The Two Faces of Power by Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz — A Summary


Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz, “Two Faces of Power,” The American Political Science Review 56, no. 4 (1962): 947–52.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/1952796


Sociologically oriented researchers have consistently found that power is highly centralised while scholars trained in political science have just as regularly argued that power is widely diffused. This explains why the latter group calls itself “pluralist” and, its counterpart, “elitist”.

The central claim of this article is that there are two faces of power, neither of which the sociologists see and only one of which the political scientists see.

I

The elitist approach wrongly assumes that there is an ordered system of power, a “power structure” which is an integral part and the mirror image of the organization’s stratification [at bottom, nobody dominates in a community]; further that this power structure remains stable over time [power is tied to issues which can be fleeting or persistent]; and finally that actual power is equivalent to reputed power [there is no way of disconfirming a hypothesis which presumes that some actors is always really engaged in running a community].

Such are the issues that the pluralists bring up against the elitists and they are well-founded. The pluralists, for their part, concentrate their attention not upon the sources of power but its exercise. They are interested not in the reputedly powerful but instead in actual participation in decision making understood through the examination of a series of concrete decisions. However, they fail to (a) take into account for the fact that power may be, and often is, exercised by confining the scope of decision-making to relatively “safe” issues, and (b) provide objective criteria for distinguishing between “important” and “unimportant” issues arising in the political arena.

II

We have to agree with the pluralists that an analysis grounded entirely upon what is specific and visible to the outside observer is more “scientific” than one based upon pure speculation. But can we agree with their assumption that power is totally embodied and fully reflected in “concrete decisions” or in activity bearing directly upon their making, which can be observed?’

“We think not. Of course, power is exercised when A participates in the making of decisions that affect B [the first face]. But power is also exercised when A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing social and political values and institutional practices that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous to A. To the extent that A succeeds in doing this, B is prevented, for all practical purposes, from bringing to the fore any issues that might in their resolution be seriously detrimental to A’s set of preferences [the second (restrictive) face].”

[T]o the extent that a person or group — consciously or unconsciously — creates or reinforces barriers to the public airing of policy conflicts, that person or group has power.

Can [the student of power] safely ignore the possibility, for instance, that an individual or group in a community participates more vigorously in supporting the nondecision-making process than in participating in actual decisions within the process?

By ignoring this aspect, the pluralists overlook the less important but nonetheless extremely important face of power.

III

There remains the question of “key” and “routine” political decisions. The pluralists are wont to suggest that certain key and significant issues be identified for analysis.

In his critique of the “ruling-elite model,” Professor Dahl argues that “the hypothesis of the existence of a ruling elite can be strictly tested only if ... [t]here is a fair sample of cases involving key political decisions in which the preferences of the hypothetical ruling elite run counter to those of any other likely group that might be suggested.” [Quoted from Robert A. Dahl, “A Critique of the Ruling-ELite Model”, 1958, p. 466] (emphasis added)

Nelson Polsby, for example, proposes that “by pre-selecting as issues for study those which are generally agreed to be significant, pluralist researchers can test stratification theory.” [Quoted from Nelson W. Polsby, “How to Study Community Power: The Pluralist Alternative”, 1960, p. 478] (emphasis added)

But what issues are key or significant, and how are they understood to be so? Indeed, why suppose that there are significant issues in the political arena in any community? By doing so, the very question in doubt is being taken for granted. 

“The distinction between important [key or significant] and unimportant [routine] issues, we believe, cannot be made intelligently in the absence of an analysis of [organisation understood as] the “mobilisation of bias” in the community; of the dominant values and the political myths, rituals, and institutions which tend to favour the vested interests of one or more groups, relative to others.”

All forms of political organization have a bias in favour of the exploitation of some kinds of con£ict and the suppression of others, because organization is the mobilization of bias. Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized [Quoted from Elmer Eric Schattschneider, The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America, 1960, p. 70]

IV

[This section is a critique of Dahl’s work Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961) in the light of the conceptual insight thus outlined in previous sections. I ignore this because my interest in the essay, like in most others I summarise, is only conceptual.]

V

[Extract]

“[A] fresh approach to the study of power is called for, an approach based upon a recognition of the two faces of power. Under this approach the researcher would begin … by investigating the particular “mobilization of bias” in the institution under scrutiny.

Then, having analyzed the dominant values, the myths and the established political procedures and rules of the game, he would make a careful inquiry into which persons or groups, if any, gain from the existing bias and which, if any, are handicapped by it.

Next, he would investigate the dynamics of nondecision-making; that is, he would examine the extent to which and the manner in which the status quo oriented persons and groups influence those community values and those political institutions … which tend to limit the scope of actual decision-making to “safe” issues.

Finally, using his knowledge of the restrictive face of power as a foundation for analysis and as a standard for distinguishing between “key” and “routine” political decisions, the researcher would, after the manner of the pluralists, analyze participation in decision-making of concrete issues.”


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The Concept of Power by Robert A. Dahl — A Summary


Robert A. Dahl, “The Concept of Power,” Behavioral Science 2, no. 3 (December 11, 1957): 201–15.
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/bs.3830020303


The concept of power is as ancient and ubiquitous as any that social theory can boast. Given this ubiquity, one suspects that there indeed exists such a Thing as power which can more or less be systematically studied. But one also suspects that perhaps the ubiquity of “power” reflects the existence of not one Thing but many Things, indeed as many Things as the theorists of society who have used it. It is difficult to know which of these is correct. The evidence is not yet in. 

However, it should be possible to define the concept “power” in a way that seems to catch the central intuitively understood meaning of the word.

We are not likely to produce — certainly not for some considerable time to come — anything like a single, consistent, coherent “Theory of Power.” We are much more likely to produce a variety of theories of limited scope, each of which employs some definition of power that is useful in the context of the particular piece of research or theory but different in important respects from the definitions of other studies.

This essay will propose a formal definition of power which captures its intuitive meaning. It will then indicate how operational definitions have been or might be modelled on the formal one for specific research problems.

[Comment: The summary concerns only with the first. Because, for one, the abiding interest of subsequent interventions regarding the concept of power (mostly from a critical standpoint) has been in the formal and not the operational part of Dahl’s essay. For another, I am simply not interested in the operational part; I am not interested in such trite projects as “rank[ing] a number of Senators with respect to their influence over the Senate on questions of foreign affairs”, which Dahl does with a lot of self-belief and in some detail (see pp. 209–214). Given that Dahl was writing during the heyday of Behaviouralism, and was a major figure in that tradition, his interest in the operational aspect is understandable.]

Power as a Relation among People

The intuitive understanding of power is this:  A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.

Power, we see, is a relation. To specify it further, it is a relation among people. Of course, one can possess power over inanimate objects or over animals, but from the point of view of social theory, the interesting aspect of power lies in this limited relationship. Lets call the objects in this relationship actors. These need not only be individuals. They could be groups, roles, offices, governments, nation-states, or other human aggregates.

Now to say that A has power over B is neither interesting, nor informative, nor even accurate. An interesting and useful statement will have to, in addition to the fact that A has power over B, include references to  (a) the source, domain, or base of A power over B; (b) the means or instruments used by A to exert power over B; (c) the amount or extent of A’s power over B; and (d) the range or scope of A’s power over B.

Let’s examine these elements using the following example: The US President has (some) power over Congress. The base of power consists of all the resources — opportunities, acts, objects, etc. — which can be exploited in order to effect the behavior of another. Some of the possible bases of a President’s power over a Senator are his patronage, his constitutional veto, the possibility of calling White House conferences, his influence with the national electorate, his charisma, his charm, and the like.

This base is inert and must be exploited using various means or instruments. In the case of the President, these would include the promise of patronage, the threat of veto, the holding of a conference, the threat of appeal to the electorate, the exercise of charm and charisma, etc. These means, say the threat of veto, may involve actual or potential use of the base of power.

