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.


Parallel Worlds – 25/04/2016

Quantum Mechanics poses the following idea: an atom or photon can exist in multiple states at the same time in superposition, until it is observed or interacts with the external world. It then collapses into one of its states.

Erwin Schrödinger formulated a thought experiment to highlight a problem with quantum theory: if a radioactive source (in which atoms may or may not decay, at random), a sensor, a flask of potion and a cat are put in a sealed box, set up so that the flask of poison shatters when there is radioactive activity, then quantum theory would have to hold that the cat is both alive and dead at the same time, in superposition, until an observer opens the box. Bottom line: if it is ridiculous to think of a cat as being alive and dead at the same time, then it is also ridiculous to think of atoms as being in two states at the same time. Schrödinger’s Cat is a paradox.

The Many World Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is meant to offer a solution to this paradox. Suppose that whenever a Schrödinger’s Cat type situation arises – when there are more than one possible alternative states for a particle to be in – the particle is not in two states at the same time, but instead two worlds are generated: one world in which one state obtains, and one world in which the other state obtains. In the case of Schrödinger’s Cat: whenever Schrödinger does this experiment, the world splits into two separate worlds: one in which the cat is dead in the box and one in which the cat is alive.

The idea is that these worlds are truly parallel. They exist in superposition: they exist in the same space at the same time, but cannot interact with one another. Since there is one universe – since the universe is all that exists, so there can’t be more than one of it – with multiple, indeed very many, worlds in it (some philosophers speak of a multiverse with parallel universes in it, which can be confusing, but the idea is similar).

If this picture is true, then this has implications for how we think about ourselves and our personal history and future. Imagine you’re flipping a coin. How often have you done that in your life? Each time you flip a coin, it seems as though it’s landing on only one of both sides. But now imagine that in fact, as you flip, the world splits in two. In one world your coin lands on heads, in another world your coin lands on tails. This means that there are now two versions, two exact copies, of you: one in each world. Of course you never notice anything of this world-splitting. After all, parallel worlds cannot interact with one another and you are always experiencing only one of them. Yet, if the world splits every time you perform a quantum experiment, there should now be countless worlds with you in it, and every copy of you will walk a different path after the each t-crossing in the path of your personal time line. For instance: if you flipped the coin to help you take a decision – between asking your beloved out on a date or not asking your beloved out on a date – then the copy in one world did ask your beloved out on a date and the copy in the other world didn’t. You can see how this can quickly lead to very different personal histories from that moment onward.

Quantum mechanics and its Many World Interpretation have a solid mathematical side to it. In theoretical physics it is a credible theory. What if it is true? Then many philosophical questions are cast in a new light. For instance: what is a world? The sum total of all particles in a definite state? This is one popular interpretation, with the advantage of observer independence. If this is the world, then we can easily explain that there was a world when there was nobody to observe it. An alternative conception of the world is observer-centered: the world is everything within the limits of an observer’s awareness. My world, then, is slightly different from your world. The advantage of this conception is that our relation to a universe with multiple worlds becomes easier to conceive, since there are already as many worlds as there are observers anyway. The disadvantage is, of course, that in this view there were no worlds before there were observers, and the galaxies in the universe that are not within the limits of anyone’s awareness are not part of any world. For many, that is counter-intuitive, or at least too much of a stretch of the word ‘world’ as we normally use it.

Another philosophical question that asks for consideration when we accept the Many Worlds Interpretation is the question of personal identity (the continuity question, as we’ve discussed before). Who am I? Do I still exist as the same person after I flip the coin? If there are two versions of me in two different worlds after I flip the coin, which of them is me? This is not the same question as “who is Marthe?”. It is easy to see that in a universe with many worlds there are also many Marthes. But which of them am I? The grammatical first person, “I”, indicates a subject with a single point of view that persists through time. Duplication is contradictory to this, because it forces one to lose the singularity and the subjectivity. If I flip a coin I get one result, and not two. Who is that I?

A related question is: should I care about what happens to me in a parallel world? Perhaps my parallel version died (in fact, if we accept this many world picture, then lots of worlds exist in which I died. In some of them in a horrible way. Tough luck, that’s what happens if everything that’s possible must exist in a parallel world). Should I be sad about that? In parallel worlds, copies of my friends and family members exist. Should I care about them? On the one hand, one might say that I shouldn’t, because my world can’t interact with their world anyway, so it’d be pointless. On the other hand, we do care about the future of our world after we cease to exist even though we don’t have access to that future once we’re gone (we invest in our children, in the environment, in our legacy, we want to be remembered…). Why should we care about this world beyond our reach but not about parallel worlds beyond our reach?

But there is a plus side: if you don’t win the lottery in this world, you definitely will have won it in another world.


Hilary Putnam doesn’t believe in the Many World Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, because, he says, it renders the idea of probability meaningless. Read his argument here.

Lev Vaidman, however, has an answer. Read his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy here.



Personal Identity: Am I the same person as that kid? – 14/03/2016

Admiral Nelson sails out with his flagship the HMS Victory. The ship takes quite a beating in battle. Upon her return, various parts have to be replaced: the masts, several cannons, some other bits and pieces, before Nelson can take her out to war again. Battle after battle, the HMS Victory sustains damage, gets the necessary parts replaced, and sails out again, until Admiral Nelson realises that each and every part of the original HMS Victory has been replaced. He scratches his head and asks himself: Is this ship really the same HMS Victory, or is it a different ship?

