The moral limits of Feinberg's liberalism

Inquiry 36 (3):255 – 286 (1993)
This essay explores Joel Feinberg's conception of liberalism and the moral limits of the criminal law. Feinberg identifies liberty with the absence of law. He defends a strong liberal presumption against law, except where it is necessary to prevent wrongful harm or offense to others. Drawing on Rawlsian, Marxian, and feminist standpoints, I argue that there are injuries to individual liberty rooted not in law, but in civil society. Against Feinberg, I defend a richer account of liberalism and liberty, linking them to human dignity, and a more positive role for law. Feinberg justifies liberty as an instrumental welfare?interest, valuable in virtue of the way it serves the individual's ulterior goals. Drawing on the example of racism and civil rights, I argue that the value of equal liberty stems from its social role in constituting persons? sense of their own worth and dignity. Against Feinberg, I claim that liberty's value is grounded in a shared historical ideal of personhood, not in the individual's goals or desires. Feinberg also links liberalism with an extreme anti?paternalist position, on which individuals should be at liberty to alienate their very own right of personal autonomy. Drawing on the examples of slavery and drug addiction, I argue against this liberty, and the conception of liberalism and paternalism in Feinberg which leads to it. A liberalism founded upon an ideal of human dignity allows, even requires, a use of law to prevent persons from destroying the very conditions of their own autonomy and dignity
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