The means mediate between A’s base and B’s responseThe scope consists of B’s responses. The scope of the President’s power might therefore include such Congressional actions as passing or killing a bill, failing to override a veto, holding hearings, etc. 

Finally, the amount of an A’s power is the probability of realising the scope given the use of certain means. To use the example, we might say the amount of power the US President has over the Senate is the probability that, for instance, the Senate will not override his veto if the President promises a judgeship to five key Senators.

Properties of the Power Relation

1. A necessary condition for the power relation is that there exists a time lag, however small, from the actions of the actor who is said to exert power to the responses of the respondent. A can hardly be said to have power over B unless A’s power attempts precede B’s responses

2. A second necessary condition is, like the first, obvious and nonetheless important in research: there is no “action at a distance.” Unless there is some “connection” between A and B, then no power relation can be said to exist. In looking for a flow of power from A to B, one must always find out whether there is a connection, or an opportunity for a connection, and if there is not, then one need proceed no further.

3. Some additional properties may be specified with respect to the amount of power. Consider the example we encountered before: the amount of power the US President has over the Senate is the probability that the Senate will override his veto if the President promises a judgeship to five key Senators.

Let (P,u) be the case in which the President promises to offer judgeship to five senators and (P,ū) be the case in which he does not make that promise. Let (S,o) be the case in which the Senate overrides his veto.

Let p be the probability that the Senate overrides the President’s veto when he promises the judgeship [p=P(S,o|P,u)] and p’ be the probability that the Senate overrides the President’s veto when he does not promise any judgeship [p=P(S,o|P,ū)]

  • If p=p’, no power relation exists. The Senate will override the President’s veto whether or not he promises to offer the judgeship.
  • If p’=1, and p=0, the amount of power is at a maximum. p=0 means that the President will unfailingly get the Senate to allow his veto if he promises the judgeships; p’=1 means that the Senate will unfailingly override his veto if he does not promise the judgeships.
  • If p=1, and p’=0, the amount of power is at a minimum. p=1 means that even if the President promises the judgeships, the senate will unfailingly override his veto; p’=0 means that the senate will not override his veto even if he does not promise the judgeships. Here there is the possibility that the amount of power be negative. This is simply the production of an opposite effect by the exercise of a means of power. The Legion of Decency sometimes seems to have this kind of power over moviegoers.

Power Comparability

How do we compare power? It is a matter of obvious fact that Stalin was in many ways more powerful than Roosevelt. But what do we mean by this?

If we wish to compare power between two individuals, we have at least
five factors that might be included in a comparison:

  1. differences in the basis/bases of their power,
  2. differences in means of employing the basis,
  3. differences in the scope of their power, i.e., in type of response evoked,
  4. differences in the number of comparable respondents, and
  5. differences in the change in probabilities.

The first two are properties of actor exercising power, A, and the last three, of the respondent, B, in the power relationship. While most interesting research on power thus far has been concerned with the first two, they are not really interesting. “[A]nalysis of the first two items does not, strictly speaking, provide us with a comparison of the power of two or more actors, except insofar as it permits us to make inferences about the last three items. 

The elements of national power approach to power analysis is a variant of the power-as-resources approach. In this approach, power resources are treated as if they were power itself. One problem with this approach is that what functions as a power asset in one situation may be a power liability in a different situation.

David A. Baldwin, “Power and International Relations”, in Handbook of International Relations, SAGE, 2002.

Therefore, in whatever way one defines the properties of the As who are being being compared, strictly speaking, one must compare them with respect to the responses they are capable of evoking, i.e. with respect to the last three factors.

Let’s look at them one by one. We shall begin be assuming that two of the last three are identical such that the difference in the third property shall reflect a difference in power. This throws up a great many difficulties. 

Say that the 4th and 5th factors are the same so that comparison of power can be made by reference to the 3rd factor, i.e. scope. The problem that arises here is how exactly do we understand a difference in scope? Suppose that I induce my son to bathe every evening and to brush his teeth before going to bed while my neighbor induces his son to serve him breakfast in bed every morning. Can the two responses I control compared to the one controlled by my neighbour lead to the conclusion that I have more power?

Say, further, that the 3rd and 5th factors are the same so  that comparison of power can be made by reference to the 4th factor, i.e. number of respondents. The same problem arises here as well. “If I can induce 49 undergraduates to support or oppose federal aid to education, you will scarcely regard this as equivalent to the power I would have if I could induce 49 Senators to support or oppose federal aid.”

This problem does not arise with the 5th factor. The 3rd and 4th factors being equal, we can say that the actor who has the higher probability of securing the response is more powerful. This simply means that that actor has a greater amount of power (see above).

“There is, as everyone knows, many a slip ’twixt principle and practice. How can one convert the theoretical measure [of the amount of power] into a measure usable in practical research? Specifically, suppose one wishes to examine the power relations among some group of people — a city council, legislature, community, faculty, trade union. One wants to rank the individuals in the group according to their power. How can one do so?”

[Comment: And thus starts what I have called the operational part of the essay (see above). I leave that for readers to check our for themselves if they are interested. I, for one, am not, for Dahl himself concludes:

In a word, the researcher himself must define what he means by comparability and he must do so in view of the purpose of the ranking he is seeking to arrive at, the information available, and the relevant theoretical constructs governing the research. (p. 209)]


What’s Wrong With Negative Liberty by Charles Taylor — A Summary


Charles Taylor, “What’s Wrong With Negative Liberty,” in Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 211–29.
[Google Drive Link]

First published in The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, ed. Alan Ryan, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 175–93.

The divisions in the summary are mine.


There clearly are two kinds of theories, “two families of conceptions”, of liberty: negative and positive, following Berlin. Both families contain a gamut of views within and this must be kept in mind as we tend to get fixated on the most extreme, and almost caricatural variants.

I propose to examine no more than two of these senses [of freedom]. ... The first of these political senses of freedom or liberty (I shall use both words to mean the same), which ... I shall call the ‘negative’ sense, is involved in the answer to the question ‘What is the area within which the subject —  a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?’ The second, which I shall call the ‘positive’ sense, is involved in the answer to the question ‘What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?’ The two questions are clearly different, even though the answers to them may overlap.

Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, in Liberty: Isaiah Berlin, ed. Henry Hardy. [Originally a lecture delivered in 1952]

When positive theories of liberty are attacked, the target is usually some Left totalitarian theory according to which freedom resides exclusively in exercising collective control over one’s destiny in a classless society and in which men are, to use Rousseau’s words, forced to be free.

So that the social pact not be a pointless device, it tacitly includes this engagement, which can alone give force to the others — that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he shall be forced to be free.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I, Chapter 7.

And when negative theories are attacked, it is the tough-minded version which sees freedom simply as the absence of external physical [à la Hobbes] or legal [à la Bentham] obstacles.

Both of these targets are caricatures and fail to appreciate the variety and nuance that the two families of conceptions have.

However, there is something strange that happens is such polemic. The forced-to-be-free caricature of positive freedom is what the opponents pin on positive theorists. But the absence-of-external-obstacles caricature is what negative theorists themselves embrace and espouse. Why?

Exercise- and Opportunity-Concept

The doctrines of positive freedom are exercise-concepts. That’s to say, they are concerned with a view of freedom which involves essentially the exercising of control over one’s life where one is free only to the extent that one has effectively determined oneself and the shape of one’s life.

The doctrines of negative freedom are, on the other hand, opportunity-concepts. That’s to say, for them, being free is a matter of what we can do, of what it is open to us to do, whether or not we do anything to exercise these options.

However, one of the most powerful motives behind the modern defence of freedom as individual independence is the idea that each person’s form of self-realization is original to him/her, and can therefore only be worked out independently. In this view, we can fail to achieve our own self-realization through inner fears, or false consciousness, as well as because of external obstacles. This goes beyond Hobbes and Bentham. It is what drives Mill’s defense of freedom.

