important matters of public administration to which few men are equally competent with such women; among others, the detailed control of expenditure” (Mill 1861, 580). Here, Mill describes the full capacity of women within the public sphere and particularly within the government but understands that the standards that society have during his time leave no space for women publicly. He uses this line to reference the power and influence that women already have over the private sphere despite society’s perception of women. However, it should be noted that acting within their realm of liberty, they had this explicit right to privacy that allowed them to hold themselves accountable, therefore keeping the government out of their private lives. Therefore, Mill could take on the belief that if a private sphere should exist to develop and teach morals to children who then enter the public sphere and hopefully act within their best interests to pursue their higher faculties without intervening in the lives of others. What might be something to keep in mind about Mill and his idea of the right to privacy is the sense of Victorian morality that he writes about and his overall response to rights of any kind. He writes both works from the Victorian moral point of view which in turn is reflected in the way that he believes that society should be run and would agree about the way that life would be instructed upon these morals. It is this sense of morality that would go against most things that one might believe is not the concern of the public and Mill would want to spread his single version of morality because everyone should be morally upright according to the same standard. Despite this observation, Mill would also claim that holding oneself accountable is necessary to maintain this moral standard because individuals do not and should not depend on one another. Other than the right to privacy, his perspective on rights aligns with those of earlier philosophers so long as they fall within the utilitarian model and therefore benefit most of the people. However, this creates somewhat of a dilemma since any action or inaction could be seen to benefit the majority. The government could infringe on the inherent rights one has and claim that it be for the betterment of society that they control religion, speech, and property despite these being protected by many other philosophers. In that sense, it is hard to define from the Mill point of view what people do and do not have the right to within their system of government. The right to privacy from Mill’s perspective is one that is hard to define and comes with various limitations that allow the government to intrude on the lives of the people.


Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” In John Stuart Mill On Liberty and Other Essays, edited by John Gray. Oxford World’s Classics, 1991.

Mill, John Stuart. “The Subjection of Women.” In John Stuart Mill On Liberty and Other Essays, edited by John Gray. Oxford World’s Classics, 1991.
PostmodernismPrivacy RightsPostmodernists believe that society’s expectations and norms of society are merely products of the capitalistic marketplace and the aesthetics that are formed around them rather than looking at the historical foundations of popular culture. These theorists typically are very skeptical of these norms because of the problems they have caused within society and believe that a simple solution can fix all problems, as most modernists propose. Therefore, postmodernists simply describe the standard for privacy that society currently holds and do not propose any true remedies to the problems they might have with the notion of privacy. Specifically, Jean-Francios Lyotard, Frederic Jameson, and Michael J. Shapiro all describe the aesthetics of privacy that society currently accepts and identifies how unrealistic privacy is within the capitalistic marketplace. They remain skeptical about how private individuals can be private in the modern world by creating marketplaces that are designed to invade the private sphere to pursue their capitalistic interests. Postmodernists like Lyotard, Jameson, and Shapiro claim that the idea of privacy does not truly exist due to the monopolization of personal information by corporations and used to maintain power; therefore, the existence of a private realm is unnecessary.

Postmodernists take the position that privacy within society might not exist due to the monopolization of information by corporations to pursue their interests. For example, in the book Inhuman by Jean-Francios Lyotard, the author notes that “Through innovation, the will affirms its hegemony over time. It thus conforms to the metaphysics of capital, which is a technology of time. The innovation 'works'. The question mark of the Is it happening?' stops. With the occurrence, the will is defeated. The avant-gardist task remains that of undoing the presumption of the mind with respect to time. The sublime feeling is the name of this privation” (Lyotard 1988, 107). Lyotard’s observation proves that with the existence of information, whether it be private or public, corporations have been able to monopolize such information and use it to their advantage. Privatizing all information solidifies the power dynamic between those in power and those who feed into their power since such information is used to pursue their interests. Lyotard would also argue that there might not be such an idea of private information in general since general information is already public, and anyone or company can have access to this information to again use it for themselves. Due to this, he challenges the idea of the private realm even existing because of the way that information is easily accessible. However, Lyotard might also point out that the only privacy that exists within society is the privacy of the corporations that take all public entities and claim them and privatize them. He points out that culturally significant objects are also privatized by corporations, who then profit off of the nation’s sp. Lyotard would conclude that privacy only exists for the corporations who use the personal information around them to turn profits for themselves and their interests. Furthering this sentiment, Frederic Jameson wrote “The definitive answer will come, of course, with the conception of a "logic of naturalism" that informs the other half of his title. For the moment there remains the nagging feeling that all this does come down to the "self" after all, and that the desperate or passional fantasies of productionism, romance, slavery, masochism, the gold standard, and hoarding or spending are all somehow attempts to square the circle and come to terms with the antinomy of the self as private property. This is nowhere affirmed as such, yet the theoretical or interpretive void in the endless chain of homologies somehow draws the reading mind toward what we may call the existential (if not the psychoanalytic) solution: the ontological priority of explanations in terms of the self over all the other levels. This is, in general, the fate of philosophies without "content" (in the Hegelian sense of the word), and in particular of philosophies that seek to exclude content as such: a kind of Lacanian "foreclusion" in which content is reintroduced back from the outside in the form of some compensatory and generally psychoanalytic bottom line (as in Tel Quel and some places in Derrida), the materials of the "self" proving more serviceable in the completion of a formalist system than the materials of history or the social” (Jameson 1997, 198-199). Like Lyotard, Jameson is skeptical of the private condition of the individual and whether it is a true institution within society or there for the aesthetic that society has created behind it. Unlike Lyotard, Jameson would say that the idea of the private is created for the formation of the “self”, prioritized and valued because of society’s significance. Jameson claims that the concept of the “self” is not as important as people have made it out to be, and so it feeds back into the aesthetic of society rather than having any real significance. Jameson also claims that this sense of privacy stems from the media that pushes it forward to accommodate corporations pursuing their own interests. This sense of self is further broken down by society in which people are categorized and assigned labels that again have no meaning and disregard any sense of privacy and self that society values so deeply. Jameson would also claim that the increase in media technology makes any sense of privacy difficult to achieve and maintain because people can share their information across multiple platforms and therefore share that information with the corporations around them. Postmodernists, like all theorists, tend to describe what is in society and by, doing so, challenge the view of the world that most people hold without questioning the norms and possible solutions to the problem described. When applying postmodernity to political theory, Michael Shapiro noted that “One can, in short, render boundaries innocuous by speaking unproblematically about "public" and "private" spheres, the "work place," "recreational space," and so on. What is left of the political process in this model is primarily a policing function that consists in the prevention of intrusions from one institutional setting to another. Clearly, there is a significant operation of power and authority in the production of those domains whose inviolability Walzer seeks to preserve. His version of the liberal discourse depoliticizes modernity's contemporary ground plan and serves as a legitimation rhetoric. It distributes discursive assets to those who control the flow of goods, commitments, and, in general, all valued outcomes” (Shapiro 1992, 94). Part of addressing the issue of privacy again realizes the state of society, which Shapiro argues is this state of maintaining whatever power an individual may have or be able to own. To add to this notion, Shapiro would say that society already blurs the private and public boundaries to pursue their social actions and agenda. He concludes that there cannot just be two distinct realms that people can adhere to, especially because he claims that there is no end to history in which this is possible. He continues this argument with the claim that even if there were space for this sort of dichotomy, it would not matter because of the ability society should have to extract the political tendencies from each realm rather than regulating them. Shapiro adds to the sentiments of Lyotard and Jameson in that all three recognize the power dynamic that any aspect of privacy adds to society. Shapiro adds that this privacy aspect solidifies the power dynamics that again allow the rich to get richer and others to remain in their place. This causes postmodernists to try and reimagine the private sphere in order to dismantle and restore the power relations between the people and the corporations that have monopolies on privatized information. In addition, Jameson wrote that “We have touched briefly on property relations in the postmodern in a previous chapter; suffice it to say now that in itself, private property remains that dusty and drearily old-fashioned thing whose truth one used to glimpse when traveling in the older nation states and observing, with Mr. Bloom's "grey horror" that sears the flesh, the hoariest antique forms of British commerce or French family firms (Dickens remaining the most precious imperishable afterimage of the juridical exfoliation of these entities, unimaginable crystalline growths like some cancerous Antarctica)” (Jameson 1997, 320-321). Essentially, Jameson proposes that society does away with the notion of private property because it reinstates the aesthetics and the history that have created the present problems. However, Jameson’s answer to privacy is quite complicated because in other works, he explains that the government needs to protect the individual’s privacy from monopolies. It must be noted that postmodernists do not usually favor a solution in general because they believe that society is more complicated than any solution can fix the problems at hand. Therefore, Jameson and the others reflect on the realities of privacy and the state of society without any solid remedy to the problems they propose. However, there seems to be some consensus that the notion of privacy should be abandoned or dismissed until society can remedy the problems already present in society. For Jameson, it seems to be the case that the private life is something he believes is worth preserving, but he understands that the condition of the private life is diminishing and might not be realistic to maintain. For example, Jameson holds that the media is the reason for an individual’s lack of privacy since the media advertises products using private personal information corporations know will appeal to the consumer. Jameson’s assertion that there can be no sphere of privacy comes from the sentiment that society is based on the capitalistic marketplace in which corporations try to make as much money as possible and obtain as much information about the population as possible. The key to understanding the postmodernist perspective is the realization that this skeptical view prevents any theorist from developing a solution to the problems they describe. They have read and concluded that modernists believe they can solve all the world’s problems with their theories without looking at the implications or analyzing the world on a different level that questions the popular culture norms that dictate all decisions individuals make. For that reason, they propose no definitive solutions because they do not see the point in making decisions when the aesthetics and the norms of society have already been so deeply rooted in society. Therefore, making definitive decisions about things such as privacy is only there to describe the current state in which they exist, if they even exist. In the matter of the private realm, postmodernists would conclude that the existence of a private sphere does not exist based on the premise that the capitalistic society will monopolize private information for its benefit.


Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press Durham. 1997.

Lyotard, Jean-Francios. The Inhuman Reflections of Time. Stanford University Press. 1991.

Shapiro, Michael J. Reading the Postmodern Polity: Political Theory as Textual Practice. NED-New edition. University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
Rousseau's ThoughtPrivacy RightsIn Rousseau's works, there exist three states of society in which there are different and evolving stages of a right to privacy. First, there is the natural right to privacy in the state of nature. Next, there is society following the commencement of association and community. Finally, there is a society under the Social Contract. Rousseau believed that in the progression of different societies, privacy is slowly lost, first to other individuals, then to the government.

