1 U What's wrong with negative liberty? 1 What's wrong with negative liberty? Albeit it is commonly acknowledged that freedom, in contrast to other political concepts such as equality, is almost universally valued, the question what social freedom actually is, remains difficult to answer. 1 Philosophers over time have tried to tackle the question and have come up with a variety of answers. One of the most famous and important attempts to define political freedom, is Sir Isaiah Berlin's essay Two Concepts of Liberty, delivered as his Inaugural Address to Oxford University in In this essay he distinguishes two different conceptions of freedom, positive and negative liberty. Even though his views are shared by other thinkers, there are as many others who disagree with the notion that the concept of negative liberty is the best way of discussing freedom. According to Berlin, the two notions of positive and negative freedom or liberty 2 are the answers to two different sets of questions. Negative liberty is connected to the response of the question 'What is the area within which the subject a person or group of persons is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without other interference by other persons?', while positive liberty answers the question 'What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that'. 3 Thus negative liberty extends over the area in which a person can act unobstructed by others, in which coercion does not prevent a person from either satisfying its desires, attaining its goals and fulfilling its wishes. Or, in Warburton's words, 'you restrict my negative freedom when you restrict the number of choices I can make about my life'. 4 Whether a person actually takes the opportunity of doing or becoming what it is free to, is not important for rendering the person actually free. In other words, if a person who does not make 1 Other terms for 'social freedom' used in this essay are 'political' and 'individual freedom'. 2 Most literature uses the terms 'freedom' and 'liberty' interchangeably, therefore I will do the same. 3 Isaiah Berlin, 'Two Concepts of Liberty' (1958), in Four Essays on Liberty, Isaiah Berlin (Oxford, 1969), pp (pp ). 4 Nigel Warburton, Freedom: An Introduc t ion with Readings (London, 2001), p.5.
2 U What's wrong with negative liberty? 2 use of his or her freedom of speech, this person still is free to speak. After all, negative liberty is 'opportunity for action, rather than action itself'. 5 Furthermore, negative liberty logically and conceptually has nothing to do with capability. The fact that a human being is not able to fly like a bird does not render this person unfree, even if flying like a bird would be that person's deepest wish. After facing criticism about some of the points made in Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin later clarified his definitions. Negative liberty had been criticised for implying that decreasing the number of a person's wants would eventually enhance its freedom. This would lead to the, as Berlin himself admits, absurd argument of a slave being able to become freer if he would have no desires beyond what he already has. The concept of negative liberty has been prominent with many English philosophers and other Western thinkers of the last few centuries, including Thomas Hobbes or J.S. Mill. Positive liberty deals with another scope of ideas. It is concerned with a person's wish to be its own master and has become associated with doctrines of self-realisation. This concept implies a dualistic nature of a person: the higher self, which is reasonable and should be in control, in contrast to the lower, irrational, impulsive self. 6 For it is assumed that a person is only really itself and in control of its life and consequently positively free, when the higher self controls the lower one. So to speak, it should be a person's only goal to become this higher, rational self. Proponents of positive liberty regard the coercion of forcing lower selves into the higher state as a liberation and therefore justified. 7 They argue that it would be their own wish if they already had reached that higher rational level. 5 Berlin (1969), p.xlii. 6 William A. Parent, 'Some Recent Work on the Concept of Liberty' (1973), in American Philosophical Quarterly 11 (1974), pp (p.150). 7 Berlin (1958), p.134.
