We constantly see civil liberties getting sacked because the country/state/city/town is in a state of war (let it be curfews or bugging civilian mobile phones). How much is ok? At what level is it too much?

I ask this because we need a philosophical angle on this, with regards to: how much of his/her civil liberties a civilian can be expected to sacrifice; and, how much suspension of these rights is warranted by the state.

  • I can't answer this with any reference or authority, so this is just a comment based on my view of things: I think it's OK, in a war, to restrict freedom of speech as to not give away crucial military information. How that can be done in practice in the age of Twitter I do not know. :) If you are also getting lacks of basic resources, reducing market freedom is OK to ensure that everyone had access to basic necessities. That's pretty much it, IMO. (Forcing blackout made sense during WWII, but not in todays wars) – Lennart Regebro Jun 28 '11 at 11:27
  • As smartcaveman's answer points out, without context this does not have a definite answer. This opens up a whole field of philosophy cannot reasonably put into the form of an answer here. – stoicfury Mar 29 '12 at 21:21

There is not a single "philosophical angle" on this topic. There is a branch of philosophy called Political Philosophy that deals with this subject, and many philosophers with greatly dissenting views who have written on it.

Some views that may be of particular interest:

  • Nicolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince. He is famous for advocating the contention that "the ends justify the means". His work would suggest that the government can do whatever they have to if it will help to accomplish their goals.

  • Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rosseau advocated Social Contract theory. Although they had somewhat diverging views on what the limitations of the contract were, they all agreed that "a persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live" (IEP). Locke, in particular, argued that if the government infringed upon the natural rights of its people, the people are obligated to revolt.

  • David Hume was a critic of social contract theory and believed that a government had no justification for its sovereignty other than that which was granted by force. However, he "expressed suspicion of attempts to reform society in ways that departed from long-established custom, and he counselled peoples not to resist their governments except in cases of the most egregious tyranny" (Wikipedia).

  • Thomas Paine wrote Rights of Man which "posits that popular political revolution is permissible when a government does not safeguard its people, their natural rights, and their national interests" (Wikipedia). Paine is most famous for his inspirational role in the American revolution.

Historically, people with a political agenda tend to select the "philosophical angle" of the thinker whose work is most sympathetic to their objectives and social conditioning. The list I have provided is meant as a starting point and is by no means exhaustive. Hopefully, these will help you to find the "philosophical angle" that works for you.


This is a fascinating question, and as some of the other answers indicate, it has been taken up by an almost dizzying array of philosophers, both from the perspective of moral and political theory.

But probably the foremost political philosopher who discusses the suspension of civil liberties during a "state of war" is the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben.

Specifically, he uses the term "state of exception" (also translated as "state of emergency") for what your question refers to as a "state of war", and argues that such a situation is often used as a justification for suspending the normal functions of the government in protecting the rights of citizens.

Agamben draws heavily here upon the previous work of German thinker Carl Schmitt, both in his definition of "sovereignty" and in the meaning of the term "state of exception". Schmitt argues that sovereignty is really the power of a government to declare a state of emergency. For background reading on his theories, look into what is probably his most famous work, The Concept of the Political.

Using Schmitt's terminology and conceptual background, Agamben comes out as a strong critic of modern uses of the "state of exception" as a justification for suspending civil liberties and other important rights. His aptly-titled book, State of Exception, argues that times of crisis have historically and currently allowed governments to increase their power over citizens well over what the law and previous legal precedent actually allows. Acting under the state of exception, in which a government is responding to a supposedly mortal threat, the state can do things that would never be justifiable in normal times, given the working principles and rule of law of that particular state. The state of exception employs justifications that work only in extremes in order to allow the state's own principles to be violated in order for it to save itself.

And Agamben doesn't merely write theoretically: He writes specifically about the military order issued by United States President George W. Bush in November of 2001 ("Detention, Treatment, and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism"), where he specifically defines the category of citizens which are subject to this order, and provides that those labeled as "enemy combatants", despite their status as U.S. citizens, could be detained and tried in military tribunals. It is a very specific and very close-to-home example (at least for many of us in the Western world) of how civil rights and liberties are suspended under the state of exception.

Here's a fairly simple summary/introduction to his arguments made in State of Exception :

The state of exception is not a dictatorship (whether constitutional or unconstitutional, commissarial or sovereign) but a space devoid of law, a zone of anomie in which all legal determinations—and above all the very distinction between public and private—are deactivated. Thus, all those theories that seek to annex the state of exception immediately to the law are false; and so too are both the theory of necessity as the original source of law and the theory that sees the state of exception as the exercise of a state’s right to its own defense or as the restoration of an originary pleromatic state of the law (“full powers”). But fallacious too are those theories, like Schmitt’s, that seek to inscribe the state of exception indirectly within a juridical context by grounding it in the division between norms of law and norms of the realization of law, between constituent power and constituted power, between norm and decision. The state of necessity is not a “state of law,” but a space without law (even though it is not a state of nature, but presents itself in the anomie that results from the suspension of law). This space devoid of law seems, for some reason, to be so essential to the juridical order that it must seek in every way to assure itself a relation with it, as if in order to ground itself the juridical order necessarily had to maintain itself in relation with an anomie. On the one hand, the juridical void at issue in the state of exception seems absolutely unthinkable for the law; on the other, this unthinkable thing nevertheless has a decisive strategic relevance for the juridical order and must not be allowed to slip away at any cost. The crucial problem connected to the suspension of the law is that of the acts committed during the institium, the nature of which seems to escape all legal definition. Because they are neither transgressive, executive, nor legislative, they seem to be situated in an absolute non-place with respect to the law. The idea of a force-of-law is a response to this undefinability and this non-place. It is as if the suspension of law freed a force or a mystical element, a sort of legal mana (the expression is used by Wagenvoort to describe the Roman auctoritas [Wagenvoort 1947, 106]), that both the ruling power and its adversaries, the constituted power as well as the constituent power, seek to appropriate. Force of law that is separate from the law, floating imperium, being-in-force [vigenza] without application, and, more generally, the idea of a sort of “degree zero” of the law—all these are fictions through which law attempts to encompass its own absence and to appropriate the state of exception, or at least to assure itself a relation with it.

– Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception (2005). p. 61

If you're interested in this sort of theory, State of Exception is a thoroughly worthwhile read. If you have no prior exposure to Agamben's concept of homo sacer or the theory of "bare life", you may feel a bit lost, as he starts criticizing the state of exception in terms of its ability to deprive people of citizenship and divide the body into two poles—bios and zoe. For conceptual background on this, you'd need to read through his earlier book, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life.

  • 1
    +1 to counter, Agamben is absolutely on point and this is a great answer. – Joseph Weissman Jul 1 '11 at 12:58

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. - Ben Franklin

Sooner or later, however, [governments] tend to abuse...power and to suppress the freedom they had earlier secured. - Edmond Burke

There is no good reason to surrender your liberties. But worse is when you surrender mine. The US was founded on the rights and liberties being sacrosanct. Just because it is easier to do with the liberties surrendered does not mean it is the right way to do it. I would propose that if it can not be done with out the suspension of civil liberties and freedoms then it should not be done in the first place.


Two components of just war theory come in to play when considering restrictions on liberty.

  1. Was the war declared by a legitimate authority
  2. Are the ends proportional to the means

If the war is declared by a legitimate authority, then it ought to have the backing of those who wish to give up their civil liberties - if only in a representative way. If the ends are proportional to the means, then it would have to be worse for the citizenry to not give up their civil liberties than to do so.

In another sense, all the principles for just war theory must be found true just for the war to be declared, so they all come in to play and they are all very hard to satisfy.

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