Given this further nuance of negative liberty, it is impossible to hold that negative freedom is only an opportunity-concept. Here, some degree of exercise is necessary for a man to he thought free. Because being in a position to exercise freedom, having the opportunity, involves removing the internal barriers, which is not possible without having to some extent realized myself. A pure opportunity-concept is impossible. 

This might suggest an answer to the paradox mentioned above. Negative theorists stick to crude [Hobbesian of Benthamite] versions of the doctrine because only then can they disable the troubling of positive liberty — the fact that it is an exercise-concept. If they embrace more nuanced versions of negative liberty, for instance, like Mill’s which need some extent of exercise to be called freedom, then they are ceding the ground to positive liberty from which it might grow, they fear, to monstrous and totalitarian proportions.

The advantage of sticking to the crude version is that it seems very simple and goes well with common sense: the basic intuition being that freedom is a matter of being able to do something or other, of not having obstacles in one’s way, rather than being a capacity that we have to realize. 

“It naturally seems more prudent to fight the Totalitarian Menace at this last-ditch position, digging in behind the natural frontier of this simple issue, rather than engaging the enemy on the open terrain of exercise-concepts, where one will have to fight to discriminate the good from the bad among such concepts; fight, for instance, for a view of individual self-realization against various notions of collective self-realization, of a nation, or a class. It seems easier and safer to cut all the nonsense off at the start by declaring all self-realization views to be metaphysical hog-wash. Freedom should just be tough-mindedly defined as the absence of external obstacles.”

This position, which abandon the exercise aspect of freedom, fails to defend liberalism in the form we value it. Further, this Maginot Line mentality actually ensures defeat [“as is often the case with Maginot Line mentalities!”]

Discrimination of Motivations

One advantage of this position is it’s simplicity: it allows us to say that freedom is being able to do what you want; and what you want is, well, whatever the hell you want. In contrast, if one adopt’s an exercise concept, the entire burden shifts to the kinds of things what we want and with this comes the trouble of identifying which things we might legitimately/authentically/really want and which we might want only illegitimately/inauthentically/superficially. Being able to do what one wants can no longer be accepted as a sufficient condition of being free. Instead, freedom becomes being able to do not just anything but the kinds of things you really want, that accord your real will, that fulfill the desires of your own true/higher self. 

Put differently, the point is that “the subject himself cannot be the final authority on the question whether he is free; for he cannot be the final authority on the question whether his desires are authentic, whether they do or do not frustrate his purposes.”

This might make more obvious and pressing the temptation to adopt the Maginot Line mentality. “For once we admit that the agent himself is not the final authority on his own freedom, do we not open the way to totalitarian manipulation? Do we not legitimate others, supposedly wiser about his purposes than himself, redirecting his feet on the right path, perhaps even by force, and all this in the name of freedom?”

No, we don”t. There may also be good reasons for holding that others are not likely to be in a better position to understand his real purposes. Those who know us intimately, and who surpass us in wisdom, are undoubtedly in a position to advise us, but no official body can possess a doctrine or a technique whereby they could know how to put us on the rails. Indeed, this is what liberalism values. Liberalism in the form that we value it considers self-realization highly. It also accepts that self-realisation can fail for internal reasons, but nonetheless believes that no valid guidance can be provided in principle by social authority. The crude version of freedom would not be able to defend this liberalism.

Still, it remains true that totalitarian theories build upon discrimination between motivations. The path from negative to positive liberty consists of two steps: the first moves us from a conception that talks of doing what we want to one that talks of doing what we really want, and the second introduces a doctrine that specifies a certain form of society in which we can do what we really want and outside of which we cannot.

The temptation is to stay put at the first step; to say that no discrimination of motivations based on some doctrine that identifies the real or true self/motivations is possible or desirable. But staying put in this first step cannot amount to in intelligible defence of an intelligible notion of freedom.

Firstly, even if one claims that freedom is the absence of external obstacles, it is not the absence of external obstacles simpliciter. That’s to say that not all external obstacles can be considered as equal obstacles. Or put differently, some obstacles are more serious and significant. Liberty is not concerned with trifles [De aninimis non curat libertas]. 

“Freedom is no longer just the absence of external obstacle tout court, but the absence of external obstacle to significant action, to what is important to man. There are discriminations to be made; some restrictions are more serious than others, some are utterly trivial.”

Surely, we cannot say that Tirana [the capital city of Albania] is freer than London based on the fact that there are fewer traffic lights per head in Tirana than in London. Of course this means that there are fewer external obstacles in Tirana than in London. But religion is abolished in Albania while it is freely practiced in London. [Context: Public religious practice was outlawed in Albania in 1967 under communism. The ban was officially lifted in 1990. Taylor wrote this essay for the volume The Idea of Liberty: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, published 1979.] We cannot say that because we can discriminate between what is trivial (in this case, the freedom to travel public roads whenever and however we like) and what is significant (the freedom to practice religion).

The point is that the application of even the crudest conception of negative liberty “requires a background conception of what is significant, according to which some restrictions are seen to he without relevance for freedom altogether, and others are judged as being of greater and lesser importance.”

Strong Evaluations/Import-Attributions

Of course, the negative theorist can simply add the stipulation that judgments of significance have to be made and still hold on to his central claim freedom just is the absence of external obstacles.

However, further troubles emerge when the following question is asked: on what are these judgments of significance based on? Certainly, the answer here cannot be quantitative: that the more significant purposes are those we want more.

What does wanting certain purposes more mean? If it means that those purposes are more significant, the claim is true but empty. If on the other hand it means that those purposes are more urgent or more desired, the claim is simply false because it is of the most banal experience that “the purposes we know to be more significant are not always those which we desire with the greatest urgency to encompass, nor the ones that actually always win out in cases of conflict of desires.”

Thinking of significance in this way gives rise to the fact that humans make strong evaluations; that human subjects are not only subjects of first-order desires, but of second-order desires, desires about desires. We experience some of our desires and goals as intrinsically more significant than others while some others as bad, not just comparatively but absolutely. We also desire not to be moved by spite, or some childish desire to impress at all costs. These judgments of significance are quite independent of the strength of the respective desires. 

It is my view that one essential difference between persons and other creatures is to be found in the structure of a person’s will. Human beings are not alone in having desires and motives, or in making choices. …[I]t seems to be peculiarly characteristic of humans, however, that they are able to form what I shall call “second-order desires”… Besides wanting and choosing and being moved to do this or that, men may also want to have (or not to have) certain desires and motives. They are capable of wanting to be different, in their preferences and purposes, from what they are.

Harry G. Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person”, 1971.

The point here that when a more significant desire (say, that of wanting to do well in studies) is thwarted by a less significant one (that of wanting to sleep/party), we might legitimately think that the latter is an obstacle and that we would be freer without it.

What has emerged here is that there are cases in which the obstacles to freedom are internal; and if this is so, then freedom cannot simply be interpreted as the absence of external obstacles. The fact that I am doing what I want, in the sense of following my strongest desire, is not sufficient to establish that I am free.

Clearly, the crude negative conception cannot be sustained. But can it be reconstructed such that it does not legitimate the kind of distinctions about true/real desires/motivations that positive liberty requires? “If our negative theory allows for strong evaluation, allows that some goals are really important to us, and that other desires are seen as not fully ours, then can it not retain the thesis that freedom is being able to do what I want, that is, what I can identify myself as wanting, where this means not just what I identify as my strongest desire, but what I identify as my true, authentic desire or purpose? The subject would still be the final arbiter of his being free/unfree.”

We should have sloughed off the untenable Hobbesian reductive-materialist metaphysics, according to which only external obstacles count, as though action were just movement, and there could be no internal, motivational obstacles to our deeper purposes. But we would be retaining the basic concern of the negative theory, that the subject is still the final authority as to what his freedom consists in, and cannot be second-guessed by external authority. Freedom would he modified to read: the absence of internal or external obstacle to what I truly or authentically want. But we would still be holding the Maginot Line. Or would we?