In Rousseau's state of nature, humans act as individuals and do not intermingle with each other. Their projects never required "the joint labor of several hands," and they "lived free, healthy, honest, and happy lives" (Rousseau 1973, 92). These lives were completely independent of other humans. Humans roamed, hunted, and gathered alone; no one else had any power over him. Man was free to pursue "the only goods [he] recognized in the universe… food, a female, and sleep" (Rousseau 1973, 61). Life was simple, and humans had the right to do as they pleased, when they pleased, without anyone questioning why they were doing it. There was no overarching government or general will to encroach on the privacy of humans in nature. Humans "had no question… as to private likes or dislikes [as] all are alike" (Rousseau 2004). However, this simplicity of nature did not last forever. Eventually, humans came together to form societies due to the "two arts… which first civilized men and ruined society," metallurgy and agriculture (Rousseau 1973, 92). As society shifted from nature to civilization, humans signed a social contract to give away parts of their sovereignty to a new sovereign, the general will, a prince, a legislator, or a chief, for example. This society removed the natural freedom under which humans acted as they pleased without encroachment. However, they still held a right to privacy within a civilized society; however, it was much less than before. The second stage is where people can live in a state of the early community. This community lacks the oversight of a chief or government; however, unlike the state of nature, humans begin to associate with each other to sustain the new arts of metallurgy and agriculture. Since land is required to grow crops slowly, these early humans decided that "to secure each man his own, it had to be possible for each to have something" (Rousseau 1973, 94). This is the beginning of property, born from the manual labor of the farm, slowly allowing people to have their place where they can do whatever they want, also known as acting in their private interests. Metallurgy, on the other hand, "working metals and multiplying their uses," leads to the concept of value. People used these tools to better land plots and increase food production, among other things. Therefore, to acquire these irons and tools, people "required commodities in exchange" (Rousseau 1973, 94). These advancements gave value and worth to the ownership of items and land. As disparities began to develop between the people within these early communities, so too did the idea of jealousy and inequality (Rousseau 1973, 96). In a society with inequality and no authority to keep it in check, there then come individuals who will encroach on the privacy of other individuals. This threat to others is what slowly necessitates the tyranny of the government to establish peace and security in exchange for other losses of privacy. Once the social contract between humans and magistrates is established, people's liberties are immediately restricted compared to the state of nature and early societies. The average person signs away their liberties to their chief, establishing tyranny through the people's consent. The ordinary people sign "a contract binding on only one of the parties, where all the risk is on one side, and none on the other" (Rousseau 1973, 104). The magistrates take no risk in this exchange as they are not subject to their privacy being encroached upon, among other rights and liberties. However, just because the people sign away their freedoms to the legislature and chiefs does not mean they are entirely at the government's will. Rousseau does not believe that the government has complete control over the private actions and possessions of the common people. When discussing the right to ownership and sovereignty, Rousseau explains that the government limits how much power it has over people. Due to Rousseau's restricted discussion on privacy, we will have to look at the allusions made to it through the right to privacy. Taking the Lockean view that "'every man has a property in his person," we can assume that property "provides the foundation for the right to privacy" (DaCosta 2021, 2). If the government expects the people to respect their side of the social contract, it must uphold its end. In the case of property and privacy, Rousseau says that the government "has no right to touch the property of one or many; but he may lawfully take possession of the property of all" (Rousseau 2004). In other words, "the general and sovereign will is the master of all the others," showing that the will of the government must respect the people's privacy rights or else risk its demise (Rousseau 2004). This distinction between total and partial encroachment on rights shows Rousseau's exciting view on privacy and rights as a whole. Rousseau believed that the individual holds political rights; however, the government may take away the rights of every one in particular situations for the state's health. This general will also influence people's privacy; however, even this will is only "considered collectively and as a body, but each individual, as a subject, has his private and independent existence" (Rousseau 2004). Therefore, in a civilization, neither the general will nor the government can fully encroach on the citizens' privacy without the whole society falling apart. On the other hand, this freedom is nowhere near what it is in the state of nature, where people are entirely free to do as they please without the threat of government or general will even be considered a threat to that freedom of privacy.


Rousseau, Jean-Jaques. 1973. The Social Contract and Discourses. Translated by G. D. H. Cole. David Campbell Publishers

Rousseau, Jean-Jaques. 2004. Emile. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Emile.
Benthamite UtilitarianismVoting Rights and SuffrageOften called the father of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham posited the foundational form of the philosophy, which had a focus on the quantity of pleasures that would result from an action. In practice, this would qualify an act as “ethical” if it brought pleasure to a relatively large number of people. Individuals obtain pleasure in the context of suffrage when they are able to freely exercise their right to vote, and even more so when their favored candidate wins. Theoretically, the more people that are able to cast a vote, the more people can access the pleasures associated with suffrage. Following this logic, a Utilitarian such as Bentham would be expected to support widespread voting rights and robust legal protections for them. Speaking on the right of the public to criticize government officials, Bentham writes:

Every man is at liberty to express as well by visible as by audible signs, and in any way and to any extent to make public, whatsoever in his judgment it will be contributory to the greatest happiness of the greatest number to be informed of: and this although disapprobation be thereby expressed towards persons in authority, or any of them, whether on account of the general tenor of their conduct, or on account of their conduct on this or that occasion in particular (Bentham 1838, p.584).

Government accountability and public scrutiny are recurring themes in Bentham’s writing. In discussing the role of citizens, he writes: “Operating thus as judges, the members of this same community may, in their aggregate capacity, be considered as constituting a sort of judicatory or tribunal” (Ibid., p.561). Voting rights make this public tribunal effective by giving citizens the power to make officials responsive to their needs. Bentham elaborates on the makeup of this electorate in saying: “Taken in its utmost latitude, this tribunal would include all of them without exception. But, of no question, on any occasion, can any such multitude, in such their capacity, by physical possibility, actually take cognizance. Those less than a certain age, and the infirm, for example, not to mention any other classes, cannot but be excepted” (Ibid., p.561). Bentham expresses no desire to restrict political participation to a certain class of citizens based on gender or race. Instead, he simply weighs the practical considerations of who can and cannot vote based on age and physical or mental capacity. Bentham’s writing seems to indicate his support for universal suffrage with some clarity.


Bentham, Jeremy. 1838. The Works of Jeremy Bentham. Edited by John Bowring. Vol. 8. 11 vols. Edinburgh: William Tait.
PragmatismVoting Rights and SuffrageThe philosophical school of pragmatism relies on the success of practical application to determine truth (McDermid, n.d.). Pragmatism has been applied most frequently to social and political issues since being linked to civic interaction by American philosopher John Dewey (Talisse 2014, p.123). This seems straightforward, however it proves difficult to objectively evaluate the success of something abstract, such as voting rights. The pragmatist would support voting rights if they were considered practical for society or were seen as making society function in a better way. Establishing the extent to which democracy makes life “better” is no simple task. Comparative political scientists have long debated which metrics offer the best comparisons of quality of life between democracies and autocracies. Likewise, Dewey and his pragmatist contemporaries explored the ways in which suffrage shapes civil and political society.

John Dewey’s political philosophy embraced democracy as a solution for social and political disfunction. Modern pragmatists like Robert Talisse have used the term “Deweyan Democratic Perfectionism” to reference Dewey’s idealistic theory about suffrage perfecting the function of society (Talisse 2014, p.123). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy links Dewey’s pragmatism to his political stances, reading: “As a public intellectual, Dewey was a supporter of such causes as women’s suffrage and the Settlement House movement” (Festenstein, 2019). Dewey also served as an early member and co-sponsor of organizations like the ACLU and NAACP, both of which have long fought to expand suffrage and defend minority voters against disenfranchisement. This political advocacy work speaks to the ways that pragmatism guided Dewey’s support for voting rights. In thinking that democracy can lead to perfection in society, the pragmatist would certainly support the rights of all citizens to vote. “While Dewey sometimes refers rather scathingly to the ‘machinery’ conception of democracy, he is committed to improving this machinery (by supporting the equal distribution of the franchise, for example) rather than merely dismissing it as unimportant” (Festenstein, 2019). The institutional “machine” of democracy allows citizens to pursue their interests in a collective way, and a way that pragmatists see as beneficial to society.

Dewey’s work alone cannot provide a complete understanding of pragmatism’s connections to voting rights. It is also important to consider the ways in which suffrage can shape political events as an outcome of practical application- the pragmatist’s primary tool. Citizens are generally content when their government meets their perceived needs. When public needs are not met, two different possibilities emerge. In democratic societies, citizens exercise their right to vote in a way that rewards those who seek to meet their needs and interests and punishes those who do not by legally stripping them of power. The second possibility occurs when citizens do not have the right to vote yet no longer consent to the way in which they are governed. If needs continue to go unmet, the public has no legal recourse to air their grievances and could eventually make the collective decision to work against their own government. The difference between these two scenarios is the presence of voting rights. Pragmatism dictates that the concept of voting or the ideals of democracy have merit if they succeed in practical application. The voting society described here is successful in that it has measures in place that incorporate and accommodate political dissent. Dewey himself noted that suffrage allows individuals to pursue their own interests while also making civic contributions. We can see this relate once again to Deweyan Democratic Perfectionism, encapsulated here in the idea that “democracy is a way of life in which each individual exercises and cultivates his unique capacities in a way which contributes to the flourishing of the whole society” (Talisse 2014, p.123). The belief in such a level of “perfection” underscores the pragmatic argument in favor of voting rights.

Another well-known pragmatist, William James, also studied pluralism and how it can cause disfunction when not incorporated or accepted politically. With labor strikes as the example in mind, James’ view is described: “Far from being the basis for reconciliation, we see here how the contradictory pluralism within radical empiricism explains the emergence of social insurrection, but also civil war” (Rogers-Cooper 2017, p.257). Labor strikes are an example of what James labels “radical pragmatism” because the workers seek to disrupt typical societal function but do so because it appears to them a pragmatic and effective type of political activity. If the workers are instead presented with the option to voice their approval and disapproval by voting (and they have faith that the voting system is fair and equal), then they are likely to take that option rather than bear the costs of insurrection. James’ outlook is likened to a theory known as formal democratic enclosure, which states that “elections operate ‘at the level of the demonstration’ to prevent ‘outlaw’ forms of collective politics” (Rogers-Cooper 2017, p.244). In other words, the “outlaw” approaches like strikes and insurrections are made to appear impractical if citizens feel they can express themselves sufficiently through voting. The citizens are thereby “enclosed” into the formal, regulated spheres of democracy and kept away from the populist democratic uprisings that threaten order and stability. In relation to pragmatism, James’ outlook seems to prioritize societal function similar to Dewey’s. He indicates that voting rights are beneficial as a bulwark against explicit class conflict and revolutionary sentiment.

Through the analytic lens of pragmatism, democratic choice and voting rights seem to excel. Because it reduces the threat of class conflict and improves public health outcomes, there is much evidence to conclude that suffrage improves societal function. Professor and philosophy scholar Dr. John R. Shook writes: “Pragmatism can criticize the mistakes of public democracy, but at the same time pragmatism praises public democracy as the best form of government that has been invented at this time” (2010, p.12). Given that pragmatism hinges on the results of practical application, modern democracies serve as natural experiments which provide adequate evidence that voting rights are advantageous to society.


Festenstein, Matthew. 2019. “Dewey’s Political Philosophy.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2019. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

McDermid, Douglas. n.d. “Pragmatism: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed July 15, 2021.

Rogers-Cooper, Justin. “Truth Written In Hell Fire: William James and the Destruction of Gotham.” William James Studies 13, no. 2 (2017): 240-81. Accessed August 3, 2021.

Shook, John R. 2010. “Pragmatism, Pluralism, and Public Democracy.” Revue française d'études américaines. 124 (2): 11–28.

Talisse, Robert B. 2014. “Pragmatist Political Philosophy.” Philosophy Compass 9 (2): 123–30.
Ancient Chinese PhilosophyVoting Rights and SuffrageConfucianism

Confucianism presents that a virtuous person, and therefore a virtuous society, can only come about through the understanding of an individual’s place within their society, and the eager participation in the rites and rituals of the society by that individual (Mark, 2020). If both these things are realized, there will be a righteous and happy culture. The two major parts of understanding one’s place in their social system is honoring ones familial and social superiors: “Filial piety and fraternal submission,--are they not the root of all benevolent actions?” (Analects, 1.2). Within the Analects, there are many rules emphasizing the actions and attitudes one must take to those one should honor. Confucianism proposes that interest in oneself is limiting and: “To subdue one’s self and return to propriety, is perfect virtue”.

This importance on the collective can harshly rub against one of the founding traditions towards the right to vote, as the right usually implies a dissatisfaction found within the current leadership when the right is expressed—certainly the modern origins of voting were led by that dissatisfaction. In fact, the insistence of usurping the power traditionally given to political superiors is greatly disrespectful and damaging under the Confucian view: “The requisites of government are that there be sufficiency of food, sufficiency of military equipment, and the confidence of the people in their ruler” (12.7). Confucianism reveals the highly individual nature of the right to vote which rises from a discontent towards the present politics.

