Principia Discordia > Think for Yourself, Schmuck!

Postive and Negative Liberty



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Isiah Berlin originally coined the differences between positive (bad) and negative (good) liberty.  Though he meant it in a political philosophy sense and not metaphysical/epistemologically, there can be some crossover and ideas of merit within the concepts.

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Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting - or the fact of acting - in such a way as to take control of one's life and realize one's fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.

The idea of distinguishing between a negative and a positive sense of the term ‘liberty’ goes back at least to Kant, but was first examined and defended in depth by Isaiah Berlin in the 1950s and ‘60s. Discussions about the distinction normally take place in the context of political and social philosophy. They are distinct from, though sometimes related to, philosophical discussions about free will. Discussions about the nature of positive liberty often overlap, however, with discussions about the nature of personal autonomy.

As Berlin showed, negative and positive liberty are not merely two distinct kinds of liberty; they can be seen as rival, incompatible interpretations of a single political ideal. Since few people claim to be against liberty, the way this term is interpreted and defined can have important political implications. Political liberalism tends to presuppose a negative definition of liberty: liberals generally claim that if one favors individual liberty one should place strong limitations on the activities of the state. Critics of liberalism often contest this implication by contesting the negative definition of liberty: they argue that the pursuit of liberty understood as self-realization or as self-determination (whether of the individual or of the collectivity) can require state intervention of a kind not normally allowed by liberals.

It is useful to think of the difference between the two concepts in terms of the difference between factors that are external and factors that are internal to the agent. While theorists of negative freedom are primarily interested in the degree to which individuals or groups suffer interference from external bodies, theorists of positive freedom are more attentive to the internal factors affecting the degree to which individuals or groups act autonomously. Given this difference, one might be tempted to think that a political philosopher should concentrate exclusively on negative freedom, a concern with positive freedom being more relevant to psychology or individual morality than to political and social institutions. This, however, would be premature, for among the most hotly debated issues in political philosophy are the following: Is the positive concept of freedom a political concept? Can individuals or groups achieve positive freedom through political action? Is it possible for the state to promote the positive freedom of citizens on their behalf? And if so, is it desirable for the state to do so? The classic texts in the history of western political thought are divided over how these questions should be answered: theorists in the classical liberal tradition, like Constant, Humboldt, Spencer and Mill, are typically classed as answering ‘no’ and therefore as defending a negative concept of political freedom; theorists that are critical of this tradition, like Rousseau, Hegel, Marx and T.H. Green, are typically classed as answering ‘yes’ and as defending a positive concept of political freedom.

In its political form, positive freedom has often been thought of as necessarily achieved through a collectivity. Perhaps the clearest case is that of Rousseau's theory of freedom, according to which individual freedom is achieved through participation in the process whereby one's community exercises collective control over its own affairs in accordance with the ‘general will’. Put in the simplest terms, one might say that a democratic society is a free society because it is a self-determined society, and that a member of that society is free to the extent that he or she participates in its democratic process.

After Berlin, the most widely cited supporters of the negative concept of liberty include Day (1971), Oppenheim (1981), Miller (1983) and Steiner (1994). Among the most prominent contemporary supporters of the positive concept of liberty are Milne (1968), Gibbs (1976), C. Taylor (1979) and Christman (1991).
2. The Paradox of Positive Liberty

Many liberals, including Berlin, have suggested that the positive concept of liberty carries with it a danger of authoritarianism. Consider the fate of a permanent and oppressed minority. Because the members of this minority participate in a democratic process characterized by majority rule, they might be said to be free on the grounds that they are members of a society exercising self-control over its own affairs. But they are oppressed, and so are surely unfree. Moreover, it is not necessary to see a society as democratic in order to see it as self-controlled; one might instead adopt an organic conception of society, according to which the collectivity is to be thought of as a living organism, and one might believe that this organism will only act rationally, will only be in control of itself, when its various parts are brought into line with some rational plan devised by its wise governors (who, to extend the metaphor, might be thought of as the organism's brain). In this case, even the majority might be oppressed in the name of liberty.

