SH3 Liberalism

Modern societies are characterized by profound and ineliminable disagreement about questions of religion, culture, value, and the good life. This course explores the attempts made by liberal political philosophers to discern what this diversity demands, and how we can construct a legitimate political order in its presence. We will explore foundational questions such as the nature of neutrality and its role in the foundations of liberal thinking; debates over how far it is permissible to base political policy on judgements about what is good or valuable; and questions concerning liberal theory's conception of the person. We will also bring this theoretical apparatus to bear on some applied questions concerning multiculturalism, community, and education.

Course lecturer: Prof Ben Colburn
Semester: 1
Lecture hour & venue: See Honours timetable

Preliminary Reading: The introductions to both of the key texts (given below) are well-written and entertaining, and give a good sense of the topics that the course will cover. There are also several Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles that give useful background to the course: searches for 'Perfectionism', 'Liberalism' and 'Multiculturalism' throw up some useful material.

 Recommended texts for 2022-23:

  •  B. Barry, Culture and Equality (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).
  • J. Quong, Liberalism without Perfection (New York: OUP, 2011).

(Both texts are available as e-books via the library.)

Teaching resources for this course will be made available on the Philosophy Moodle site.

Further course information


  • Autonomy;
  • Neutrality and Perfectionism;
  • Multiculturalism;
  • Communitarianism.

After this course, students should be able to:

  • Evaluate different conceptions of autonomy;
  • Compare and contrast different varieties of liberal theory based on their commitment to neutrality;
  • Explain and critically assess Political Liberalism;
  • Explain and critically assess Liberal Perfectionism;
  • Explain and critically assess Comprehensive Anti-Perfectionism;
  • Compare and contrast varieties of multiculturalism;
  • Critically discuss communitarian critiques of liberalism;
  • Apply philosophical theory to critically assess liberal policy concerning culture, community, and education.