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Two Theories of Political Freedom

Updated on February 21, 2015
Isaiah Berlin
Isaiah Berlin | Source


The term "liberty" ought to be used, properly, for the view of political freedom which constitutionally based political systems adopt. The American system of government has a core value of liberty in its foundations. The supporting theory - essentially a moral theory, since justification of a system is a normative project - comes out of the Enlightenment spectrum of social-contractarian theories. It is the Lockean-Jeffersonian variety that is the relevant social contract theory in this instance.

An early definition of the concept of liberty, in the proper sense for this type of government, is found in Thomas Hobbes' work entitled Leviathan. The ineluctable reference to this work is always politically awkward because Hobbes concluded his political disquisitions in support of a monarchical system but there is no logical contradiction involved in claiming that Hobbes also discerned astutely the philosophic foundations of the classical liberal theory of the social contract. Hobbes added certain premises to support a pro-monarchical solution but his understanding of what the theoretical foundation is comes across as poignant. The liberty view understands politically relevant freedom as a matter of removing obstacles. By politically relevant freedom we mean freedom to choose what life-plan one wishes to pursue. It is not a matter of politically relevant freedom to insist that, for instance, green color is available for a certain item. We cannot reasonably take it as a restriction of liberty if one cannot find anywhere an important item in green. Political freedom is at stake in those choices that are constitutive in some fundamental sense: these are the choices about objects that are essential to how one aims to develop as a person and what kind of life one wishes to live. Insofar as this category of choices are to be rightly left over to the individual, we can speak of "removing obstacles" as Hobbes does in defining liberty. The question may be asked still: why is this the right way to respect the basic human needs for personal development? Hobbes shows how this case can be made; he does this by reducing human nature to its bare fundamentals - the preconditions for any development whatsoever. Those preconditions have to do, obviously, with being able to survive in the first place. This is called, naturally, self-preservation. This is a turning upside down of the classical tradition that had defined what is essential to humanity not by the lowest preconditions (survival) but by the highest peaks of accomplishment of which humans, and only humans in the whole of nature, are capable of. After all, self-preservation does not distinguish humans from other animals but human self-preservation is said to be giving us a basis for uniquely human moral claims - right. So, we can see that the Hobbesian has a metaphysical view that reduces human activity down to "motion" or material agitation of our bodily chemicals and organs - this shows our underlying continuity with the animal world. Moreover, the political is to be understood as a matter of what threats one faces in the struggle for survival. Power should first be used to ensure continuation of life and only if this is attained can further objectives in development be pursued. But when it comes to self-preservation, no one has an inherent advantage, as Hobbes tries to show. If you assume individuals to be in the state of the juggle - the state of nature as it is called in contractarian theory - then you can always come up with a plausible scenario in which anyone, no matter how powerful or shrewd, can come to grief. Since there is no inherent advantage in any human asset, political claims to power become equalized. It is like saying to someone - if you think you are so great as to deserve more than the rest, try surviving in the jungle. Hence, social contractarianism is egalitarian but the equality, notice, is not one of guaranteed results but it is rather an equality of vulnerability. Because of this equal distribution of risk, it is rational for the isolated individuals in the state of the jungle to enter into an agreement, a social contract, by means of which they accept to alienate their unconditional (even if vulnerable) claim to anything; out of this alienation, a legitimate power is created (the state) which is now to guarantee stability, predictability, safety for all, so that any human needs can be pursued without distraction. It is like saying that rather than being able to do anything when everyone else is so able (no police authorities to come to the rescue and no authorities for administering justice), it is better to accept a restriction that makes certain things I do crimes but also protects me from others and lifts the constant fear that others will be aggressors against me. It is like preferring society as we know it now to an apocalyptic dystopia in which anything rules. (Interestingly, this theory assumes that gangs and any such associations that could well emerge in the absence of central authority, would themselves be volatile and would simply be a continuation of the nighmarish state of natural anarchy that perpetuates risk, fear of death, misery of anticipating aggression, and a tentative state always when it comes to satisfying even the basic need for self-preservation.)

