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.

Questions

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?

 

Resources

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.

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Martha Nussbaum – The Capability Approach 06/06/16

Contemporary debates about the philosophy of social justice face challenges that are particular to our times. Martha Nussbaum developed – based on the capabilities-based development theory of Indian economist Amartya Sen – a sophisticated answer to many of these challenges, which she outlines in her book Creating Capabilities (2011). What are these contemporary challenges, and how does Nussbaum attempt to meet those challenges?

Contemporary challenges

Global justice. It is uncontroversial that resources and opportunities are unfairly distributed. Not only within countries or states, but also among states. Some states have more resources, or are better able to manage their resources, than others. What do richer states morally owe poorer states? On the one hand, the inequalities between states are arbitrary and not the result of a fair process, so fairness requires that these inequalities be compensated, particularly since these inequalities currently lead to dehumanizing conditions for many. On the other hand, really equal distribution of resources across states is as good as impossible to govern.

Imperialism. We’d like to think that the times when Western nations went around the world invading territories, claiming land and resources for themselves and imposing their laws, norms, religions, languages, culture and governance upon other peoples is long behind us. Likewise, we’d like to think that women and men enjoy equality in all spheres of life and that battles like that of the suffragettes is a thing of the past. But reality is uncomfortable in this respect. Feminists and anti-colonialists have often persuasively pointed out that even after decolonisation and the legal recognition of equality for man and women, male and Western norms are still culturally dominant, often in hidden and implicit ways. Feminist philosophers have argued that many moral and political philosophies in the history of philosophy implicitly assume male standards that don’t quite fit women’s experiences. Likewise, Western philosophies have been shown to implicitly assume a European or US American context, thereby discounting non-Western societies from the outset, but at the same time claiming universal applicability. Western philosophies thus are in danger of implicitly making imperialist claims without realizing it. In this light, postmodern concerns – like those put forward by Nietzsche – spring to mind: is it at all possible to formulate a moral or political theory that has universal application, or does such a theory always amount to imperialism, whereby the dominant group imposes its arbitrary morality on everyone? But if a theory of justice has no universal applicability, can it be said to be a theory of justice at all? After all, aren’t we all owed the same respect, in virtue of our humanity?

Justice to animals. Can justice apply to non-human animals, too? Few would argue that animals can make the same moral claims as humans, or that they should have the same rights. But equally few would claim they are not owed any moral respect at all. Presumably, truth lies somewhere in between. Animals are sentient, they can feel pain and pleasure, fear and joy. Many people would argue that animals should be protected from pointless cruelty. But which criteria apply here? A theory of justice that is not at all able to consider or apply to non-human animals is, these days, considered to have a serious handicap.

The Capability Approach

Martha Nussbaum can’t be said to lack ambition. She claims that her theory of social justice meets all three of the above challenges. She starts from the Aristotelian idea that the idea of justice ought to be based on the question: “What is each person able to do and to be?”[1] If we are to judge any society on its basic justice or decency, that’s the question we should ask, according to Nussbaum. To further break this question down, she has formulated ten capabilities, which form the basis of her account of justice. These ten capabilities are:

  1. Life.
  2. Bodily health (“including reproductive health”)
  3. Bodily integrity (including “opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction”)
  4. Senses, imagination, and thought (“being able to use the senses, to imagine, to think, and to reason”)
  5. Emotions (“being able to have attachments to things and people outside of ourselves”)
  6. Practical reason (“being able to form a conception of the good”)
  7. Affiliation (“being able to live with and toward others”)
  8. Other species (“being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature”)
  9. Play (“being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities”)
  10. Control over one’s environment (“being able to participate effectively in political choices” and “being able to hold property and having property rights”) [2]

These ten capabilities constitute Nussbaum’s account of social justice. To understand how they work, however, a few further things must be said about these capabilities.

Firstly, these ten capabilities form the basis of justice. Justice should be understood in these terms; they are not mere symptoms of justice.

Secondly, these ten capabilities are universal. They apply to all humans and even to non-human animals, regardless of culture of context.

Thirdly, having these capabilities, does not mean that one also enacts them. This should be a matter of free choice, according to Nussbaum. She therefore distinguishes ‘functioning’ from ‘capabilities’, whereby functioning refers to doing what a capability enables one to do. For instance, I may have the capability to connect with other species – I am able to do so and no one is hindering me from doing so nor coercing me to do so – but whether I actually choose to do so is a different matter. The capability approach is therefore a distinctly liberal approach.

Fourthly, Nussbaum employs a threshold with regard to these capabilities. That means that in order for a person to live a life of dignity, and for a society to deserve the label ‘decent’ or ‘minimally just’, these ten capabilities must be enabled to a certain, minimal, degree. It is hardly intelligible that a person could exercise them to a maximum degree, since contingent circumstances necessarily limit them. Hence, justice does not require that people are unlimited in the exercise of these capabilities, but that they have them to a certain degree.

Fifthly, the ten capabilities relate to each other. If the conditions for reasonable bodily health and longevity aren’t met, for instance, we also won’t be capable of many other things. A society is therefore just only if for each citizen conditions are provided that practically enable all ten capabilities to threshold level. That also means that the lack of one capability can not be compensated with an excess in another capability. No amount of education can compensate for the lack of bodily health. All capabilities must be met to threshold level.