Confucianism can reveal the other, more collective side of the right to vote as well, however. The overcoming of the self is key for Confucianism which is realized when: “…one de-emphasizes the boundaries between oneself and others, and gives one’s own and others’ concerns as much weight as is appropriate to the situation” (Chang & Kalmanson, 2010, pg. 109). This is immanently compatible with the right to vote. Moreover, public rituals were seen as the path towards peace and virtue: “In practicing the rules of [ritual] propriety, a natural ease is to be prized. This is the Way of the ancient kings, a quality of excellence, and in things small and great follow them” (Analects, 1.12). Later: “The management of a state demands the rules of [ritual] propriety” (11.26). Under this lens, the right to vote is a ritual with which the current political and social order is being upheld, as well as an opportunity for citizens to participate together. Confucianism reveals how the right to vote is also a modern ritual of political participation, and Confucianism shows how the right to vote has a paradoxical nature. On the one hand, it is a mechanism that allows citizens to privately disrespect their leaders and voice their resentment with the qualities of their current political system. At the same time, voting also acts as a modern-day ritual that is experienced with other citizens.


Central to Taoism is the full acceptance of the Tao. Describing the Tao is difficult as the very first lines of the Laozi texts state: “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the ternal Name” (Tao Te Ching, 1). It both creates and holds everything that is existing. With this expansiveness, the ambitions and anxieties of man’s daily life are unimportant and giving them special attention would be a personal mistake: “Heaven and earth are not like humans, they are impartial” (Tao Te Ching, 5). The strivings that people have create a paradoxical relationship between our ambition and their outcomes and this relationship is found all throughout the foundational text: “The pride of wealth and position brings about their own misfortune” (9). What we strive towards will usually bring what we are trying to avoid. The Taoist prescription to this issue is wu wei, which is a type of nonattached, spontaneous action. With wu wei, one doesn’t struggle to get anywhere, rather they are just expressing their natures as part of the Tao: “To win true merit, to preserve just fame, the personality must be retiring. This is the heavenly [Tao]” (9).

The connection between Taoism and the right to vote can be readily made. The Taoist political life and rule is decidedly hands off. If it were intentional and active, one would reach similar problems to the ones that result from striving for things in one’s daily life. The Taoist errs on the side of not-intervening: “Among people the more restrictions and prohibitions there are, the poorer they become…The more laws and orders are issued the more thieves and robbers abound” (57). Later it states: “If a ruler practices wu wei the people will reform themselves” (57). The implication is that the more active a society’s politics is, the worse outcomes will occur for the state and its people. This shows that the Taoist has a preference towards a freer politics where the ruling forces are not apparent: “When great men rule, subjects know little of their existence…How carefully a wise ruler chooses his words. He performs deeds, and accumulates merit! Under such a ruler the people think they are ruling themselves” (17).

As with Confucianism, Taoism provides two insights about the right to vote. On one hand, the right to vote for citizens is a decidedly more emphasized version of the allowance for people’s self-reformation. While this reformation decidedly occurs through the changing of one’s rulers, voting rights allow the people to go their own way, and live according to the ever changing, spontaneous desires and ideas that they hold, and the elected leadership reflects that.

On the other hand, Taoism shows that the right to vote can come from a misguided ambition to change society, usually for unnecessary reasons. It is this discontented impulse which is responsible for the right to vote, and according to Taoism, this impulse brings with it dire consequences. Under this view, voting is unnecessary, and just another expression of man caring for things that are not his business. Of course, voting could also be an act of concession where the voter chooses for what their society already believes and approves of. Voting in this way is not to change anything, but rather to continue what is already present. However, it is arguable that the Taoist would still be against this as this prevents the spontaneous change present in the Tao.


Wonsuk Chang, Leah Kalmanson / Wonsuk Chang. Confucianism in Context: Classic Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, East Asia and Beyond. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010. Confucius, Analects

Laozi, Tao Te Ching

Mark, Joshua J.. "Confucianism." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified July 07, 2020.
Aristotelian thoughtVoting Rights and SuffrageAn Aristotelian approach to voting is complex, in part because democracies of his day functioned differently than those today. Aristotle broke the selection of officials into three main categories. The first was selection of officials by lot in which case office would be open to all citizens. Aristotle viewed selection by lot to be a democratic feature. The second category was selecting officials by means of elections, which he considered to be more oligarchic and aristocratic. The third category was a combination of the first two, in which some members were elected for the purpose of certain matters and others were chosen either by lot from all or by lot from a preselected group, or these two groups worked together in the same offices (Aristotle 350 B.C.E., 1298b 5).

Aristotle outlined election features of different types of democracies that were considered democratic because of their incorporation of the assembly. The first type would be that in which offices were open to all but would be appointed in turn by magistrates. In this case few things would be decided by all in the assembly, but the assembly would decide on the passage of laws and they would approve or withhold the selection of officials by magistrates. Aristotle did not specifically explain how magistrates would go about selecting officials in this type of democracy (Aristotle 350 B.C.E., 1298a 9). Another type of democracy was one in which more matters were decided by the assembly, including legislation and selecting offices. Offices would be chosen by lot, except in the cases where an office required a special skill or knowledge, in which case they would be chosen by election (Aristotle 350 B.C.E., 1298a 24). In the final form of democracy, the assembly would decide all matters. Officials would only be necessary for organizational purposes to ensure the assembly ran properly, and officials would not have final judgment on matters (Aristotle 350 B.C.E., 1298a 28). In the case of democracies, Aristotle suggested paying the poor to attend the assembly and fining the rich for not. He also recommended limitations on payment for attendance in order to ensure the common people would not outweigh the rich. Aristotle wanted to avoid oligarchy by evening the influence of the rich and the poor, to ensure the common interest was at hand (Aristotle 350 B.C.E., 1298b 11).

Aristotle also outlined differences in voting procedures in different types of oligarchies as well as mixed regimes and aristocracies and polities. One type of oligarchy was that in which officials were elected from among those who had the requisite amount of wealth. Another type was that in which all who had the requisite amount of wealth shared in rule. There were also cases of aristocracy or polity in which case all had control over matters of war, peace, and taking audits, but magistrates had control of everything else, including laws and electing officials. This type of regime would not be democratic because officials were not chosen by all, or at least not approved by all in the assembly. However, because all still decided on other matters such as war and peace, the regime would not be an oligarchy. “Lot is a democratic feature and will make them [regimes] polities by opening up office to many; election is an oligarchic and aristocratic feature and will either confine office to the wealthy (in which case the regime will be an aristocracy in the sense in which oligarchic polities are aristocracies) or to those with a certain quality or virtue (in which case the regime will be genuinely aristocratic…)” (Simpson 2002, 345). In general, Aristotle believed that rulers should rule in the common best interest, rather than solely in their own best interest (Aristotle 350 B.C.E., 1279a 28). In the case of oligarchy, Aristotle recommended affording the populace the ability to give some input on political decisions, as this could promote peace, even if they were not given power in final decision making (Aristotle 350 B.C.E., 1298b 26).

Aristotle had two large concerns with elections, campaigning and demagoguery. In terms of campaigning, Aristotle was concerned that only the people who wanted to be in office would be, rather than the people who necessarily deserved to be in office. He believed that a man who was worthy of office should accept the position regardless of if he wanted to (Aristotle 350 B.C.E., 1271a 10). He also thought that campaigning “promotes love of honor, the cause, along with love of money, of most voluntary wrongs or deliberate acts of injustice” (Simpson 2002, 118). It is the pursuit of these wrongs that leads to tyranny. Additionally, regarding demagoguery, Aristotle worried that class interests would dominate elections, rather than the good of the whole. To prevent this, he recommended that the populace be divided into local groups for voting in elections. He believed that by voting in such groups, people would be less concerned with their general class interest, and would be more alert to local ties (Aristotle 350 B.C.E., 1305a 28).

While Aristotle strongly believed citizens should participate in politics, he did not support extending political rights to slaves, women, or laborers. He thought that slaves did not possess the intellectual skills to be able to govern themselves, and hence would be subject to the governing of others (Aristotle 350 B.C.E., 1254b 16-23). Similarly, women were viewed as naturally inferior to men with less capability of leading (Aristotle 350 B.C.E., 1259b 1-2). An important point that Aristotle emphasized was that citizens should be ruled by their equals, resulting in a reciprocal equality, unlike that between slaves and their masters or women and men, and therefore women and slaves were not considered citizens. As for laborers and artisans, Aristotle believed that “there is a need for leisure both with a view to the creation of virtue and with a view to political activities,” which laborers and artisans did not have sufficient time for (Aristotle 350 B.C.E., 1329a 1-2).


Aristotle, Politics

Simpson, Peter. A Philosophical Commentary on the Politics of Aristotle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
BehaviorismVoting Rights and SuffrageThe understanding of how and why human beings act was and still is often described as a dualistic interaction between mind and body. Usually this is described in terms of feelings. We feel a certain way, and that feeling prompts us to act. We eat because we feel like eating. We attack others because we feel angry. This causal explanation for behavior is taken for granted, but in the 19th century, a group of psychologists believed that behavior could be studied, not as an effect of the non-observable, ethereal mind, but rather as the outcome of changes from the environment. This was behaviorism, and William Baum states: “the central idea in behaviorism can be stated simply: A science of behavior is possible” (Baum, 2017, pg. 3).

One of the most influential behaviorists, BF Skinner, was a radical behaviorist where instead of merely positing that only behavior could be objectively observed, went one step further in saying that all interior phenomena was a behavior like any other, and was subject to and created by the same environmental pressures as external behavior.

According to Skinner, all of our behavior and dispositions are determined by our environment. What we call freedom is merely the ability to free ourselves from “harmful contacts” (Skinner, 1971, pg. 32). Slavery is when we are unable to escape of avoid harm, and what Skinner calls the “literature of freedom”—philosophical and political traditions based around rights, emancipation, and the immorality of oppression—are merely ways to “..induce people to escape from or attack those who act to control them aversively” (pg. 35). The idea of freedom as an inherent right towards autonomy in one’s actions and beliefs is wholeheartedly rejected by Skinner, and instead is reduced to being able to do what one desires when the desire arises; a desire whose arising the individual has nothing to do with.

Dignity is an attribute that we use to describe someone’s character—character of course meaning a quality essential to someone’s internality, something that a radical behaviorist is very skeptical of. We do not respect someone’s action if it is done automatically, instead we value the individual who does a particular action despite whatever the environment compels them to do: “We give credit generosity when there are no obvious reasons for behaving differently…” (pg. 72). Our caring towards dignified action and character then reveals a blind spot that we have towards reality—if every behavior we do is determined and selected by the environment, no one deserves any credit towards their action, and no one is dignified for acting in a certain way.

Democracy and the right to vote for behaviorists like Skinner are then merely an expression of the fundamental biological mechanism of avoiding or escaping harmful contacts. If it weren’t for the aversive state of affairs that were present in the past, the right to vote would have never come about. Voting rights came about as a way to justify the public’s resistance to the restrictors, and this is in great contrast with the “literature of freedom’s” claim that the right to vote is a way to uphold god given rights. Voting, at base, was a way to control the behavior of those in power.


Baum, William M. Understanding Behaviorism : Behavior, Culture, and Evolution. Third edition. Chichester, West Sussex, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.