3 U What's wrong with negative liberty? 3 J.S. Mill regards negative liberty as the best way to maximise utility, i.e. happiness. 8 Berlin prefers negative liberty for it is both truer and more humane than its positive counterpart. Truer for human goals are numerous and diverse, and human aspirations can indeed clash with one another. More humane since it does not coerce others under the guise of freedom. This leads to one of the major problems of positive liberty: it is always in danger of being abused by authoritarian or totalitarian attempts to constrain certain people. Still, he maintains that both concepts are part of all of us and necessary for a decent existence. 9 While Berlin s objections to positive liberty might sound reasonable and just, Berlin and the concept of negative freedom itself have been critically scrutinised over time. And even though some of its problems have been corrected by Berlin, some still remain unsettled. One point of criticism of negative freedom, especially of Berlin's concept, claims that the notion is not so much concerned with actual non-interference but rather with its results. William A. Parent describes this as 'an area of personal life entirely immune from outside intrusion', something which comes close to the notion of privacy. 10 However, freedom and privacy should never be used interchangeably since a person under house arrest is certainly deprived of the freedom to pursue every-day activities yet still has privacy. Another point of criticism by Parent is his objection to the opportunity-concept underlying negative liberty. He argues that the terms 'opportunity' and 'liberty' differ in meaning. Illness, poverty or bias don't interfere to make someone unfree, they rather curtail his opportunities. He illustrates his point by the example of a young man who might have the social freedom to attend a concert, might still not have the opportunity to do so because he has to work or could not get any tickets. Therefore 'the problem of increasing and distributing freedom cannot be reduced to a question about the maximization of opportunity' 11, as Berlin implies Warburton (2001), p Ibid., p Parent (1973), p Ibid., p Berlin (1969), p.xlviii.
4 U What's wrong with negative liberty? 4 Charles Taylor also criticises the pure, the opportunity concept of liberty which especially Hobbes advocates. In his article What's wrong with Negative Liberty he argues that 'even the simplest theory of negative freedom must discriminate between different sorts of obstacles to different sorts of activities'. 13 It has to be acknowledged that certain goals or wants are more important and significant than others. Taylor gives the example of the difference between a traffic light and laws restricting the way of practising religion. While the former certainly prevents one from driving on and violates the freedom of movement, no one would reasonably argue that it curtails the driver's social freedom. The latter meanwhile is probably by most seen as an infringement of freedom. Taylor consider a person to have the capacity of 'strong evaluation', which allows the person to judge which desires are more significant than others on respect to various freedoms. 14 It helps the person to distinguish between desires which are perhaps the strongest, but not automatically the most significant ones. Sometimes these strong, yet less significant desires, might prevent a person from doing what the person really wants, e.g. the irrational fear of flying might prevent one from taking up a job one really desires. In other words, freedom can either be restricted by external obstacles or internal, psychological ones, something which the classic concept of negative liberty does not consider. Taylor concludes his argument as follows: 'I must be actually exercising self-understanding to be truly or fully free. I can no longer understand freedom just as an opportunity concept'. 15 Consequently, negative liberty will disintegrate into positive liberty. The problem of the conception of coercion goes even deeper. One not only must make a distinction between internal and external coercion, also between certain notions of external coercion. A person's view of negative liberty always depends on that person's idea of the range of coercion. F.A. Hayek defines coercion as an instance 'when one man's actions are made to serve another 13 Warburton (2001), p Charles Taylor, 'What's wrong with Negative Liberty' (1979), in Liberty, ed. David Miller (Oxford, 1991), pp (p.153). 15 Ibid., p.162.
5 U What's wrong with negative liberty? 5 man's will, not for his own, but for the others purpose'. 16 Hillel Steiner states that one is only unfree when physically prevented from action, a quite a rigorous account what freedom is. 17 This notion however, does not imply anything about non-physical restrictions such as threats. These are incorporated in a larger and more common sensual view, which identifies state intervention, laws and threats as coercion. Still, there are critics who think this concept does not go far enough. They question why the concept only included threats or laws, but not things like poverty or hunger. A possible explanation might say that threats make actions almost impossible because of the penalties connected with it, but that someone working in a job he does not like for it has unpleasant consequences is not unfree. At least as long as there are other occupational opportunities he could take up in order not to starve. Another potential remedy to this dilemma is a concept which defines coercion as always being intentional, based on the fact that sometimes unpleasantness is automatically there and not meant or controlled by someone. Berlin, for example, originally defined coercion as deliberate interference and the same argument is used by defenders of the free market. Evidently though, this concept is far from perfect. A person's freedom definitely can be unintentionally coerced: locking someone without purpose up still restricts that person's freedom. Is intention really of importance in this context? People suffering from poverty and starving in the streets is itself bad, no matter if intended or not. While Hayek contends that one can be both free and suffer from hunger or bad living conditions at the same time, Berlin changed his view into this direction, saying if hunger is caused by certain policies, which even not deliberately aiming at impoverishing certain people might have been changed or re-thought, count as coercion. 18 Where as poverty as a result of a drought or a flood will not be regarded as infringement of one's negative liberty. Hence this concept is not as much about actual intention as about the power of intervention and the knowledge about the outcome. The dilemma does not end here, since it 16 F.A. Hayek, 'Freedom and Coercion' (1960), in: Miller (1991), pp (p.89). 17 Hillel Steiner, 'Individual Liberty' (1974-5), in: Miller (1991), pp (p.138). 18 F.A. Hayek (1960), p.87; Berlin (1969), pp.xlvii-xlviii.
