What is the positive concept of liberty?

Tuesday, July 5th, 2022

Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished a “negative” and a “positive” concept of freedom. The negative concept is straightforward, but what can be made of the positive concept? Too often, attempts to distinguish them rely on a superficial linguistic difference between the terms ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. For example, it might be said that negative freedom is freedom from external constraints, whereas positive freedom “represents freedom to do things on one’s own volition.” [Taken from here.]

But that simply won’t do. Agents only ever do things because they want to do them. In other words, any genuine act (rather than a mere twitch, or a frogmarch) is done as the result of the agent’s own volition, and it only can be done when the act is not hindered by external constraints. And that amounts to a “negative” re-formulation of what was intended to capture the essence of “positive” freedom.

Perhaps what’s meant is something like this. If a person is forced to do something under duress — at gunpoint, say — then although he does it because he (briefly) “wants” to do it while the gun is aimed at his head, he can hardly be said to do it on his own volition. A mugger threatens him with death, and he’d prefer to live despite handing over his money than die holding on to it. This is not a free act, surely?

Well, of course the mugging victim is not free. But his lack of freedom can be characterized in an entirely negative way. Although he wanted to hand over his money while held at gunpoint, and that narrowly-circumscribed act in isolation could be described as “free” (no policeman suddenly turned up to prevent him doing so), that is to consider events within far too narrow a context. He had a much stronger, longer-term want not to be mugged. That want — considered in the larger context — was thwarted by his actually being mugged. The mugger was an external constraint that prevented the victim from doing what he wanted to do. So the victim was not free to go about his business unmolested, and therefore he was not free — for entirely “negative” reasons.

Notice that the word ‘free’ applies both to agents and to acts, and furthermore, acts have to be considered within contexts of varying scope. This invites confusion, as the word’s meaning can slide almost imperceptibly between them. (I started the last paragraph with a subtle shift of my own by giving an answer about an agent to a question about an act.)

When the negative concept of freedom seems to suggest that a man being mugged is “free” to give money to his mugger, some are drawn to the idea that we need a more robust concept of freedom than this negative one. And here thoughts usually turn to autonomy — to the idea of self-rule, of being the author of one’s own acts. It sounds silly or sinister to say that the mugging victim was “free” to hand over his money, because he lacks autonomy. The next obvious step is to embrace a concept of freedom that links it with autonomy.

The concept of autonomy is quite similar to that of power, specifically inner strength. To achieve something, we don’t just need an absence of external obstacles, we also need the wherewithal to act — the “muscle”,  if you like, for movement to occur.

I think we need to proceed carefully here. To act at all, we need power — quite literally we need muscle to lift a finger, and in an extended sense we need various mental abilities. To act successfully — which goes beyond merely acting — we need an absence of obstacles that would prevent our acts achieving their goals. We should observe and respect this distinction. Greater power tends to bring with it greater freedom, but power and freedom remain distinct concepts, as one is a prerequisite of action, while the other is a prerequisite of success.

Hobbes memorably said that a man “fastened to his bed by sickness” did not lack freedom but power. In saying this, Hobbes exhibited a remarkable degree of political sensitivity. We have a legitimate prima facie claim against other agents who put limits on our freedom, but no such claim against mere circumstances (rather than agents) that make us internally weak. (Of course what one historical era counts as weakness can later be regarded as the effect of human agency.)

It seems to me that we need both a concept of power, and a distinct concept of freedom. But as far as freedom is concerned, the negative concept is all anyone needs. Most attempts to define the positive concept are in fact just alternative ways of defining the negative concept. “Freedom from” and “freedom to” are inter-definable, the two definitions in effect pointing to figure and ground that share lines of demarcation. Freedom to do X is just the same thing as an ability to do X thanks to the lack of external constraints that prevent one doing X. To be an autonomous agent is to have both the power to act, and the freedom to act, the latter understood negatively.

Yet, there is a positive concept of freedom. I know this because Rousseau used it, Marx used it, and it is presupposed in almost every ringing patriotic declaration of national freedom. This concept of freedom is expressed in rather mystical-sounding claims that to be free one must partake in the “general will”; that one can be “forced to be free”; that one must beware of “false consciousness”; that one’s “true self” must take control over one’s merely “empirical self”; that being free means embracing the “destiny of the nation”; or whatever.

As I see it, the essential difference between positive and negative freedom is this: having positive freedom means more than simply being able to get what you want — it means wanting the right things, usually understood in some implicitly moral sense. The various goods that are thought to empower those who have positive freedom — such as education, “strength of will”, etc. — are things that many people do not in fact strive for. But according to those who understand freedom positively, they ought to strive for them, for their own empowerment.

Implicit “oughts” are an essential ingredient in the positive concept. In Rousseau’s terms, being free means partaking in the “general will”, in other words not simply pursuing goals one already happens to have, but adopting larger goals as one’s own. Only with that essential extra ingredient can people be “forced to be free” or considered unfree if their “empirical selves” fall short of the “self-realisation” enjoyed by their “true selves” (in Berlin’s terminology). Ideas such as “false consciousness” only make sense against the background assumption that being free means wanting the right things as well as being able to achieve them.

These mystical-sounding appeals aren’t exactly to autonomy per se, but to something like the additional power that agents would acquire if they adopted goals — equality, justice, truth, whatever — shared by members of a group.

This is a deeply illiberal understanding of freedom, and I think a confusion of power and freedom lies at the root of the positive concept.

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