Such justifications of oppression in the name of liberty are no mere products of the liberal imagination, for there are notorious historical examples of their endorsement by authoritarian political leaders. Berlin, himself a liberal and writing during the cold war, was clearly moved by the way in which the apparently noble ideal of freedom as self-mastery or self-realization had been twisted and distorted by the totalitarian dictators of the twentieth century - most notably those of the Soviet Union - so as to claim that they, rather than the liberal West, were the true champions of freedom. The slippery slope towards this paradoxical conclusion begins, according to Berlin, with the idea of a divided self. To illustrate: the smoker in our story provides a clear example of a divided self, as there is the self that wants to get to the appointment and there is the self that wants to get to the tobacconists. We now add to this that one of the selves - the keeper of appointments - is a ‘higher’ self, and the other - the smoker - is a ‘lower’ self. The higher self is the rational, reflecting self, the self that is capable of moral action and of taking responsibility for what she does. This is the true self, since it is what marks us off from other animals. The lower self, on the other hand, is the self of the passions, of unreflecting desires and irrational impulses. One is free, then, when one's higher, rational self is in control and one is not a slave to one's passions or to one's merely empirical self. The next step down the slippery slope consists in pointing out that some individuals are more rational than others, and can therefore know best what is in their and others' rational interests. This allows them to say that by forcing people less rational than themselves to do the rational thing and thus to realize their true selves, they are in fact liberating them from their merely empirical desires. Occasionally, Berlin says, the defender of positive freedom will take an additional step that consists in conceiving of the self as wider than the individual and as represented by an organic social whole - “a tribe, a race, a church, a state, the great society of the living and the dead and the yet unborn”. The true interests of the individual are to be identified with the interests of this whole, and individuals can and should be coerced into fulfilling these interests, for they would not resist coercion if they were as rational and wise as their coercers. “Once I take this view”, Berlin says, “I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture in the name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man ... must be identical with his freedom” (Berlin 1969, pp. 132-33).

Those in the negative camp try to cut off this line of reasoning at the first step, by denying that there is any necessary relation between one's freedom and one's desires. Since one is free to the extent that one is externally unprevented from doing things, they say, one can be free to do what one does not desire to do. If being free meant being unprevented from realizing one's desires, then one could, again paradoxically, reduce one's unfreedom by coming to desire fewer of the things one is unfree to do. One could become free simply by contenting oneself with one's situation. A perfectly contented slave is perfectly free to realize all of her desires. Nevertheless, we tend to think of slavery as the opposite of freedom. More generally, freedom is not to be confused with happiness, for in logical terms there is nothing to stop a free person from being unhappy or an unfree person from being happy. The happy person might feel free, but whether they are free is another matter. Negative theorists of freedom therefore tend to say not that having freedom means being unprevented from doing as one desires, but that it means being unprevented from doing whatever one might desire to do.

Some theorists of positive freedom bite the bullet and say that the contented slave is indeed free - that in order to be free the individual must learn, not so much to dominate certain merely empirical desires, but to rid herself of them. She must, in other words, remove as many of her desires as possible. As Berlin puts it, if I have a wounded leg ‘there are two methods of freeing myself from pain. One is to heal the wound. But if the cure is too difficult or uncertain, there is another method. I can get rid of the wound by cutting off my leg’ (1969, pp. 135-36). This is the strategy of liberation adopted by ascetics, stoics and Buddhist sages. It involves a ‘retreat into an inner citadel’ - a soul or a purely noumenal self - in which the individual is immune to any outside forces. But this state, even if it can be achieved, is not one that liberals would want to call one of freedom, for it again risks masking important forms of oppression. It is, after all, often in coming to terms with excessive external limitations in society that individuals retreat into themselves, pretending to themselves that they do not really desire the worldly goods or pleasures they have been denied. Moreover, the removal of desires may also be an effect of outside forces, such as brainwashing, which we should hardly want to call a realization of freedom.

4. One Concept of Liberty: Freedom as a Triadic Relation

The two sides identified by Berlin disagree over which of two different concepts best deserves the name of ‘liberty’. Does this fact not denote the presence of some more basic agreement between the two sides? How, after all, could they see their disagreement as one about the definition of liberty if they did not think of themselves as in some sense talking about the same thing? In an influential article, the American legal philosopher Gerald MacCallum (1967) put forward the following answer: there is in fact only one basic concept of freedom, on which both sides in the debate converge. What the so-called negative and positive theorists disagree about is how this single concept of freedom should be interpreted. Indeed, in MacCallum's view, there are a great many different possible interpretations of freedom, and it is only Berlin's artificial dichotomy that has led us to think in terms of there being two.

MacCallum defines the basic concept of freedom - the concept on which everyone agrees - as follows: a subject, or agent, is free from certain constraints, or preventing conditions, to do or become certain things. Freedom is therefore a triadic relation - that is, a relation between three things: an agent, certain preventing conditions, and certain doings or becomings of the agent. Any statement about freedom or unfreedom can be translated into a statement of the above form by specifying what is free or unfree, from what it is free or unfree, and what it is free or unfree to do or become. Any claim about the presence or absence of freedom in a given situation will therefore make certain assumptions about what counts as an agent, what counts as a constraint or limitation on freedom, and what counts as a purpose that the agent can be described as either free or unfree to carry out.

