Two Concepts of Liberty

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"Positive liberty... is a valid universal goal. I do not know why I should have been held to doubt this, or, for that matter, the further proposition, that democratic self-government is a fundamental human need, something valuable in itself, whether or not it clashes with the claims of negative liberty or of any other goal... What I am mainly concerned to establish is that, whatever may be the common ground between them, and whatever is liable to graver distortion, negative and positive liberty are not the same thing."

Isaiah Berlin, Five Essays on Liberty: An Introduction[1]

Two Concepts of Liberty was the inaugural lecture delivered by the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin before the University of Oxford on 31 October 1958. It was subsequently published as a 57-page pamphlet by Oxford at the Clarendon Press. It also appears in the collection of Berlin's papers entitled Four Essays on Liberty (1969) and was more recently reissued in a collection entitled simply Liberty (2002).[2]

The essay, with its analytical approach to the definition of political concepts, re-introduced the study of political philosophy to the methods of analytic philosophy.[citation needed] It is also one of Berlin's first expressions of his ethical ontology of value-pluralism. Berlin defined negative liberty (as the term "liberty" was used by Thomas Hobbes [3]) as the absence of coercion or interference with agents' possible private actions, by an exterior social-body. He also defined it as a comparatively recent political ideal, which re-emerged in the late 17th century, after its slow and inarticulate birth in the Ancient doctrines of Antiphon the Sophist, the Cyrenaic discipleship, and of Otanes after the death of pseudo-Smerdis.[4] In an introduction to the essay, Berlin writes:

"As for Otanes, he wished neither to rule nor to be ruled — the exact opposite of Aristotle's notion of true civic liberty... [This ideal] remains isolated and, until Epicurus, undeveloped... the notion had not explicitly emerged".[5]

Summary[edit]

Positive liberty[edit]

"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."[6]

Positive liberty may be understood as self-mastery, and includes one's having a role in choosing who governs the society of which one is a part.[citation needed] Berlin traced positive liberty from Aristotle's definition of citizenship, which is historically derived from the social role of the freemen of classical Athens: it was, Berlin argued, the liberty in choosing their government granted to citizens, and extolled, most famously, by Pericles. Berlin granted that both concepts of liberty represent valid human ideals, and that both forms of liberty are necessary in any free and civilised society.[citation needed]

Negative liberty[edit]

"liberty in the negative sense involves an 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'."[7]

For Berlin, negative liberty represents a different, and sometimes contradictory, understanding of the concept of liberty, which needs to be carefully examined. Its later proponents (such as Tocqueville, Constant, Montesquieu, John Locke, David Hume and John Stuart Mill,[citation needed] who accepted Chrysippus' understanding of self-determination)[8] insisted that constraint and discipline were the antithesis of liberty and so were (and are) less prone to confusing liberty and constraint in the manner of rationalists and the philosophical harbingers of totalitarianism.[citation needed] This concept of negative liberty, Berlin argued, constitutes an alternative, and sometimes even opposed, concept to positive liberty, and one often closer to the intuitive modern usage of the word.

Abuse of positive liberty[edit]

Isaiah Berlin notes that historically positive liberty has proven particularly susceptible to rhetorical abuse; especially from the 18th century onwards, it has either been paternalistically re-drawn from the third-person, or conflated with the concept of negative liberty and thus disguised underlying value-conflicts.

Berlin contended that under the influence of Plato, Aristotle, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel, modern political thinkers often conflated positive liberty with rational action, based upon a rational knowledge to which, it is argued, only a certain elite or social group has access.[9] This rationalist conflation was open to political abuses, which encroached on negative liberty, when such interpretations of positive liberty were, in the nineteenth century, used to defend nationalism, paternalism, social engineering, historicism, and collective rational control over human destiny. Berlin argued that, following this line of thought, demands for freedom paradoxically could become demands for forms of collective control and discipline – those deemed necessary for the "self-mastery" or "self-determination" of nations, classes, democratic communities, and even humanity as a whole. There is thus an elective affinity, for Berlin, between positive liberty, when it is rhetorically conflated with goals imposed from the third-person that the individual is told they "should" rationally desire, and the justifications for political totalitarianism, which contrary to value-pluralism, presupposed that values exist in Pythagorean harmony.[citation needed]

Dialectic of Positive and Negative Liberty[edit]

Berlin did not argue that the concept of positive liberty should be rejected — on the contrary, he recognised it as one human value among many, and one necessary to any free society.[10] He argued that positive liberty was a genuine and valuable version of liberty, so long as it was identified with the autonomy of individuals, and not with the achievement of goals that individuals 'ought to' 'rationally' desire.[11] Berlin argued, rather, that these differing concepts showed the plurality, and incompatibility of human values, and the need to analytically distinguish and trade-off between, rather than conflate, them.[12]

Thus, Berlin offers in his "Two Concepts of Liberty" essay, "Where it is to be drawn is a matter of argument, indeed of haggling. Men are largely interdependent, and no man's activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. 'Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows'; the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others. Freedom for an Oxford don, others have been known to add, is a very different thing from freedom for an Egyptian peasant."

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Isaiah Berlin, (Oxford 2004) Liberty, p 1-54
  2. ^ Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969. Superseded by Liberty.
  3. ^ Isaiah Berlin, (Oxford 2004) Liberty, page 170
  4. ^ Isaiah Berlin, (Oxford 2004) Liberty, page 33
  5. ^ Isaiah Berlin, (Oxford 2004) Liberty, Five Essays on Liberty: An Introduction, page 33-4
  6. ^ Berlin, I: "Two Concepts of Liberty",1958
  7. ^ Berlin, I: "Two Concepts of Liberty",1958
  8. ^ Isaiah Berlin, (Oxford 2004) Liberty, page 171 and 260
  9. ^ Isaiah Bern, (Oxford 2004) Liberty, page 257
  10. ^ Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969. Superseded by Liberty.
  11. ^ Isaiah Berlin, (Oxford 2004) Liberty, p 39
  12. ^ Isaiah Berlin, (Oxford 2004) Liberty, page 217

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