Caution is needed if one tries to trace antecedents of this view in classical antiquity. The term "liberty" as discussed here is theoretically embedded, as pointed out above. The definition, to be given below, is a theoretical definition. The dictionary or lexical definition one finds in the English language may well reflect this, in one of its entries. To look for candidate concepts in other traditions, which may resonate with "liberty" as understood in this context, is tricky. Keeping this in mind, we can simplify conveniently, and for the sake of explication, and try this: notice the implication in the roots of the word "liberty" of what we find in the now archaic adjective "libertine". The meaning of this word is something along the lines of "uncontrollably licentious, giving free reign to passions and desires." In an ancient work like Plato's Republic, you would find the broad category of egalitarian systems attacked severely: the word "eleutheria" there means something like "license, uncontrollable exercise of passions." Libertinism is close to this! Of course, we should not take this to be a translation. "Liberty" is a positive normative term to us but "libertinism" is a negative term of evaluation for us. The two do not commute with each other. The point is simply that the view of liberty that is modern was anticipated by views that received harsh critiques by some of the thinkers of antiquity. Plato, for instance, would say that this liberty we are talking about, giving equal moral claims to all to unfold their choices, inevitably leads to licence to do anything. Take this sentence - "liberty for all to do anything leads to license for all to do anything they please". This is not a trivial truth (if it is a truth.) It is not like "a triangle has three angles." The antecedent has the word "liberty" as a neutral term whereas the consequent has a word, "license", which evaluates negatively the expected results of the exercise of liberty. A key to what is happening is the classical understanding of moral claims as deserved claims. The proven best player of the violin has a right to the best violin but someone who cannot play has no such right even if he can pay a hefty sum to acquire it. Our modern view of rights, within the overall theory of liberty, accords moral claims are inherent to the dignity of the rational individual - not as something that needs to be deserved because of a special attribute but as a mere constitutive element of rational humanity. As we saw, Hobbes pushed the standards of what essentially constitutes humanity down to our shared animal nature.

In the context of Plato's writing, the word "eleutheria" or "liberty" was something of a political slogan, unfurled avidly by the partisan supporters of egalitarian political systems. This indicates that, unlike in the post-Enlightenment environment, "liberty" was not to be taken as an overarching, incontrovertible value but as a demand within a political and narrow ideology. A good source for the deeper view involved in this is the 3rd book of Aristotle's Politics. To put it bluntly, this means that "liberty" is what is demanded by those who have no talents, nothing that contributes to what is unique about human accomplishment: they can still insist that they are human, after all, and they are something like the "body" of the so-called body politic - while the naturally gifted few people are more like the mind. Of course, there is always the category of those who are quite wealthy - usually a minority. This group does not need to play the "liberty" card: they can claim that their worth consists in that they can finance projects in which human accomplishment can be pursued and shine (this is the classical view.) Aside, then, from the wealthy and the talented, the majority seems left bereft of any other ideological crutch to fall back to besides "liberty:" "we are free citizens, after all, aren't we?" they are clamoring. This is the picture one finds in Plato and Aristotle. Even in this picture a sense of liberty being deserved emerges but the merits of being just free fade in comparison to the merits of those who have natural talents. (The case of the potential oligarchs, the wealthy, is rather awkward in that moneymaking does not seem to require any high human talents - one can make a lot of money because the buyers are gullible and obtuse. On the other hand, the wealthy are not the majority and have their own ideological slogan which, as we saw, has something to do with providing material support for worthy projects and for the public life which matters a great deal to the classical thinkers. Still, this association of wealth with material stuff pushes them down - while the higher things about humanity are not material but artistic and mental.)

Hobbes, an erudite student and teacher of the classical texts and translator of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides himself, was well aware of this theoretical backdrop when he fixed the definition of "liberty" as, roughly, the absence of obstacles to the unbridled exercise of individual desires. It is tempting to think that this way of theoretically defining the key concept will inevitably give rise to anarchical chaos as everyone may be licensed to pursue their private wishes. This is a mistake, however. Plato himself, who claimed that there is something anarchic about "democracies," had to make separate arguments to support such a claim. The normative character of "liberty" - the notion involved, which is essentially prescriptive and, also, prohibitive in certain respects - ensures that restrictions on license are in place: the point is that equal license is to be given to all, if to any; accordingly, the extension of this free exercise of "passions" reaches only as far as it affects the equal moral claim of any one else to a similar exercise of private wishes. At least, this is the case in an organized system which, if legitimate, is theoretically the product of a social contract. While no regulatory constraints can be defended - for Hobbes at least - in the jungle, the transition from a "state of nature" to organized society means also that there is now a shift to an ordered liberty system, in which corresponding moral claims against others are available: thus, you are protected against someone else's exercise of liberty claims to the extent precisely in which your own liberty claims are affected. A system like this can guarantee private moral claims that reach all the way to protection of private property - although, for certain reasons, Hobbes' theory, unlike John Locke's, cannot reach that point.

