Freedom of Thought, Religion, and Liberal Neutrality

54 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2012

Date Written: August 4, 2012


Freedom of thought deserves recognition as one of the greatest human freedoms, and yet it has not received its due in the philosophical and legal study of basic rights and liberties. This essay provides a minor corrective. I begin by outlining the significance of thinking, and I describe the current place of freedom of thought in liberal political theory and human rights discourse. I then offer a working definition of “thought,” following which I address the question of whether freedom of thought is a distinct basic right. I subsequently consider ways in which freedom of thought can be abrogated, distinguishing three basic categories of freedom-of-thought violations and supplying analytical treatment of examples in each category. I then apply the analysis to a series of important freedom-of-thought issues that touch upon religion, in order to make headway on special and pressing challenges for freedom of thought and religious liberty alike. The analysis that I provide clarifies moral and legal parameters for permissible investigations of people’s thoughts, and it identifies limitations on efforts to modify individuals’ thinking that are applicable to both government and private parties. My case furnishes elements of a workable conception of liberal neutrality, as well; I offer those rudiments prior to concluding.

Keywords: freedom, basic rights, liberalism, thought, thinking, religion

Suggested Citation

Swaine, Lucas, Freedom of Thought, Religion, and Liberal Neutrality (August 4, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Lucas Swaine (Contact Author)

Dartmouth College ( email )

Dept. of Government
Silsby Hall
Hanover, NH 03755
United States

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