Does Nussbaum’s account meet the three contemporary challenges?

According to Nussbaum, societies that are unable to reach a minimum threshold level of these ten capabilities for their members ought to receive help from societies that do have the resources and institutions to provide these ten capabilities. This is, according to Nussbaum, a reasonable demand for global justice.

Although Nussbaum claims that her approach has universal applicability, she is sensitive to the dangers of imperialism. However, she has thought of this too. The capabilities are sufficiently generic, according to Nussbaum, to allow for significant differences in cultural interpretation. How or to which extent we choose to play, make decisions about our bodies or relate to the other species can be informed in various ways by our religion, culture, upbringing, ethical views, tastes or environment.

Finally, the ten capabilities can be employed to evaluate not only the level of justice towards humans, but also non-human animal species. Perhaps even robots!

 

Resources

Thanks for reading my introduction, but who can really explain it better than Martha Nussbaum herself? I really recommend watching this lecture. It is very clear and detailed and really brings home why Nussbaum thinks all of this is very, very important.

 

[1]    Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities; The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univerity Press, 2011) p. 18

[2]    Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities, 2011 and Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006)

Nietzsche (1844-1900) – Beyond Good and Evil 23/05/16

Whenever I teach a group of students, there’s usually one among them who is fascinated and persuaded by Nietzsche. Not surprising. With his strong critical claims, his powerful quotes and aphorisms and his limitless plea for creativity is enough to shake even the strongest intellectual movements out of their slumber.

Although Nietzsche is without a doubt one of the most influential philosophers of the past two centuries, he considered himself an anti-philosopher. He refused to call himself a philosopher, because he was critical of the assumptions all philosophers at his time took for granted. Nietzsche’s challenges to the philosophy of his time were radical. He put the very purpose of philosophy into question. This makes Nietzsche the rebel of the history of modern western philosophy.

We’ll discuss three assumptions moral philosophers in Nietzsche’s time generally held true, and Nietzsche’s critique of these assumptions. In light of these criticisms, Nietzsche’s own esoteric philosophy will come to the fore.

Is it true that the opposite of Good is Evil, and that this counts for everyone, at all times?

In On the Genealogy of Morals (19887), Nietzsche complains that philosophers are insufficiently aware of the history of morality. Morality is as old as mankind. There have always been moral prescriptions, but what is regarded as good – as the thing one ought to do or strive to – and what is regarded as to be avoided has shifted in the course of history. Philosophers have failed to understand that what is regarded as good is always what the powerful regard as good. Moral theories are nothing more than a rationalisation of the morals of the powerful. Christianity claimed to offer a god-given – and therefore universal – morality, which included admiration of the weak and condemnation of the powerful as well as the claim that everyone is equal. This introduced the idea that the opposite of ‘good’ is not ‘bad’, but ‘evil’. Nietzsche exposes this shift as stemming from the ressentiment of the slaves in antiquity. Whereas in ancient Greece and Rome the good/bad distinction really meant the noble/base distinction, where ‘good’ was everything that was refined, strong and life-affirming, with Christianity this aristocratic ‘good’ was rebranded ‘evil’ and contrasted with a new concept of ‘good’, which meant altruism.

Are humans really sufficiently similar, so that the same morality applies to all equally?

Nietzsche claims it’s a mistake that humans are all equal, which is an assumption uncritically accepted by almost all moral theories. Humans are never motivated by altruism, says Nietzsche, but by the will to power. This will to power is what motivates humans to true greatness. But some have a stronger will than others, or more power, or find more sublime ways to exercise their will to power. Others have a weak will, are powerless or are blunt in their expression of it. Most people fall in the latter group, but some individuals belong to the former. If we formulate a morality that applies to those of weak will, then we force the strong-willed individuals in a regime of mediocrity, and that paralyses humanity. Therefore, any morality that assumes universal application should be rejected, according to Nietzsche.

Are philosophers really detached, rational, honest reasoners?

Philosophers, too, are motivated by the will to power, according to Nietzsche. Their way of exercising their will is by formulating sophisticated justifications of the moral principles they always already had, without having to really challenge these moral principles. But this is just yet another way to affirm what Nietzsche calls “slave morality” or “herd animal morality”: a focus on eliminating suffering, universal applicability, excusing the weak and frowning on power. This makes philosophers moralists who aim to stifle the creative power of those who are willing to take risks and embrace suffering of themselves and others in exchange for progress. Moreover, philosophers who are unwilling to truly challenge their own moral perspectives and to test radical hypotheses are themselves guilty of weakness of will.

Nietzsche’s alternative

Nietzsche believes it is necessary for the progress of mankind that there be and aristocratic elite who are stronger, healthier, nobler and more creative than the rest. They then serve as a goal for everyone, as excellent individuals to look up to, heroes for inspiration. Without such an aristocracy, we’re doomed to mediocrity. Traditional morality stifles rather than encourages such individuals. Instead, such individuals should not be hindered, because they serve mankind as a whole, even if this means that sometimes this progress and creativity involves suffering. Nietzsche even contends it is a characteristic of higher individuals that they are willing to embrace suffering if that is necessary to exercise their will to power.