Distinction Between Positive And Negative Freedom Philosophy Essay

The entry for freedom, as in definition, in the English dictionary states: “The right to do what you want without being controlled or restricted by anyone: the protest is about the infringement of our democratic freedoms […] speech/expression/choice.” (Longman; 1978, p 563) The concept has been for centuries a strong ideal to achieve, and at the same time a moral value in which the nature of our democratic society is based.

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Freedom and Liberty as a social and political norm has been interpreted by several key political theorists and philosophers, and in the light of the material in the unit 1 of the course there are two main theorists that are deeply involved on the discussion on liberty and freedom – J. Mill and Rousseau. Mill an advocate of individual as a fundamental human right – who defends very strongly that individuals should not be subjected to interference by the state. And Rousseau, that proposes with his own notion of a ‘social contract’, where man has to abdicate certain individual freedoms for is own good and the society he is part of.

I intend, in this essay, to outline the concepts of positive and negative freedom proposed by Isaiah Berlin (1909-97), in “two concepts of Liberty” (1991, pp 34-57) and explain the significance of the distinction between the two.

First I want to present a brief summary of Berlin’s concepts –

‘Negative freedom implies that an individual is free, in the sense that no one interferes with ones activities. So political liberty, in that sense, is the capacity where one can act without suffering limitations from others. So as an opposite of that – we are unable to possess political freedom when someone else enables us to do so by deliberately interfering with us.

Another argument is the example given – if an individual does not have the economical means to attain something (i.e. slice of bread), even though there is no one prohibiting him to do so, he has no such liberty to do so as if it was, actually, prohibited.

So, in the belief that the self may be put in need, due to others arrangements (economical factors), that may constitute economical slavery or at the very least oppression. Therefore, in essence, if I do not fulfill my own desires it is because others, indirectly, are incapacitating me to do so. Thus, by being free, one should not be interfered with by others in the pursuit of their desires.

However, there are conflicts with such a view; firstly because the objectives and goals of individuals may not be automatically in harmony. And secondly, because individuals may attribute different value to other goals; i.e. justice, happiness, well being our different levels of equality. And by giving higher value to those goals, individuals are willing to let go of their own freedom in favor of those values.

There is the notion held by philosophers (Hobbes, Bentham), that the capacity of action by the individual should be limited by law. And by that premise, follow the need of distinguishing a “line” separating private life and public authority. But to enforce rights or political safe guards against the intervention of the state against individuals, (that may lack education or may be infirm,) is to mock their condition. There should then be priorities – an example being that a pair of boots may have more worth than all the writings of Shakespeare. Therefore individual Liberty may not be the main necessity for everyone.

Philosophers with a more optimistic opinion about human nature and who believe in a capability of harmony within human interests (Locke, Adam Smith, Mill,) consider that social harmony and progress are compatible with a wide margin for private life, separated from the state. Hobbes, argued that, to avoid individuals destroying one another, and the descent of social life into a “jungle”, there would be a need to institute higher safe guards to maintain individuals in “place”. Meaning to increase control and reduce the liberty of the individual.

There are liberal ideals, though, that agree that a part of human existence needs to be independent from the sphere of social control. Whatever may be the principal to which they are of non-interference may be drawn – natural law, the terms of a categorical imperative or the santicity of the social contract – Liberty in that sense means the freedom of – the lack of interference from the line drawn.

For Mill the protection of individual liberty is fundamental. In his famous essay on Liberty, he states that civilization cannot progress, unless individuals are able to live as they wish. And by the lack of a free market of ideas, the truth wont come out; and there wont be space for originality, spontaneity, genius. Society will be crushed by the “collective mediocrity”.