6 U What's wrong with negative liberty? 6 leads to a further question, namely if unwillingness to act is an act of coercion. As this discussion shows the definition of coercion is evidently one of the biggest dilemma proponents of negative liberty face. Either they can take the narrow route, only counting physical coercion and getting criticised for being too unspecific or the adopt a broader notion which will be hard to define properly. Furthermore, classic negative liberty prides itself as being value-free, as being descriptive rather than normative. The idea of negative liberty is only concerned about what freedom actually is, not if it is a good thing or not. This seems to be a problematic view, since freedom will never be entirely value-free, e.g. in the comparison A is freer than B. When defining freedom it is of importance of which value freedom has in comparison to other values, e.g. equality or justice. As mentioned above, Hayek and Mill both disagree with this view and claim that freedom is necessarily shaped by values and ideas. Therefore Mill, albeit defending negative liberty basically, places autonomy at the centre of freedom, going into the direction of self-realisation and consequently positive liberty. 19 Gerald MacCallum even takes criticism of negative liberty even a step further than Taylor and Mill. While both Taylor and Mill acknowledge the existence of two concepts of freedom, MacCallum introduces the idea that there is just one idea of freedom. In his article Negative and Positive Freedom' he views the idea and discussion of negative liberty as being unnecessary, for there are not two concepts of freedom but just one which is a continuation of thought. He argues 'that the distinction between them [the two concepts of freedom] has never been made sufficiently clear'. 20 According to MacCallum's concept freedom is always based on a triadic structure: x is (is not) free from y to do/become (not do/become) z Warburton (2001), pp Gerald C. MacCallum, Jr., 'Negative and Positive Freedom' (1967), in: Miller (1991), pp (p.100). 21 MacCallum (1967), p.102.
7 U What's wrong with negative liberty? 7 This notion incorporates elements of both negative and positive liberty into one single concept, being more simplistic for not being concerned with distinctions which are difficult to define. Hence, MacCallum's criticism is not just interested in a certain aspect of negative liberty, it goes even further by stating that it does not even exist. 22 The concept of negative liberty is a good example of how difficult a definition of liberty is. Like most political ideas, the concept of negative liberty has its ardent proponents, who are able to stress its positive sides, and its challengers and critics who do not fail to point out its shortcomings. Nevertheless, the lively discussion of the concept of negative freedom is a clear indicator of the importance freedom has in the mind's of not only most philosophers, but most people. 22 Berlin responded to MacCallum's criticism and triadic structure concept by presenting cases in which the triadic structure does, in his opinion, not apply. See: Berlin (1969), footnote, p.xliii.
8 U What's wrong with negative liberty? 8 Bibliography Berlin, I. (1969), Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Berlin, I. (1958), 'Two Concepts of Liberty', in I. Berlin (1969), Fou r Essays on Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp Hayek, F.A. (1960), 'Freedom and Coercion', in D. Miller (ed.) (1991), Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp MacCallum, G.C. (1967), 'Negative and Positive Freedom', in D. Miller (ed.) (1991), Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp Miller, D. (ed.) (1991), Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Parent, W.S. (1973), 'Some Recent Work on the Concept of Liberty', American Philosophical Quarterly 11, 1974, pp Pettit, P. (1989), 'A Definition of Negative Liberty', Ratio 2, 1989, pp Steiner, H. (1974/5), 'Individual Liberty', in D. Miller (ed.) (1991), Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp Taylor, C. (1979), 'What's wrong with Negative Liberty', in D. Miller (ed.) (1991), Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp Warburton, N. (2001), Freedom, London: Routledge.