John Christman’s Content-Neutral Version of Positive Liberty

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.”

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

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.”

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

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 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.”