Freedom and liberty

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S026-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2018, from

1. Freedom and liberty

These two terms are often used interchangeably, but on those occasions when they are not taken to be synonyms, the basis of the distinction between the two is usually clear. ‘Freedom’, when applied to persons and their actions, refers to the ability of a person in a given set of circumstances to act in some particular way. ‘Liberty’ refers to authoritative permission to act in some particular way. The contrast is a basis for the grammatical distinction between ‘can’ and ‘may’, between the de facto and the de jure perspectives, or between (overall) ability and permission.

The concept of a liberty is an important part of juridical systems. A set of governing rules can impose duties on those who are subject to their authority. But when the rules remain silent about a given type of activity, x, then they are said to leave the subjects at liberty to x or not to x, or however they see fit. To be at liberty to x is simply to have no duty not to x (see Rights §2).

So conceived, freedom and liberty can vary independently. For example, when a statute is only sporadically enforced, if at all, it may leave a person’s de facto ability to do what it prohibits virtually unimpaired. Thus a cohabiting unmarried couple in Arizona is perfectly capable of doing what the law prohibits only because the law in question is hardly ever enforced. Cohabiting couples have almost perfect de facto freedom to cohabit because police indifference makes the risk of detection and conviction minimal. Not only are we sometimes free (to some degree or other) to do what we are not at liberty to do; conversely, we may be at liberty to do what we are not free to do, as when circumstances other than enforced rules prevent us from doing what we are legally permitted to do.

Citing this article:
Feinberg, Joel. Freedom and liberty. Freedom and liberty, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S026-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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