No, we can’t. For if we adopt this middle position between the crude negative conception and the positive conception, we rule out in principle that the subject can ever be wrong about what he truly wants for the simple reason that the subject is the final arbiter of his being free/unfree. “And how can he never, in principle, be wrong, unless there is nothing to be right or wrong about in this matter?”

This ultimately is the thesis that the negative theorist has to defend: that the subject is the final arbiter of his being free/unfree, and that insofar as he is the final arbiter, he can never in principle be wrong because if he could, he would not be the final arbiter.

For the crude negative theorist, our feelings are merely brute facts: they are simply facts about how we are affected in a certain way and there is nothing further that can be said about them as to whether they are potentially veridical or illusory, authentic or inauthentic. The difference in significance of certain actions/thoughts/feelings would simply be a matter of raw feel.

But there is no such thing as a raw feel. Sure there is the raw feel of pain when the dentist jabs into my tooth, or the raw feel of crawling unease when someone runs his fingernail along the blackboard. But there is no such raw feel of, for instance, shame or fear because these emotions involve our experiencing a situation as bearing a certain import/significance for us, i.e. as shameful and dangerous. Shame and fear can be inappropriate or irrational. We can, in other words, be in error in feeling shame or fear. 

“When I am convinced that some career, or an expedition in the Andes, or a love relationship, is of fundamental importance to me (to recur to the above examples), it cannot be just because of the throbs, élans or tremors I feel; I must also have some sense that these are of great significance for me, meet important, long-lasting needs, represent a fulfilment of something central to me, will bring me closer to what I really am, or something of the sort.”

Thus, our emotional life is made up of what might be called import-attributing desires and feelings which might be mistaken. In cases where we want to repudiate them, for instance when I am afraid for no good reason, we certainly are mistaken in feeling fear.

Now consider the case in which there are two conflicting desires, that of wanting to do well in studies and the other of wanting to party all the time, one of which, the latter, hopefully, I repudiate and feel as thought it is not truly mine. What is it to feel that a desire is not truly mine?

To feel that a desire is not truly mine is precisely to think of it as mistaken, irrational, or inappropriate; that the import or the good it supposedly gives us a sense of is not a genuine import or good. The desire to party, party, and party is a fetter because the pleasure it gives is not genuine, does not last, is not healthy, and so on. Losing it, I lose nothing, because its loss deprives me of no genuine good or pleasure or satisfaction.

“It would appear from this that to see our desires as brute gives us no clue as to why some of them are repudiable. On the contrary it is precisely their not being brute” — their having some/a significance or the fact the we attribute importance to them — “which can explain this.”

If this is admitted, then the possibility of error, of false appreciation, is admitted as well. “How can we exclude in principle that there may be other false appreciations which the agent does not detect? That he may be profoundly in error, that is, have a very distorted sense of his fundamental purposes? Who can say that such people cannot exist?” Consider Charles Manson and Andreas Baader — two men with a very distorted sense of our fundamental purposes. Given such extreme cases, we cannot discount the possibility that the rest of mankind can suffer to a lesser degree from the same disabilities.

The point of all this for liberty is that man’s freedom can be hemmed in by internal, motivational obstacles, in addition to external ones. This is because attributions of freedom make sense against a background sense
of more and less significant purposes which, we have seen, can be frustrated by our own desires where these are sufficiently based on misappreciation such that we consider them as not really ours, and experience them as fetters.

“[I]n the meaningful sense of ‘free’, that for which we value it, in the sense of being able to act on one’s important purposes, the internally fettered man is not free.”

If one still wants to stick to the crude definition, one will also have to admit that the man with a highly distorted view of his fundamental purpose — a Manson or Baader — is as free as the person who does not have internal fetters. A Manson who has overcome his last remaining compunction against sending his minions to kill on caprice would, on the crude account, be freer than when he had those compunctions. Would the crude theorist sympathise with this kind of freedom? I think not. 

“Once we see that we make distinctions of degree and significance in freedoms depending on the significance of the purpose fettered/enabled, how can we deny that it makes a difference to the degree of freedom not only whether one of my basic purposes is frustrated by my own desires but also whether I have grievously misidentified this purpose? …[We cannot. And this being so,] the crude negative view of freedom, the Hobbesian definition, is untenable. Freedom cannot just be the absence of external obstacles, for there may also be internal ones. And nor may the internal obstacles be just confined to those that the subject identifies as such, so that he is the final arbiter; for he may be profoundly mistaken about his purposes and about what he wants to repudiate. And if so, he is less capable of freedom in the meaningful sense of the word.”

In all these three formulations of the issue — opportunity- versus exercise-concept; whether freedom requires that we discriminate among motivations; whether it allows of second-guessing the subject — the extreme negative view shows up as wrong. The idea of holding the Maginot Line before this Hobbesian concept is misguided not only because it involves abandoning some of the most inspiring terrain of liberalism, which is concerned with individual self-realization, but also because the line turns out to be untenable.


On the Different Senses of ‘Freedom’ by Thomas Hill Green — A Summary


Thomas Hill Green, “On the Different Senses of ‘Freedom’ as Applied to Will and the Progress of Man,” in Works of Thomas Hill Green, ed. R. L. Nettleship, vol. II (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1906), 308–333.
[Google Drive Link]


I assume you are aware of the debate on freedom (or liberty). If not, this essay will be very difficult, essentially useless. At the very least, check out the first two sections of this lecture transcript of Quentin Skinner’s “A Genealogy of Liberty”, i.e. the sections, The Liberal Concept and The Hegelian Concept. Green’s ideas on freedom is located, along with those of Plato, Kant, Hegel, the Stoics, etc. within what has been rendered, in that transcript, as the Hegelian Concept, and what Isaiah Berlin has popularised as the positive concept, of liberty. In arguing for positive liberty, Green is positioning himself against the what Skinner explicitly calls the Liberal Concept, what Berlin calls negative liberty. This liberal tradition is given classical expression by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (Green cites Locke but not Hobbes) and taken up further by Bentham and Mill and is alive, as Skinner points out, to this day. [Skinner by the way is arguing for a third concept of freedom, which he calls the Neo-Roman concept and which is popularly known as republican freedom.] In addition to familiarity with this debate, some general familiarity with the ideas of Plato, Kant and Hegel along with Stoic and Christian ethics is recommended as Green engages with them.  


“[One] way of imposing an undue strain [on the reader],” Brand Blanshard writes in On Philosophical Style (1954: 53) “is to arrange the stepping-stones in groups so that one must skip about at awkward angles in one group before going on to the next.” The example that Blanshard chooses to illustrate this type of difficulty frequently seen in philosophical writing is a 112-word Green sentence which makes a rather pedestrian point that could be made using a lot fewer words. The point is that Green can be frustrating to read. The style (and the vocabulary) will be familiar to anyone who has read any translation of Hegel. Be ready for the challenge.

Also please read the subsection The Theory of the Will in the entry on him at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and get the meanings of and the connections between “willing”, “freedom”, “objects” and “self-satisfaction”. Green’s idea of the will must be grasped in order to make sense of this essay. 

Very briefly, I might illustrate them thus. When I make a choice to do or be something from amongst many other options, that activity of choosing might be called “willing”. “By ‘will’,” Green writes, “we mean the effort of a self-conscious subject to satisfy itself.” Whatever it is that I choose to do or be is the “object” of that willing. And of course, it is always me or my mind doing this “willing”. Hence, in this sense, “willing” is always free. (Take note to distinguish this notion of being free, which is a necessary state of the mind/soul, from that familiar, negative, notion of freedom having to do with societal or political relations, which is that of not being interfered with or frustrated by other persons or the state in doing the things that one wants to do.) But my “willing” could also be such that its “objects” frustrate my nature (my reason, the will of God, the law of man’s being, etc. however we define it.) And if my willing is such that it frustrates these, then it will not lead to “self-satisfaction” or “self-realisation”. To the extent that I am so frustrated, I am, for Green, unfree.

