The Liberty Bell’s Crack: Isaiah Berlin and Two Concepts of Liberty

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Which Liberty?

It’s hard to find someone who is against liberty, but it’s easy to find disagreement about what the term “liberty” means.

Imagine a conspiracy theorist who is convinced that government agents are blasting mind-controlling waves into his apartment. To keep the government out of his head, he lines his walls, floor, and ceiling with aluminum foil. To be safe, he also lines his baseball cap with the foil and watches television from inside a foil-lined refrigerator box placed strategically in the center of his living room, as far away from the windows as possible. Is this man free?

In one sense, yes. No one is stopping him from protecting himself from non-existent waves by lining his home and himself with kitchen packaging. In another sense, no. The man’s behavior is exceptionally irrational. He is so divorced from reality that he can’t recognize and act in his true interests.

The man’s story highlights two dominant notions of liberty (or freedom, a term which is normally used interchangeably with liberty) that have occupied philosophers and others for centuries: negative liberty and positive liberty. He enjoys negative liberty because there is no external interference with his actions, but he lacks positive liberty because he lacks rational control over his own desires and actions.

The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin drew perhaps the most explicit distinction between positive and negative liberty in his famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.” But Berlin didn’t merely articulate the distinction between these two conceptions. He exposed a tension between them, arguing that positive liberty often perverts the concept of liberty so much that it doesn’t resemble liberty at all.

Negative Liberty

Negative liberty, according to Berlin, is “simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others.” The central obstacle to negative liberty is coercion, and a measurement of someone’s negative liberty is the degree to which he or she is free from coercion: “If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum requirement, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved.”

Berlin is clear, however, that for interference with an individual’s activities to be coercion, the source of the interference must be human. He maintains that “[people] lack political liberty or freedom only if [they] are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings” and that “mere incapacity to obtain a goal is not lack of political freedom.”

Because negative liberty requires only that someone be free from coercion by other humans, it relies on a minimalist conception of human agency. There is no requirement that he possess certain internal capacities or values for him to be entitled to non-interference by others. Negative liberty presumes an entitlement to non-interference, and it imposes an obligation on everyone to refrain from obstructing others’ actions.

It is negative liberty, and the concomitant notion that one’s right to non-interference doesn’t depend upon the possession of other capacities, goals, or values, that the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill defends in his book On Liberty:

His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.

Positive Liberty

Liberty in the positive sense, according to Berlin, is the freedom accompanied by being one’s own master. It represents freedom from “nature” or one’s “own ‘unbridled’ passions.” It involves, among other things, the “higher,” rational self achieving mastery over the lower self, the self that is dominated by irrational desires and impulses.

This idea of an individual having two selves, a rational, ideal self and an empirical self, is fundamental to positive liberty. Regarding the two selves that are inherent to this notion of liberty, Berlin says the following:

This dominant self is then variously 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’; which is then contrasted with irrational impulse, uncontrolled desires, my ‘lower’ nature, the pursuit of immediate pleasures, my ‘empirical’ or ‘heteronomous’ self, swept by every gust of desire and passion, needing to be rigidly disciplined if it is ever to rise to the full height of its ‘real’ nature.

As you can see, fundamental to this version of liberty is a higher form of agency than that required by negative liberty. Positive liberty requires certain essential capacities or conditions, which may vary according to the particular form of positive liberty being endorsed, that are, by definition, required for an individual to be considered free. The common assumption underlying this line of thought, according to Berlin, is “that the rational ends of our ‘true’ natures must coincide, or be made to coincide, however violently our poor, ignorant, desire-ridden, passionate, empirical selves may cry out against this process. Freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong.”

The Relationship Between Postive and Negative Liberty

The danger of the notion of positive liberty, according to Berlin, is that it divides the individual into two selves: the true, or rational, self and the empirical self, which is subject to the irrational passions and desires that need to be controlled or contained. Once this metaphorical bifurcation of the self has occurred, he argues, the door is open to the infringement upon people’s empirical wishes and desires in the name of their ‘true’ selves – or their own freedom:

What, at most, this entails is that they would not resist me if they were rational and as wise as I and understood their interests as I do. But I may go on to claim a good deal more than this. I may declare that they are actually aiming at what in their benighted state they consciously resist, because there exists within them an occult entity – their latent rational will, or their true purpose – and this entity, although it is belied by all that they overtly feel and do and say, is their ‘real’ self, of which the poor empirical self in space and time may know nothing or little and that this inner spirit is the only self that deserves to have its wishes taken into account. Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their real selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, performance of duty, wisdom, a just society, self-fulfillment) must be identical with his freedom – the free choice of his ‘true,’ albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self.

In Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism, George Crowder calls Berlin’s argument the “inversion thesis” because the idea is that the notion of positive liberty allows the concept of liberty to be inverted into its very opposite. Coercion can be justified under the rubric of positive liberty because it is purported to be more consistent with liberty than the individual’s actual wishes. Crowder points out that there is a strong undercurrent in Berlin’s thesis that the logic of positive liberty ought to make us suspicious because the idea itself exposes it to the potential for authoritarian corruption.

Berlin is not wholeheartedly against coercion for a person’s own good, however. He’s more worried about the imposition of certain philosophical ideals on someone in the name of his own freedom. The positively unfree person, with his “poor earthly body and foolish mind” might expressly reject what he is being coerced to do, but since his empirical body is not truly free, he is not really being coerced. Instead, his higher self has willed it, “not indeed consciously, not as he seems in everyday life, but in his role as a rational self which his empirical self may not know.”

What Berlin is criticizing is the view that the tension between someone’s expressed desires and a specific conception of his own good can be relieved by opining that coercion is permissible because, in the coerced person’s current empirical configuration, he is not free anyway. This is a distortion of what freedom is, according to Berlin. “Enough manipulation with the definition of man,” he says, “and freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes.” As John Christman put it, for Berlin, “to label as ‘freedom’ the mastery of the ‘lower’ desires by the higher capacities of morality and virtue, not to mention by the supposedly superior wisdom of a general will, marked a treacherous tilt toward the justification of centralized power under the guise of moral superiority.”

Berlin’s ideas are not without their critics. In two follow-up posts, I’ll discuss Gerald McCallum’s view that the distinction between positive and negative liberty can be collapsed and John Christman’s argument that positive liberty doesn’t necessarily open the door for authoritarianism.

This post was adapted from my bioethics master’s thesis: “The Moral Significance of Non-Autonomous Refusals of Medical Treatment.”

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