Critically examine Berlin’s concepts of negative and positive liberty.
Question 3. Critically examine Berlin’s concepts of negative and positive liberty.
Discuss Berlin’s concepts of negative and positive liberty.
Discuss Berlin’s two Concepts of liberty
Elucidate with examples the two concepts of liberty as advanced by Isaiah Berlin.
Answer – Introduction
Isaiah Berlin, in his seminal essay published in 1958 titled “Two Concepts of Liberty’, speaks of two senses of freedom. The first is what he calls “negative liberty”. This revolves around the existence of a private sphere where an individual can do as he or she pleases, free from interference of any kind, whether from other individuals, communities, the State, or by oppressive social forces. The individual is free of any external barriers or constraints. The second is what he calls “positive liberty “, which refers to the act of taking control over one’s life and realising its fundamental purposes.
For Berlin, negative liberty means not being interfered with by others. In the political context, negative liberty “is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others.” This notion of liberty specifically involves being free of the coercive will of other people: “Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act,” and, therefore, “The wider the area of non-interference the wider my freedom.” For Berlin, a degree of freedom in this sense is necessary “for even that minimum development of [man’s] natural faculties which alone makes it possible to pursue, and even to conceive, the various ends which men hold good or right or sacred.”
Berlin, though, is not a proponent of enlarging the sphere of freedom indefinitely. The boundaries are a matter for deliberation, for, as he says, quoting R.H. Tawney, “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.” For one thing, Berlin maintains that there are priorities more basic than liberty: ensuring an adequate amount of security, food, and health comes before a concern for freedom. For another, it is clear that in order to provide the widest sphere of freedom to the widest number of people, there must be restraints on the freedom of some, or, in some areas, of all.
For Berlin, the nature of negative freedom is such that no particular regime is necessary to ensure it. It is not necessarily the case, for example, that democracies are better than other regimes at providing negative freedom: “Just as a democracy may, in fact, deprive the individual citizen of a great many liberties which he might have in some other form of society, so it is perfectly conceivable that a liberal-minded despot would allow his subjects a large measure of personal freedom.”
Berlin does not think we can properly call it “freedom” to put limits on certain freedoms for some in the service of a wider freedom or social justice. This, for Berlin is a “confusion of terms,” and is the particular danger he is warning against in making the distinction between negative and positive freedom. As he puts it:
To avoid glaring inequality or widespread misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all, of my freedom: I may do so willingly and freely; but it is freedom that I am giving up for the sake of justice or equality or the love of my fellow men. I should be guilt-stricken, and rightly so, if I were not, in some circumstances, to make this sacrifice. But a sacrifice is not an increase in what is being sacrificed, namely freedom, however great the moral need or the compensation for it. Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.
If negative liberty is “freedom from,” positive liberty is “freedom to.” This notion of freedom is, Berlin maintains, older than that of negative freedom. It is the desire, familiar to Classical Greece and Republican Rome, that individuals should be able to govern themselves, or, at least, be directly involved in establishing the rules under which they are to live. This concept is characteristic of the direct democracies of the ancient world, but, Berlin worries, it is a concept that “adherents of the ‘negative’ notion represent as being, at times, no better than a specious disguise for brutal tyranny.”
This is the case in part because positive freedom presupposes, for Berlin, a conception of the self-different from that presupposed by negative liberty. For example, highly religious societies and similar forms of society all have in common the idea that in order to be free, individuals must adhere to a rule. There is a higher freedom that represents the truth.
Members of those societies who do not recognize this truth must be compelled to do so. One of the major problems with this concept of liberty, for Berlin, is that it can be used by totalitarian regimes to coerce their members into obedience in the name of freedom. Adherents of communism, for example, believe they can compel certain segments of society to act against their will because their will represents a false consciousness. The premise for them is that the proletariat does not understand the truth about freedom and therefore must be brought to do so in the name of freedom. This understanding of freedom, though, can be a justification for a communist regime to commit terrible atrocities against those segments of society that resist its “benevolent” will. In other words, positive freedom can be an excuse for imposing extreme forms of unfreedom.
According to Berlin, the notion of positive freedom is at the heart of the Enlightenment vision of a perfectly rational society, and of the desire for self-determination and recognition for peoples and nations. As Berlin notes, “It is the desire for reciprocal recognition that leads the most authoritarian democracies to be, at times, conspicuously preferred by their members to the most enlightened oligarchies.”
The various manifestations of positive and negative freedom, for Berlin, are not inherently good or bad. No manifestation of either can constitute a final solution to the political problem. Berlin hopes to curb some of the dangerous excesses of those who are overly wedded to one vision of liberty or the other. Nonetheless, his defense of liberty as negative liberty and his related criticism of positive liberty are the central elements of his work.
Isaiah Berlin’s criticisms of positive liberty are often read as mere artefacts of his Cold War context. Berlin’s three main worries about positive liberty—the inner-citadel worry, the moralization worry, and the tyranny worry. I find that while they may be reasonable worries to have about any concept of liberty, they are not compelling criticisms of positive liberty in particular
Berlin granted that both concepts of liberty represent valid human ideals, and that both forms of liberty are necessary in any free and civilised society.