Positive and Negative Liberty – 20/06/16

In a previous session, we have discussed the question of free will. In that discussion, the freedom of the will is often understood in opposition to determination or necessity or inevitability. But when we talk about freedom in a moral or political context, freedom becomes a thing individuals and groups can have, or lack, or have to a certain degree. Freedom is something that can be impaired or limited by circumstances, by other agents or even by ourselves – and generally the limitation or impairment of the freedom of individuals or groups is taken to be harmful or an infringement of their rights.

But when is a person – or a group – free? When do we have freedom and when do we lack it? In short:

What is freedom?

There are many different answers to this question. According to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, these many conceptions of freedom can be divided into two types of freedom: positive and negative freedom.

Negative freedom is best understood as freedom from obstacles, or as non-interference. We are free in a negative sense if nobody is stopping us and no external thing stands in our way. Hindrances to our negative freedom can be a wall that obstructs our freedom of movement, a locked door that blocks our entrance, but also laws that limit our options by forbidding things, social oppression that limits our options, like the glass ceiling or racist bias, or criminality in our neighbourhood that stops us from going out after dark. Hindrances to freedom in this negative sense are external to the individual agent. Negative freedom is called negative not because it is a bad thing to have, but because it is defined solely in terms of what must be absent for this freedom to obtain: negative freedom is the absence of obstacles. Negative freedom can only be explained in negative terms: no obstruction, no interference. Other than pointing out which hindrances and obstacles should be absent for a person to be free, there is nothing else one can say about negative freedom.

Positive freedom, on the other hand, is the freedom to do or be certain things or persons. As opposed to negative freedom, positive freedom demands more explanation than just pointing at obstacles that might hinder it. Positive freedom must therefore be explained in positive terms: the freedom to do what exactly? Freedom to be whom? To make sense of positive freedom, such questions have to be answered. Examples of positive freedom are: the freedom to live a life one considers worthwhile, the freedom to develop oneself, the freedom to exercise one’s religion as one sees fit, the freedom to choose certain types of jobs, schools, education or projects that one deems meaningful, the freedom to be the person one wants to be. To have freedom in this positive sense, the absence of obstacles is not enough; it requires the availability and accessibility of certain options and facilities, and it can be hindered by internal factors as well as external factors. Psychological factors – fear, depression, addiction – might make us un-free in this sense, because such factors can hinder us from being the person we want to be, or doing the things we deem meaningful or good. In addition, positive freedom often requires interference by others, because others might offer possibilities to you that would not be available if freedom were to be understood as non-interference. Positive freedom overlaps, or is sometimes equated with, the idea of autonomy (self-governance or self-determination). Individuals can be free in this sense, but so too can groups.

To clarify the distinction by means of a story, imagine yourself on an uninhabited island. On your island, you have complete freedom of movement. Nobody or nothing is stopping you from doing what you want to do. There are no dangerous animals, no laws, steep cliffs or thorny bushes that might stop you. However, you might want to be part of a society, you might want to have friends, you might want to have a job or a social circle. The absence of human contact might cause depression, which might eventually stop you from doing anything at all. In this situation, all the requirements for negative freedom are met. After all, there are no obstacles, and nobody is interfering with your conduct. But, in spite of all this negative freedom, it is hard to see how someone in this situation can truly be called free. The island might well be a prison of sorts.

Another example: imagine you’re hiking. You’re free to walk in any direction. Nobody is telling you what to do. You reach a crossroad and you take the left turn, but you could have gone right or straight ahead too if you wanted, nobody is stopping you. You are free in that sense. However, you suffer from an alcohol addiction, and your reason for turning left is that there’s a pub in that direction. Although you think the right turn is the direction you should take, because that’s the way to the beautiful nature trail you were planning to hike, your craving for whisky is so strong that it forces you, in spite of yourself, to go left. In that sense, you very much lack freedom.

In these two examples, you have negative freedom, but you lack positive freedom. The other way around is possible too: imagine you are imprisoned. The prison you’re in offers you one route of self-development: a training to become a wood worker. There is also only one activity you might pursue in your free time: net ball. You can play net ball as much as you want, but no other sports or leisure activities. The library holds all and only Terry Pratchett novels and there’s a Catholic chapel with a Catholic priest available. Should you desire to read any other books, exercise any other religion, play any other sports or hobbies, do another job or go anywhere else, then you will be stopped by the walls, bars and guards. But it just so happens that you desire exactly these things. The person you want to be is a net ball playing, Terry Pratchett reading Catholic wood worker, and you are perfectly free to become that person and do those things. In this way, you have positive freedom, but you lack negative freedom.

Negative and positive freedom in political philosophy

Most accounts of freedom in the history of philosophy can be categorised as defending either a form of negative freedom or a form of positive freedom. Generally, these two conceptions of freedom are rivals, because which type of freedom you value more has consequences for your political and moral philosophy.

