Liberalism is the ideology that is primarily concerned with liberty, above all else. Putting liberty first is the defining feature of liberalism, therefore. However, this cannot be liberalism’s only feature, for liberty is also found in various forms in other ideologies. For example, in traditional feudal societies with absolute monarchies, the King had almost unlimited liberty. The lords also had an amount of liberty much greater than any citizen in a modern liberal democracy: for example, they had the ‘liberty’ to own and trade slaves. The unique thing about liberalism is that it aims to distribute as equally as possible the liberty of each person in society. Therefore, while nobody can have the liberties of kings and nobles past, everyone can have their fair share of liberty. While liberals disagree on how liberty can be distributed most equally, with some arguing for NAP-based libertarianism and others arguing for a strong welfare state, this often unspoken shared principle is what we have in common.
I believe that the principle of equality of moral agency is the most important principle in political morality, because it is the only way of distributing liberty (which is one and the same as moral agency, liberty being from a political rights perspective and moral agency from a moralistic perspective) in a Western democratic system that is consistent with the fact that every human being has equal moral standing from birth, and the fact that all human beings are flawed in some ways (i.e. not perfect and not capable of knowing the absolute truth in every sense).
How does liberalism’s dedication to distributing liberty equally make it a moral ideology? To answer this question, we need to first look at what liberty is. Liberty is the power an individual has over their own actions, their ability to put their ideas into action. Therefore, looking at it from a moral perspective, liberty is moral agency, i.e. the ability to act in accordance with one’s moral compass. An equitable distribution of liberty therefore ensures an equitable distribution of moral agency. In this way, liberalism ensures that every individual in society has an equal share of moral agency. At this point, we need to turn to the fact that liberty (and hence moral agency) are also finite resources: if some have more, others must have less. If lords can command slaves (therefore having more liberty), slaves will not be able to act according to their own moral compass, and thus have no moral agency. Therefore, in an equal distribution of liberty (and hence moral agency), everyone can have full moral agency over their own beliefs and actions, but nobody can have moral agency over another. This, I would argue, makes liberalism the ONLY morally valid ideology in the context of the Western liberal-democratic system, where we have an individualistic, non-consensus-based way of thinking about what's right and wrong. (I believe we should not generalize our Western experience and/or impose it on other cultures, or otherwise disrespect people living in other cultures and contexts).
In our moral system, the post-Enlightenment Western moral system, it is generally held that people should be entirely responsible for their own actions. Indeed, I would argue that, if this principle does not hold, our whole moral system would collapse. Hence, to be moral, in the context of our code of morality, is to be fully responsible for our own choices, our own decisions, and our own actions, and to make sure that these don’t result in negative outcomes, especially on other people. Our moral system places a particular emphasis on individual accountability and responsibility, and for our moral system to work, our culture and politics must support these notions clearly, and to the fullest extent possible. The Moral Libertarian principle of Equal Moral Agency for every individual is a principle derived from the individual accountability requirements of the Western moral system, and seeks to prevent lack of moral accountability. It ensures, as much as possible, that nobody has moral agency over another person’s actions, and that every person can act according to their own moral agency. This is where I believe the true heart of liberalism lies, and it is why I say that liberalism is the best expression of morality, as it is commonly agreed upon in our shared moral system. Given our individualistic moral code, I believe this is the only way to ensure morality is upheld. Anything else would violate the basic assumptions of our moral code, which would lead to deep confusion about what constitutes morality, as interwar Europe under fascism had shown, in a very disastrous way.
Furthermore, the individualistic, non-consensus-based nature of Western morality means that, whenever power is concentrated in a few hands, those few people will exercise their power solely according to their own sense of morality, not because it’s their fault, not because it’s the system’s fault, but because it’s what Western morality actually expects people to do. In this situation, there will inevitably be a lack of moral accountability, which means a lack of moral responsibility.
In particular, all my political and social commentary assumes the context of a Western liberal democratic system, where there is approximately one person one vote to elect our governments, where interest groups and ideological factions aim to sway the decisions of voters, and where a government of almost any ideology could be elected, potentially beholden to one or more interest groups. In such a system, if voters receive biased information due to interference with free speech, they could get their decision totally wrong. If they elect a culturally authoritarian government that, for example, treats people differently based on identity or opinion, this would have severe moral consequences. It is this situation that Moral Libertarianism was specifically developed to guard against.
This is why, compared to all other available options (e.g. postmodern critical theory, identity politics, postliberal 'conservatism', and authoritarian religious movements like Catholic integralism etc.), liberalism is still the most morally sound path for Western democratic societies going forward, and most likely to get us to the best resolution for the controversial social issues we face.
As a citizen of a Western country, given the crossroads we find ourselves facing at the moment (e.g. conflicting identity politics claims, the 'history wars', the 'woke' vs 'reactionary' culture wars, the questioning of the long-standing social contract), I feel that it's my responsibility to speak up, before it's too late.
For more about Moral Liberalism, read TaraElla's book.