Positive and Negative Liberty
This brief paper seeks to describe the basic differences between the positive and negative concepts of freedom within the two major and seminal works of Isaiah Berlin and Charles Taylor. The argument is this paper is that those who endorse negative liberty often need to import other concepts to correct the problems with the theory, especially its inherent inability to make distinctions among desires. Hence, this paper ultimately comes to endorse the concept of positive liberty as described by Taylor.
Happiness is the end of social life. This is difficult to deny: all objects pursued such as order, liberty, equality, justice and trust are all about creating the good life. The good life produces happiness and a sense of contentment and well being between citizens and hence, lessens conflicts. This is the purpose of social theory. The debate between Taylor and Berlin deal, as always, with the concept of constructing the good society, but the two means employed are radically different from one another.
The two methods seem to encompass all political ideology, that is, the method of negative liberty and positive liberty, or the creation of the good life as an end in itself. This paper argues that the end of happiness and social peace is best created by positive liberty, for only a strong sense of positive liberty can create the necessary distinctions within each person to accept rational ends and means over the merely momentary demands of passion. In other words, it truly brings a person to his true self, the willing reason (or the rational will) that serves social and virtuous ends.
Virtue and reason cannot be ignored when defining freedom. Berlin gives a highly guarded endorsement of the former. He does not reject the latter in that he clearly admits that there are goods that are worthy to pursue that are different from liberty abstractly considered. But ultimately, negative liberty is the sort of liberty used in basic public discourse: the ability to pursue one’s ends without a coercive power controlling the agent. Negative liberty is the freedom “from” something, and this is normally defined as the freedom to do what one wills without being coerced otherwise.
It is not that those who support the negative view reject the ends of happiness or the good life, but that negative freedom is merely the best means of reaching that life. No one likes to be told what to do. What is worth discussing is exactly how the concept of negative liberty, which seems so abstract and reductionist, can lead to happiness and the good society. The bulk of Berlin’s piece deals with the concept of negative liberty and its relation to happiness.
First of all, it is very difficult to hold to a social idea where liberty is itself the only goal, a goal that has no other end behind it. But it does, the end is happiness, defined by the agent in question (Berlin, 4). Both J. S. Mill and Adam Smith hold that if negative liberty prevails, then the interests of the various people in society will eventually begin to harmonize, creating social peace. Mill argued this in terms of ideas, Smith, in terms of economic production, but the concept of the marketplace is central to both ideas (Berlin, 5).
The argument is this: the public authority–including the public itself–cannot impose, a priori, a concept of happiness or well-being on the population. This is because the only way that rational agents can develop a sense of the good life is if there is a marketplace of ideas, a marketplace where many competing concepts of the good life and the virtues necessary to reach it are debated, published and discussed. A rational agent can be exposed to many versions of the good life, and be able to intelligently choose among them.
The opposite of this, Mill holds, is a “collective mediocrity,” a state of affairs where the average of the mass is imposed upon the society, and custom and the dead weight of tradition prevails over critical thought and passionate commitment (Berlin, 6). But it is clear that Berlin does not accept this highly simplified idea of the good life and the ability to reach it. Berlin holds that, at best, Mill makes an “empirical” argument, that is, it is based not on logic, but on the evidence that is apparently out there that agents make rational decisions if and only if they are exposed to competing ideas.
The actual empirical evidence itself is hard to find, and there is no real reason to hold that people in “open” societies are more rational then people in closed ones. Even more, it is clear that a marketplace of ideas can exist under authoritarian governments, and collective mediocrity can exist in republican ones. There is nothing about democratic states that guarantee individual excellence, and certainly nothing that acts as a bulwark against the majority imposing its prejudice and ignorance upon everyone else (Berlin, 7).
Hence, there is no reason to believe that reason is connected to any specific form of government, or, more to the topic, that negative liberty leads to rational decisions. Berlin holds that the real problem with negative liberty is that, at worst, it makes no real distinctions among desires, or, more accurately, has no tools to discriminate among them. Mill does attempt to justify a hierarchy of desires, but this is a matter of utility, not negative liberty per se. But utility as at the root of this discussion to the extent that happiness and a rational social order is being pursued, not liberty for its own sake (Berlin, 19).
Berlin makes one brief argument hat the desire for status is something that can be claimed for negative liberty that serves as an end in itself, but it is difficult to hold to a scheme of social life that centers solely around recognition of the individual as such, rather than the individual as a rational agent. The problem thus far can be summarized this way: negative freedom is prima facie appealing because of its simplicity, one cannot interfere with another’s desires. Freedom is the freedom to do what one wants. But this prima facie definition quickly breaks down.
Few would argue that all needs are equal, or that all actions are equal. Few would argue that the life of reason is inferior to the life pursing desire willy nilly. The concept of positive freedom seems then to center around the concept of desire as expressing a “true self” rather than a merely empirical catalog of personal desires (Berlin, 9-10). The negative sort of freedom both, at its worst, does not make a distinction among desires, but also rejects the idea that there is a public authority that can define and enforce the concept of willing from one’s “true self.
