James Fitzjames Stephen

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I

I recently discovered James Fitzjames Stephen’s long essay, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Stephen (1829-94) was an uncle of Virginia Woolf, whose mush-minded feminism was antithetical to her uncle’s rigorous cast of mind.

I am working my way through Stephen’s essay. As I proceed I will post and comment on especially trenchant passages. In this first installment, I offer some excerpts of the Foreword by Stuart Warner, editor of the Liberty Fund edition (linked above). My comments are in bold type; everything else is a direct quotation from the Liberty Fund edition.


James Fitzjames Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity figured prominently in the mid- to late nineteenth century Victorian debates on two concepts at the heart of politics in the modern world—liberty and equality. Understanding himself to be a defender of an older English Liberalism that he thought to be under assault and weakening at an ever-quickening pace, Stephen attempted in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to offer a corrective to what he believed were the mistaken views of liberty, equality, and fraternity that were leading the charge. He found these views most fully and powerfully expressed in three of John Stuart Mill’s works: On Liberty, The Subjection of Women, and Utilitarianism. Stephen thus subjected Mill’s political philosophy to intense criticism in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Yet Stephen was no mere polemicist, and throughout Liberty, Equality, Fraternity we find Stephen’s own understanding of liberty—as ordered liberty—equality—as equality under law—and fraternity—as a value incompatible with a free society—braided around his critique of Mill. And it is this understanding that is the most important feature of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and is eminently worthy of the attention of anyone concerned with the character of a free society….

The French Revolution gave birth to the creed “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”; however, this creed outlasted the Revolution, finding expression in the nineteenth century, both on the continent and in England. In offering a powerful polemic against this creed in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Stephen is most emphatically not presenting himself as a defender of, as he puts it, “Slavery, Caste, and Hatred.” But he believed that many exponents of the creed of liberty, equality, and fraternity exaggerated the advantages and ignored the disadvantages of the political arrangements intended by this famed triptych of values, thereby distorting a proper understanding of liberty, equality, and fraternity along the way. In Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Stephen makes a point of revealing the character of these disadvantages….

…Stephen recognizes liberty to be an instrumental value, not a value in and of itself; and the ultimate value that liberty principally serves is the well-being of society. We should be careful not to misunderstand this feature of Stephen’s thought—as a common understanding of Stephen would have us do—as portraying either a disregard for liberty or an authoritarian bent, for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity does not support such a reading. Not to value liberty as an end in itself is not to treat it lightly or to shy away from its endorsement as central to a civilized world. It is rather, as Stephen would see it, an admission that liberty, along with all of the other social elements of human life, has its advantages and disadvantages; and, if we are primarily concerned with the well-being of society, then we should not blindly support any given liberty in those circumstances in which its disadvantages outweigh its advantages.

The second feature of Stephen’s conception of liberty is that liberty is fundamentally a negative concept. Stephen understands liberty at its core to be an absence of restraint; however, liberty cannot be understood to involve an absence of all restraint; for Stephen, like Hobbes, recognizes that it is impossible for a society and, therefore, liberty to exist in the absence of all restraint. Restraints are required if there is to be any society at all, if only because the human condition is one in which the actions of some frequently and inevitably conflict with the actions of others. This understanding of the role of restraint in society is the basis for Stephen’s distinguishing between liberty and license, and it encourages him to understand liberty as an “absence of injurious restraint.”In this conception of liberty, morality, law, and religion are understood to restrain an individual’s actions, but not injuriously, and hence do not constitute an infringement of his liberty. In fact, in the deepest sense, it is these restraints that make liberty of action possible. And since these restraints constitute a realm of power, Stephen can maintain that, “Liberty, from the very nature of things, is dependent upon power….”…

Stephen is promoting an understanding of ordered liberty or liberty under morality and law. Part of the value of liberty lies in its allowing individuals to pursue their own choices or, more exactly, a certain set of choices rather than others, for this contributes to the well-being of society. Importantly, some sets of choices must be excluded. Genuine options are possible for human beings only within the context of a web of restraint provided by the moral, political, legal, and religious institutions that form the social arrangements in which individuals can pursue their own ends in concert with one another. Therefore, on Stephen’s analysis, the character and value of liberty reside in the restraints that frame it: there is no liberty outside of restraint.

Morality is foremost among the restraints that shape society generally and a free society in particular. For Stephen, morality is constituted in some measure by the fear of disapprobation, the fear of the opinion of others, the fear of being ostracized. Thus, Stephen remarks that “the custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality.” And this aversion or disapprobation Stephen understands as being coercive. Although morality on this account might therefore be considered a system of force, the force in question is the pressure imposed by others and not punishment (or the threat of punishment) inflicted by government. Here we must underscore the idea that, as Stephen sees it, the restraints imposed by morality are vastly more extensive and important than those of law in establishing the web of restraint in which liberty is formed and has value:

Criminal legislation proper may be regarded as an engine of prohibition unimportant in comparison with morals and the forms of morality sanctioned by theology. For one act from which one person is restrained by the fear of the law of the land, many persons are restrained from innumerable acts by the fear of the disapprobation of their neighbors, which is the moral sanction; or by the fear of punishment in a future state of existence, which is the religious sanction; or by the fear of their own disapprobation, which may be called the conscientious sanction….

Given that liberty is of instrumental value for Stephen, it is easy to understand why he rejects any categorical, simple principle of liberty, one that would specify exactly which liberties should be protected, and where and when. “We must,” Stephen writes, “proceed in a far more cautious way, and confine ourselves to such remarks as experience suggests about the advantages and disadvantages of compulsion and liberty respectively in particular cases.” However, there are certain liberties that Stephen highlights in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and in other of his writings that he believes to be of paramount importance to civilized life. The first is property: “Of all items of liberty, none is either so important or so universally recognized as the liberty of acquiring property.”  The second liberty of great importance to Stephen, perhaps surprisingly, is privacy: “Legislation and public opinion ought in all cases whatever scrupulously to respect privacy…. To try to regulate the internal affairs of a family, the relations of love or friendship, or many other things of the same sort, by law or by the coercion of public opinion, is like trying to pull an eyelash out of a man’s eye with a pair of tongs. They may put out the eye, but they will never get hold of the eyelash.”

Essential to protecting these liberties and others is the rule of law. And so closely linked is the rule of law to various liberties that Stephen suggests the rule of law is itself a liberty; for in a significant way, the procedures afforded to individuals by the rule of law specify the liberties that an individual has.

For Stephen, the rule of law is a remarkable moral conquest, a monumental achievement over despotism and the desires of some to enslave others for their own purposes. The rule of law both constitutes and vouchsafes liberties that Stephen, although holding them to be instrumentally valuable, embraces and understands to be of paramount importance to the civilized world he deeply valued….

Legislate how you will, establish universal suffrage, if you think proper, as a law which can never be broken. You are still as far as ever from equality. Political power has changed its shape but not its nature. The result of cutting it up into little bits is simply that the man who can sweep the greatest number of them into one heap will govern the rest….

Whatever may be the benefits of democracy, it also levies severe costs that render it a languid business. For the “wirepullers” need only satisfy an ignorant multitude, and this, Stephen feared, would ultimately lead to a debased and mediocre culture, one predicated on sordidness and vulgarity. In order to satisfy the unenlightened, these new rulers would extend government into the deepest recesses of the lives of individuals, willingly abandoning certain liberties along the way.

The final paragraph is a diamond, in a field of precious stones.

I have written so many posts which touch on the themes sketched by Warner that I can only refer you to a sample of them:
The Paradox of Libertarianism
On Liberty
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Inventing “Liberalism”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?