I have recently seen a conference organized by an ex-PM which discussed about the creation of a new political party.

One of the speakers mentioned that the party will be centered around "ethical liberalism", but did not explain what it does actually mean.

Googling for it, I found this short article:

The definition of Lord Acton’s Whiggery is based upon an idea of liberty firmly rooted in responsibility and based upon respect for the law; it is not freedom from the law, but freedom under it. Free men are those who can do what they ought, and not those who do as they wish. It is only by continually exercising this freedom that free societies will remain so. Real liberty has its own responsibilities.

This sounds like a summary than an actual definition.

Question: What is ethical liberalism?

Also, it would be interesting to know if this is a core value of any existing political party within an EU country.

2 Answers 2


The link in the OP is to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative thinktank, and frankly the piece is somewhat incoherent. I doubt it has any relevance to what a Romanian politician means by "ethical liberalism".

"Liberal" is a word which doesn't have a firmly agreed-upon definition. It's used in the names of centrist, centre-right, and even far-right political parties.

"Ethical" in this context has even less specific meaning. It's basically there because it sounds nice; after all, no politician is ever going to openly campaign on being unethical.

So in summary, "ethical liberalism" means whatever former PM Ciolos wants it to mean.

  • 4
    "liberal" is used by far-left as well...
    – user14448
    Dec 19, 2017 at 11:39
  • 2
    @9ilsdx9rvj0lo Do you have an example? I don't know of any socialists, anarchists, communists, etc who would use that label. Center-left maybe (in the US), but far-left doesn't seem correct.
    – tim
    Dec 19, 2017 at 13:39
  • 4
    @tim Only time I have heard it referred to on the left is the US. The US right likes to throw it at the US left and the US left embraces it. Especially now. I also know that in the US they will say things such as "I'm a fiscal conservative, but social liberal" which is another thing entirely.
    – Jake
    Dec 19, 2017 at 14:07
  • 4
    Another problem here is that an American Conservative and an American Liberal have very little in common with European definitions so it's hard to factor them in the classic left-right political spectrum. According to Wikipedia, the former has more in common with "Classical Liberalism" (but still champion "traditional [American] values) while the latter has more in common with "Social Democracy" (but still holds strong Capitalist principles).
    – hszmv
    Dec 19, 2017 at 14:56
  • 2
    @tim almost the whole left scene, for example? feminists, greens, all parties that have 'left' in name?
    – user14448
    Dec 19, 2017 at 15:18

Ethical Liberalism

There is a philosophy called ethical liberalism. It's also sometimes called "post-Kantian liberalism". A few differences from classical liberalism:

  • Classical liberalism is utilitarian in nature. It's goal is to provide the most happiness (or utility) to the greatest number, while incurring the least disutility (or unhappiness). Ethical liberalism is focused on social issues, especially justice.
  • It assumes people are ethical, rather than rational. Classical liberalism assumes that people naturally seek their own pleasure (or utility). Ethical liberalism does not assume this, but instead assumes that people have some concept of "good" (or virtue) that helps them decide what to do.
  • Because of their focus on justice and virtuous behavior, ethical liberalism supports wealth redistribution policies (such as the New Deal in America). Classical liberals oppose these policies for a variety of reasons, most notably because it violates the concepts of property rights and free exchange.

Although we rarely refer to it by name, this view is incredibly common in the United States. In my experience, often times people who label themselves as "liberal" or "progressive" in America often times claim these kinds of views. Your mileage may vary.

Further reading:

Shiffrin, 1983 (UCLA Law Review) contains an excellent discussion of ethical liberalism and contrasts it to classical liberalism.

Lund, 1996 (Political Research Quarterly) delves deeper into two different views of ethical liberalism.


It seems unlikely that a public servant would know about this theory, unless they were specifically trained in some kind of field involving social philosophy. More likely, they were trying to invoke a particular kind of idea or feeling in the listener.

A similar phrase from the American experience is "compassionate Conservatism". It isn't intended to be a technical term, just a way to communicate an intangible notion to the audience.

  • Although the ex-PM (within a government mostly containing technocrats) happens to be a very decent politician, the concept was mentioned by one of his invited speakers: a female professor who most likely has a background in social philosophy. Indeed, I think they are trying to have a speech that opposes the general feeling that most politicians and institutions are corrupt and that another kind of politics is possible.
    – Alexei
    Dec 19, 2017 at 21:06
  • @Alexei I don't see that information in the linked articles. Thanks, that's good background info. Dec 20, 2017 at 21:57
  • yes, the article contains little information. I know this detail because I watched the entire conference when the party creation was announced. Unfortunately, there is no transcript.
    – Alexei
    Dec 21, 2017 at 5:40

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