We can finally proceed with the summary.


1. “Since in all willing a man is his own object, the will is always free.” That’s to say, everything that one wills is ultimately directed towards himself whether the will is connected to the objects of desire [what he wants to have/do] or being [what he wants to be]. The nature of these objects differ and because the nature of these objects differ, the nature of freedom also differs. These objects might either frustrate self-satisfaction or they might contribute to its realisation. In the former, the act of seeking the object is always free in one sense because it is afterall the agent who wills the object. But if the object frustrates his self-satisfaction, if it does not conform to “the law of his being”, the agent is unfree in another sense. “His will to arrive at self-satisfaction not being
adjusted to the law which determines where this self-satisfaction is to be found, he may be considered in the condition of a bondsman who is carrying out the will of another, not his own.”

From this bondage he emerges into real freedom ...by making its [the law of his being] fulfilment the object of his will; by seeking the satisfaction of himself in objects in which he believes it should be found, and seeking it in them because he believes it should be found in them. For the objects so sought ... have the common characteristic that, because they are sought in such a spirit, in them self-satisfaction is to be found; not the satisfaction of this or that desire, or of each particular desire, but that satisfaction, otherwise called peace or blessedness [or freedom], which consists in the whole man having found his object.

To break free from this bondage, the agent would have to, adapting Green, seek satisfaction of himself in objects in which he believes his self-satisfaction should be found. And the agent should seek satisfaction in those objects because he believes his self-satisfaction should be found in those objects. That’s to say, the agent must be aware of what his nature or the law of his being demands and seek those things (or objects) which will lead him to realise that law (or ‘contribute to the realisation of self-satisfaction’). It is only in this latter case that the agent may be necessarily and properly said to be free.

2. The original use of the term freedom denotes a metaphor that expresses a social and political relation between persons. (For the classic statement of this original, or liberal, or negative view of freedom for which Green uses the adjectives “juristic”, “outward” and “primary”, see Thomas Hobbes, “Of the Liberty of Subjects”.) This original use implies some exemption from compulsion by others. Even in this use, the meaning of freedom is altogether uncertain. The extent and conditions of non-coercion or non-interference — “exemption from compulsion” — that might connote freedom will be different in different societies.

When the term freedom comes to be applied to the relation that men have with their, say, inner life of self-consciousness, as opposed to other members of the society, its meaning fluctuates even more. We might, like Plato, establish, for instance, a relation between man and his impulses which frustrate the attainment of his true good and assert that man is free when he is a master of these impulses and unfree when the impulses are master of him. But such impulses are as unlimited as they are varied. To use the metaphor then is quite arbitrary. It might lead one to say only freedom is to be found in a life of absolute detachment from all interests. And indeed this is what happened with the Stoics and to the Christians.

With St. Paul, the relation established is between man and the (divine) law. “With him ‘freedom’ is specially freedom from the law, from ordinances, from the fear which these inspire.” Law as an external command binds man in a double sense by (a) making him obey for fear of punishment, and (b) in forcing him to obey, by obstructing the enjoyment of his desires which might frustrate the law. In a word, law renders man unfree by forcing him to do what he wouldn’t, and forbidding what he would. 

[Here’s a classic example of Green’s long-windedness. He expresses the sense conveyed by the last line of the previous paragraph with the following sentence:

Presenting to man a command which yet it does not give him power to obey, it destroys the freedom of the life in which he does what he likes without recognising any reason why he should not (the state of which St. Paul says ‘I was alive without the law once’); it thus puts him in bondage to fear, and at the same time, exciting a wish for obedience to itself which other desires (φρόνημα σαρκὸς {phronema sarkos, from Romans 8:6}) prevent from being accomplished, it makes the man feel the bondage of the flesh.]

From this bondage of the law, man is freed, according to St. Paul, when the spirit expressed by the (divine) law the principle upon which man acts. He comes to identify himself and his acts with the law. He obeys the law willingly. In this movement, man stops being a subject/a servant and becomes a son. “He is conscious of union with God, whose will as an external law he before sought in vain to obey, but whose ‘righteousness is fulfilled’ in him now that he ‘walks after the spirit.’”

3. Of course, this is similar to Kant’s idea of freedom in that the statement “He is free because he conscious of himself as the author of the law which he obeys” can equally apply to both. The difference however is that for Kant, as for Plato and the Stoics, the bondage is not to a divinely ordained law but to impulses of pleasure that inhere in man as a merely natural being. Freedom, or autonomy of the will, for Kant is consciousness of what should be which leads to imperatives for action that are determined/authored by reason. Such consciousness is rare and what we are looking for usually, and what Green thinks Kant’s views amount to, is to “be[] conscious of the possibility of such determination (emphasis added).”

4. Hegel’s quarrel with Kant was of course that the latter’s idea of freedom was essentially unrealisable. Hegel makes freedom more concrete and identifies it with and in the state. Because for him, the state is the perfect expression of reason, the self-determining (or autonomous, to use Kant’s term) principle operating in man. This is a way of thinking about freedom and about the state which is not familiar to Englishmen (Hobbes and Locke, two of the most important philosophers writing in the English language propounded the opposite negative view of freedom). But it would be familiar to the ancient Greek philosophers (like Plato and Aristotle) who thought of the polis as a society governed by laws and institutions and established customs which secure the common good of the members of the society — enable the citizens to make the best of themselves — and are recognised as doing so. It is in such a state — the modern state, more precisely Prussia, for Hegel and the city-states for the Greek philosophers — that freedom is realised.

5. There is some truth to this view. Both the Greek polis and the modern state contribute to the freedom understood as autonomy of the will in so far as they “actualise in [men] the possibility of [determining] objects conceived as desirable in distinction from objects momentarily desired” so that “man seeks to satisfy himself, not as one who feels this or that desire, but as one who conceives, whose nature demands, a permanent good.”

6. But of course, it is difficult to speak of freedom except in the case of individuals. This talk of freedom as realised in the Greek polis would be unintelligible to the Greek slave who is forced to gratify his master’s lust. Nor would Hegel’s idea of freedom as realised in the modern state be intelligible to “an untaught and under-fed denizen of a London yard with gin-shops on the right hand and on the left.” 

What Hegel says of the state in this respect seems as hard to square with facts as what St. Paul says of the Christian whom the manifestation of Christ has transferred from bondage into ‘the glorious liberty of the sons of God.’ In both cases the difference between the ideal and the actual seems to be ignored, and tendencies seem to be spoken of as if they were accomplished facts.

7. In the discussion thus far, freedom has been understood positively. It has meant “a particular kind of self-determination; the state of the man who lives indeed for himself, but for the fulfilment of himself as a ‘giver of law universal’ (Kant); who lives for himself, but only according to the true idea of himself, according to the law of his being, ‘according to nature’ (the Stoics) ; who is so taken up into God, to whom God so gives the spirit, that there is no constraint in his obedience to the divine will (St. Paul) ; whose interests, as a loyal citizen, are those of a well-ordered state in which practical reason expresses itself (Hegel).”  


Two issues may be raised against this idea of [what Isaiah Berlin calls positive] freedom. First, is this a good way of thinking about freedom, i.e. as a state of the soul, of having reconciled our wills to the law of our being, as opposed to a civil relation whereby we are not physically or otherwise interfered with by others? Second, what is this law of being that man is supposedly subject  to? 

[Comment: This paragraph is actually from the end of paragraph 1. But it makes sense to put these questions here for reasons that should be clear if you have reached this far in the summary.]