Skinner, B. F. (Burrhus Frederic). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. [1st ed.]. New York: Knopf, 1971.
Early Indian PhilosophyVoting Rights and SuffrageIn early Indian philosophy, there is little or no mention of voting rights. However, many ancient scriptures in different civilizations mention representative forms of government. In various regions of ancient India, republican governments existed. During the nineteenth century, research into the Buddhist Pali Canon revealed existing republicanism at the time. (Muhlberger, 1998) . The Pali Canon provides a far more complete, though somewhat oblique, account of democratic institutions in Indian Philosophy, confirming and expanding on Panini's vision. The Maha-parinibbana-suttanta, the Mahavagga, and the Kullavagga are three of the Canon's oldest and most revered parts. Taken together, they preserve the Buddha's teachings for the proper operation of the Buddhist monastic community – the Sangha – after his death. (Muhlberger, 1998) . They were the most reliable source on voting processes in a corporate body during the early Buddhist period. They also provide some insight into the development of democratic thought.

According to Panini, all northern India's states and territories (janapadas) during his time were founded on the colonization or conquest of a specific area by an identified warrior group who still controlled the political life of that area (Basham, 1959) . Some of these peoples (known as janapadins by Panini) were ruled by a king who was, at least in theory, of their own blood and maybe reliant on their support (Muhlberger, 1998) . Other than that, the janapadins handled their affairs in a republican fashion. Thus, in both types of state, the government was dominated by persons classed as ksatriyas, or members of the warrior caste, as later times would describe it (Hays, 2015) . Another example is a republican federation known as the Kshudrak-Malla Sangha which posed serious resistance to Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. Many more republican regimes in India have been mentioned by the Greeks, some of which were classified as pure democracies and others as "aristocratic republics” (Muhlberger, 1998) .

According to Prakash ( 2006) , a vote was called a 'chhanda,' which literally translates to a 'wish.' This evocative word was used to communicate the concept that voting expresses a member's free will and choice. There used to be multi-colored voting tickets called 'shalakas' (pins) for voting in the assembly . When a division was called, they were handed to members and collected by an officer of the assembly called the ‘shalaka grahak' (collector of pins). This official was chosen by the entire assembly. It was his responsibility to conduct the vote, which may be secret or open. However, Indian republics are beginning to sound extremely undemocratic by our modern standards, with real power concentrated in the hands of a few patriarchs representing the leading lineages of one privileged section of the warrior caste.


Basham, A. L. ( 1959) . India as Known to Pāṇini (A Study of the Cultural Material of the Ashṭādhyāyī). By V. S. Agrawala. pp. xx + 549, 3 maps, plate. Lucknow University, 1953. Rs. 50. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 91(3-4), 181–183. 1017/ S0035869X00118544

Muhlberger, S. ( 1998) . Democracy in Ancient India.

Prakash, A. ( 2006) . Law relating to elections: an essential revision aid for law students. Universal Law Pub.

Hays, J. ( 2015) . ANCIENT INDIA IN THE TIME OF THE BUDDHA. Facts and Details.
Hobbesian ThoughtVoting Rights and SuffrageIn discussing his argument about the social contract theory and the idea that people must give the government their consent to be ruled, Thomas Hobbes explores the right to vote and what that would look like in a government with absolute authority and power over the people. When it comes to the right to vote, Hobbes would say that every individual has the right to vote on who they consent to govern them, but upon voting for the form of government and its leaders, the existence of right to vote is dependent on the type of government they consent to.

Hobbes claims that individuals have the right to vote and should exercise their right in order to consent to a form of government and therefore leave the warring state of nature. In his book De Cive Hobbes noted that, “for it is not from nature that the consent of the major part should be received for the consent of all, neither is it true in tumults, but it proceeds from civill institution, and is then onely true, when that Man or Court which hath the supreme power, assembling his subjects, by reason of the greatnesse of their number, allowes those that are elected a power of speaking for those who elected them, and will have the major part of voyces, in such matters as are by him propounded to be discust, to be as effectuall as the whole” (Hobbes 1651, 89). Hobbes’ revolutionary idea for his time was the idea that the people consent to being governed and determine the type of absolute government which they consent to. Hobbes’ main concern was how these types of government would be consented to and who would be allowed to run these governments according to the desires of the people. To remedy this question, Hobbes claims that the people should be allowed to vote on who to consent to and because voting is the only way to measure the sentiments of the people. Hobbes views the right to vote in general as the means of consenting to a government that will make decisions in the best interests of the people and without this initial vote, there is not true consent the people can give to a government. Hobbes does notes that the type of government agreed upon after the initial voting determines whether this right to vote stays intact during the life of the individual.

The right to vote is to allow initial consent to be governed by a governing body or group and changes according to the government in place. Throughout De Cive, Hobbes continued this theme writing that, “a Councell of many men, consists either of all the Citizens, (insomuch as every man of them hath a Right to Vote, and an interest in the ordering of the greatest affaires, if he will himselfe) or of a part onely; from whence there arise three sorts of Government: The one, when the Power is in a Councell, where every Citizen hath a right to Vote, and it is call'd a DEMOCRATY. The other, when it is in a Councell, where not all, but some part onely have their suffrages, and we call it an ARISTOCRATY. The third is that, when the Supreme Authority rests onely in one, and it is stiled a MONARCHY. In the first, he that governes is called demos, The PEOPLE. In the second, the NOBLES. In the third, the MONARCH” (Hobbes 1651, 91). Throughout his initial description of the idea of consenting to being governed, Hobbes goes on to describe what voting looks like within each system of government in which the people vote differently. However, despite the differences in the right to vote according to types of government, there is a consistent pattern that if the government were to dissolve and resort to the warring state of nature, then the right to vote for every citizen is restored and the people have the right to consent to a new form of government which they vote on and reestablish consent. The different forms of government have varying levels of voting, but most voting is held in order to re-establish the government and reconsent to a new body because the people have the inherent right to consent to the government that is formed. However, Hobbes makes the point that once the people have used their right to vote to consent to a government, the government uses their absolute power to make the best decisions on behalf of the community and the common good. This feeds into the idea that the right to vote only pertains to giving consent to being governed by a certain government.

Hobbes’ views on voting vary according to the form of government the people consent to. Specifically in his book titled Elements of Law, Hobbes details that within a democracy, “The first in order of time of these three sorts is democracy, and it must be so of necessity, because an aristocracy and a monarchy, require nomination of persons agreed upon; which agreement in a great multitude of men must consist in the consent of the major part; and where the votes of the major part involve the votes of the rest, there is actually a democracy” (Hobbes 1640, 119). Within his democracy the people have the inherent right to vote in which the people decide the direction of the government by a majority rule which is the most fundamental part of the democracy according to Hobbes. He notes that the democratic form of government is not perfect since the decision-making process would have to take time and quick decisions are hard to arrive upon especially in times where quick decisions are needed for the good of the community. It is within this democratic process that power is lost, especially since coming upon a single decision is hard to make when there are various voices with different opinions about the state of the government. The idea of democracy is important to Hobbes when it comes to initially consenting to the government and choosing the type of government that the people will allow themselves to be governed by.

Throughout his work, Hobbes details what each form of government looks like once consented to and his form of aristocracy poses very interesting insights into what the right to vote looks like in this form of government. In his most famous work titled, The Leviathan, Hobbes wrote that, “A Common-wealth is said to be Instituted, when a Multitude of men do Agree, and Covenant, Every One With Every One, that to whatsoever Man, or Assembly Of Men, shall be given by the major part, the Right to Present the Person of them all, (that is to say, to be their Representative;) every one, as well he that Voted For It, as he that Voted Against It, shall Authorise all the Actions and Judgements, of that Man, or Assembly of men, in the same manner, as if they were his own, to the end, to live peaceably amongst themselves, and be protected against other men” (Hobbes 1651, 144). Compared to democracy, the aristocracy is more limited when it comes to the right to vote. Like the democracy there is this inherent right to vote in order to establish the government and the assemblymen, but once given the power, the assembly retains the power and no longer requires the votes from the people to make decisions. They are given absolute power to make decisions for the people according to their thoughts on the state of the community and the state of the government. Each member of the state is allowed to vote on the initial assemblymen and each citizen consents to each member being given power, but after the assembly is responsible for ruling and deliberating on the issues of the state. The people are just expected to follow the rules of this assembly because they consented to being governed by these individuals and only upon returning to the state of nature, is this right to vote restored in order to re-establish consent to the government. One might assume that when a member of the assembly resigns or dies the people get to elect a new member, but according to Hobbes the right to vote is still not granted. Hobbes remedies this situation by claiming that those within the government should elect a new member to replace the others because they have more power and should therefore choose on behalf of the government. Hobbes does not describe how this body would return to the state of nature under an assembly so if the other representatives continue to elect one another, the right to vote may not ever exist for the citizen after they have consented to the larger government.

Finally, Hobbes spoke specifically about the monarchy and what voting would look like when a single ruler had absolute power upon being given consent to govern. When it comes to the right to vote within the monarchy, like the other forms of government, the individual has the right to vote on who they want to govern them, but like the aristocracy, once electing a monarch, the people lose the right to vote. Like the aristocracy, by voting they are consenting to who they want to govern them, thus giving them absolute power over the public and the decisions made on their behalf as well. Like the assembly, the monarch makes decisions for the public based on being given the consent to make decisions for the people. Hobbes argues that this is the best form of government because of the immediate decision made by the monarch that will increase the efficiency of the government for the people. Further discussing the monarchy within The Leviathan, Hobbes continued his argument stating that, “And first, concerning an Elective King, whose power is limited to his life, as it is in many places of Christendome at this day; or to certaine Yeares or Moneths, as the Dictators power amongst the Romans; If he have Right to appoint his Successor, he is no more Elective but Hereditary. But if he have no Power to elect his Successor, then there is some other Man, or Assembly known, which after his decease may elect a new, or else the Common-wealth dieth, and dissolveth with him, and returneth to the condition of Warre. If it be known who have the power to give the Soveraigntie after his death, it is known also that the Soveraigntie was in them before: For none have right to give that which they have not right to possesse, and keep to themselves, if they think good. But if there be none that can give the Soveraigntie, after the decease of him that was first elected; then has he power, nay he is obliged by the Law of Nature, to provide, by establishing his Successor, to keep those that had trusted him with the Government, from relapsing into the miserable condition of Civill warre. And consequently he was, when elected, a Soveraign absolute” (Hobbes 1651, 161). The monarch differs from the aristocracy when it comes to the process of succession in the cases of retirement or death of the monarch. Unlike the aristocracy in which new members are voted in by the current members, the new monarch is either determined by the old king or by the people in the case in which the old leader has not appointed someone new due to his absolute power. Hobbes claims that the monarch has the absolute power and authority to nominate a new successor in the case of his demise, but if he does not appoint someone new, the people have the right to vote in someone new since they are reduced to the state of nature again. Within the monarchy, Hobbes points out that returning to the state of nature is a more frequent phenomenon when the monarch dies and there is no successor to automatically take the position. In the case that there is no clear successor, society returns to the state of nature in which the people must vote and reconsent to being governed by some entity and therefore, their right to vote is restored.

When it comes to rights in general, Thomas Hobbes’ views of the government and the relationship it has with the people is an interesting concept considering how centralized he believes that the power the government should have. His overall belief holds that if the people consent to the government, the government should be allowed to wield unlimited power since the people gave the government permission to rule as they do. What is interesting and important about this perspective is the way that the modern take on rights has built upon the idea of consent but moved away from the absolutist view on government that Hobbes proposes. It is held true today that the government has enough power to protect the people, but not so much that it can infringe on the rights of the people because of their own values and goals. The same holds true for the right to vote today and the way that ultimately the people hold power through the means of voting and electing people rather than allowing the government to have absolute power as Hobbes proposes. The right to vote was and always will be a contested right that varies as people debate the relationship between the government and the people.


Hobbes, Thomas. De Cive. Cambridge University Press. 1998.

Hobbes, Thomas. Elements of Law. Oxford University Press New York. 1994.