The definition of freedom as a triadic relation was first put forward in the seminal work of Felix Oppenheim in the 1950s and 60s. Oppenheim saw that an important meaning of ‘freedom’ in the context of political and social philosophy was as a relation between two agents and a particular (impeded or unimpeded) action. This interpretation of freedom remained, however, what Berlin would call a negative one. What MacCallum did was to generalize this triadic structure so that it would cover all possible claims about freedom, whether of the negative or the positive variety. In MacCallum's framework, unlike in Oppenheim's, the interpretation of each of the three variables is left open. In other words, MacCallum's position is a meta-theoretical one: his is a theory about the differences between theorists of freedom.

To illustrate MacCallum's point, let us return to the example of the smoker driving to the tobacconists. In describing this person as either free or unfree, we shall be making assumptions about each of MacCallum's three variables. If we say that the driver is free, what we shall probably mean is that an agent, consisting in the driver's empirical self, is free from external (physical or legal) obstacles to do whatever he or she might want to do. If, on the other hand, we say that the driver is unfree, what we shall probably mean is that an agent, consisting in a higher or rational self, is made unfree by internal, psychological constraints to carry out some rational, authentic or virtuous plan. Notice that in both claims there is a negative element and a positive element: each claim about freedom assumes both that freedom is freedom from something (i.e., preventing conditions) and that it is freedom to do or become something. The dichotomy between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ is therefore a false one, and it is misleading say that those who see the driver as free employ a negative concept and those who see the driver as unfree employ a positive one. What these two camps differ over is the way in which one should interpret each of the three variables in the triadic freedom-relation. More precisely, we can see that what they differ over is the extension to be assigned to each of the variables.

Thus, those whom Berlin places in the negative camp typically conceive of the agent as having the same extension as that which it is generally given in ordinary discourse: they tend to think of the agent as an individual human being and as including all of the empirical beliefs and desires of that individual. Those in the so-called positive camp, on the other hand, often depart from the ordinary notion, in one sense imagining the agent as more extensive than in the ordinary notion, and in another sense imagining it as less extensive: they think of the agent as having a greater extension than in ordinary discourse in cases where they identify the agent's true desires and aims with those of some collectivity of which she is a member; and they think of the agent as having a lesser extension than in ordinary discourse in cases where they identify the true agent with only a subset of her empirical beliefs and desires - i.e., with those that are rational, authentic or virtuous. Secondly, those in Berlin's positive camp tend to take a wider view of what counts as a constraint on freedom than those in his negative camp: the set of relevant obstacles is more extensive for the former than for the latter, since negative theorists tend to count only external obstacles as constraints on freedom, whereas positive theorists also allow that one may be constrained by internal factors, such as irrational desires, fears or ignorance. And thirdly, those in Berlin's positive camp tend to take a narrower view of what counts as a purpose one can be free to fulfill. The set of relevant purposes is less extensive for them than for the negative theorists, for we have seen that they tend to restrict the relevant set of actions or states to those that are rational, authentic or virtuous, whereas those in the negative camp tend to extend this variable so as to cover any action or state the agent might desire.

On MacCallum's analysis, then, there is no simple dichotomy between positive and negative liberty; rather, we should recognize that there is a whole range of possible interpretations or ‘conceptions’ of the single concept of liberty. Indeed, as MacCallum says and as Berlin seems implicitly to admit, a number of classic authors cannot be placed unequivocally in one or the other of the two camps. Locke, for example, is normally thought of as one of the fathers or classical liberalism and therefore as a staunch defender of the negative concept of freedom. He indeed states explicitly that ‘[to be at] liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others’. But he also says that liberty is not to be confused with ‘license’, and that “that ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices” (Second Treatise, parags. 6 and 57). While Locke gives an account of constraints on freedom that Berlin would call negative, he seems to endorse an account of MacCallum's third freedom-variable that Berlin would call positive, restricting this to actions that are not immoral (liberty is not license) and to those that are in the agent's own interests (I am not unfree if prevented from falling into a bog). A number of contemporary libertarians have provided or assumed definitions of freedom that are similarly morally loaded (e.g. Nozick 1974; Rothbard 1982). This would seem to confirm MacCallum's claim that it is conceptually and historically misleading to divide theorists into two camps - a negative liberal one and a positive non-liberal one.


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