8. Perhaps, it’s not a good way of thinking of freedom given the problems and confusions (section 6) associated with such a notion of freedom. It is tempting then to confine talk of freedom to the popular sense of the power to do what one wills without being interfered with. But then, we must ask whether we can understand freedom in the popular sense (as acting without interference) without reference to freedom as autonomy of will. That’s to say, how can we understand our freedom to do what we wish to do without understanding from where the direction/preference to do what we wish to do comes from: from us ourselves? or from something else?

John Locke thinks that freedom is merely the power to do or not do a certain act of preference. And to will, for him, is simply to have a preference. As such, to ask if this will is free is to ask an absurd question, like asking whether freedom is free (see paragraph 1). But it can, for Locke, properly be asked if a man is free to will or to act. Liberty in other words has to do with the man and not with his will or act (which are necessarily free). 

So far as a man has power to think or not to think, to move or not to move, according to the preference or direction of his own mind, so far is a man free. Wherever any performance or forbearance are not equally in a man’s power; wherever doing or not doing will not equally follow upon the preference of his mind directing it, there he is not free, though perhaps the action may be voluntary.

Liberty belongs not to the will. If this be so, (as I imagine it is,) I leave it to be considered, whether it may not help to put an end to that long agitated, and, I think, unreasonable, because unintelligible question, viz. Whether man’s will be free or no? For if I mistake not ... the question itself is altogether improper; and it is as insignificant to ask whether man’s will be free, as to ask whether his sleep be swift, or his virtue square.

Volition, it is plain, is an act of the mind knowingly exerting that dominion it takes itself to have over any part of the man, by employing it in, or withholding it from, any particular action. And what is the will, but the faculty to do this?

It is plain then that the will is nothing but one power or ability, and freedom another power or ability so that, to ask, whether the will has freedom, is to ask whether one power has another power, one ability another ability; a question at first sight too grossly absurd to make a dispute, or need an answer.

Liberty belongs not to the will but to the agent, or man. To return, then, to the inquiry about liberty, I think the question is not proper, whether the will be free, but whether a man be free.

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690, Book II, Chapter 21, paragraphs 8, 14, 15, 16, (20,21).

9.  It is alright to ask if a man is free to act. But if we cannot ask if a man’s will is free, can we properly ask if he is free to will? It is difficult to see how anyone would be free or unfree to will because the will is not something that can be acted on like your body might be acted on. If it is indeed acted on, it is no longer your will or preference but the will or preference of whatever is acting on it, whether it be another person. So that the question whether one is free to will is as absurd as the question that asks whether ones will is free.

10. Perhaps this is a mere quibble with words. For the meaning of “power” when we say that a man is has power over his will, i.e. when he is free to will, is different from when we say a man has power over his actions, i.e. when he is free to act. But it has to be accepted that asking the question in the form asked (Is a man free to will as well as to act?) has deeply muddled our thinking about free-will. It has led us to think that the man doing the willing is somehow separate from or subject to the motive or object of the will, in the same way that a natural event might be subject to (or caused by) another. This has led to the further thought that the will, if man is not to be subject to arbitrary or immoral motives/objects, must also be separate from or independent of the objects/motives.  However, such distinctions are meaningless. “[A man’s] will is himself. His character necessarily shows itself in his will.” For Locke and others, there is some uncertainty when we ask whether a man has power over determinations of his will, i.e. whether he will act or forbear when given a choice; and if he chooses to act, which one he will choose.

11.  But there is no such uncertainty. If we answer that the man has no power, then according to the common scheme, i.e. the negative view, it would presumably be because that action has been determined by his strongest motive(s) and not by his will. We are forced to conclude that the will is determined like any natural phrenomenon: by causes external to it (here, motives).

[But such motives, in the only sense intelligible, are determined by himself. These motives are objects of his own making.]

12. This unsavoury conclusion can be avoided if we say that the man indeed has power over the determinations of his will. But saying this would mean that his will is determined by something else, that “behind and beyond the will as determined by some motive there is a will, itself undetermined by any motive, that determines what the determining motive shall be. …But an unmotived will is a will without an object, which is nothing (emphasis added).”

If those moral interests, which are undoubtedly involved in the recognition of the distinction between man and any natural phenomenon, are to be made dependent on belief in such a power or abstract possibility, the case is hopeless.

13. The only way to get out of this trouble is to realise that the question whether a man is free to will is a question that cannot be answered because the question presupposes that there is some agency beyond the will which determines it such that man could be free or unfree to will. No such agency exists. The will is the self-conscious man. The self-conscious man is determined by objects which are already, and necessarily so, in his consciousness — otherwise they would not be his objects.

To say that [man’s objects] have power over him or his will, and that he or his will has power over them, is ... misleading. Such language is only applicable to the relation between an agent and patient, when the agent and the patient (or at any rate the agent) can exist separately. But self-consciousness and its object, will and its object, form a single individual unity.

14. If a person however persists in asking this question, the answer must be both “yes” and “no”. “Yes” in that nothing external to him has power over him and “no” in that he is nothing other than his will. 


15. The discussion thus far has lead to this conclusion: that a man’s will is nothing other than himself and that to ask if he is free to will is to ask an absurd question for given that his will is himself, his will is necessarily free. [Comment: This is the sense in which the will is always free (paragraph 1).] But now, it might be considered what is the character of the objects that are willed. To those inspired by Locke, freedom has been claimed or denied for the will irrespective of the objects willed, on whose nature the goodness or badness of the will depends.

If they decide that a man is ‘free to will,’ they mean that he is so in all cases of willing, whether the object willed be a satisfaction of animal appetite or an act of heroic self-sacrifice; and conversely, if they decide that he is not free to will, they mean that he is not so even in cases when the action is done upon cool calculation or upon a principle of duty, as much as when it is done on impulse or in passion.

16. On the other hand, for the Stoics, St. Paul, Kant, and Hegel, freedom of the will is intimately connected to the nature of the objects willed. Only that will which wills good objects is free but that which wills bad objects, is unfree. Obviously, this requires that we make a distinction between good and bad will but also, and this is important, that an element of identity be found to establish them as wills in the first place. This element of identity is ignored by Plato as well as by St. Paul. But it is present in Kant and Hegel. And this is what has been stressed before: that “[willing] is not a determination from without, like the determination of any natural event or agent, but the realisation of an object which the agent presents to himself or makes his own.”

17. Whether this use of freedom is proper is a secondary matter. If it becomes common enough, the common man would easily understand it just as he easily understands the popular notion of freedom as non-interference by others.

Freedom construed both as expressing the condition of a citizen of a civilised state [as Plato and Hegel do], and as expressing the condition of a man who is inwardly master of himself [as Kant and St. Paul do] share a community of meaning for both leads to “his becoming what he should be, what he has it in him to be, in fulfilment of the law of his being.” This is the fulfilment of the demand for freedom. And this is the same demand of freedom which is expressed by the common juristic conception of freedom.

18.  The juristic conception of freedom, it might be said, lies essentially in the feeling of a possibility rather than a reality. To a captive just liberated or to a child in early life, the freedom (to act in whatever way he likes) might seem boundless, but in reality, this freedom does not amount to much. Everywhere we go, our actions are constrained. “Thus to the grown man, bred to civil liberty in a society which has learnt to make nature its instrument, there is no self-enjoyment in the mere consciousness of freedom as exemption from external control.” This makes the quest for freedom, understood as non-interference, important.

In the same way, ‘freedom’ is the natural term by which to characterise the the state in which man shall have become all that he has in him to be after having defeated those wants and impulses that interfere with the fulfilment of his possibilities.


19. Now, we can turn to the “essential question as to the truth of the view … that freedom is in some sense the goal of moral endeavour … such that there is some will in a man with which many or most of his voluntary actions do not accord, a higher self that is not satisfied by the objects which yet he deliberately pursues.”