Hobbes Thomas. Leviathan. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, INC. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, Limited. 1950
KantianismVoting Rights and SuffrageKant thought that citizens of a state could only be property-owning male or active members of society, and that they were the only individuals who could vote (Kant, 1991, p.27, para.1). With that in mind, as well as his hypothetical social contract theory, maintaining a just state under Kantianism seems unlikely. This is especially true when victims of the system, such as women, youth, the poor, minorities, and others, do not have a voice in what happens to them or their lives through voting and representation. Kant's system is geared on keeping the property owner and independent, while keeping the rest of society silent and dependent (Glawson, 2016) . One might expect from this emphasis that Kant would insist that the proper political system is one that not only allows individuals to think for themselves about political issues, but also contains a mechanism such as voting to translate those well-reasoned opinions into government policy.

In his discussion in “Perpetual Peace” of the traditional division of the types of government Kant classifies governments in two dimensions. The first is the “form of sovereignty” (forma imperii), concerning who rules, and here Kant identifies the traditional three forms: autocracy, aristocracy, and democracy, “the power of a prince, the power of a nobility, and the power of the people” (Kant, 1991, p. 100). The second is the “form of government” (forma regiminis) concerning how those people rule, and here Kant offers a variation on the traditional good/bad dichotomy: either republican or despotic (Kant, 1991, p.101). The term ‘republican’ in Kant’s writings, “could be interpreted to represent what nowadays is generally called parliamentary democracy” (Kant, 1991, p.25, para.2). Despotism is defined as a state of unity in which the same ruler makes and enforces rules, thus transforming an individual's private will into the public will. Kant differentiates between a republicanism and despotism emphasizing that a ‘republican’ form of government is “where the executive is separated from the legislature, and the despotic, where it is not” (Kant, 1991, p.29, para.1)

Republics require representation to guarantee that the executive authority exclusively executes the will of the people by requiring the executive to enforce only laws enacted by representatives of the people, not the executive itself. However, a republic may function with just one lawmaker if other people serve as executives (Rauscher, 2016) . Kant warns from the danger of a monarch becoming a tyrant. A monarch would enact laws in the name of the people, but the monarch's ministers would oversee enforcing them. Thus, like Rousseau, Kant is convinced that the adage of a republican government is the respect of law by the people and also by the ruler and the sovereign. (Kant, 1991, p.30, para.2). Kant's argument that such a government is republican demonstrates his belief that a republican government does not need real participation of the people in creating laws, even though elected representatives, as long as the laws are issued with the people's entire united will in mind.

When Kant addresses voting for representatives, he conforms to many of the time's prevalent biases. The right to vote necessitates, in Kant’s words, "being one's own master," (Kant, 1991, p.27), which entails owning property or having a talent that can sustain oneself. Kant classes those who are independent as ‘active’ citizens and those who are not as ‘passive’. He also excludes women from voting, claiming that “ [Women] are, on principle, disqualified. But any legislation should always be enacted and carried out as if the passive citizens too were participating” (Kant, 1991, p.27). His thesis is that these people are unsuitable to vote because they lack the ability to reason and have no free choice “being one’s own master” (Kant, 1991, p. 27). The mentally sick and the elderly who are unable to function are further instances of people who lack reason and are not their own masters. According to Kant, the presumption of being "one's own master" is essential for citizenship eligibility. For example, at least in Kant’s time, when a woman got married, her possessions became her husband's, and she is expected to completely rely on him, thus she does not own property and consequently excluded from voting (Glawson, 2017) . To summarize, Kant did not believe that married women could be active members of a state or citizens since they are incompetent and dependent by their very nature as women (Glawson, 2017) . Thus, Kant believes that just by adopting the people's point of view, a single individual or small group may properly represent the people at large. Insistence on a representative system is not the same as insisting on a representative system that is elected.

Regardless, Kant clearly believes that an elective representational democracy is preferable. Republican constitutions, he says, are more likely to prevent war because, when the people's permission is required, they will weigh the costs of war (fighting, taxes, property damage, and so on), but a non-republican ruler may be immune to such considerations. He also mentions in the "Doctrine of Right" that a republican government represents the people "by all the citizens united and acting via their delegates" (Rauscher, 2016) .


Glawson, J. D. ( 2017, November 24). Immanuel Kant on Suffrage: With a Libertarian Disagreement. Medium.

Kant, I. ( 1991) . Kant: political writings. Cambridge University Press.

Rauscher, F. ( 2016, September 1). Kant's social and political philosophy. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Lockean Thought/English EmpiricismVoting Rights and SuffrageIn his second treatise of government, John Locke rejects the divine right of kings, stating that men are, by nature, equal and free. When a political society is therefore formed, it will reflect this state of nature, existing only with the consent of the governed and practiced under majority rule. There is an inherent relationship between the people and the state, wherein citizens give up some of their natural rights with the trust that the government will act in the common good - if the government fails to do so, the people also have the autonomy to choose a new government. Locke therefore, makes the argument that humans naturally govern under the consent of the majority, staunchly supporting political franchise.

In the first two chapters of the treatise, Locke disproves the divine right of kings and establishes the natural state of man to be equal and free. Most of the first chapter addresses Sir Robert Filmer, who made the argument that Adam had authority from God to rule, therefore enshrining the divine right of kings, as his heirs would assume positions of power. Locke states that “Adam had not…any such authority over his children or dominion over the world…[and] if he had, his heirs yet had no right to it…[and] that [even] if his heirs had…the right of succession, and consequently of bearing rule, could not have been certainly determined” (Locke, An Essay, 695). Locke makes the argument that Adam had no such inherent right to rule by distinguishing that “private dominion and parental jurisdiction” (Locke, An Essay, 695) are not the basis of political power; instead, God, as the ruler of all men, created them in “a state of perfect freedom” (Locke, An Essay, 696), where no one individual holds advantages or superiority over another. This natural state of freedom is “not a state of licence” (Locke, An Essay, 696), however, as the law of nature - reason - ensures that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Locke, An Essay, 697). Freedom and equality, therefore, are the basis of the natural state, governed by reason, and ultimately rejecting absolute rule as a violation of this natural state.

Locke then discusses the formation of political societies, reflecting the natural state, which exists with the consent of the governed. He states that “men being… by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent” (Locke, An Essay, 743), thereby establishing the right of citizens to choose their leaders. Once a civil society is established, it must operate under majority rule, as “the consent of every individual… made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority” (Locke, An Essay, 743). The operation of a political society is the will of the majority, which reflects the consent of each individual to participate within such a society. He claims that majority rule, therefore, is not only naturally assumed, but the most practical form of governance, since “the consent of every individual… next to impossible ever to be had” (Locke, An Essay, 744). Locke claims that this is a phenomenon to be seen throughout all of history, even in the cases of “nations which have no certain kings, but as occasion is offered, in peace or war, they choose their captains as they please” (Locke, An Essay, 745). He uses this to show that even in these cases, there was a mutual agreement between subject and ruler, and that these political societies began “from a voluntary union” (Locke, An Essay, 745). Therefore, Locke asserts the rationale behind the conclusion that “all peaceful beginnings of government have been laid in the consent of the people” (Locke, An Essay, 751).

However, despite the existence of the natural state and natural laws, there is still a purpose for the government. Locke explains that because men do not respect others’ freedoms, the state of nature must be governed by authority. Being “ constantly exposed to the invasion of others… it is not without reason that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates” (Locke, An Essay, 757). He identifies three key traits lacking in the state of nature, that being the relativity of right and wrong, the lack of an impartial judgment, and the inability to enforce punishment (Locke, An Essay, 757). It is for these reasons that the government has a purpose to serve in the common good - safeguarding the life, liberty and property of citizens through the creation of legislation and enforcement of such. In return for this service, citizens can be expected to give up some of their own natural rights, namely the right to self preservation and the right to punishment (Locke, An Essay, 758). Locke states that “both these he gives up, when he joins in a private, if I may so call it, or particular political society, and incorporates into any commonwealth, separate from the rest of mankind” (Locke, An Essay, 758). This is the form of social contract, wherein citizens exchange some of their natural rights for the protection of the state, which is expected to use its powers to act in the common good (Locke, An Essay, 758).

If this social contract is violated by the government, then “the people are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new legislative, differing from the other by the change of persons, or form, or both, as they shall find it most for their safety and good” (Locke, An Essay, 809). There are two instances when this may occur: firstly, the dissolution of the government, and the second when the government acts contrary to the trust of the people (Locke, An Essay, 808-810). Locke concludes that the power which individuals hold is given to the government so long as the commonwealth lasts, as “[the people] have given up their political power to the legislative, and cannot resume it” (Locke, An Essay, 823). However, there is a limitation to this power, in that it is only a temporary one, and in the instance of the abuse of power, forfeiture, or completion of term, the people have the right to “erect a new form [of government], or under the old form place it in new hands, as they think good” (Locke, An Essay, 823).

Throughout the second treatise, Locke makes the case for universal suffrage. Locke, by establishing the natural state of man, asserts that there is an inherent right to choose a government under majority rule. The government is expected to act in the common good of the people, and if these terms of the social contract are not met, the government can be replaced by the people as well.


Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: with the second treatise of government. Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, 2015.
PlatonismVoting Rights and SuffrageIn the Republic and Laws, these dialogues of Plato attempt to firstly address the conception of the ideal state, and further, the practices and implementation of such a state. Plato’s Republic provides an insight into the possibility of a new system of governance, outlined primarily with the guided discussion of Socrates. Throughout the series, Socrates defines the nature of justice and the conditions under which one would be incentivized to act justly, drawing parallels between the state and the individual. Socrates argues that the just state will provide stability and prosperity to society. Plato’s Laws comes to a similar conclusion about the just state, however, justice here is maintained through the enforcement of virtuous law. Throughout several dialogues with the Athenian stranger, the conception of the state is presented through a more democratic lens. Although Plato does not officially endorse voting rights, the system in Laws is a controlled form of voting, whereby citizens nominate candidates, who are then selected through subsequent rounds of voting and the drawing of lots. Emphasis is placed on the scrutiny of final candidates to ensure that virtuous people are put into authoritative positions.

States will only be effective if they are ruled in a just manner, however, just leadership must come from just men. Socrates addresses the nature of justice both within society and pertaining to individuals in the Republic. The structure of Kallipolis is based upon both the individual and collective will to act virtuously - if the state is successful in cultivating just citizens, just policy will be enacted. A similar principle is presented in Laws, but importance is emphasized here on the role of the lawmaker, who enacts virtuous laws, and the education of citizens, which indicates virtue within a society.

The Myth of the Metals, or Noble Lie, lays out the foundation for social order in Socrates’ Kallipolis. He proposes that a noble lie is needed in order to allow for citizens to accept their position within the state, as well as to instill a sense of unity, as citizens will regard themselves as “brothers and sisters, sprung from the self same earth.” (Plato, The Republic, Book III, 414E). Justice is defined in the Republic as each of the three classes performing their respective duties, and not engaging in the affairs of the other classes. “In relation to the excellence of the city, the capacity of each person therein to engage in what belongs to himself is on an equal footing with its wisdom, its sound-mindedness and its courage (Plato, The Republic, Book IV, 433D),” thus, the city retains unity and is able to cultivate a collective virtue. Upon the basis of the individual, Socrates alludes that “a just man will not differ from a just city with respect to the form itself, of justice” (Plato, The Republic, Book IV, 435B). The argument that Socrates proposes is that the state cannot be just unless man is just, and vice versa; that justice is contingent upon practice within the individual as well as the state. A unified state is created through the enforcement of this class system, and the unified state indicates a just society.

In the Laws, the Athenian stranger proposes internal warfare is the greatest threat to a society, which he describes as the threat of faction. Here, he states that, “the highest good, however, is neither war nor civil strife (Plato, Laws, Book I, 628C)…the city itself winning a victory over itself is not to be counted among the best outcomes, but among those that are necessary” (Plato, Laws, Book I, 628D). Additionally, a distinction is made between divine goods and human goods, in which the former are composed of virtues such as wisdom, sound disposition, justice, and courage. The purpose of the law is to regulate the behavior of citizens, so that they will pursue the divine goods over human; the stranger suggests that “[the citizens] should be watched and supervised, and censure or praise should be bestowed…through the laws themselves” (Plato, Laws, Book I, 632A). The just state will ultimately arise from the virtuous citizen, and the method by which one achieves virtue is through abiding virtuous laws.

