Two Concepts of Liberty by Isaiah Berlin — A Summary

Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Liberty: Incorporating ‘Four Essays on Liberty,’ ed. Henry Hardy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 166–217.

This summary covers only the first two sections of the essay. (There are eight in all!) This is because I am assuming that those interested are mainly interested in the distinction between negative and positive liberty. That distinction is laid out clearly in these sections. I have tried to give the reader a taste of Berlin’s writing by extracting bits and pieces from the other sections. Why? See below.

But you can also go straight to the summary.

This is probably one of the most influential and commented upon essays in political philosophy to have emerged in the last century. It was originally delivered in 1958 by Isaiah Berlin as the inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory in Oxford. First published as a pamphlet by Oxford at the Clarendon Press in the same year, it was then published along with other essays in Four Essays on Liberty in 1969 and reissued in 2002 as Liberty with the inclusion of another essay by Berlin and other additions.

This essay is not simply an essay of conceptual analysis but it is engaging in what is called history of ideas. So there is much that is of historical interest. There are references to Saint-Simon, Engels, Marx, Heine, Kant, Rousseau, Fichte, Schelling, Robespierre, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Constant, Tocqueville, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Belinsky, Adam Smith, the Jacobins, the Reformation, Burke, Paine, Occam, Condorcet, ancient Greece and Rome, and we are still is the first section! The point is that rather than summaries, such an essay would require commentaries to explain precisely why, for instance, Occam (of the Occam’s Razor fame) is mentioned. [Check out this essay to get a primer on why Berlin says negative liberty is “liberty as it has been conceived by liberals in the modem world from the days of Erasmus (some would say of Occam) to our own.”]

It would do great injustice to try to summarise, and this will be familiar to those who are familiar with Berlin, what are remarkable streams of thought, or more correctly, illustrations that are characterised by their breath-taking breadth. Consider the following passage from the same essay.

The ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer — deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role, that is, of conceiving goals and policies of my own and realising them. This is at least part of what I mean when I say that I am rational, and that it is my reason that distinguishes me as a human being from the rest of the world. I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by reference to my own ideas and purposes.

“Two Concepts of Liberty”, p. 178.

A summary of that passage would be the first sentence. But it is easy to see how much damage it will do to Berlin’s presentation. The best I can do is put up some extracts to give the reader a feel of what Berlin’s writing is like. And this is what I have done for the rest of the essay. Even this however fails to work because these extracts, of necessity ignore most if not all of the finer (but also lengthier) points of exposition that Berlin engages in. As such, for those who are genuinely interested, you can’t do better than read the essay in full.


Freedom (or liberty; these two terms will be used interchangeably) is a term whose meaning is “so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist.” I will endeavour to examine only two central political senses in which it has been understood. The first is what might be called the ‘negative’ sense which answers 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 any interference by other persons?’ The second which I shall call the ‘positive’ sense answers 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 Notion of Negative Freedom

In this sense, liberty refers to the area within which I may act unobstructed by others, an area within which I am free to do or be as I wish to do or be. If I am prevented by others from doing what I would otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if my area of freedom is curtailed beyond a certain minimum, I may be described as being coerced/enslaved. This does not mean that any curtailment of what I would otherwise do is coercion. Mere inability to, say, jump more than ten feet in the air or understand the writings of Hegel, is not coercion. Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings in my sphere of freedom. Mere incapacity is not a lack of freedom.

But what about economic freedom? What if I am unable to afford a loaf of bread on which there is no legal prohibition? Surely, I must be unfree in this case. Yes. But only if I believe in certain economic and social theories which outline a certain understanding of poverty as caused by arrangements brought about by men which prevent some people, like me, but not others, like the well-off, from having enough money to afford basic necessities. But if I do not believe in (the truth of) such theories, and if I understand my poverty as similar to a disease, like blindness or lameness, I am cannot say I am being deprived of freedom.