Many liberal theorists, for example, understand freedom as negative freedom. This informs their idea that a state should have as little interference in the lives of citizens as possible, because state interference means a loss of negative freedom for citizens. A state should therefore be ‘thin’, largely absent from the daily lives of citizens and as undemanding as possible (low taxes, few laws, minimal public services).

Critics of liberalism (socialists, Marxists or some versions of republicanism, for instance), on the other hand, favour the idea of positive freedom. They argue that it is the duty of the state to provide substantial options for citizens to develop and employ themselves as they see fit, and offer substantial options for groups to organise and govern themselves. The state is thereby seen to have a regulative function in the daily lives of citizens and citizens are encouraged to participate actively in political life, as a way to increase self-governance. On such accounts, a state should be ‘thick’ or ‘substantial’ (many public services and public support for various institutions, many regulations and high taxes).

There are criticisms of both conceptions of freedom. The main problem with the idea of negative freedom is that it fails to explain why the addict or the person who lacks real, tangible options for self-development is not free. The main problem with positive freedom is that it opens the door to authoritarianism or paternalism, because who decides which routes to self-development are more worthwhile than others? Shouldn’t that be for the individual to decide?

As a result, the division between political theories is not as black and white as it may seem here. There are liberals who attempt to reconcile positive freedom with liberal theory, and republicans and socialists who use the idea of negative freedom to support their theories. Across political philosophies, there is the attempt to devise a concept of freedom that reconciles positive and negative freedom in a way that does not lead to conflicts.


Is a slave who is content with her predicament and desires nothing else, free? Why?

Is an addict free?

Does my freedom increase if I learn to align my desires with the options available to me (for instance by learning to be content with what I have, rather than to wish for what I can’t have)? Why, or why not?

Does freedom result in happiness, or is it possible to be free but unhappy, and happy but not free?



Tom Richey explains the difference between positive and negative freedom in this video. It is pitched very much to a US audience, but the lecture is clear enough.


Sartre on Freedom – 07/03/2016

Most philosophies can be found in books in university libraries, or in the heads of philosophers, but not far beyond. At least not in any explicit form. How many of your friends are self-identified metaphysical materialists? Or conceptual relativists? Or moral realists? Not that many, is my guess. Philosophies like these, whatever their merit, tend to be perceived as dry, academic business. Many people just rather spend their weekends drinking wine in a bar than reading up on metaphysics, and who can blame them?

But once in a while, a philosophy suddenly catches on and becomes fashionable. This was certainly the case with existentialism in the years around WWII in Paris. Jazz bars were full of self-proclaimed existentialists in black turtleneck jumpers, who smoked heavy tobacco while they discussed nothingness, anxiety and sex. And the appeal of existentialist philosophy hasn’t worn off. Particularly young, politically engaged people tend to be attracted by its emphasis on freedom and responsibility, or find themselves in the idea of existential anxiety and the meaninglessness of life. And as with most fashions, for some the imagery of sex, tobacco and turtlenecks may have been sufficient to jump on the bandwagon. This article, that appeared in the Guardian recently, lists ten reasons to become an existentialist.

Part of the appeal of existentialism, no doubt, is the fact that it makes immediate appeal to one’s attitude. It invites you to take responsibility for your life. You can read a lot of metaphysics without really being affected by it – your life won’t change if you read today that reality consist of ideas – but it is impossible to read existentialism and not feel addressed.

In an earlier class, we discussed whether it is possible for us to have a free will if we live in a world that is determined by causation. Sartre’s answer to this question is a wholehearted ‘yes’. Whilst it is true that our current position is determined by our history, our environment, our stimuli, our biology and other contingent facts, which Sartre calls our ‘facticity’, we are not reducible to these contingent facts. What defines our human existence is the fact that we transcend our facticity. So much so, that we are always living in a moment of choice. We are, as it were, doomed to make choices. There is no escape.

Imagine you walk home in the dark, after a boozy night in a Parisian jazz club. You’re tired and your turtleneck smells of tobacco. But then you are interrupted by a woman with a gun. She points the gun at you and demands: “your money or your life!” Many (philosophers and non-philosophers alike) would argue that, if you did indeed give her your money, you should not be held responsible for it, since you didn’t really have a choice. Technically, you have a choice between two alternatives: your money or your life, but realistically, you can’t be expected to give up your life, so that option is not a real option. Hence, you are forced to give your money, and you are not responsible for doing so.

Sartre would disagree. According to Sartre, the gunwoman situation is unfortunate, but there is nothing about it that affects your freedom. You are as free as ever, even if you’re held at gun point. The decision to give your money to the gunwoman is still your decision, a choice you make. Therefore, you are responsible for giving your money to the gunwoman.