The definition of liberty, then, has to do fundamentally with the free exercise of a license to pursue the objects of one's wishes to the extent that others' similar claims are not interfered with or impinged upon. Philosophically, there are clear affinities between this view and the operation of a sacred private sphere of action within which one is held inviolable both as a physical entity (body and mind) as well as with respect to his/her choices and actions. The ultimate justification or moral defense of this view takes the ultimate human value to be autonomous development. A rational individual - minimally rational, in the sense that one can give the moral law to himself or herself - ought to choose how to develop: which characters, life-patterns, career objectives, to pursue. There seems to be a close connection between this theoretical construct (a value theory, really) and the theory (both the descriptive and justificatory theories) of the free market. The individual encounters markets alone, with communities counted as secondary encumbrances: the individual enters the relevant market to develop in the sense of unfolding his or her choices - choosing what to offer in the market and what to buy as a consumer. Think of this along the following lines: as a consumer, you ought to be free to choose what products you want, to help you live and enjoy and develop, without interference. From the point of view of the seller - not the buyer - your stake in having individuals only, not groups, bargain with you is that you have an interest in keeping their wages down: group bargaining transfers power to the group but if you are dealing with one individual at a time you can always say "next" if the worker proves recalcitrant about how much they want to be pay. Thus, we can speak of liberty interest both on the side of the buyers and the sellers and the connection to "liberty" as the philosophic linchpin of social contract theory shows a deep affinity - it is not a matter of coincidence.

For most people it is unthinkable that there can be a rival theory of political freedom. Yet, there is one; someone like Plato who, as we saw, was a severe critic of egalitarian systems could indeed speak of freedom. A different sense of the word is involved, of course. This is understandable since these are theoretically embedded concepts and the corresponding theories are different. While "liberty" in our sense matches Plato's "licentiousness" (free reign to private wishes, regardless of what those wishes may be), his concept of political freedom corresponds to what we may phrase as "freedom from the wrong content of wishes." In a majestic essay, the philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin called the two different notions of political freedom respectively "negative" (for liberty) and "positive" (for the notion we find in Plato's views, but also in many other, including modern, political philosophic theories and ideologies.)


Positive Freedom

The other view of political freedom, adumbrated above, requires evaluation of content - what the object of the individual wishes is - for deciding whether freedom truly obtains. The standards for evaluation are ultimately furnished by the nature of things - the totality of things, including not only concrete things but also abstract objects, whatever they are, like concepts and even the objects of mathematics. Thus, the object of a wish is not legitimate simply because it happens to be wished by someone. The wrong choice is like a test one has failed and which shows that this person fails to pass the freedom test. A consequence of this is that only those who, objectively, have the ability to make the right decisions have inhering to their moral agency moral claims - rights. One enslaved to ignorance, evil, destructive desires is not free - he or she is not free from the wrong things and, hence, is not, properly speaking, politically free either. What is here understood as "political" seems permeated with normative criteria about who deserves what. Let's make no mistake, however: the modern view is normative too. Deserving is replaced by inherently owing rights - but this too is a normative, not a descriptive, claim.

But why should political and contentful freedom belong together, as the positive view claims? The kind of theory that advances this position takes a holistic view of truths: political and ethical matters are not inseparable from any of the other areas of knowledge (including knowledge about how things work.) Actually, this seems inevitable and the other theory, the negative theory, must also be doing this. Indeed, as we saw when we briefly examined Hobbes' political philosophy above, the inherent right to self-preservation that serves as foundation to the liberty theory, is also a projection of a normative claim backwards, as it were, to how nature works. We need to be aware that the logical grammar of normative claims is different from that of descriptive claims. Are both the ancient theory and the modern theory guilty of conflating normative with prescriptive? Without going into details in this context, we can say that the modern theory is less vulnerable to this charge. Although the language of nature - for instance, "natural right" - is used in important philosophic and ideological documents of the modern liberal school, this can be written off as mere rhetoric and the theory can be complete without recourse to descriptive premises about how nature works being normativized. This is by no means an easy task and its accomplishment for the theory of the social contract had to pass through the ingenious work of Rousseau and culminate in the impressive synthetic achievement of Kant's moral philosophy.