Thus, the role of the lawmaker is such that dictates virtue within society, and it is the citizen’s responsibility to follow these laws to achieve personal virtue. The stranger suggests that “the lawgiver has set out, in detail, what’s disgraceful and evil on the one hand, and what’s good and noble on the other, [and] whoever is not prepared to refrain from [evil] by every means at his disposal (Plato, Laws, Book V, 728A)… is heaping vile dishonor and deformity on his most divine possession, his soul” (Plato, Laws, Book V, 728B). Virtuous law will uphold the divine goods, and the citizen will protect his most divine element (the soul) by following the law. This law acts as a form of unity within the state, so when there is faction, this indicates that citizens are not abiding to the laws and therefore disregarding virtue itself - this is described as an “excess of [human goods] bring[ing] about enmity and faction…[which] is good neither for [citizens], nor for the city” (Plato, Laws, Book V, 729A). In the Laws this unity plays an essential role in shaping the legislation of the city-state; insofar that the citizens are not divided, the most effective state will unify if just laws are enforced. This unification is not contingent on the basis of equality, which differentiates Plato’s discourses from modern conceptions of suffrage.

Once the connection between justice in the individual and the state is established, the question of leadership arises. Who is fit to be in the ruling class, and is it possible to ensure they will not be corrupted to act in their own interests? Socrates proposes the theory of forms and the allegory of the cave as an answer to this. The philosopher king is the sole entity fit to rule, who must be trained rigorously in order to fulfill such a position. Conversely, in Laws, it is suggested that although absolute rule will be most effective in enforcing laws, it is impossible to ensure that citizens will abide by them through compulsion alone. Therefore, a system of voting including the drawing of lots is proposed, which combines both democratic and monarchic elements.

Socrates uses the allegory of the cave to establish the flawed nature of human beings. The cave is representative of the physical realm, shadows of the images of physical objects, statues of the physical objects themselves, and the fire as the Sun. What is physically tangible is easier to comprehend, however belief concerning visible things alone is perceived as a low perception of the truth. The analogy of the cave proposes that most are blind to the good, therefore they are unable to act truly virtuously.. Instead, they comprehend the intelligible realm through the means of the physical realm, as a desire for worldly possessions and physical objects. The shadows presented to them are seemingly the truth, therefore they have an unwavering belief in what is idealized to them (the statues, ie. physical objects). The only one who can truly perceive the intelligible realm and act virtuously is the philosopher - therefore, Socrates suggests that the state should be ruled by a philosopher king who is able to maintain virtue within society. Additionally, Socrates warns of the unrestrained freedom within democratic systems, which eliminate systems of law and order. He equates this to the loss of virtue within society, as the citizens become weary of authority and “don’t even pay attention to the laws, written or unwritten” (Plato, The Republic, Book VIII, 563D). The future of democracy is dependent on the sentiment of the masses, in which the rulers fear the people - Socrates compares this to the father who is subservient to his son, and the teacher who is afraid of his pupils. For fear of displeasing the public, rulers will attempt to appease the masses, and this is the tactic that will eventually lead to the rise of the tyrant. This version of Kallipolis disparages the concept of democracy and democratic rights such as suffrage, equating these systems to the downfall of society.

However, in Laws, the concept of the philosopher king is disputed. Although the Athenian states that the most efficient way to rule would be under a just tyrant and virtuous lawmaker (Plato, Laws, Book IV, 710E), it is recognized that human nature does not reflect the ideal state, and that “any [city] ruled by some mortal, and not by God, finds no escape from evils and hardships for their citizens” (Plato, Laws, Book IV, 713E). He proposes that law plays the important role of regulating the behavior of both citizens and leaders, as it “[regulates] by reason,”(Plato, Laws, Book IV, 714A) both the public and private spheres. This is presented as the divine element of reason, by which rational laws will mirror a divine rule - rational law will allow for citizens to “[obey] the immortal element within them,” (Plato, Laws, Book IV, 713E) acting rationally, and therefore virtuously. He uses the doctor analogy to support this, wherein the slave doctor represents the tyrant who rules by compulsion alone, and the free doctor represents the legislator who creates laws using both compulsion and persuasion (Plato, Laws, Book IV, 720C). Only with the cooperation of the patient, who represents the citizen, is the doctor able to successfully restore his health (Plato, Laws, Book IV, 720C). Similarly, within the state, the rational laws can only have effect within the city if the citizens are willing to adopt them - absolute rule, therefore, is not a realistic solution, as compulsion alone is not enough to ensure compliance with the laws (Plato, Laws, Book IV, 720C). The stranger concludes that the legislator should be like the free doctor, so that citizens will willingly obey the laws (Plato, Laws, Book IV, 720C). Additionally rulers should be “servants of the laws,” (Plato, Laws, Book IV, 715C) as the “salvation…of the city hinges, most of all, upon this” - the subservience of the entire populace to the laws (Plato, Laws, Book IV, 715D). The Athenian acknowledges the role of the legislator as shared with the public, and rejects the concept of absolute rule.

The proposed voting system would “maintain a mean between monarchic and democratic constitution” (Plato, Laws, Book VI, 756E), as candidates would first be nominated, and proceed through several rounds of public voting until the top thirty seven candidates were chosen (Plato, Laws, Book VI, 756C). At this point, half the candidates would be selected through a lottery, and then subject to scrutiny before appointment (Plato, Laws, Book VI, 756E). In the case of positions of office, the vote is to be cast by “all who were involved in the military” (Plato, Laws, Book VI, 753B). In the Republic, Socrates designates a specific military class in the Myth of the Metals. If a similar class system were to be assumed here, it may be reasonable to suggest that suffrage would not be universal, due to the strict class segregation argued for in Kallipolis. The Laws, however, as previously established, operate outside of Kallipolis, so it is reasonable to assume that military status would not be limited to a specific class within society. The Athenian stranger places importance on physical education in the development of good character and military training of citizens. When discussing the city-state, he exalts military exercise as amongst the noble pursuits (Plato, Laws, Book VIII, 831E), and proposes physical contests for each of the military classes - for the horsemen and chariots, archers and hoplites - where victors can win prizes (833B). He suggests that there should be three classes of competition for all members of society: one for the women, children, and men, respectively (Plato, Laws, Book VIII, 833C). The military education is not only stressed but encouraged for all and therefore the vote may be at least relatively accessible. When considering the origins of hoplite warfare, linked to the agrarian sector of Greek society (Hale, “Origins of Hoplite Warfare,” 177), it can also be assumed that citizens of various classes were involved in the Greek military. Hoplite service was also mandatory during the Classical Age and eventually became enforced by record, where conscription was based exclusively on age (Christ, “Conscription of Hoplites in Ancient Athens,” 398). Taking these points into account, the Athenian stranger would likely have been advocating for a relatively universal form of voting, as most citizens were under conscription.

The Athenian stranger proposes two types of equalities, one that is measurable by weight and number, and the other, the pure virtue of equality itself, described as the “truest and most excellent quality…the judgment of Zeus” (Plato, Laws, Book VI, 757B). This pure equality, therefore, is likened to the divine good; this divine equality acts as a form of justice itself by “giving due measure to each, according to their own nature…bestowing greater honors upon those whose excellence is greater” (Plato, Laws, Book VI, 757C). The voting system is able to merge this divine equality with its measurable counterpart - divine equality is exercised in the casting of the lots, as chance or fate determines who is best suited for leadership. The stranger explains this when discussing the appointment of priests, stating that “we should allow God to bring about what is pleasing (Plato, Laws, Book VI, 759B) to himself, by entrusting the matter to the divine chance of the lot” (Plato, Laws, Book VI, 759C), and purity is maintained through the process of scrutiny, ensuring that those who are appointed truly display qualities of integrity and legitimacy, “pure and untainted by slaughter and all such transgressions of divine precepts (Plato, Laws, Book VI, 759C). Measurable equality is seen in the nomination and subsequent rounds of voting, whereby candidates are evaluated by citizens on the basis of their character and virtue. Here, importance is stressed on the education of the selectors, as they should be “reared in lawful habits, and well enough educated to be able to decide…who deserves to be accepted as satisfactory” (Plato, Laws, Book VI,751C). If citizens are educated on principles of virtue, then this will be reflected in their scrutiny, benefiting society overall in the appointment of proper leaders.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates disparages the democratic system for its failure to uphold virtues within both the individual and society. He argues that an “insatiable desire” (Plato, Republic, Book VIII, 562B) for freedom will lead to injustice in the state, as class divides will cease to exist and individuals are dictated by their appetitive desires. The system proposed in Laws, however, acts as an intermediary between the ideals of Kallipolis and the reality of human nature, by merging principles of absolutism with democratic practices. A measured equality is maintained through the casting of lots, and importance is stressed on the education of citizens to be able to maintain virtue within society, reflected in the appointment of leaders.


Christ, Matthew R. “Conscription of Hoplites in Classical Athens,” The Classical Quarterly, 51, no. 2 ( 2001) : 398–422,

Hale, John R. “Not Patriots, Not Farmers, Not Amateurs: Greek Soldiers of Fortune and the Origins of Hoplite Warfare.” In Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece, edited by Donald Kagan and Gregory Viggiano, 176-191. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Plato. Laws, Book I. Translated by David Horan. The Dialogues of Plato, Platonic Foundation, 2021.

Plato. Laws, Book IV. Translated by David Horan. The Dialogues of Plato, Platonic Foundation, 2021.

Plato. Laws, Book V. Translated by David Horan. The Dialogues of Plato, Platonic Foundation, 2021.

Plato. Laws, Book VI. Translated by David Horan. The Dialogues of Plato, Platonic Foundation, 2021.

Plato. Republic, Book III. Translated by David Horan. The Dialogues of Plato, Platonic Foundation, 2021.

Plato. Republic, Book IV. Translated by David Horan. The Dialogues of Plato, Platonic Foundation, 2021.

Plato. Republic, Book VIII. Translated by David Horan. The Dialogues of Plato, Platonic Foundation, 2021.
PostmodernismVoting Rights and SuffragePostmodernism evolved during the late 20th century in opposition to modernism and as a response to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment encouraged a shift from intellectual dependence on the church and theology to a belief in a universal moral and intellectual historical experience legitimated by reason (Woods 1999, 227). Modernism supports the belief in this type of organization of knowledge and the human experience, suggesting that such reasoning would be unified by scientific thinking, teleology, and rationality. Modernism uses reason and scientific procedure to establish universal truths from which knowledge can be claimed and order established. The Enlightenment led to the spread of democratic values in the west, and likewise, influenced the creation of modern democratic institutions, a form of reason in practice (Gaete 1991, 149). An important change that stemmed from modernism and the Enlightenment was the acceptance of human rights as ethical truths. The statement, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations (United Nations 1948) was offered as a universal truth that would provide social order based on the objective reasoning suggested by modernism (Gaete 1991, 149). For example, from this claim, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could uphold that “The will of the people shall be the basis of authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be universal and equal in suffrage…” (United Nations 1948). From the acceptance of the initial statement of objective rights as a universal truth, equal political participation and voting rights could be theoretically promised.

