John Christman’s Content-Neutral Version of Positive Liberty

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This is a post is a follow-up to a previous post discussing Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty.

In his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin warned that the logic of positive liberty could lead to authoritarian corruption. Deemed the “inversion thesis” by George Crowder, Berlin’s argument was that by purporting to be more consistent with liberty than an individual’s actual wishes, the notion of positive liberty can be used to justify coercion against individual’s expressed wishes, thereby inverting the concept of liberty into its very opposite.

In “Liberalism and Individual Positive Freedom,” philosopher John Christman attempts a positive conception of freedom that is not subject to the dangers that concerned Berlin.

Whereas Berlin emphasized the historical notions of positive liberty that opened the door for coercion because the coerced desires or actions supposedly conformed with reason more so than the individual’s own, Christman argues that positive liberty need not rely on such strict conditions. It is not the content of the individual’s desires, he argues, but the procedures by which his desires are formed that constitute positive liberty. According to Christman, a person P is positively free with regard to some desire D if:

  1. P was in a position to reflect upon the processes involved in the development of D;

  2. P did not resist the development of D when attending to this process of development, or P would not have resisted that development had P attended to the process;

  3. The lack of resistance to the development of D did not take place (or would not have) under the influence of factors that inhibit self-reflection (unless exposure to such factors was autonomously chosen, in which case that choice had to be made without such factors); and

  4. The judgments involved in this self-reflection, plus the desire set that results, are minimally rational for P.

Christman spends quite a bit of time elaborating on the fourth condition and its requirement of minimal rationality. Traditional accounts of positive liberty, he argues, are laden with declarations connecting “true” liberty with the demands of reason. The question, he maintains, is to what extent must the judgments involved in the self-reflection demanded by positive liberty be rational, or in what sense must they be rational?

The criteria for rationality vary, he notes, and they can range from the requirement of consistency between beliefs and desires, to requiring the choice of the most effective means to achieve one’s ends, to having sufficient evidence for the beliefs upon which one’s desires depend. All accounts of rationality, however, can be put into one of two categories: “internalist” or “subjective” accounts and “externalist” or “objective accounts.”

For an internalist account, the criterion by which an action is considered rational is dependent only on those beliefs and desires that are “internal” to the person. The relation of those beliefs and desires to the external world (i.e., their accuracy) is not considered. It is usually demanded, Christman maintains, that the internal beliefs (upon which the conditional desires are based) are consistent and the desires are consistent.

By contrast, the externalist account of rationality requires that the person have adequate objective evidence to justify his beliefs, and that his desires be based on these beliefs. An even more stringent version of the externalist condition is one that requires the person to conform his desires to the correct values as well as to factual external evidence.

Christman summarizes the distinction between internalist and externalist accounts of rationality in the following way: “the internalist would only demand that a person acts for reasons (perhaps ones which meet some requirement of consistency), while the externalist demands that the free agent must act in accordance with reason, where that includes knowledge of the truth, both about the world as well as morality.”

Christman defends the minimal, internalist account of rationality for the development of the desires of a positively free, autonomous person. This means that individuals whose actions are based on inconsistent beliefs or inconsistent desires are positively unfree. Christman does note that probably no one has completely consistent beliefs and desires, so the requirement is actually that there be a lack of manifest inconsistencies. He doesn’t offer a point at which beliefs or desires should be considered manifestly inconsistent, but I suppose a line could be drawn, at least in theory. There is no requirement, however, that the beliefs in question fit the external (objective) facts, and there is, similarly, no requirement that the brute desires be appraised on the basis of their rationality.

This conception of positive liberty, Christman argues, answers Berlin’s critique that proponents of positive liberty can justify interference with others’ actions by claiming the coercion is consistent with liberty. No one, he argues, will be in an epistemic position to justify interference on the basis of failed rationality of the internalist type. To do so, the interferer would have to know more than the agent about the internal structure of the agent’s desires and beliefs, and judge them to be inconsistent. Chirstman thinks this is practically impossible.

Christman even argues that requiring an external evidence condition for one’s beliefs would only allow for interference in a narrow range of cases. The cases would include, for instance, those in which the interferer has access to more factual information than the agent and where the information is indisputable and the agent had reasonable access to it. Interfering with an agent’s actions under such circumstances is justifiable, Christman says, because “to act unwittingly is not to act freely. And if I interfere with your unwitting actions I do not disrupt your self-government in any meaningful way.” Further, he continues, “most writers in the liberal tradition accept this as neither paradoxical nor pernicious.”

If these less stringent conditions of positive freedom are accepted, and the notion that freedom requires adherence to the correct values is rejected, then what results is a content-neutral, autonomy-based conception of positive freedom. Christman defends this content-neutral conception as follows:

There are good theoretical reasons for a content neutral conception. For any desire, no matter how evil, self-sacrificing, or slavish it might be, we can imagine cases where, given the conditions faced, an agent would have good reason to have such a desire. That is, there may be many cases where I freely pursue a strategy of action that involves constraining my choices and manipulating my values. But if this is part of an autonomous pursuit of a goal, it is implausible to claim that the resulting actions or values do not reflect my autonomy. So since we can imagine any such preference as being autonomously formed, given a fantastic enough situation, then it cannot be the content of the preference that determines its autonomy. It is always the origin of desires that matters in judgments about autonomy.

On this view, Christman argues, as long as an individual’s desires and values are generated in accordance with the procedural conditions of autonomous preference formation, then the actions that stem from them will be positively free, regardless of the content of those desires and values.

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

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