There are three facts we can observe about this position. First of all, Mill jumbles two distinctive notions. The first is the one regarding coercion: that by frustrating human desires, it is bad in itself, while the opposite – non-interference is good in itself. That is the negative notion of freedom in its original form. Secondly, (this view is relatively modern,) Condorcet highlighted that the notion of individual rights were not part of either Greek, or Roman law. The predominance of that ideal has been more of an exception than a rule, even in contemporary western history. Even less, that notion of liberty constitutes an appeal to the unity of the masses. The desire not to suffer restrictions is a characteristic of high civilization, as for the individuals as for the communities. The third characteristic of the notion of Liberty is the most important. Stating that, Liberty, in that sense, is not compatible in some forms of autocracy or with the absence of self government. Liberty in that sense, is directly related with the area of control, and not with its source; and it’s not necessarily related with democracy or self-government either. There is no necessary connection between individual freedom and democracy. There is a clear distinction between the question of who governs, and to what extent can the state interfere with the individual.’ (Berlin, 1991 ; pp 34-43)

The meaning of “positive freedom” has its origins on the individual desire of governing itself. The liberty that consists in being its own master and not being incapacitate to make its own choices by others may not seem to be distinctive. Yet, the notions positive and negative had their own historical routes in a very distinctive way, until they came into conflict.

A clear way to show such distinction is by observing how the self-govern metaphor gained its own independent momentum. Can it be that by freeing from a spiritual slavery and the nature world, individuals became aware of an ego and of something in them that is dominated? The dominating ego is identified with reason (our superior nature). The irrational impulses and the uncontrollable desires (our inferior nature) are the dominated that need to be controlled so that the ego can fulfill the maximum of its true nature.

We can imagine that the two egos are divided by an abyss even bigger: we can conceive a real ego as something bigger than the individual, like a social “whole” of which the person constitutes an element: a group, a race, a creed, an Estate. That entity is then identified as the “real ego”. Which enforces it’s, own collective, will upon its members and attains its (and in consequence, the others) own “superior liberty”.

What makes this argument plausible is the recognition that it is possible, and sometimes justifiable, to coerce the individuals in the name of an objective (justice, common welfare) that they would seek themselves, if they were more knowledgeable. That it is easier to accept that by coercing others it will bring beneficial attributes to those individuals, and not just to oneself. On the premise that one might know, more than themselves, what they truly need.

So, the true aspiration of mankind, whatever it may be, it is identical to Liberty – to the free will of its true ego.

Demonstrating that the conception of Liberty originates directly by the opinions of what constitutes an ego, a person, an individual. The definitions of individual and Liberty can be manipulated with the intent of promulgating the will that the manipulator desires. (Berlin, 1991; pp 43-47)

In essence, Berlin is advocating the negative concept of freedom, and the cause for the distinction is in how the two formulations are distinct.

Since not all Negative freedoms implicate positive freedom. Positive freedom doesn’t seem to stand in its own rights. Sine it needs others to exist. The example highlighted before in Berlin’s text (1991, p 35) that states that the inability of an individual to buy a piece of bread because of poverty has a direct link to the interfering of others in the individual. So this notion of Liberty does not exist on its own, someone has to create it. Meaning, the possibility of an action (in this case, exercise of individual freedom) depends on someone creating the conditions to that action been made possible.

So as all positive freedom has a price that implicates a duty (Berlin, 1991, p 51),

So it seems that the reason of the distinction lays on Berlin’s concern with a pro-liberty rhetoric reasoning may be used to diminish the freedom of individuals.

Negative freedom seems than to stand on its own rights, since it is the individual being left to its own devices. The responsibility of ones actions lay only on oneself. As opposed to problematic of positive freedom.

So in conclusion Berlin holds the belief that the right to argue against the loss of a negative freedom is correct, since it is advocating that we should be able not go without being interfered with. But when the same proposition is formulated for its positive counterpart, it demands the actions of others – in order to exert my freedoms someone may be liable to create the conditions for me to do so.

On positive freedom others are responsible in everyone individual choices, whereas negative freedom advocates the desire to be responsible for ones own actions.

Bibliography –

Berlin Isaiah, “Liberty” edited by Dave Miller, chapter 2 pp 35-37 two concepts of freedom. Oxford University Press, 1991

Longman – Dictionary cotemporary English, Pearson education limited, 1995