” This topic invariably depends on philosophical concepts of human nature, that is, what constitutes the true self, the rational core of one’s being that can will, but can will with moral worth only insofar as one wills rationally and with a strong sense of one’s moral dignity–the deontological school of Kant. Berlin seems to digress in his discussion of the control of needs and wants that seem to him to be at the center of the positive conception of freedom. This is to say that if one can deny certain wants, then there is no moral issue when such wants cannot be fulfilled (Berlin, 13).
One can find this in Spinoza, for example, or even the Roman stoics (Berlin, 12-13). One here sees the desire not to obey the self as an empirical entity, but to obey the self to the extent one is rational. J. S. Mill attempts to square this with negative liberty in his utilitarian doctrine, but the problem is evident: he needs to bring in a conceptual apparatus outside the doctrine of negative liberty in order to “correct” it. Charles Taylor takes issue with the “slippery slope” argument used by proponents of “negative liberty.
” The slippery slope is, informally, a fallacy. It holds that if the public authority (speaking broadly) seeks to protect liberty that is “rational,” that is, derives from one’s rational center, one’s reasonable will, then it is a “slippery slope” to tyranny, where the state can then define what is rational and what is virtuous. This is a fallacious argument, as are all “slippery slope” arguments in the simple fact that the existence of a reason-based code of law does not logically entail the eventual development of tyranny.
Taylor makes the argument that the center of the concept of positive liberty is twofold: first, self realization and second, the concept of moral autonomy. Positive freedom for Taylor is “control over one’s life” (Taylor, 213). But control is the key: one enslaved to passions such as greed or eating is as unfree as one living under a political tyranny, with the distinction that the slavery of the former is individual, that of the latter is social.
Putting this differently, doing “whatever one wants” is not the main condition of freedom, since the concept of “what one wants” is problematic. One who follows fashion, and hence appropriates those desires for herself, is not acting freely, though she will protest mightily that these are “her” desires. Thomas Hobbes, who argued empirically for the life of mere desire, cannot, of himself make distinctions among acts, there is no sense of “significance,” in that one act can be considered more significant or morally worthy over another (Taylor, 218).
Hence, the argument is that any serious attempt to endorse negative freedom requires the basic apparatus of positive freedom to function, that is, in order for one to endorse the basic concept of negative freedom, then one must then import ideas that hold to rational willing, basic moral virtues and sociability. This means that certain desires that one can have are not rational, are anti-social and hence, in a very true sense, are not “mine,” and hence have no relation to true freedom, however defined (Taylor, 224).
The response from the proponent of negative freedom, such as Adam Smith, would hold that even the baser passions, when placed into the marketplace, will be modified to fit the basic, lower needs of the person. The market itself takes the place of “rationality” in building a just and rational social order. The marketplace will weed out anti-social behaviors, and come to shun and reject those who habitually engage in such behaviors. Hence, even the lower desires of a person (the desire for money, gain, social prestige) will force the otherwise irrational agent to act in a social way.
The lower desires are all that is necessary for a just social order. The market can transform the desire for money or social status into rational social behavior in that these objects cannot be had without it. Taylor and Kant might argue that the marketplace is not a mysterious force. It is, at its best, the democratic mentality of the masses, choosing what products (or ideas) it will buy and what they will reject. The market, even at its best, will lead to mediocrity in Mill’s sense, in that it demands the average.
What Smith might mean in holding that the market can transform lower desires into higher (social) ones is that it will take a free person and make him into an ordinary one. Hence, the market does not transfer lower desires into social utility, but rather takes desires and forces them into the mold of the average, of which the market is an expression. Hence, the conclusion here is that freedom does not exist if the agent in question is a slave to passion, to the lower desires that only with great effort can be controlled through reason or the ascetic life (Berlin, 20). There can be an internal tyranny as well as an external one.
In fact, the dream of every tyrant is that the tyranny will become a “part” of the body politic, that the sensibility of the population will become so debased as to have it consider tyranny “normal. ” Hence, real freedom must be positive: it must be based on reason, on social ends and on the virtues that help make the will social, or even force it to be so. Discipline and self-realization are necessary for this. There is a true self, the rational one, and a false self, the passionate one. The latter must be repressed for the sake of happiness, not merely a personal contentment, but a smoothly functioning social organism.
Ultimately, both forms of liberty seek the same end, justice and social peace, both of which lead to happiness. But it is negative liberty that cannot function alone, since it cannot distinguish among desires, it requires a strong dose of virtue ethics to make it work. Bibliography: Berlin, Isaiah (1969) “Two Concepts of Liberty. ” Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford University Press 1-32 Taylor, Charles ((1979). “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty. ” Philosophical Papers, Volume II, Cambridge University Press 211-229Sample Essay of PapersOwl.com