Freedom is Freedom is Freedom: Gerald MacCallum’s Singular Concept of Liberty

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In a previous post, I discussed Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive liberty (or freedom). Here I will discuss Gerald MacCallum’s objection to it.

MacCallum doesn’t think that negative and positive liberty are two distinct concepts. Rather, he thinks that there is only one concept and that it’s a mistake to characterize liberty, as Berlin does, as either one of two “dyadic relations” – “freedom from” (negative liberty) and “freedom to” (positive liberty).

MacCallum says that freedom is always a “triadic relation” in which someone is free from some constraint to do (or not do) something. All discussions of freedom, he argues, can be fit into the following format: “X is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z,” where “x ranges over agents, y ranges over such ‘preventing conditions’ as constraints, restrictions, interferences, and barriers, and z ranges over actions or conditions of character or circumstance.”

So, MacCallum preserves the structure of Berlin’s negative liberty as the freedom from interference, but he applies it to positive liberty as well. All obstacles to a person’s liberty, according to MacCallum, are simply constraints – internal or external – on his capacity to act according to his wishes.

On one hand, this view seems to successfully collapse Berlin’s distinct notions of positive and negative liberty into one concept. If anything that hinders liberty can be conceptualized as a constraint, whether it is internal or external, then there is no useful distinction between negative liberty and positive liberty. Under MacCallum’s formulation, it doesn’t matter whether an individual’s actions are interfered with by another agent or by his or her own inner psychological capacities. Both are instances in which the individual’s liberty is constrained by something.

On the other hand, it’s possible to view Berlin’s distinction as consistent with MacCallum’s formulation. Although MacCallum suggests that Berlin sees negative and positive liberty as mutually exclusive, Berlin’s distinction doesn’t eliminate the possibility of common ground between the two conceptions. Negative and positive liberty can be seen as different aspects of an overarching concept of liberty, but aspects that are, nonetheless, incommensurable. In Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism, George Crowder notes that instead of sharing a single essence, as MacCallum’s formulation seems to imply, negative and positive liberty could be seen as belonging to a family of concepts with an underlying commonality.

And even if all impediments to liberty can be viewed simply as constraints, this doesn’t rule out a conceptual distinction between internal and external constraints.

Imagine a man who wants to leave his home, drive to the grocery store, and buy some tomatoes. He can’t leave, though, because he’s been taken hostage by a masked gunman. Now imagine another man with the same desire for tomatoes who can’t fulfill it because he can’t remember how to get to the store. Under MacCallum’s formulation of liberty, there is very little difference between the ways in which these two men are unfree. They’re both subject to some constraint on their capacity to act in accordance with their wishes. And it doesn’t seem to matter that one man’s constraint is a limitation within his head and the other man’s constraint is a gun to his.

Still, the two constraints do appear to differ in at least one important way.

Even if the men are constrained to the same extent, and thus are unfree to the same extent, the man taken captive has been violated by another person. He feels like he’s been wronged – because he has been. The man whose memory has failed him hasn’t been wronged in any meaningful way – unless you believe in some notion of cosmic injustice – and he’s unlikely to feel otherwise. There’s something different, something worse, about being blocked by another person from doing what you want to do.

It is therefore at the disjuncture between the experiential aspects of internal and external constraints, and between the ways in which the idea of being wronged applies to each, where a wedge can be driven between the two types of constraints.

MacCallum may be right that all obstacles to liberty can be conceptualized as constraints, but Berlin is right that not all liberty is the same.

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

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