This is the sense, i.e. the absence of interference by others, in which classical English philosophers understood freedom. There was disagreement about how wide the area of freedom or non-interference would be. First because it was agreed that the sphere of freedom could not be unlimited for if every person has unlimited freedom, no person would be free. Second because they also thought that other goals like justice, equality, happiness, security, etc. were necessary to fulfil human purposes and therefore they deemed it necessary to curtail freedom in the interest of these other goals, or indeed, in the interest of freedom itself. Freedom then has to be limited.

But a certain minimum area of freedom which must be kept sacrosanct so that the individual does not find himself in too narrow a space where he can’t exercise and develop his natural faculties, and without which there would be no meaning to human life and human purposes and goals, including that of freedom itself.

[The next two paragraphs in the text are an important digression. The idea that one person’s freedom is another person’s unfreedom is obvious. If I am free to kill you, you are unfree to live. In Berlin’s words, “the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others.” This leads, unsurprisingly, many western liberal consciences to say or believe that perhaps the freedom that many of us enjoy is the outcome of the suffering of many groups of people who are exploited socially and economically. If I have the leisure, education, and means, to enjoy Pushkin, might not that be, however indirectly, the result of a system which denies boots to a peasant. And in this case, might not the peasant wish for boots (a basic need) rather than freedom (to enjoy the writings of Alexander Pushkin)? And shouldn’t governments/societies try to ensure these basic necessities before harking about freedom? And if that is not forthcoming, couldn’t or shouldn’t I say: “if others are to be deprived of it [freedom] — if my brothers are to remain in poverty, squalor and chains — then I do not want it for myself, I reject it with both hands and infinitely prefer to share their fate”.

This reflection, Berlin admits, “derives from something that is both true and important.” That is, it is true that a great percentage of wealth which is the basis for the freedoms enjoyed by, say, the west comes, or at least came, from exploitation elsewhere. But he maintains that it is nonetheless “a piece of political claptrap.” “Nothing is gained,” he insists “by a confusion of terms.” If I sacrifice my freedom for a great moral need — my fellow brothers are in “poverty, squalor and chains” — I am still sacrificing freedom. This is a loss of freedom and there is no gain of some other kind of freedom. “Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.”]

If freedom cannot be unlimited and has to be curtailed by law if only to secure the freedom of others, upon what principle shall this curtailment be put in place?

Those philosophers who are optimistic about human nature and believe that human interests may be harmonised, such as Locke, Smith, and Mill, prefer a large area of freedom. Those who are pessimistic, Hobbes and his followers, prefer a larger area of control. In any case, that a certain minimum portion of life must be left uninterfered with is agreed by all and to invade this portion would be despotism and it would degrade our very nature. However, what that minimum must be has remained, and will probably remain, a matter of eternal and irresolvable dispute.

What then must the minimum be? That which a man cannot give  up without offending against the essence of his human nature. What is this essence? What are the standards which it entails? This  has been, and perhaps always will be, a matter of infinite debate.

Be that as it may, liberty in this negative sense is always “freedom from; absence if interference beyond the shifting, but always recognisable frontier.”

For Mill, “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.” This celebrated defence of liberty takes the presence of a “free market in ideas” which allows scope for, indeed encourages, “spontaneity, originality, genius, [] mental energy, [] moral courage” as a necessary condition for advancement in civilisation without which “society will be crushed by the weight of ‘collective mediocrity.’”

Whatever is rich and diversified will be crushed by  the weight of custom, by men’s constant tendency to conformity,  which breeds only ‘withered’ capacities, ‘pinched and hidebound’, ‘cramped and dwarfed’ human beings.

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter I.

We may note three points about this defence. Firstly, the connection between the existence of a free market of ideas and the development of critical, original, imaginative, etc. thought — which Mill seems to assume is necessary — is at best empirical. And it has been shown that “integrity, love of truth and fiery individualism grow at least as often in severely disciplined communities”. [Berlin points to James Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity]

Second, this doctrine that places so much importance to individual liberty is very modern and is absent from all discussions of liberty in, say, ancient Rome and Greece, indeed in all ancient civilisations. The dominance of this doctrine then is an exception rather than the rule.

