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Liberal ideas arose from the breakdown of the feudal system that was commonplace in Europe, which saw the growth of the capitalist society currently in place. Liberalism was the aspiration of the rising middle classes, which had conflicting interests with the power of absolute monarchs and landed aristocracy.
With this capitalist society, a serf now had the ‘freedom’ to think for themselves; to decide who to work for or where to live, what to buy and so forth. This type of freedom or liberty was a view of early or classical liberalism, where liberty was a natural right, an essential requirement for leading a truly human existence. Later liberals viewed liberty or freedom as a vehicle to only develop their skills and talents and fulfil their potential.
Liberals do not accept individuals have an overall entitlement to freedom, where this freedom can be used to abuse others. John Stuart Mills introduces ‘self-regarding’ and ‘other-regarding’ freedoms where ‘self-regarding’ actions allow individuals to ‘do anything they want’. An ‘Other-regarding’ action restricts or damages the freedoms of others. The law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets can be seen as both ‘self-regarding’ and ‘other-regarding’ whereby the motorcyclists wants to exhibit there freedom by not wearing their helmet (self-regarding) but is restricted by the law of compulsory helmets (other-regarding). An individual may be sovereign over their body and mind, however they must respect the fact everyone enjoys an equal right to liberty.
Isaiah Berlin showed a distinction between a ‘negative’ and a ‘positive’ theory of liberty. The classical or early liberals viewed freedom in the context of being left alone, being able to act however they pleased.
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