Freedom and liberty

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S026-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 23, 2018, from

3. Negative and positive freedom

Philosophical advocates of ‘positive freedom’ are often reacting to a tradition among English empiricists that extends from Hobbes to J.S. Mill and Russell. Hobbes intended his definition to apply to the most essential of the common elements in free action and free movement generally. He defined ‘free’ as the absence of external impediments, to apply equally well, for example, to free-flowing (undammed) streams of water as to the purposeful conduct of human beings. Subsequent empiricists, including Locke (§10) and Hume (§3), also held that all freedom is essentially something negative; namely, the absence of restraint or impediment to our actions.

The family of theories to which Berlin attached the label ‘positive liberty’ are those that identify freedom (or liberty) with personal autonomy or self-government. One version of that theory emphasizes the internal forum that is the agent’s self and the legitimate claim of the rational self to rule over the self’s lesser elements. The second of the autonomy theories is less individualistic and more political. It holds that no individual can live their life autonomously except as a member of a free political community, a state that is not only independent of other states, but one that is itself organized democratically so that all citizens can share in its governance, and in that sense, at least, be self-governing.

The nineteenth-century idealist philosopher T.H. Green (§3) summed up these requirements in his definition of ‘freedom’ as a ‘positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others’ (1888: 371). Green’s definition also expresses a second conception of positive freedom as more than the mere absence of impediment to our desires, even more than the absence of impediment to our ‘worthy’ desires. In addition to the absence of constraint, genuine freedom must provide full opportunity beyond the mere non-interference of the police and other people. If a person desires above all things to own and enjoy a Mercedes, and there are no external impediments, legal or nonlegal, in the community to such ownership, then both the legal code and the neighbours leave them free to do as they desire. But if that person has no money, then that negative freedom is effectively useless. To have true freedom, say supporters of positive freedom, one must have what is required for the satisfaction of worthwhile wants, and that will usually include at least minimal wealth, physical health, talent and knowledge, including the sorts of knowledge normally imparted by formal education. The more we are able to do the things worth doing, they insist, the freer we are.

The positive freedom theorists may go on to charge that the negative theorist cannot explain why the laudatory title of freedom should ever characterize the person who is paralyzed, insane, infantile, impoverished and ignorant, as generally free. It must be ironic, they claim, to say that such an unfortunate person is well off in the manner implied by the term ‘free’. Negative freedom theorists argue that to be free does not mean to be well off; one may be free but discontented, unhappy, ignorant, hungry or in pain. An individual may have freedom but find that in their circumstances it is not worth much. What this shows is that freedom is the kind of good whose worth fluctuates, or in the words of John Rawls (§§1–2): ‘the worth of liberty is not the same for everyone’ (1971: 204).

The pauper is unable to buy the Mercedes, but according to the negative freedom advocate, this is not through being unfree to buy one. Most writers within the negative freedom tradition deny that all inabilities are also ‘unfreedoms’. The inabilities that constitute unfreedoms, they insist, are those that can be traced directly or indirectly to the deliberate actions or policies of other human beings, in particular legislators and police offers, who can intervene directly and forcefully in other persons’ lives. Sometimes the relevant explanation of some other person’s incapacity (for example, to earn a decent living) can be linked indirectly to various social influences. The impoverished person might be so because of a lack of technical skill, and that lack, in turn, could be a product of a poor education traceable, however obscurely, to the inequities of a national system of racial segregation, which in turn was supported as deliberate policy by an apartheid government. In that case we could say not only that they are unable to do x, but also that they are unfree, given the circumstances, to do so.

The gap between the positive and negative theorists can be further decreased by a theory which has a wider conception of ‘restraint’ and ‘impediment.’ Such a theory would have a place both for negative constraints like lack of money, and internal constraints like intense headaches. Such a theory could support negative freedom (that all freedom consists of the absence of impediments, whether positive, negative, internal or external), yet also encompass the important point made by positive freedom (that there is a lot more to freedom than simple non-interference from police officers and other persons, important as that is).

A large number of philosophers now reject the view that there are two irreducibly distinct concepts of freedom, one positive and the other negative (MacCallum 1967; Feinberg 1973; Rawls 1971). These ‘single concept’ theorists do not contend that one of the pair of allegedly distinct concepts is ‘the only, the “truest”, or the “most worthwhile”’ (MacCallum 1967: 312), but rather that it is a mistake to make the distinction between positive and negative concepts in the first place. According to MacCallum, there is only one concept of liberty and that is best understood as ‘always one and the same triadic relation’ between a person (subject or agent), an intended action (actual or possible) and what MacCallum calls a ‘preventing condition’ (barriers, compulsions and constraints) (1967: 312, 314). Freedom, in his view, is always of someone, from something, to do, have or be something. Disputes about the nature of freedom like that which divided adherents of positive freedom from adherents of negative freedom are, according to MacCallum, really disagreements over the proper range of one or more of the three variables in a single analytic model: what the term ‘person’ is to stand for, what is to count as an obstacle, or impediment, or forceful interference, and what is to count as a wanted or intended action.

Citing this article:
Feinberg, Joel. Negative and positive freedom. 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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