Third, this idea of liberty is not incompatible with autocracy, or the absence of self-government (or democracy). Liberty in the negative sense is concerned about the area of control and not the source of control. A democracy which curtails the freedoms of its citizens in the name of say, welfare or social justice, may well be more oppressive in this sense than, say, an enlightened despotism in which the subjects are given sufficient latitude in their actions and behaviour. In other words, freedom is not connected in any logical sense with democracy. This is because the question of ‘who governs me?’ is logically different from the question ‘how far does government interfere with me?’ It is in this difference that the two concepts of liberty can be identified. The former points to positive freedom, and the latter, negative.

For the ‘positive’ sense of liberty comes to light if we try to answer the question, not ‘What am I free to do or be?’, but ‘By whom am I ruled?’ or ‘Who is to say what I am, and what I am not, to be or do?’


The Notion of Positive Freedom

The ‘positive’ sense of freedom derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master and it consists precisely in being one’s own master.

But isn’t this not so different from the ‘negative’ sense of liberty? If you are free to choose as you wish, i.e. if you are master of yourself, isn’t that the same as not being prevented from choosing what you wish by others? The similarity, however, is only superficial.

It is obvious that one could be coerced/enslaved by political, social and economic arrangements. But might not we be enslaved by nature? Or perhaps our own unbridled passions? Passions which we ought to resist or which we do resist at some level in our minds, passions such as the imperatives for what a former Headmistress of yours truly used to call, “momentary pleasures.” Don’t we characterise our emergence from unbridled desire for sexual encounters, and lust for fame, wealth (especially if you subscribe to Christian ethics) as liberating?

In any case, the desire to be one’s own master is not merely the desire to be free from interference by others, but to be free from our very own desires and passions which we might consider as base or sinful or unbecoming of our nature, our nature as members of certain groups, religious or otherwise, or indeed of our nature as human beings. The desire here is to give full power to a higher self — which may be “identified with reason, with my ‘higher nature’, with the self which calculates and aims at what will satisfy it in the long run, with my ‘real’, or ‘ideal’, or ‘autonomous’ self, or with my self ‘at its best’” — so that it may become master over the lower self — identified with “irrational impulse, uncontrolled desires, my ‘lower’ nature, the pursuit of immediate pleasures, my ‘empirical’ or ‘heteronomous’ self.”

The higher self could even be conceived as something wider than the individual. It could be the social whole — “a tribe, a race, a Church, a State, the great society of the living and the dead and the yet unborn.” This entity is then identified as being the ‘true’ self which, by imposing its collective, or ‘organic’, single will upon its recalcitrant ‘members’, achieves its own, and therefore their, ‘higher’ freedom.”

There is some plausibility to this idea in so far as we recognise that it is possible and justifiable to coerce men in the name of some goal, say public health; to force them to wear seat-belts for example, or get mandatory vaccinations. But it is a small step from this to go to the view that takes your action, or that of the state, or church, or what have you, to be the rational choices of those very men (those unwilling to vaccinate their children or wear seatbelts) who are being coerced. This impersonation believes that although they may not be making their choices consciously or even willingly, their higher selves would certainly choose them, indeed they already have. “This monstrous impersonation, which consists in equating what X would choose if he were something he is not, or at least not yet, with what X actually seeks and chooses, is at the heart of all political theories of self-realisation.”

It is one thing to say that I may  be coerced for my own good, which I am too blind to see: this  may, on occasion, be for my benefit; indeed it may enlarge the  scope of my liberty. It is another to say that if it is my good, then I  am not being coerced, for I have willed it, whether I know this or not, and am free (or ‘truly’ free) even while my poor earthly body  and foolish mind bitterly reject it, and struggle with the greatest desperation against those who seek, however benevolently, to impose it.

This “sleight of hand” can be performed with regards to the negative sense of freedom as well. There the self that should not be interfered with would become the higher self of which I have spoken about, and this self could indeed be inflated to a super-personal entity. However, this splitting of the self into two — “the transcendent, dominant controller, and the empirical bundle of desires and passions to be disciplined and brought to heel” — has been perpetrated “as a matter of history, of doctrine and of practice” by the ‘positive’ conception of freedom as self-mastery.

