In history, are there any philosophers who believe that freedom (liberty) is in general more important than one's own life and wrote books/articles to argue this? What are their arguments/reasoning in brief?

  • "Liberty or death" is rather a politician statement than a philosophical one.
    – armand
    Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 22:43
  • @armand I really want to focus on theory/philosophy and avoid the politicians' argument for "freedom is more important than life"... politicians can use the illusion of "freedom" to fool people to die for them...
    – No One
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 1:17

1 Answer 1


"In general".. Like, your freedom to choose what snack to eat is more important than your life? You seem to be looking to set up a strawman.

What we find, looking at political history, is that when some critical threshold is crossed of a population with nothing left to lose, and they see an opportunity for change, they will risk everything for that. Discussed here: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate?

Many, many wars and military campaigns start like this. The Mongol invasions started with two intensely bad winters, that meant starve or go invade. Recent war in Syria was kicked off by drought, and government indifference to starving farmers seeking aid.

But during turbulent times, conditions for the majority can be genuinely improved, or not - and philosophers and political theory can have a lot to do with that, and, so can realpolitik.

Ancient Greek democracy in Athens arose from a pushback by an elite, against an attempted seizing of control by an autocrat. It had a lasting impact on the destiny of the city.

Habeus corpus, the right to not be detained without trial that has become a foundational constitutional right almost everywhere, came from the English Baron's Rebellion against King John. Desperation, plus opportunity.

Many wars and rebellions focus on a strong-man, a lynchpin to hold things together, who's death sees things become as bad as before the crisis, or worse. A few, see a shift on the dial: new fundamental laws, or institutions, that became beloved of the people in a way that mean they could not be revoked. The sovereignty of parliament in the UK. The end of absolute monarchies nearly everywhere. The ground shifts.

Philosophers describe, justify, and advocate for the change. What seemed impossible, comes to be seen as inevitable and above all, as irrevocable. Among the chaos of human history, this patina of order and sense of development and progress is I think as much, in truth, as philosophers of politics can offer.

We should all learn what rights past generations died for, so we know how crucial it is not to give them up lightly, and fall in to being doomed to repeat the history we did not learn.

I see willingness to die for ideas, and for others, as a crucial threshold for humanity. Because it shows a eusociality, a group-selection, that I think is undeniable - it cannot be accounted for by selection of individual genes alone, and only tenuously by kin-selection (see for example the successful slave revolt of Haiti, by many unrelated peoples).

So I like to some of the oldest human stories, the Bhagavad Gita, the Illiad, as pointing toward understanding how society has been shaped by motivating people to die for others and celebrating those who do, but also recording how that ancient 'circuit' of human behaviour has endlessly been hijacked for purposes that don't serve collective wellbeing. Discussed superbly here: Redefining The Antiwar-film:The Lies Of Heroism.

Fundamentally, the intimations of immortality we experience through engaging with society, picking up language & learning as children and leaving some inheritance worth taking up by future generations, is a double-edged sword. We need leaders, but they must go beyond Midas or Ozymandias, for the societies they impact to prosper.

Mongolia didn't truly prosper from Genghis Khan, China only gained a new dynasty and dome different genes, while their civil service remained largely unchanged (the power of effective institutions). Putin has no ideology to outlast him, and his aims serve only his objectives, not those of his community.

Good ideas, like the social contract, habeus corpus, division of powers, or allowing free press and free markets to solve their own issues unless a specific systemic problem occurs, this is the work of good political philosophy, to identify, describe imagine, and lead people towards, more resilient and capable organisational structures. They support freedoms, and we have them because people died to make them irrevocable, and the backstop of that is to be ready to die when they are under threat. Otherwise, we return to living out spent history, tyrants demanding the deaths of generations of young people for their vanity. The fundamental reason to die for our freedoms, is because we know history, and do not want to repeat it.

Durkheim looks to what is helf sacred, as the defining source of cohesion in communities. We are familiar with this as religious traditions. But his analysis that arose to address the full diversity of human religious behaviour beyond Abrahamic faiths, also requires us to consider things like habeus corpus as literally sacred values. Challenge what a community holds sacred, and you challenge it's cohesion. Look at the scientific community and waves of challenge like Lysenkoism, Nazi rejection of 'Jewish physics', or Chinese & Korean human germline engineering, for modern examples.

"No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they'd die for. “ —Martin Luther King, Jr.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .