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The Liberal Ethics of Non-Interference


This article analyses the liberal ethics of non-interference in social choice. It examines a liberal principle that captures non-interfering views of society and is inspired by John Stuart Mill’s conception of liberty. The principle expresses the idea that society should not penalize individuals after changes in their situation that do not affect others. The article highlights an impossibility for liberal approaches: every social decision rule that satisfies unanimity and a general principle of non-interference must be dictatorial. This raises some important issues for liberal approaches in social choice and political philosophy.

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School of Economics and Finance, Queen Mary University of London (emails:, Special thanks go to Costanze Binder, Richard Bradley, Ben Ferguson, Mark Fey, Martin van Hees and John Roemer for detailed comments on an earlier draft. We thank José Carlos Rodriguez Alcantud, Elizabeth Anderson, Roland Bénabou, Ken Binmore, Matthew Braham, Marc Fleurbaey, Wulf Gaertner, Conrad Heilmann, Ted Honderich, Michele Lombardi, Tibor Machan, François Maniquet, Paola Manzini, Juan Moreno-Ternero, Jan Narveson, Ariel Rubinstein, Itai Sher, Robert Sugden, two anonymous referees, the Editor of this journal and audiences at the London School of Economics, Columbia University, the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), University of Bayreuth, VU Amsterdam, Hitotsubashi University, the University of Padova, the Midwest Political Science Association Conference (Chicago), the New Directions in Welfare Conference (Oxford) and the Formal Ethics Conference (Rotterdam) for comments and suggestions. The usual disclaimer applies. Online appendices are available at

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British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
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