[The rest are extracts. For reasons outlined above.]


The Retreat to the Inner Citadel

The doctrine that maintains that what I cannot have I must teach myself not to desire, that a desire eliminated, or successfully resisted, is as good as a desire satisfied, is a sublime, but, it seems to me, unmistakable, form of the doctrine of sour grapes: what I cannot be sure of, I cannot truly want.

This makes it dear why the definition of negative liberty as the ability to do what one wishes — which is, in effect, the definition adopted by Mill —will not do. If I find that I am able to do little or nothing of what I wish, I need only contract or extinguish my wishes, and I am made free.

Ascetic self-denial may be a source of integrity or serenity and spiritual strength, but it is difficult to see how it can be called an enlargement of liberty. If I save myself from an adversary by retreating indoors and locking every entrance and exit, I may remain freer than if I had been captured by him, but am I freer than if I had defeated or captured him?



The only true method of attaining freedom, we are told, is by the use of critical reason, the understanding of what is necessary and what is contingent.

What you know, that of which you understand the necessity — the rational necessity — you cannot, while remaining rational, want to be otherwise. For to want something to be other than what it must be is, given the premisses — the necessities that govern the world — to be pro tanto either ignorant or irrational. Passions, prejudices, fears, neuroses spring from ignorance, and take the form of myths and illusions. ... The scientific determinists of the eighteenth century supposed that the study of the sciences of nature, and the creation of sciences of society on the same model, would make the operation of such causes transparently clear, and thus enable individuals to recognise their own part in the working of a rational world, frustrating only when misunderstood.

We are enslaved by despots — institutions or beliefs or neuroses — which can be removed only by being analysed and understood. We are imprisoned by evil spirits which we have ourselves — albeit not consciously — created, and can exorcise them only by becoming conscious and acting appropriately. ... To understand why things must be as they must be is to will them to be so. Knowledge liberates not by offering us more open possibilities amongst which we can make our choice, but by preserving us from the frustration of attempting the impossible. ...That is the metaphysical heart of rationalism. The notion of liberty contained in it is not the ‘negative’ conception of a field (ideally) without obstacles, a vacuum in which nothing obstructs me, but the notion of self-direction or self-control.


The Temple of Sarastro

Those who believed in freedom as rational self-direction were bound, sooner or later, to consider how this was to be applied not merely to a man’s inner life, but to his relations with other members of his society. Even the most individualistic among them — and Rousseau, Kant and Fichte certainly began as individualists — came at some point to ask themselves whether a rational life not only for the individual, but also for society, was possible, and if so, how it was to be achieved.

Freedom is self-mastery, the elimination of obstacles to my will, whatever these obstacles maybe — the resistance of nature, of my ungoverned passions, of irrational institutions, of the opposing wills or behaviour of others. Nature I can, at least in principle, always mould by technical means, and shape to my will. But how am I to treat recalcitrant human beings?

I must, if I can, impose my will on them too,‘mould’ them to my pattern, cast parts for them in my play. But will this not mean that I alone am free, while they are slaves? They will be so if my plan has nothing to do with their wishes or values, only with my own. But if my plan is fully rational, it will allow for the full development of their ‘true’ natures, the realisation of their capacities for rational decisions, for ‘making the best of themselves’ — as a part of the realisation of my own ‘true’ self. All true solutions to all genuine problems must be compatible: more than this, they must fit into a single whole; for this is what is meant by calling them all rational and the universe harmonious.

The common assumption ... is that the rational ends of our ‘true’ natures must coincide, or be made to coincide, however violently our poor, ig.i:iorant, desire ridden, passionate, empirical selves may cry out against this process. Freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong. To force empirical selves into the right pattern is no tyranny, but liberation. ...Liberty, so far from being incompatible with authority, becomes virtually identical with it. This is the thought and language of all the declarations of the rights of man in the eighteenth century, and of all those who look upon society as a design constructed according to the rational laws of the wise lawgiver, or of nature, or of history, or of the Supreme Being.