The postmodern response to modernism reflects a difference in attitude, but does not imply that postmodernism will supersede modernism. In this way, postmodern thinking offers a critique of reason (Woods 1999, 9). According to Sabina Lovibond, “Postmodernism… rejects the doctrine of the unity of reason. It refuses to conceive of humanity as a unitary subject striving towards the goal of perfect coherence (in its common stock of beliefs) or of perfect cohesion and stability (in its political practice)” (Lovibond 1989). Modernism relies on metanarratives, an overarching pattern and interpretation of society, while postmodernism rejects this idea of an “all-encompassing rationality” (Woods 1990, 10). There are two relevant points to consider regarding postmodernism in relation to voting rights. First off, postmodernists are largely opposed to the hierarchical structure of government and tend to question their trust in institutionalized government (Green & Roberts 2012, 85). Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard who helped to formulate postmodernism suggests that postmodernists are suspicious of political narratives. Examples of such narratives include the idea of progress that is associated with the Enlightenment and ‘social liberation’ associated with Marxism. Lyotard refers to these types of narratives as “violent” and “tyrannical” for attempting to impose a universal pattern on human experience and knowledge. Instead, Lyotard believes knowledge can only be understood as partial and nonexclusive. According to Lyotard, “Scientists, technicians, and instruments are purchased not to find truth, but to augment power” (Lyotard 1984, 46). Postmodernists are opposed to this type of hierarchical structure, suggesting that older proponents of modernism were “being blind to the destructive and oppressive nature of all totalising ideologies” (Arslan 1999, 205). In terms of voting rights, this ‘totalising ideology’ may be the claim that voting rights provide the best method of citizen political participation. Postmodernists would instead suggest that the human experience is constantly changing and developing, so this ‘totalising ideology’ may not be all inclusive. While they may be in favor of voting rights in practice, they would reject the idea of voting rights and human rights as universal truths, suggesting that successful political commitments are not necessarily the result of institutional calls to universal truths, but rather of continued innovation (Woods 1999, 13).

The second point to consider with regard to voting rights is that postmodernists believe that the marginalized should be accounted for. Postmodernists suggest that meaning is constantly evolving and is contingent on situational factors and dependent on the interpreter. For the individual, postmodernism means liberation from fixed identities. Postmodernists do not believe that metanarratives can describe each individual, but rather believe that identity can be diverse despite sharing a common situation (Woods 1990, 44). They argue, “There must be an attempt to recoup the power of the individual to tell his or her narrative; that is, anti-foundationalism in this guise becomes the access to the control of one’s own politics” (Woods 1999, 21). One way to afford power to the individual may be by means of voting rights for all in order to provide representation for those who are otherwise marginalized and to account for the diverse individual human experience. Postmodernists do not think that minorities and all individuals are correctly represented by political metanarratives, and therefore, they would support representation for all by means of voting as a way to avoid the miscategorization of individuals into metanarratives. In fact, the feminist movement is an example of this type of resistance to popular culture, which has contributed to the spread of postmodernism (Woods 1999, 170).


Arslan, Zuhtu. “Taking Rights Less Seriously: Postmodernism and Human Rights.” Res publica (Liverpool, England) 5, no. 2 (1999): 195–.

Gaete, Rolando. “Postmodernism and Human Rights: Some Insidious Questions.” Law and critique 2, no. 2 (1991): 149–170.

Green, Daryl D., and Gary E. Roberts. “Impact of Postmodernism on Public Sector Leadership Practices: Federal Government Human Capital Development Implications.” Public Personnel Management 41, no. 1 (2012): 79–96.

Lovibond, Sabina. “Feminism and Postmodernism.” New Left review, no. 178 (1989): 5–28.

Lyotard, Jean-François, Geoffrey Bennington, and Brian Massumi. The Postmodern Condition : a Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984..

Woods, Tim. Beginning Postmodernism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.
Process PhilosophyVoting Rights and SuffrageProcess philosophy is a philosophical tradition that describes reality as primarily being made up of processes or events, rather than objects (Rescher, 2000, pg. 4). This means that when we look at supposedly static objects in our world, we are actually seeing a constantly changing event or an action taking place, and things that seem like they are static are just processes that are relatively more stable than others. Nicholas Rescher describes the main claim succinctly: “Even on the surface of it, verbs have as good a claim to reality as nouns. For process theorists, becoming is no less important than being…The phenomenology of change is stressed precisely because the difference between a museum and the real world of an ever-changing nature is to be seen as crucial to our understanding of reality” (pg. 4).

While a political connection to Process Philosophy’s metaphysical and ontological claims seems far-fetched, Alfred North Whitehead—perhaps the most rigorous and defining theorist for Process Philosophy in the 20th century—claimed that the goal of philosophy is to “…voyage towards the larger generalities” of human life and behavior (Whitehead, 1979, pg. 94). This meaning that an understanding of the nature of reality will then give you access to insights of psychology, aesthetics, ethics, sociology, language, and virtually every other human enquiry and experience.

The majority of political history, static roles were assigned to rulers and their subjects. A king and his identity were stamped definitively, and this title was described as chosen by God; the king’s unchanging identity was a thing in the universe. The Process Philosophy critique of this type of conception is decidedly an aesthetic one: “People instinctively dislike being described in thing-classificatory terms…Such object-property attributions indicate a fixed nature that we naturally see as repugnant to ourselves” (pg. 14). This is to say, a political system which tries its hardest to stay the same and not go through changes in power and interactions goes against how reality is presented and organized to us, as well as what we value in ourselves and others.

With this analysis, the right to vote can clearly be understood. After thousands of years of static politics, people began to advocate for a political system which would better reflect the dynamism, novelty, and change seen in reality. The right to vote allows for processes like changes in leadership, as well as changes in the law and governance. Due to the ever-changing opinions and contexts that individuals go through, the right to vote allows for a reflection of this novelty. Such a system is empowering due to it allowing individuals to express themselves as ever changing processes themselves as opposed to static objects and it is metaphysically accurate according to our natures and the nature of reality. Also, it is telling that such political ideals came about during the Enlightenment, a period of time where understanding of the world without appeal to philosophical and religious tradition was given major emphasis. As we learned more about the world, we learned about the ideal political system.


Rescher, Nicholas. Process Philosophy : a Survey of Basic Issues. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

Whitehead, Alfred North, David Ray Griffin, and Donald W. Sherburne. Process and Reality : an Essay in Cosmology. Corrected ed. / edited by David Ray Griffin, Donald W. Sherburne. New York: Free Press, 1979.
Roman Legal and Political ThoughtVoting Rights and SuffrageThe Constitution of Ancient Rome consisted largely of unwritten laws and was commonly enforced according to precedent and tradition. Hence, the right to vote and to participate in the electoral process was not written explicitly within the Constitution of the Roman Republic (Lintott 2015, 3). Greek historian Polybius did explain, however, that “the people had the right to make or rescind any law,” and he emphasized the sovereignty of the Roman people who would validate Roman political decisions (Atkins 2018, 9). Within Ancient Rome, voting assemblies would give their approval of the laws and the magistrates. Such assemblies were referred to as “the people,” and these groups, which excluded women and slaves, would represent the Roman citizens (Atkins 2018, 19). This differed from a system of “one-man, one-vote” as was employed in Athens. The three assemblies of Rome included the Curiate Assembly, the Tribal Assembly, and the Centuriate Assembly. Roman assemblies were formed on the basis of wealth, military status, and sometimes religion (Hall 1964, 270). The election of consuls, the gathering of assemblies, and other voting procedures were not explained within the Constitution or in any specific legislature, however, they were commonly referred to in books from religious colleges, which had some authority at the time (Lintott 2015, 4).

The right to vote was often limited by the fact that not all votes carried the same weight. The successive order in which groups voted could have influenced election outcomes and the speed with which election outcomes reached a majority. Members of the higher class were commonly in assemblies with fewer people, allowing their individual voice and vote to be more impactful than that of someone from a lower class in a larger assembly. Similarly, group decisions dictated the vote, rather than individual votes. It is likely that more powerful men or families within each assembly would have had more power and influence over their assembly (Hall 1964, 270). To this extent, voting blocks could be organized in order to favor certain political agendas (Atkins 2018, 21). The sovereignty of the citizens of Rome was subject to limitations. In Rome, the citizens were limited insofar as the electoral decisions made by voting assemblies had to be approved by the Roman aristocratic council. Citizens taking part in voting assemblies were not given the ability to propose new legislation, rather they were only able to vote for or against legislation introduced by magistrates (Atkins 2018, 19).

Roman historian Titus Livius was more concerned with achieving political ownership rather than equal citizen participation. Livius argued that “equal liberty” for the people meant that they would be able to elect whoever they wanted to the magistrate. To this extent, “equal liberty” meant citizens having complete decision making power over who would govern (Atkins 2018, 51). Gaius Canuleius, like Livius, supported opening up the consulship to allow plebeians to join, though he was more concerned with equal citizen participation, suggesting that all citizens should have an equal vote in order to avoid domination (Atkins 2018, 52). Although Ancient Rome did not necessarily achieve to the fullest extent such political ownership or equal citizen participation, and hence there is some debate over whether Ancient Rome truly was a democracy, Romans did recognize the need for checks and balances in a stable regime.


Atkins, Jed W. Roman Political Thought. Cambridge, United Kingdom ;: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Hall, Ursula. “Voting Procedure in Roman Assemblies.” Historia : Zeitschrift für alte Geschichte 13, no. 3 (1964): 267–306.

Lintott, A. W. (Andrew William). The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford ;: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Rousseau's ThoughtVoting Rights and SuffrageIn Rousseau's Social Contract, he discusses how society is designed to be a give and take between governors and the governed. This relationship is probably most evident in his discussion on elections and democracy. Rousseau believes that democracy is a perfect form of government, as it holds the sovereign to the general will and separates the "maker of laws [from the one] to execute them" (Rousseau 1953, 71). However, there are many flaws with democracy in Rousseau's mind, primarily being born from the inherent flaws of the people within it. People need the government to be governed as they are not perfect; therefore, there will always be problems with the "influence of private interests in public affairs" (Rousseau 1953, 71). This influence of personal interest coupled with the struggle of forming a society "where the people can readily be assembled" for matters of state like a true democracy requires (Rousseau 1953, 72). For both of these requirements to be met, the government must only control a small amount of land with a small population "where each citizen… [is] well acquainted with all the rest" (Rousseau 1953, 72). These criteria allow for a society that can always gather to discuss policy and legislation for each person to cast their vote on each issue presented. However, these criteria, the elimination of personal interest and a small state, are nearly impossible to establish in society sustainably. Inevitably, personal interest, corruption, or any other inhibitor will get in the way, or a city’s population will increase too much and that is why Rousseau believes that "so perfect a form of government is not for men"' (Rousseau 1953, 73).

Having a small and compact state is also a utilitarian view. Rousseau knows that for voters to want to participate, they will need to think that their vote matters, for example: "suppose that this state consists of ten thousand citizens… thus the sovereign is as ten thousand to one; that is to say, every member of the state has, as his own share, only one ten-thousandth part of the sovereign power, although he is subject to the whole" (Rousseau 2004) . Therefore, if you make the republic bigger, let us say this time the republic is "composed of one hundred thousand men, the position of the subjects is unchanged, and each continues to bear the whole weight of the laws, while his vote, reduced to the one hundred-thousandth part, has ten times less influence in the making of the laws" (Rousseau 2004) . This means that as the republic thrives and grows, it will become more prominent, and therefore less liberty is guaranteed through the republic's own institutions (Rousseau 2004) . However, Rousseau's apprehension toward a true democracy does not mean that he does not believe in citizens' right to vote.

