Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Two Freedoms of Isaiah Berlin

Last month, I commented here on a short essay of literary criticism by Isaiah Berlin entitled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” As I wrote, however, “Berlin himself admitted that the essay was not intended to be taken seriously, but as a sort of enjoyable ‘intellectual game.'” Much more serious and influential, however, was his 1958 Oxford inaugural lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, which was later written in essay form and revised several times throughout Berlin’s life. Drawing freely from lessons from historical political thought, Berlin defined the two eponymous concepts as “negative” liberty and “positive” liberty.

As far as I can tell, there is no difference in general meaning or connotation between the two English words ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’. One is etymologically Latinate, and the other Germanic, which allows for the typically wider range of lexical variation and nuance in English than many other languages. In the case of this discussion, I will honor my predilection for variety and use the words interchangeably. 

The basic idea of differentiating between types of freedom goes back at least as far as Kant, but Berlin was the first to explicitly define and discuss the contours of the debate. Basically, negative liberty can be seen as “freedom from” something (like coercion, barriers, constraints), and positive liberty can be seen as “freedom to” do something (like obtain self-mastery, self-determination, choose government). Another way to understand the two labels is to imagine negative liberty as an absence of something, and positive liberty as the presence of something. The two concepts are, thus, not only necessarily different and rival interpretations of the idea of liberty itself, but even different representations of actual potentialities. For example, a poor person in an orderly society may have ‘negative’ liberty (freedom from imprisonment, unwarranted seizure, etc.) but not ‘positive’ liberty (freedom to control and determine his own fate). It goes without saying that virtually no one would ever claim to be ‘against liberty’, but people can quite easily imagine different definitions of the idea of ‘liberty’ itself. This leads to the obvious fact that how a person defines liberty can have major political implications.

Negative freedom comes from the tradition of individualistic ideals of Locke, Hume, and Mill, who generally viewed any type of constraint as opposed to a person’s liberty, or even ‘natural rights’. This is also the most common modern conception of the idea of ‘liberty’. Classical Liberalism, as well as modern Libertarian schools of thought, maintain a preference for negative liberty.

Delacroix’s original title: La Liberté ‘Positive’ guidant le peuple

Positive freedom comes from a political tradition established by Plato and Aristotle, which involves not only self-determination, but political participation to choose the government and leaders of a society. This can be evidenced by men like Pericles, and Aristotle’s famous dictum that “man is by nature a creature of the polis.” Modern proponents of positive liberty include Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel. Positive liberty is almost always a more collective enterprise than its negative counterpart, or at least it is most effective as such. Many types of activism are instantiations of positive liberty, which can be found also in some of the ideals of modern liberalism. Berlin himself noted, however, that positive liberty can be rather susceptible to the kind of rhetorical manipulation that can ultimately lead to third-person value determinations and collective control of others ‘for their own good’. Examples beginning especially from the 19th century include nationalism, paternalism, historicism, and, from the 20th century, totalitarian products like Fascism and Stalinism. An oppressed minority in an ostensibly democratic society could conceivably suffer from lack of freedom even with potential access to positive liberty. Even a strong majority could be similarly oppressed if the leaders make decisions in the name of positive liberty, whatever that may represent for them.

Can these two concepts of freedom be reconciled, and how can they help us to formulate our own ideas about the nature of ‘the good life’ and ‘the just society’? We have seen some of the downsides of ‘positive’ liberty, but is ‘negative’ liberty without its own faults? Though it is hard to argue against the idea that individuals should have freedom from harm and oppression, the role of the state to maintain security and use force is still required by even the strictest libertarians. The pertinent issue becomes: where do we draw the limits of individual freedom versus the power of the state; furthermore, how far should the state go in order to provide for the common welfare and ensure positive liberty for all. Berlin himself stated that his goal was not to argue in favor of the ‘correctness’ of either negative or positive liberty, but only to make a clear distinction between the two ideas. Despite witnessing the excesses of totalitarianism and writing during the Cold War, Berlin explicitly maintained that positive liberty is as equally valid as negative, and should not be rejected. According to him, different views of freedom derive directly from the natural incompatibility of human values on any number of issues. This incompatibility can be reconciled in Berlin’s idea of ‘value-pluralism’, in which various competing values may be equally correct. This idea (which is in the category of ‘meta-ethics’) is not necessarily universally applicable to any practical ethical issue–for example, it can be criticized from the point of view of utilitarianism, which says that some certain values may be prioritized as ‘more’ correct than others based on overall contributions towards the human good.

What Liberty, and for Whom?

The debate about the definition of liberty is ongoing. Berlin’s biggest contribution was, he said, the idea of merely explicating these differing concepts of liberty. His ‘value-pluralism’ is also a helpful tool to begin to understand how to make use of conflicts between these concepts, and attempt to live in some sort of harmony. It is unclear whether there is any relation between one’s freedom and one’s desires. For example, a slave, who is by definition without freedom, could find himself perfectly contented with his situation, and, thus, perfectly free. This is the thinking of Stoicism, which was emulated and succeeded by Christianity. It is still interesting that the two most famous Stoics were a Roman emperor (Marcus Aurelius) and a slave (Epictetus)–both of whom had to content themselves with their conditions. Freedom, in many cases, does not depend on contentedness or desire–there are many cases in which desire could ultimately lead to a state of being unfree. It is also possible to imagine someone who is happy but unfree, or free but unhappy. But if a person feels free, does it mean that they are free?

These metaphysical concerns are obviously complicated, slightly beside the point, and almost lead to more questions than answers. This all serves to provide a necessary foundation for beginning to approach my central concern: what is the role of the state in regards to guaranteeing negative liberty, and promoting positive liberty. One illustrative example is that a Muslim woman in a fundamentalist society may be completely restricted from ideas of freedom that Western liberal societies hold to be themselves fundamental. What if that woman, who is unfree, views her situation in a positive light and find happiness in her subservient role…is it wrong to ‘force’ her to be free by way of societal reforms? It is also possible that there is no necessary correlation between negative freedom and the type of government, such as a dictatorship that just happens to not interfere in individual rights.

This incomplete discussion is only a prelude to a future post in which I will compare the current, somewhat competing, schools of thought of Liberalism and Libertarianism. In this regard, it will once again be important mostly to recognize the difference between definitions of liberty in order to make a real-world value-judgment as to what kind of society we want to live in.

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4 thoughts on “Two Freedoms of Isaiah Berlin

  1. Pingback: Liberal Apologetics, Part One: John Rawls « Tigerpapers

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