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Liberal Theories

Liberal theories are theories designed to show that the liberal organization of society is the best for human beings with regard to their fundamental nature and interests. The Western intellectual tradition includes several discourses of major importance that have this aim. It is widely held that the principles of liberalism can be traced back to the seventeenth-century natural rights and social contract theorists who attach primary significance in just interaction between persons to an equal individual liberty and who derive the constraints of organized society from an agreement by individuals to submit to such constraints for the sake of the protection of their liberty and other natural rights.

A radically different type of liberal theory, which was very scornful of the idea of natural rights, was the utilitarian one. This flourished in the nineteenth century, particularly in Great Britain, and remains influential in English-speaking countries. This theory holds that the best organization of society is the one that produces the greatest amount of utility or happiness, taking equally into account every individual's utility. Such a theory is liberal only insofar as it argues, as the classic British utilitarians did, that the liberal order of society would best satisfy the utilitarian principle.

The theory that has been most influential in liberal thought on the continent of Europe and also on contemporary thought in English-speaking countries is that of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and German idealism. This theory seeks to provide a rational deduction of the natural rights principle of equal individual liberty from human beings' capacity for autonomy, which is understood as a capacity to govern one's conduct by laws or principles that one freely imposes on oneself.

Modern Western political theory from the seventeenth century is largely dominated by liberal ideas. Even thinkers who have been thought to be fundamentally illiberal, such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Edmund Burke (1729–1797), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) are really illiberal, if at all, only in regard to the state and not in regard to society. A liberal society may, thus, be supported on very different theoretical bases within Western thought, including religious ones. Indeed, the dominant status of liberalism in the contemporary world, together with the high importance attached to recognizing the equal worth of non-Western cultures, has led to many attempts to construct support for liberal practices from within religious systems of belief. Thus, there exist forms of liberalism that can be called Confucian, Islamic, and Buddhist.

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