Defining and Founding Civil Liberty

Working Papers

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CDDRL Working Papers

May 2006

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In order to facilitate a subsequent operationalization of civil liberty, the paper attempts to define and ground civil liberty on the basis of liberal political philosophy/theory as this tradition provides fruitful conceptual distinctions and specifications and offers some interesting motivations for taking civil liberties into deeper consideration. Different clusters of perspectives are found in the literature and one these is identified as key to understand the character of civil liberty and the relationship between civil liberty and democracy. Thereafter, to specify was is plausibly meant by civil liberties, I introduce three historically significant forms of rights codifications, that is, agreements about rights put down in peace treatises on the background of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants; national declarations and constitutional provisions connected to the revolutions in the seventeenth century England and the late eighteenth century USA and France; and international conventions on human rights. As one cannot settle the question of the plausibility of civil liberties just by reference to their legal recognition, I turn to some of the justifications offered by liberal philosophers that are briefly confronted with some general critiques.

The paper concludes that there are good reasons to respect civil liberties and to narrow the focus to (modern, negative) liberal freedom understood as absence of state interference in certain personal exertion rights. On this background, five rights are selected to constitute the core of a civil liberty measure: freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of assembly and association; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of movement and residence; freedom of recourse to independent courts.

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