If the underlying assumptions had been correct — if the method of solving social problems resembled the way in which solutions to the problems of the natural sciences are found, and if reason were what rationalists said that it was — all this would perhaps follow.

[And] In due course, the thinkers who bent their energies to the solution of the problem on these lines came to be faced with the question of how in practice men were to be made rational in this way. Clearly they must be educated. For the uneducated are irrational, heteronomous, and need to be coerced, if only to make life tolerable for the rational if they are to live in the same society and not be compelled to withdraw to a desert or some Olympian height. ... The unwise must be dragged towards it by all the social means in the power of the wise; for why should demonstrable error be suffered to survive and breed? The immature and untutored must be made to say to themselves: ‘only the truth liberates, and the only way in which I can learn the truth is by doing blindly today what you, who know it, order me, or coerce me, to do, in the certain knowledge that only thus will I arrive at your dear vision, and be free like you.’

We have wandered indeed from our liberal beginnings. ... What can have led to so strange a reversal? ... [E]ven Kant (who insisted that a capacity for rational self-direction belonged to all men), when he came to deal with political issues, conceded that no law, provided that it was such that I should, if I were asked, approve it as a rational being, could possibly deprive me of any portion of my rational freedom. With this the door was opened wide to the rule of experts. ...[And] if I am a legislator or a ruler, I must assume that if the law I impose is rational (and I can consult only my own reason} it will automatically be approved by all the members of my society so far as they are rational beings. For if they disapprove, they must, pro tanto, be irrational; then they will need to be repressed by reason: whether their own or mine cannot matter, for the pronouncements of reason must be the same in all minds. I issue my orders and, if you resist, take it upon myself to repress the irrational element in you which opposes reason.

If this leads to despotism, albeit by the best or the wisest — to Sarastro’s temple in The Magic Flute — but still despotism, which turns out to be identical with freedom, can it be that there is something amiss in the premisses of the argument? That the basic assumptions are themselves somewhere at fault?


Liberty and Sovereignty

The French Revolution, like all great revolutions, was, at least in its Jacobin form, just such an eruption of the desire for ‘positive’ freedom of collective self-direction on the part of a large body of Frenchmen who felt liberated as a nation, even though the result was, for a good many of them, a severe restriction of individual freedoms. ...The liberals of the first half of the nineteenth century correctly foresaw that liberty in this ‘positive’ sense could easily destroy too many of the ‘negative’ liberties that they held sacred. They pointed out that the sovereignty of the people could easily destroy that of individuals.

Throughout the nineteenth century liberal thinkers maintained that if liberty involved a limit upon the powers of any man to force me to do what I did not, or might not, wish to do, then, whatever the ideal in the name of which I was coerced, I was not free; that the doctrine of absolute sovereignty was a tyrannical doctrine in itself. If I wish to preserve my liberty, ...I must establish a society in which there must be some frontiers of freedom which nobody should be permitted to cross.

[But] what would make a society truly free? For Constant, Mill, Tocqueville, and the liberal tradition to which they belong, no society is free unless it is governed by at any rate two interrelated principles: first, that no power, but only rights, can be regarded as absolute, so that all men, whatever power governs them, have an absolute right to refuse to behave inhumanly; and, second, that there are frontiers, not artificially drawn, within which men should be inviolable, these frontiers being defined in terms of rules so long and widely accepted that their observance has entered into the very conception of what it is to be a normal human being, and, therefore, also of what it is to act inhumanly or insanely; rules of which it would be absurd to say, for example, that they could be abrogated by some formal procedure on the part of some court or sovereign body.

This is almost at the opposite pole from the purposes of those who believe in liberty in the ‘positive’ — self-directive — sense. The former want to curb authority as such. The latter want it placed in their own hands. That is a cardinal issue. These are not two different interpretations of a single concept, but two profoundly divergent and irreconcilable attitudes to the ends of life. It is as well to recognise this, even if in practice it is often necessary to strike a compromise between them. For each of them makes absolute claims. These claims cannot both be fully satisfied. But it is a profound lack of social and moral understanding not to recognise that the satisfaction that each of them seeks is an ultimate value which, both historically and morally, has an equal right to be classed among the deepest interests of mankind.


