Liberty and equality's forgotten sibling


Two boys on stepsMany people become uncomfortable when conversation turns to social justice. That may reflect their experience of being buttonholed by unrelentingly serious people on the wrongs of the world and the need to change them. But their discomfort may also reflect a long history that goes back as far as the French Revolution with its slogan, 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity'. Social Justice Week offers an opportunity to tease out the connections implied by this slogan.

Of the three revolutionary aspirations, liberty has come to dominate our contemporary world, particularly in its form of negative liberty – freedom from oppression and from regulations that limit personal choice, especially economic choice. The desire for individual liberty is often opposed to the desire for equality, which usually advocates some constraints on liberty. Social justice has commonly been identified with the desire for equality. So when someone raises issues of social justice their hearers fear that their individual freedom will soon be crimped in the name of state control or of the redistribution of wealth. They naturally become uncomfortable.

Missing in this tension between equality and liberty is any serious consideration of fraternity. It is usually reduced to sentiment, a generous feeling that softens the hard edge of the pursuit of equality or liberty. But fraternity lies at the heart of social justice. It counteracts a one-sided attention to equality or liberty, and is expressed in the ordering of society.

Liberty, equality and fraternity all name values that are must be respected if human beings are to flourish.  Liberty protects the human desire to take responsibility for one’s life and to develop personal gifts. Equality recognises that each human being is of unique value and that no one is of more value than others. Both these values should be recognised and promoted in the regulations, practices and symbols that form the ordering of society. 

Fraternity names the inescapable interdependence of human beings. No one is self-sufficient. We depend on one another at each point of our lives for shelter, for what we eat, whether we are educated, the peace and security we enjoy, for our mobility and for a market in which we can buy and sell. Fraternity dictates that each person must attend to how their own actions affect the welfare of others, and that society must encourage the development and welfare of each human being in a way that enables the growth of all. 

The test of fraternity is the care that a society has for the most disadvantaged. As with the values of liberty and equality, fraternity needs also to be built into the practices, regulations and symbols that shape society. It cannot be left to sentiment. That is particularly important in a culture like ours that makes individual liberty central. Without strong traditions and institutions that embody fraternity, it will inevitably breed unfairness.

It is easy to think of our society as selfish, competitive and preoccupied with individual economic gain. Those values are constantly commended in treatments of the economy that leave no room for fraternity. But most people see an unrestricted emphasis on economic freedom and on gain as psychopathic. They place a high value on fraternity, both in giving a high priority to their connections with other people and to decency in the treatment of the disadvantaged. They react strongly to what they perceive as institutionalised unfairness. 

The instinct for fraternity among Australians, and the lack of feel for it among politicians whose guiding value is liberty in economic matters, can be seen in the popular response to the Federal Budget. People were outraged less by the impact of the budget on themselves than on the effect measures such as the medical co-payment and the withdrawal of benefits from unemployed young people would have on the disadvantaged. These were seen as unfair, an affront to fraternity. The proposals to weaken legislation on racial discrimination had earlier also been widely rejected for their perceived breach of fraternity.

The way to a better society does not lie simply in defending either liberty or equality, still less in the victory of one of these values over the other. It lies in bringing together a passion both for liberty and for equality and holding them together with a personal and institutional commitment to fraternity.  

When social justice is associated with fraternity it brings challenge and encouragement for all of us and not simply for activists. 


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Image by David, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Non-Derivs licence. 




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Existing comments

When I come across a word not commonly used I tend to grab my dictionary and look up the meaning. My Concise Oxford English dictionary defines "fraternity" in different ways: 1. treated as (sing.) or (pl.) a group of people sharing a common profession or interests; (North American) a male students' society in a university or college; a religious or Masonic society or guild. 2. friendship and mutual support within a group. So, the meanings would be different for different people. Within an institution, what could interfere with fraternity would be the hierarchical structure of most groups, with the necessary power dynamics involved. It takes a strong commitment to use fraternity in the best way possible.

Pam | 18 September 2014  


Ruth | 18 September 2014  

Thank you Andrew for a timely reminder and for recovering a word that for me, is closely linked to koinonia.

Rod | 18 September 2014  

Thanks, Andrew and Pam. As a poor Latin student, my recollection is that "frater" means brother. In the current milieu, its use may have unintended consequences. Perhaps solidarity may be preferable and be more in vogue as well as moving us away from the limitations of brotherhoods. Pam, the hope for hierarchies is what the the Church has to say (rather than doing) about subsidiarity. The common good is best served within hierarchies when those who are doing their jobs are left in peace to do them and help is forthcoming only when it is needed. I notice these precepts are no always observed. Sometimes "Helpful Harrys", especially ex Sydney, offer advice when it is by no means certain that it is needed or welcome.

