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.