The One and the Many

One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals — justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. This ancient faith rests on the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail one another.

But is this true? It is a commonplace that neither political equality nor efficient organisation nor social justice is compatible with more than a modicum of individual liberty, and certainly not with unrestricted laissez-faire; that justice and generosity, public and private loyalties, the demands of genius and the claims of society can conflict violently with each other. And it is no great way from that to the generalisation that not all good things are compatible, still less all the ideals of mankind.

But if we arc not armed with an a priori guarantee of the proposition that a total harmony of true values is somewhere to be found — perhaps in some ideal realm the characteristics of which we can, in our finite state, not so much as conceive — we must fall back on the ordinary resources of empirical observation and ordinary human knowledge. And these certainly give us no warrant for supposing (or even understanding what would be meant by saying) that all good things, or all bad things for that matter, are reconcilable with each other.

The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realisation of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others. Indeed, it is because this is their situation that men place such immense value upon the freedom to choose; for if they had assurance that in some perfect state, realisable by men on earth, no ends pursued by them would ever be in conflict, the necessity and agony of choice would disappear, and with it the central importance of the freedom to choose.

I do not wish to say that individual freedom is, even in the most liberal societies, the sole, or even the dominant, criterion of social action. ...The extent of a man’s, or a people’s, liberty to choose to live as he or they desire must be weighed against the claims of many other values, of which equality, or justice, or happiness, or security, or public order are perhaps the most obvious examples. For this reason, it cannot be unlimited. ...That we cannot have everything is a necessary, not a contingent, truth. [But at the same time] there is little need to stress the fact that monism, and faith in a single criterion, has always proved a deep source of satisfaction both to the intellect and to the emotions. [However] to preserve our absolute categories or ideals at the expense of human lives offends equally against the principles of science and of history

Pluralism, with the measure of ‘negative’ liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of ‘positive’ self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind. It is truer, because it does, at least, recognise the fact that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another. ...It is more humane because it does not (as the system builders do) deprive men, in the name of some remote, or incoherent, ideal, of much that they have found to be indispensable to their life as unpredictably self-transforming human beings.

It may be that the ideal of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilisation: an ideal which remote ages and primitive societies have not recognised, and one which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but little comprehension. This may be so; but no sceptical conclusions seem to me to follow. Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed. ...‘To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions’, said an admirable writer of our time, ‘and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.’ To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow such a need to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.

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.

Of the Liberty of Subjects by Thomas Hobbes — A Summary

Thomas Hobbes, “Of the Liberty of Subjects.” In Leviathan, Reprint of the 1651 Edition, (London: Clarendon Press, 1929) 161–171.

This Chapter from the Leviathan is the germ of the liberal (negative) notion of freedom. The first four sections along with a little excursion into Chapter VI for making sense of Hobbes’ understanding of the will (especially important as a contrast to the views of theorists of positive freedom such as Kant and Green) should be sufficient. The rest of Chapter relates this idea of freedom to his larger philosophical project. I leave out the what is really the last section that inventories the liberties that the individual subject is left with after making the covenant.

Liberty What

Liberty, properly understood, is the absence of “Opposition”. Opposition means “externall Impediments of motion”. Note three aspects of Liberty: (a) liberty has to do with (the lack of) an impediment or interference; (b) that impediment is external i.e., the source of that impediment is someone or something else; and (c) the impediment “stops” motion, i.e., the impediment is physical. This idea is as applicable to rational subjects as to inanimate objects. A man chained to a bed is unfree in the same way that water in a vessel is unfree. If the impediment is not external, say a man is so sick that he us unable to move, it is not liberty that is wanting but merely the power to move.

What It Is To Be Free

A FREE-MAN, thus, is “he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindred to doe what he has a will to.” Liberty has relevance only with respect to movable bodies [stone, water, man] but not to non-bodies because what cannot be moved [free gift, free way, free speech] cannot be impeded. Consider especially free-will. It makes sense to talk about free-action [meaning there is “no stop” or impediment] of a person arising from his will but it makes no sense to talk about free-will in itself as a faculty.