This notion of the higher self has been put forth in various forms by St. Paul, Kant, and Hegel. Here, it has been put forth as follows: “that a man is subject to a law of his being, in virtue of which he at once seeks self-satisfaction, and is prevented from finding it in the objects which he actually desires, and in which he ordinarily seeks it (emphasis added, see paragraph 1).” That’s to say there is a law of man’s being whose satisfaction is prevented by the objects that we ordinarily desire. We might understand this by differentiating, as Kant did, between the pure autonomous will which concerns itself with the law of his being and the empirical heteronomous will which concerns itself with those objects which he actually desires, and in which he ordinarily seeks satisfaction. But these are separate wills. Can we sensibly, then, ascribe man’s quest for self-satisfaction as directed to certain objects (i.e. that informed by his empirical will) to the same law of his being (i.e. that which is at one with his pure will) which prevents it from finding it there? 

20.  Well, the pure will, which is a consciously self-realising principle, and the empirical will are not separate but one. The latter is just the former except in that it appears in this or that state of character.

By a consciously self-realising principle is meant a principle that is determined to action by the conception of its own perfection, or by the idea of giving reality to possibilities which are involved in it and of which it is conscious as so involved; or, more precisely, a principle which at each stage of its existence is conscious of a more perfect form of existence as possible for itself, and is moved to action by that consciousness.

21. How do we understand this unity and difference? The unity lies in that it is the same self-realising prinicple that works in both the pure and empirical will. The difference lies in the extent to which they realise the principle. The pure will, whose reality might be ascribed only to God, realises it fully, is fully reconciled with it. But in men, the empirical will at best only tends towards realisation and reconciliation with the form that the pure will takes, which is reason. Put in different words, in men, “the object of [the empirical] will is intrinsically or potentially, and tends to become actually, the same as that of reason.” He is thwarted from realisation by natural impulses: ‘the objects which he actually desires, and in which he ordinarily seeks it’. These impulses are the result of the work of the self-realising principle and not to be extinguished or denied but rather fused or reconciled with those higher interests “which have human perfection in some of its forms for their object.”

22. When this reconciliation or fusion happens, a man may be said to be truly free. He is free in the sense “he is the author of the law which he obeys … from that impulse after self-perfection which is the source of the law or rather constitutes it.” He is also free not only in the sense that he “‘delights in the law after the inward man’ (to use St. Paul’s phrase) while his natural impulses are at once thwarted by it and thwart him in his effort to conform to it, but [because] these very impulses have been drawn into its service, so that he is in bondage neither to it nor to the flesh.”

There is an appearance of equivocation, however, in this way of speaking, because the ‘will’ which is liable not to be autonomous ... is not this self-realising principle in the form in which this principle involves or gives the law. On the contrary, it is the self-realising principle as constituting that effort after self-satisfaction in each of us... The equivocation is pointed out by saying, that the good will is ‘autonomous’ in the sense of conforming to a law which the will itself, as reason, constitutes.

23. In God (or the ideal man), reason and the will are one. But in the historical man, the latter only tends towards the former, i.e. they only tend to unite. “The moral progress of mankind has no reality except as resulting in the formation of more perfect individual characters.”

24. How does/can the reconciliation between reason and will happen?

“A certain action of the self-realising principle … result[s]… in a [conventional morality, a] system of recognised rules (whether in the shape of law or custom) as to what the good of society requires, which no people seem to be wholly without.

The moral progress of the individual, born and bred under such a system of conventional morality, consists (a) in the adjustment (which it is the business of education to effect) of the self-seeking principle in him to the requirement of conventional morality … which is … a determination of the will as in the individual by objects which the universal will has brought into existence.

It consists (b) in a process of reflection, by which this feeling in the individual of what is expected of him becomes a conception of something that universally should be, of something absolutely desirable, of a single end or object of life.”

25. It finally consists in (c) “the growth of a personal interest in the realisation of an idea of what should be, in doing what is believed to contribute to the absolutely desirable, or to human perfection, because it is believed to do so. Just so far as this interest is formed, the reconciliation of the two modes in which the practical reason operates in the individual [i.e. reason and will] is effected.”

There can be no real determination of the will by reason unless both reason and will are operating in one and the same person. A will is not really anything except as the will of a person, and, as we have seen, a will is not really determinable by anything foreign to itself: it is only determinable by an object which the person willing makes his own.

Affirmative Action: Is it Fair? by Ronald Dworkin — A Summary


Ronald Dworkin, “Affirmative Action: Is It Fair?” in Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 409–26.


I

In the 1978 Bakke case, the United States’ Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Affirmative Action (hereafter AA), and ruled that racial preferences are permissible if their purpose is to improve racial diversity among students, and if they do not stipulate fixed minority quotas but take race into account as one factor among many. The Supreme Court might reconsider this ruling and declare AA unconstitutional. This is thanks to the 1996 Hopwood case where the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Texas Law School’s AA plan and effectively declared all university AA unconstitutional.

[Note: This essay was published in 2000. The 1996 Hopwood decision was abrogated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case where the AA admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School was upheld.]

Is AA unconstitutional? Does it violate the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws”?

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

14th Amendment to the US Constitution

The equal protection clause is not meant to protect citizens from all legal distinctions and classifications that disadvantage them. Governments take a lot of decisions — which medical research to support, which art to subsidize, which industries or products to protect by tariffs or other trade policy, etc. — which have both adverse and beneficial consequences for vast sections of the population. In principle, such decisions should be made in the general interest of the community even if they have adverse consequences for some. In practice, such decisions are often determined by the political power that certain interest-groups might have and not considerations of general interest.

The equal protection clause is not violated when a group loses out on the merits of the case or through politics. That clause is violated only when a group loses out due to a special vulnerability to prejudice or hostility or stereotype and its consequent diminished standing in the political community. The clause does not guarantee each citizen that he will benefit equally from every political decision; it guarantees him only that he will be treated as an equal — with equal concern and respect — in the political processes and deliberations that produce those decisions.

We must distinguish between two different principles that take equality to be a political ideal. The first requires that the government treat all those in its charge as equals, that is, as entitled to its equal concern and respect. That is not an empty requirement: most of us do not suppose that we must, as individuals, treat our neighbor’s children with the same concern as our own, or treat everyone we meet with the same respect.... The second principle requires that the government treat all those in its charge equally in the distribution of some resource of opportunity, or at least work to secure the state of affairs in which they all are equal or more nearly equal in that respect.

Ronald Dworkin, “Liberalism”, in A Matter of Principle, 1985, p. 190. But first published in Public and Private Morality, 1978, p. 125.

The difficulty with the 14th amendment is that it forces courts not only to judge on the consequences of legislation for different groups, but the motive behind that legislation. Was the law — in this case, AA policy — that injures this or that group — in this case, white candidates who would have got admissions were it not for AA policies — the product of a forbidden, prejudiced attitude toward that group, or of more benign motives? It is obvious that motives cannot be discerned in the manner of consequences. In addition, it is impossible to translate the individual motives of the legislators into an overall motive which can be attributed to the legislation.

The courts approach the question of motives indirectly. They have devised doctrines intended to “smoke out” improper motives by concentrating on the apparently more objective question of a law’s actual effects. They subject all political decisions that are challenged on equal protection grounds to an initial threshold classification. If the group upon which a law imposes disadvantages forms a “suspect” class  — “a class … that is saddled with such disabilities, or subjected to such a history of purposeful unequal treatment, or relegated to such a position of political powerlessness as to command extraordinary protection from the majoritarian political process — then the decision is to be subject to “strict scrutiny”  meaning that the decision must be rejected as violating the equal protection clause unless the disadvantage can be shown to be essential in order to protect some “compelling” governmental interest. 

But if those whom a law disadvantages do not form such a “suspect” class — if they are only the members of a particular business or profession or the residents of a particular area, and are not different from their fellow citizens in any way historically associated with prejudice or antipathy — then that law is subject to only a “relaxed” scrutiny meaning that the law constitutional unless it can be demonstrated to serve no purpose or point at all.

