A post about… Freedom!

Positive and negative liberty, it’s just something of interest.

Isaiah Berlin

I must admit that this was adapted from an essay I did for the Open University this year, but Dan said he was going to be posting an essay or two, so I thought I might as well. Also, I haven’t done ‘A post about…’ for a little while, so here’s some knowledge.


Isaiah Berlin argued that there are two concepts of freedom or liberty: negative and positive. Negative liberty is best described as the freedom an individual has from outside interference. This type of interference is caused by other people and not by natural causes, and so includes situations like imprisonment and coercion. Berlin writes that, in the case of negative liberty, ‘only restrictions imposed by other people affect my freedom.’ (Berlin, 1999, p.15) For example if a man is born blind, then whilst his ability to see the world is impaired, it is not a restriction on his negative liberty as no other person interfered with him, it is simply a natural occurrence. Conversely, if a man is blinded, perhaps by a tyrannical government, or by another man in a fight, then this certainly is a restriction to his negative liberty. Similarly, if a man is forced to wear a blindfold twenty-four hours a day, despite being able to see perfectly well, then this would be another case of outside, human interference limiting his negative liberty. In the words of Rousseau, ‘The nature of things does not madden us, only ill will does.’ (Berlin, 1999, p.17) It is also important to note that the desirability of the opportunities involved makes no difference to the extent of one’s negative liberty.

Positive liberty on the other hand is the freedom a person has to do something, rather than the degree to which they are hindered. It concerns not just the opportunity to do something, but also the capacity to do it, whereas for negative liberty only the opportunity determines how much freedom you have. The notion of positive liberty hinges somewhat on the belief that the self can be split into two distinct halves, each with different desires. There is the ‘higher’ rational self that wants the individual’s life to be improved, and to aim for noble goals; whilst the ‘lower’, often irrational, half of the self is easily distracted and prone to taking the easier options in life. An example of this would be the freedom of an individual to go out and find work, to pursue a career, but instead he chooses to stay at home, living off of benefits and the kindness of others because of his ‘lower’ tendency to prefer watching television and relaxing. Whilst the individual may be aware that this pursuit would in fact lead them to better financial security, the opportunity to spend more disposable money on themselves and their loved ones, a sense of fulfilment and possibly even a healthier lifestyle (all things that his rational ‘higher’ side desires as they would contribute massively to his positive freedom) he chooses not to as his ‘lower’ tendencies prevail. Whilst this individual then is negatively free to do what he likes without interference, he is not positively free because of his tendency to laziness. True positive freedom for this individual then would require the self-motivation to get a job, start earning and reap the benefits.

To summarise, negative liberty is about the options available to an individual, free from interference, even if they never make use of all of the opportunities open to them. Positive liberty instead is about an individual achieving, as opposed to just possessing, their potential. Pretty interesting stuff, no?


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