When in the mind of man, Appetites and Aversions, Hopes and Feares, concerning one and the same thing, arise alternately; and divers good and evill consequences of the doing, or omitting the thing propounded, come successively into our thoughts; so that sometimes we have an Appetite to it, sometimes an Aversion from it; sometimes Hope to be able to do it; sometimes Despaire, or Feare to attempt it; the whole sum of Desires, Aversions, Hopes and Feares, continued till the thing be either done, or thought impossible, is that we call DELIBERATION.

In Deliberation, the last Appetite, or Aversion, immediately adhaering to the action, or to the omission thereof, is that wee call the WILL; the Act, (not the faculty,) of Willing.

[Leviathan, Chapter VI: Of the Interiour Beginnings of Voluntary Actions]

Feare And Liberty Consistent

“Feare and Liberty are consistent.” To act out of fear is nevertheless to act freely. Consider a sailor throwing overboard his goods so that the ship may not sink. Consider further a person who obeys the laws of the Commonwealth for fear that he might be punished. Both are not impeded externally from throwing the goods overboard or from disobeying the laws. Their actions are those of a free person.

Liberty And Necessity Consistent

“Liberty and Necessity are Consistent.” All actions that men perform are ultimately necessary actions. The Liberty of man “in doing what he will, is accompanied with the Necessity of doing that which God will”.

[E]very act of mans will, and every desire, and inclination proceedeth from some cause, which causes in a continuall chaine (whose first link in the hand of God the first of all causes) proceed from Necessity.

Artificiall Bonds, Or Covenants

Men have made an Artificial Man (i.e., the Common-wealth) for the preservation of peace and have made Artificial Chains (i.e., Civil Laws) to which they have tied themselves through mutual covenants or contracts. These chains/bonds hold because of the danger that arises in breaking them.

These Bonds in their own nature but weak, may neverthelesse be made to hold, by the danger, though not by the difficulty of breaking them.

Liberty Of Subjects Consisteth In Liberty From Covenants

[I]n all kinds of actions, by the laws praetermitted [intentionally disregarded], men have the Liberty, of doing what their own reasons shall suggest, for the most profitable to themselves.

If we understand liberty properly [see the first section], then men are manifestly free and it is absurd for them to clamour for liberty. Therefore, it is in the context of the artificial bonds (or civil laws) that liberty will be discussed. But the existence of these bonds is, “without a Sword in the hands of a man, or men”, no guarantee for liberty. “The Liberty of a Subject, lyeth therefore only in those things, which in regulating their actions, the Soveraign hath praetermitted.”

Liberty Of The Subject Consistent With Unlimited Power Of The Soveraign

To say that the sovereign has disregarded certain things which men are at liberty to do does not mean that the sovereign “Power of life, and death, is either abolished, or limited”. Nothing that the sovereign does to a subject can be unjust or injurious for the subject himself is the author of the sovereign’s actions. David did no injustice in killing Uriah for, by the covenant, Uriah had given David the right [2 Sam. 11].

The Liberty Which Writers Praise, Is The Liberty Of Soveraigns; Not Of Private Men

The liberty that finds frequent and honourable mention in historical and philosophical discussions is the liberty of the the Common-wealth and not of particular men. In a state of nature without civil laws, the same liberty would indeed be available to private persons. But such a state no longer exists. This liberty of the Common-wealth, which corresponds to the liberty of individuals in the state of nature, must not be mistaken for a “Private Inheritance, and Birth right”. Such deception leads to sedition and destabilises governments.

And by reading of these Greek, and Latine Authors [Hobbes explicitly mentions Aristotle and Cicero], men from their childhood have gotten a habit (under a false shew of Liberty,) of favouring tumults, and of licentious controlling the actions of their Soveraigns; and again of controlling those controllers, with the effusion of so much blood; as I think I may truly say, there was never any thing so deerly bought, as these Western parts have bought the learning of the Greek and Latine tongues.