Kim | 18 September 2014  

Good point made by Pam re. the different meanings of these terms. I can imagine French revolutionaries earnestly debating the relative merits of liberty, equality and fraternity as they watched the sixteen Carmelite nuns of Compiègne being beheaded a few metres away in 1794. One brings to these terms and their interrelationship one's own economic, political and moral presuppositions. What if a free marketeer wants get the government out of health care because she believes that would be of great assistance the poor? To a socialist or social democrat, such a move would constitute a complete abandonment of the value of fraternity (and maybe equality also). But to her it's the complete opposite! We'll never agree on the correct implementation of these lofty-sounding values if we seriously disagree on fundamentals of political economy. (Here I'm merely reapplying Alasdair MacIntyre's thesis in "After Virtue".)

HH | 18 September 2014  

"Liberty, equality and fraternity all name values that must be respected if human beings are to flourish.".... These values tend to be ideals for individual societies, but unless they are applied by societies to other societies we will not find the peace and harmony we would all like to see. Although Religion is not the root cause of the strife between nations, it is a divisive element, and diminishes the chances of cooperation on a global scale. One other value needs to be added to the equation, that of Paternity; recognising that we are all children of the One God, though called along different pathways. A first step to achieve this is to learn that God deals with all by means of Constant and Universal Laws-, that no path to God is exclusive of others and that every call is God's Personal call to each person. Elevating one's Religious path to the status of God is worshipping false 'gods' and leads to conflicts, wars and perdition.

Robert Liddy | 18 September 2014  

Context is everything. I think Andrew does himself a disservice in linking the slogan of the The French Revolution - Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (or Death in the original, later removed as too characteristic of the days of The Terror.) No one would think of deleting "death" from Patrick Henry's speech, "Give me Liberty or give me Death", delivered to the Virginia Convention on 23 March 1775. For Henry Liberty was an absolute, as absolute as the right to one's own life. For the early Christians Liberty was an absolute where it meant freedom to worship one's God, as one understands God -. a freedom for which they, like Henry, were willing to pay the price of their life. In the hurly-burly of everyday politics, very few decisions are about life or death issues. Politicians, for the most part, are practical people. They deal with concrete situations and look for practical solutions. They rarely if ever argue a priori from abstract concepts. Of course if one holds that the pursuit of power and the determination to hold on to it are abstract principles, then Andrew's essay will not penetrate the mentality of most politicians..

Uncle Pat | 18 September 2014  

The problem iHH is that the people in the US who want the government out of health care - is the Tea Party - are NOT trying to help the poor, but trying to reduce their own taxes and force the poor to fend for themselves - which people in the US means "no healthcare". The fact is that people are going without healthcare and are dying prematurely as a result. But as a result of democracy ie voting in a Democrat president the majority has won out and the US now has the beginning of a universal healthcare system.

AURELIUS | 18 September 2014  

Thank you for your eloquence, Andrew Hamilton. Thank you for describing the concept of 'fraternity' with regard to the popular response to the Federal Budget. It heartens me that such gut-wrenching emotions are well-documented in the chronology of social reform and political history. We can all reflect on this and renew our call for a fair-go.

Bob | 18 September 2014  

Great article, and I agree with the sentiment. I believe that a combination of freedom and social justice are essential, as is a sense of community/connection. However, the use of the word "fraternity" is strongly gendered. The literal and historic meaning of the word excludes women (as does "mankind", generic "he" pronoun, etc). Our language constructs and constrains our reality - if we truly believe in equality, we must give careful consideration to use of subtly gendered words. Thank you for the thought-provoking article, Andrew.

Rik | 19 September 2014  

Ron Paul is the most radical “Tea Party” opponent of Obamacare. Heck, he’s opposed to ALL government attempts to run health care! But can we infer from this that Ron Paul is opposed to healthcare for the poor as such? Certainly not. On the contrary: Ron Paul is an ob/gyn who, over his long and distinguished career, has charged NOTHING for his services when poor patients couldn’t afford it. Aurelius, your attempt to equate opposition to the Obamacare boondoggle with mean-spirited opposition to healthcare for the poor is either itself mean-spirited, or naively based on ideological presupposition. My money is on the latter.

HH | 20 September 2014  

One of the problems with the French Revolution, as with the Russian, was that, whilst their aspirations were idealistic, after the first flush of victory, they gave way to bitter hatred and vengeance - the latter, as with the Terror and the execution of the Russian Royal Family (murder) effectively destroyed the aims of the revolution. Idealists can become vicious. One of the problems with Western post-1788 Australia is that it has never really had a coherent all inclusive social ethos. There was always social discord between Aboriginal and settler; the establishment and convicts; English, Scots and Welsh against the Irish; Catholic versus Protestant (an overlap with the former) etc. so someone was always excluded from "our" group. We still have a somewhat fragmented concept of who "we" are and who this "we" wants to exclude from the metaphorical meal table. I think we need to revisit the matter and sort it out together. The task is urgent. Thank you.

Edward Fido | 22 September 2014  

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