This reveals a controversial point in Sartre’s philosophy. There is a glaring problem with holding the victim of a gunwoman responsible. It seems not only a merciless case of blaming the victim, but it also seems to fail to explain what oppression really means, and how oppression curbs someone’s freedom.

But in a more charitable reading, Sartre is not out to blame any victims. His idea of freedom is not designed to make the victim of the gunwoman feel guilty or embarrassed about giving his money to an armed robber. Sartre can very well concede that giving his money was probably, given the circumstances, the best choice to make. But it was a real choice all the same. Sartre stresses this, because he contends that the victim would be better off, particularly given the pickle he’s in, to have at least his humanity acknowledged. And his humanity transcends his particular situation. He is still a free human, whatever armed robbers do to him. Read in this way, it is a real consolation.

But is it really a consolation? Sartre observes that the tendency to deny ourselves this freedom is widespread. We often deflect our responsibility by blaming our facticity (our circumstances, other people’s expectations, our habits or other factors), thus explaining ourselves as not really having made a choice. Sartre calls this ‘bad faith’: an existential condition whereby we try to make ourselves less human by deflecting the responsibility for our lives. A life lived in bad faith is, in Sartre’s eyes, a life with less meaning. We give meaning to our lives, for ourselves, by taking responsibility for it. That allows us to say: the life I live may not be perfect, but it is truly mine.

Sartre does understand why people suffer from this existential condition of bad faith. When we are faced with the radical freedom we have, when we realise we can’t hide behind our facticity, when we realise we are by nature doomed to make choices, all the time, then we are overcome by a great anxiety. An anxiety grounded in the realisation that life has no meaning other than that given by the choices we make, for which we are solely responsible. Without making choices, we are nothing. This anxiety in the face of our own nothingness explains why we are drawn to bad faith. Sartre’s aim is to make us look nothingness square in the eye, so we can give meaning to our lives and avoid living a meaningless life.


There are lots of resources, books and blogs about Sartre and other existentialists. This episode of Philosophy Bites is but one.


Free will – 11/01/2016

Do we have free will?

Ali is a free man, or so he thinks. What he doesn’t know, is that the evil professor Klatz has planted a chip in his brain. This chip in Ali’s brain allows professor Klatz to exercise full control over all of Ali’s decisions. Ali is unaware of this. He experiences his own decision making as if he himself takes his decisions. Ali is free to go wherever he wants, do whatever he chooses to do. Nobody, not even the professor, curbs Ali’s freedom of action. It’s just that the professor controls Ali’s brain in such a way that when he is faced with the choice whether to have porridge or toast for breakfast, the professor makes Ali choose porridge rather than toast, regardless of whether Ali would’ve chosen the same thing if he hadn’t been manipulated.

Meanwhile, Babs is imprisoned in a small cell. She is physically constrained in her freedom of action. She can’t go anywhere and she can’t do many of the things she would choose to do, but this doesn’t stop her fantasizing about what she would do if she hadn’t been confined in a prison cell. But all to no avail: she can’t even arrange her own breakfast. This morning, the prison guard asked her: “What would you like for breakfast, Babs? Porridge or toast?” Babs considers both options and chooses porridge. There is no chip in Babs’ brain and no evil professor controls her decisions, the choice is hers. Yet, it has no influence whatsoever on the actions of the guard; he is just teasing her, he has already made her toast.

Who has free will, Ali or Babs?

A: Babs has free will, but Ali hasn’t. The will is free if you can choose between more than one option and nothing but you determines which of the two you choose. The ability to choose makes the will free. The fact that the physical world Babs lives in makes it impossible for her to manifest those choices is irrelevant.

B: Both Babs and Ali have free will. The will is always free, whether you can cause your own decisions has nothing to do with it.

C: Neither Babs nor Ali have free will. Even professor Klatz has no free will. Free will is an illusion.

D: Ali has free will, but Babs hasn’t (or at the very least the freedom of her will is severely limited). Regardless of how a decision is caused, one can only truly speak of freedom of the will if the decision, once it is made, can be acted upon. Babs’ fantasies are not real exercises of a free will.


Philosophers have distinguished freedom of the will from freedom of action for centuries. But do we have a free will? How we answer that question depends on what we understand by freedom of the will. Furthermore, however we answer this question, it will have consequences for how we think about morality, personal identity and a wide range of other philosophical, legal and psychological questions.


A lecture by Daniel Dennett on free will in which he uses this comic strip of Dilbert. He disagrees with Sam Harris, who gives a lecture on his side of the argument. But these are just two of many possible positions on the matter.

This ‘Mind over Masters’ debate between a philosopher, a neuroscientist, a psychologist and a developmental psychologist shows that there are still quite some conceptual misunderstandings between the interlocutors! (is the developmental psychologist talking about the same kind of freedom as the philosopher?) But it also shows that a belief in a free will has real, immediate, implications beyond the realm of philosophy.