It is possible to take this "positive" view of freedom without having a holistic philosophy and simply as a matter of rejecting the view of "liberty" which Isaiah Berlin called "negative." (Berlin did not mean this as a critical term: the political freedom view that advocates liberty is negative in the sense that it does NOT matter what one puts as content inside desires or wishes - one has a presumptive moral claim, a right, to pursuing those aims privately.)

Relativism is clearly antithetical to the positive view. Who is to decide how the content of wishes is to be evaluated, so that those with the wrong kind of wish or wrong target of desire are to be found dispossessed of political rights? It should be understood that the position of Enlightenment advocates of liberty, including the American Founders, was not relativistic. The point was not that objective truths are not ultimately available. This applies also in the sensitive area of moral truths - which is the relevant sphere anyway. The theory of liberty is that, regardless of the prospect of making objectively attestable errors, the individual has an inherent moral claim, a right, to be the author of his or her own choices including disastrous and even life-threatening choices (insofar as it is not others' lives that are endangered.) The modern theory is emphatically anti-paternalistic. (By definition, paternalism is the restriction of someone's liberty for his or her own good.)

The positive view can use the argument that truth enforced does not improve the individual. A darker underpinning in the theory is, however, discernible as we have seen from querying Hobbes' contribution to modern contractarianism: the human animal is basically an organic machine drawn appetitively to what advances prospects of survival and, if possible, happiness. The source of moral claims - hence, ultimately, of political rights - is to be understood within this primordial-nature game: the template for rights or moral claims rises out of the basic claim to "self-preservation" as the theories of social contract put it. Thus, a quarrel here, between the positive and negative views, also concerns, literally, what the place of humans is within the totality of things. When we put things in this way, we see again that Relativism is not supposed to play a role. Regardless of whether there are moral truths or not, the first and decisive moral claim is to self-preservation. Now, one could attack this view itself on relativistic grounds: why should we accept this moral principle about self-preservation if all moral matters depend on arbitrary opinion? Because the theory seems rooted in how natural things work, there is an impression that this view is insulated from relativistic attacks. This is not the case, however, because naturalism as the proper approach to moral theory is itself open to attack by relativistic means.

The relativistic view of morality that is fashionable today, at least in spontaneous speech, makes it harder, if not impossible, to defend the positive view of liberty than it does with respect to the negative view. If it is deeply wrong to speak of objective truths in moral matters, then what sense are we to make of the demand to evaluate objectively the content of private wishes? Remember that the theory of positive political freedom accords moral claims, rights, only to those who have the requisite abilities to make the right choices. It is possible, theoretically, to grant that any fixing of "right" is arbitrary and still make this arbitrary yardstick political relevant by denying rights to those who do not meet the set standard.

This old division between rival views of political freedom is exacerbated in the contemporary global environment because theocratic ideologies - inspired by the Bible or the Quaran - cannot but choose the positive view. This would not be like Plato's - since the standards are not considered by the religions to be discoverable by unassisted human reason. Yet, it is a positive view in the sense that moral claims - and hence whatever is to be allowed as political rights - must pass a test of congruence with the standards provided by the religion and its historically established or dominant tradition. In the West, Protestantism loosened this bond between moral claims and content of character and made separation of Church from State theoretically defensible and socio-culturally palatable. The moral individual is extracted from the ecclesiastic collectivity and is, privately, "face to face" with God (a view anticipated by Augustine.) This contrasts with the older view that took individual salvation as being inseparably integrated with the destiny of a sinful human community - the "Ekklesia" or Assembly (i.e. Church). Islam has not undergone a Protestant Reformation. While theocratic demands arising within Christianity seem helplessly anachronistic, this is not obviously so in the case of Islamist fundamentalism - the enduring case of Saudi Arabia as a theocracy and the source of Sunni faith is a testament to this.

Liberty and Positive Freedom

Can we rightly call someone who has misused freedom to become addicted to destructive habits "free" in the political sense?

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