Since Rousseau identifies direct or perfect democracies as implausible, he discusses the two main ways magistrates, legislators, and the prince should be appointed. Rousseau agrees with Montesquieu in that "'selection by lot… is natural to democracy'" (Rousseau 1953, 119). This is because a democracy facilitates a community "in which each member can participate unreservedly" (Watt 1981, 719), acting on their right to vote and even having "'a reasonable hope of serving his country'" (Rousseau 1953, 119). However, the act of desiring a political position, as prospective representatives would need to campaign for election, is a personal interest that Rousseau sees as a hindrance to government. Rousseau criticizes Montesquieu by pointing out that in a "democracy, public office is not an advantage but a heavy responsibility" (Rousseau 1953, 119-120). Because of this, Rousseau believes that the Venetian and Athenian system for appointing legislators is better for democracy than vote by lot. Since the "selection of rulers is a function of government, and not of sovereignty," and that "common sense, judgment, and integrity [should be] sufficient" in all candidates, then sortition, which appoints the legislators by random chance, allows for a government without infighting and personal interest influencing the functions of government (Rousseau 1953, 119-120). However, even in this system, Rousseau believes that the public should still have a say when voting to "fill those positions which demand particular talents, such as military officers" (Rousseau 1953, 121). The military is exempt from the duty which is associated with public office as it is a position which does not need to follow the general will. The government must be run by the people and not be diluted by their opinions. Therefore, the military can be elected, while the legislator must be appointed by random chance. This is where Rousseau's concept of the general will come in and starts playing a role in his view on voting.

Whether it is the public voting on a member of the government or legislators voting on policy, there will always be a majority and minority, which will form based on differing opinions about what is best for the republic. Rousseau stresses that within the assemblies of government, "the more agreement there is…, the more also does the general will prevail" (Rousseau 1953, 116). Therefore, the more "long debates, dissensions, and tumult" allowed within the assemblies leads to the "ascendancy of private and particular interests and the decline of the state" (Rousseau 1953, 116). Rousseau's solution to this dissent to the general will is "unanimous consent" (Rousseau 1953, 117). If the general will is being challenged, then the only way to refine it is only to pass legislation on which everyone agrees. While technically still allowing each magistrate to vote on policy, this leaves their votes meaning nothing unless everyone can agree. This dilutes the power of each person's vote even further, making the dissent and long discussion that Rousseau pointed to as the things that made the state's decline necessary. Therefore, while Rousseau believes that there is a right to vote, there are restrictions on the power that each person's vote holds due to the chance of the general will being deteriorated by personal interests and intrigues.

While the people's right to vote is guaranteed in democracies, Rousseau does not believe it is an inherent right in all governments. He is relatively straightforward about monarchies stating that "neither sortition nor election has any place in a monarchical government," going further to say that "the monarch is by right the sole prince and magistrate, the choice of his lieutenants belongs to him only" (Rousseau 1953, 121). Therefore, monarchs have the right to hold the sole authority in the government and do not have to give the people the power to vote due to their monarchical rights. However, even in republics, there are situations in which Rousseau believes the right to vote can be curbed. Taking from the Roman institution of the dictator, Rousseau believes that if "the greatest dangers are great enough to equal the danger of changing the public order," then the rule of law may have to be set aside to remedy the dangers (Rousseau 1953, 136). Therefore, the government must "increase the activity of the government" to counteract the issue, and Rousseau believes that "if the peril is such that the apparatus of law itself is an obstacle to security, then [the state] must appoint a supreme ruler who will silence the law" (Rousseau 1953, 137). This ruler's sole goal would be to see that "the state does not perish," and to do this the dictator will use their authority to ensure that "there is no doubt as to the general will" (Rousseau 1953, 137). The dictator will unify the government citizenry of the republic and enforce his will to save the state. However, the dictator must remove the people's voice in the assemblies and their say as to who will be legislators. They will curb the "long debates, dissensions, and tumult" which lead to the "decline of the state," effectively silencing dissenters and saving the state at the expense of the citizens' rights. Therefore, while Rousseau believes in the right to vote, he only believes that a citizen's vote should hold so much power. Furthermore, in some instances, these votes should hold no power, depending on the threats to the state and the form of government.


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1953. Political Writings. Translated and edited by Frederick Watkins. The University of Wisconsin Press.

Watt, E. D. 1981. “Rousseau Réchaufée-Being Obliged, Consenting, Participating, and Obeying Only Oneself.” The Journal of Politics Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 707-719.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2004. Emile. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Emile.
Social DarwinismVoting Rights and SuffrageSocial Darwinism held that human life in society was a fight for survival guided by the principle of "survival of the fittest", proposed by British philosopher and scientist Herbert Spencer. In his later publications, Spencer's devotion to the right of universal suffrage waned. While he views universal suffrage in Social Statics ( 1851) as a reliable way of keeping government from overstepping its bounds in safeguarding moral rights, he concludes in Principles of Ethics that universal suffrage fails to do so successfully, and therefore abandons his support for it. He subsequently came to the conclusion that universal suffrage posed more of a danger to moral rights than it did to defend them (Spencer on Voting, 1879) . Over-legislation was promoted by universal suffrage, especially when it was extended to women, as it allowed the government to take on tasks that were not its responsibility.

Spencer understood that liberalism's fundamental objective has never been to grant people the right to vote, but rather to limit government authority. In Social Statics ( 1981) , he states that “The function of Liberalism in the past was that of putting a limit to the powers of kings. The function of true Liberalism in the future will be that of putting a limit to the powers of Parliaments” (Spencer, 1981, p. 166). The primary motivation for expanding suffrage is to limit or prevent the government's role from expanding. When this aim is challenged, the law of equal freedom may be jeopardized less by suffrage restrictions than by their removal, according to Social Statics (Miller, 1982, p. 492).

Spencer's work emphasizes the importance of changes in the pattern of interrelationships between the individual and the state in social evolution. The gradual decline of government's function in people's lives, according to Spencer, is the key to optimal social evolution in the future (Miller, 1982, p. 493). Before the publication of Social Statics in 1851, Spencer thought that universal suffrage would eliminate class legislation and protect the interests of the entire community. He even criticized the association of ignorance to the working class saying that “it is a great error to suppose that ignorance is peculiar to the unenfranchised.” (Spencer, 1851, p.232, para. 4). In 1860, Spencer emphasized once more that extending suffrage is only justifiable when it is utilized to preserve or extend individual liberty. However, he praised the suffrage expansion brought about by the Reform Bill of 1867, a good example of the triumph of feeling over intellect.

Spencer's views on women's suffrage are similar to his views on allowing workers to vote. Spencer calls for unlimited political equality for women in Social Statics ( 1851) . He portrays women as being cognitively and physically inferior to men in this book, despite the fact that history shows that some women are equal to men in both regards. They have thrived as rulers, scientists, authors, and artists despite institutional constraints (Miller, 1982, p. 494). If many women are inferior, then many men are as well. In either case, the inferior should not be denied the chance to use the faculties they have. However, Spencer had concluded by 1892 that women could not be trusted with unfettered franchise. His rationale was that women are less capable of abstract thinking than males and are more influenced by emotional appeals. Spencer does not give explicit reasoning as to why this is the case. He simply notes in Social Statics ( 1851) that “[a woman’s] faculties are less powerful [..] because woman is mentally inferior to man she has less extensive rights, amount to ? Just this,--that because woman has weaker faculties than man, she ought not to have like liberty with him to exercise the faculties she has!” (Spencer, 1851, p.158). In addition, “A further difference between men and women is due to the fact that men are liable to military service for the defense of the country in time of war. Since this burden does not fall upon women, they are not entitled to the franchise, until a state of permanent peace has been attained” (Elliot, 2019, p. 205).


Elliot, H., Williams, B. ( 2019) . Makers of the Nineteenth Century Herbert Spencer. United States: Creative Media Partners, LLC.

Miller, W. ( 1982) . HERBERT SPENCER'S DRIFT TO CONSERVATISM. History of Political Thought, 3(3), 483-497. Retrieved July 25, 2021, from 2267

Spencer on voting as a poor instrument for protecting our rights to life, liberty, and property ( 1879) . Online Library of Liberty. (n.d.). 1879.

Spencer, H. ( 1851) . Social Statics . Online Library of Liberty. 1851

Spencer, H. ( 1981) . The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom (LF ed.). Online Library of Liberty.
Weberian ThoughtVoting Rights and SuffrageThrough the democratic process in which citizens elect their representatives to government, Weberian Thought held the promise that it would be possible to rewrite the historically authoritarian regime of Prussia (Germany at Weber’s time) perpetuated by Junkers, wealthy conservative landowners, and monarchists before the war. (Maley, 2011, p.76). Weber envisioned his model as a counterpoint to both the left's Social Democrats and the right's monarchists and Junkers.

According to Weber, equal suffrage meant equal universal voting rights for working classes who had historically been barred from voting. In his writings on equal suffrage in modern citizenship, he clearly states that equal suffrage is “closely related to the equality of certain fates which the modern state as such creates” (Weber, 1994, p. 105). He explicitly focuses on returning soldiers’ rights, and argues that the equality of the modern state functions in the way that people are equal before death, because the “most basic needs [of physical existence] on the one hand and, on the other, that most solemn and lofty fact of all are encompassed by those equalities which the modern state offers all its citizens in a truly lasting and undoubted way: sheer physical security and the minimum for subsistence, but also the battlefield on which to die” (Weber, 1994, p.105, para.2)

Weber does not emphasize on women’s suffrage, he does, however, say that women should have the right to vote as long as “they too are ‘fighting’ the war if they do their duty” (Weber, 1994, p.78, line.14). Moreover, in “Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology”, Weber notes that “the woman is dependent because of the normal superiority of the physical and intellectual energies of the male” (Weber, 1978, p. 1007) . The Weberian Thought on voting was aiming to correct historical gender and class inequities or might at least mitigate the most severe exclusions of women, the urban working class, and the rural peasantry from power and government.

Weber's ideas for equal suffrage might be viewed as a partial erasing of historical discriminatory markings. Weber's suggestions have a deeper element to them than the more neutral sounding ‘counterweight’ to bureaucratic dominance (Weber, 1994, p.104). Equal suffrage emerged as a valuable counterbalance to both types of inequity. Weber saw that the inequities created by capitalism might be just as persistent as those created by prior, more feudal social systems. Against both, Weber advocated for a ‘positive politics’ in which “equal voting rights” means that the individual “is not considered in terms of the particular professional and family position he occupies, nor in relation to the differences of material and social situation, but purely and simply as a citizen” (Weber, 1994, p.103).

During the Russian revolution, enraged workers, students, and returning soldiers took to the streets in protest of the existing regime's ruler, Tsar Nicholas II, who had obstructed their enfranchisement and rights prior to the war and then ordered mass slaughter on the battlefield. Weber recognized their outrage at the collapsing regime, but he dismissed their demands for more revolutionary, far-reaching reform as immature. Although Weber understood the anger of Russian revolutionists against the crumbling regime, he saw it as immature and ‘childish’ (Maley, 2011, p. 99). Weber was concerned that under the Russian revolutionary circumstances of 1918– 19, people would respond out of anger and rage, which would be doubly harmful. In “Parliament and Government in Germany under a New Political Order”, Weber had already wondered “whether such explosions unleash yet again the familiar and usual fear of the propertied classes; in other words, it depends on whether the emotional effect of undirected mass fury produces the equally emotional and equally undirected cowardice of the bourgeoisie” (Weber, 1994, p. 232)

In his wartime newspaper writings, Weber made a strategic case for the Social Democratic Party's participation as a disciplined working-class party. Though Weber considered the working class to be too “immature” to take on the role of a ruling class, he praised the discipline and self-control of the Social Democrats' political partners, the trade unions. He said approvingly that “organizations like the trade unions, but also the Social Democratic Party, create a very important counterbalance [not only against the right, but] to the rule of the street which is so typical of purely plebiscitary nations and so prone to momentary and irrational influences” (Weber, 1994, p. 231).


Maley, T. ( 2011) . Democracy and the Political. In Democracy & the Political in Max Weber's Thought (pp. 77-120). Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of Toronto Press. Retrieved July 16, 2021, from

Weber, M. ( 1994) . Weber: Political Writings. United States: Cambridge University Press.

Weber, M. ( 1978) . Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. University of California Press.