It is very difficult to apply these doctrines to the AA debate. The white candidates who form the disadvantaged class do not, by any stretch of the imagination, form a “suspect” class. AA policies seem to be entitled to relaxed scrutiny. However, race is so closely associated with bias and favoritism that some racial classifications that seem benign on the surface might turn out, after a closer look, to be constitutionally offensive. An AA scheme that gives preference to blacks might conceivably have been constructed to reduce the number of Asian Americans or Jews admitted. However, such offensive motivations can only be revealed by a closer look, something that a relaxed scrutiny would not allow. But subjecting AA schemes which benefit a genuine suspect class — black candidates — to the same strict scrutiny that is applied to schemes/laws/classifications that harm a suspect group seems insensitive to the moral differences between the two aims.

What must be done then? A case-by-case approach must be pursued which accounts for, among other pertinent factors, the character of the groups benefited and disadvantaged by the program, the racial or other character of the officials who have designed and will administer the plan, and whether the plan aims at a goal. No doubt, such an approach requires more judicial work and provides less legal predictability but with time, these shortcomings will be overcome.

However, the Supreme Court has, in recent cases, subjected all racial classifications, including those that are apparently designed to favor rather than injure suspect groups, to strict scrutiny. In the 1986 Croson case, the Court struck down a Richmond, Virginia, city council plan that required city contractors to subcontract at least 30 percent of the dollar amount of any contract to minority-owned firms. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ruled that Richmond’s claim that it was seeking a racially more diverse local construction industry was not a “compelling” interest. The low participation of minority business enterprises was not the result of injustice authored by the city, either directly, by its own discriminatory practices, or “as a ‘passive participant’ in a system of racial exclusion practiced by elements of the local construction industry”.

The Hopwood decision relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s Croson decision. The Fifth Circuit judges in the Hopwood case argued that no state institution may use a racial classification for any purpose except to remedy the continuing effects of, following Croson, its own direct or indirect discrimination. The Texan Law school could not satisfy that test, the judges said, because it had ceased discriminating against minorities many years ago.

How to make sense of this? Has Croson and other decisions had this devastating effect on AA policies?

II

The strict scrutiny test can be interpreted in two very different ways which are based on two very different assumptions about the constitutional status of racial classifications.

For the first, any racial classification imposed by any branch of government for any purpose whatever automatically violates the equal protection clause in principle. Only that racial classification will be tolerated which is absolutely necessary — hence, this might be called the “overriding necessity” interpretation — either as the only available means for that branch to end its own past and continuing racial discrimination, or to forestall some danger of such dramatic urgency — “a social emergency rising to the level of imminent danger to life and limb” to use the words of Justice Scalia — that we must overlook a grave constitutional wrong in order to avoid that danger.

The second does not assume that every racial classification violates the 14th Amendment, even in principle, and it therefore does not assume that no racial classification is tolerable unless it is required by some emergency sufficiently grave to justify overlooking a constitutional wrong. Racial classifications, in this view, violate the equal protection clause only when they have been generated by the unacceptable attitudes of prejudice or stereotyping that the clause outlaws. This view imposes the burden of proof on any institution that uses racial classification to produce evidence which is sufficiently compelling to rebut — hence, this may be called the “rebuttal” interpretation — any suspicion of offensive motivations.

The rebuttal version is closer to the constitutional principle than the overriding necessity version. There is no constitutional warrant for assuming that the equal protection clause prohibits all racial classifications regardless of the purposes they serve. The 14th Amendment does not mention race, and there is no reason to think that those who drafted and endorsed that amendment meant to forbid all racial classifications outright.

And it is this version that has been argued for by many, though not all, Supreme Court judges. For instance, in the Croson case, Justice O’Connor opined that “classifications based on race carry a danger of stigmatic harm. Unless they are strictly reserved for remedial settings, they may in fact promote notions of racial inferiority and lead to a politics of racial hostility (emphasis added).” A careful, case-by-case examination, cannot be replaced by a flat, mechanical rule striking down all plans that did not meet a simple a priori test. Justice Stevens, in the same case, said that racial classifications should be judged in terms of their impact on the future, and expressly rejected any implication that “a governmental decision that rests on a racial classification is never permissible except as a remedy for a past wrong”. 

III

Thus, it may thus be said that the Hopwood decision which struct down Texas Law School’s AA program as unconstitutional was wrong. However, it does not follow that the Courts cannot strike down race-sensitive admissions schemes. Even on the basis of the rebuttal reading of strict scrutiny, they can do so.

[Oh! By the way, Dworkin himself prefers a case-by-case approach to the rebuttal version (see Section I).

[E]ven the rebuttal version imposes too heavy a burden on branches and departments of government, from Congress to city councils, that are struggling with intractable problems of de facto racial segregation in industry and politics. My point in distinguishing the rebuttal version from the overriding necessity version of strict scrutiny is not to endorse the former, though it is plainly preferable to the latter, but only to clarify what the Court has actually decided, and what its past decisions entail in future cases. (Footnote 15)]

How can, if at all, university AA plans meet a strict scrutiny test as construed by the rebuttal version? The justifying purposes for race-sensitive admissions tests are, first, the universities’ own need for racial diversity in their student bodies, and, second,  the community’s need for a larger presence of minority members in important political, business, and professional roles. Are these purposes compelling? Does the record of AA policies rebut any trace of reasonable suspicion that the courts might have against the institutions implementing AA?

University admissions are in a strong position to dispel such suspicions. University admissions policies are not set by politicians, who might hope to court the votes of a racial bloc, but by faculty members, who are not running for office. Their interest in diversity is traditional and recognized. Indeed, many universities believe that it is irrational to seek diversity in geographical origin, in social class, and in cultural orientation, and not also to seek racial diversity. Racial diversity is sought because race is itself important. Besides, universities have used AA programs judiciously with no tendency to expand them beyond sensible proportions. There is no genuine risk that race-sensitive admissions programs will be used as a pretence for disfavouring any other particular group of applicants. In fact, the search for racial diversity among students has been accepted as a compelling interest that survives strict scrutiny by many members of the Supreme Court.

“The argument is therefore strong that the Bakke principle,” — that racial preferences are permissible if their purpose is to improve racial diversity among students — “in force for over twenty years, remains good constitutional law, and that American colleges and universities · may continue to rely on that principle to justify using race-sensitive admissions policies to secure a diverse student body.”

However there is yet another justification for race sensitive admission policies — the deplorable absence of blacks from key positions in government, politics, business, and the professions. This is the need for a larger presence of minority members in important political, business, and professional roles in American society. Many statements in various Supreme Court judgments appear hostile to this justification. They see AA policies as compensatory and point out that it is a mistake to suppose that one race “owes” another race compensation. Such statements, however, fail to note the distinction between backward-looking justifications of racial classifications as compensatory and forward-looking justifications that argue that such classifications may, in some circumstances, be in the general interest of the community as a whole.

Race-sensitive admission policies of universities are not compensatory. Rather they are forward-looking. Great universities hope to train more blacks and other minority students not to repay them for past injustice, but to make the future better for everyone by helping to lift a curse that the past laid on us all. The worry that any broad and general remedial justification for AA would license racial preferences until every industry or social or professional stratum had the same racial and ethnic composition as the nation as a whole is misplaced when applied to higher education. This is because colleges, universities, and professional schools use race-sensitive standards not in response to any central government mandate but through individual decisions by individual schools. They don’t and can’t fix how many members of which races will occupy what roles in the overall economy and polity. They seek to increase the number of blacks and other minorities who are in the pool from which other citizens will choose employees, doctors, lawyers, and public officials in the normal way.

“If the justices recognize this aspect of what our best universities aim to do, as well as their academic need for educational diversity, then they will have served us particularly well. They will have acted not just as judges allowing a crucial educational initiative to continue, but as teachers helping to explain to the nation the true and continuing costs to everyone of our racist past, and the distinct promise of an educational policy that can help us all to achieve, if we really want it, a more perfect union.”