Now suppose that the HMS Victory had changed a lot as a result of all the work that has been done on her: higher masts, technical improvements, different layout, a more streamlined shape, different colours… would it still be the same ship? If so, in what sense? HMS Victory

The HMS Victory is not a person, she is a ship. Still, we can ask a similar question about human persons. The problem is, that when we talk about human persons, the question might get a bit more complicated.

I was born in 1983. I don’t remember anything of this period, but there are pictures to prove it, my mother says that chubby baby is me, and so says my birth certificate. I do remember going to school. I was studious, drawing and reading all the time. I also remember being a teenager, listening to teenage-anxiety-rock, like Nirvana and Alanis Morisette. I also remember being a student, trying to pass my logic and metaphysics exams, thinking that everybody was cleverer than I was. I also remember events and encounters that made me a different person in some way or other: boyfriends, breakups, deaths of loved ones, meetings with inspiring people, poems, films, books. Physically, I think nearly every cell I used to have when I was a child has by now been replaced, some of them thousands of times over. There is no doubt that I am qualitatively a different person than I used to be at various times in my personal history, but I somehow still think it’s all me. No matter how much I’ve changed, it’s me who did the changing. I am still one and the same, I’m still numerically the same person.

A lot has been said about personal identity in the qualitative sense. When can we truly make statements like “she was a different person after the divorce” or “after fighting in the war, they will never be the same again” or “He wasn’t himself at all when he was under the influence of LSD”? A question like this asks which qualities or characteristics are fundamental to our being, and which are more peripheral. It’s an ethical question, it has to do with values, or with what it means for a person to live a fulfilled or authentic life*. But in this class, we’ll discuss personal identity in the numerical sense. That, in contrast, is a metaphysical question: when do I start and stop existing? How can we tell it is one and the same person undergoing a change, or two different persons at two different times altogether? In this metaphysical sense, one cannot fail to be oneself, since everything is logically self-identical. Heraclitus confused the qualitative with the numerical question when he said “you can’t step into the same river twice”. The river changes continuously, so is never qualitatively the same as a moment ago, but it’s still numerically the same river that is changing.

So what determines my numerical identity? What makes it so that I’m still the same person as the baby in 1983?

Is it my physical continuity? This is problematic. Suppose one day I would wake up in your body, and you wake up in mine. We would still say that it is me who wakes up in your body, and not you. If you’re not convinced: suppose you wake up in my body one morning, and I in yours. However, when you (in my body) set out to look for your own body, hoping to get it back, you discover that it has been destroyed in a horrible accident – and I along with it. You now have my body and no hope of ever getting your own back. No doubt, this will mean a great qualitative change for you, but numerically, you still exist – albeit in my body – and I don’t. So physical continuity cannot determine personal identity.

How about psychological continuity? Locke thought one is the same person if one remembers being an earlier version. But this is problematic. I don’t remember large parts of my life. Most of my time asleep, for instance. It would be weird to say that I stop existing whenever I fall asleep, and that the human-shaped living and breathing and dreaming thing in the bed is not a person, let alone me. I’ve also forgotten many trivial things, like a great number of supermarket visits or dog walks. Does that mean it wasn’t me who walked the dog or bought the groceries? No, I’ve simply forgotten it. So memory can’t constitute personal identity either. But how about a more sophisticated psychological continuity view? What if we take into account not only memory, but other mental states, including unconscious or forgotten ones? Then the baby, the schoolgirl, the student and I are the same person because my current mental state, whatever that may be, is the last of an unbroken chain of mental states which began a short time before my birth. But this raises another question: how do we determine the connection between these mentalpersonal identity states? One moment I’m awake and aware, the next moment I’m asleep and unconscious. Who is to tell what connects the waking mental state with the sleeping mental state, and thus the waking me with the sleeping me? If physical continuity nor memory can offer an answer, then this is a problem of the psychological continuity view.

One possible solution is the narrative view. This view is explained, criticised, and revised in this video by Elisabeth Camp. According to the narrative view, I am the same person as the baby, the schoolgirl and the student, if these episodes are episodes in the story I tell about myself in order to make sense of myself as a person. This view has advantages. It helps explain why the numerical personal identity question is more interesting when applied to human persons than, say, to the HMS Victory. But even in the case of the HMS Victory, it explains why Nelson can still call the ship the HMS Victory and consider it the same ship, in spite of the replacement of all her parts, her qualitative changes and her lack of a mind. Since the HMS Victory was gradually fixed and amended, it forms a narrative about the ship that makes sense. If she had been destroyed completely and replaced in one go with just another ship, then that new ship would not be seen as the same ship, but a different one. However, a disadvantage of the narrative view is that it brings the qualitative personal identity question back on board. It makes it an ethical rather than metaphysical question, one about what it means to make sense of a life, rather than what it means to be someone – someONE-and-the-same – who is doing the sense-making. In addition, it seems too narrow. Who is to decide on how the narrative of myself goes? Me? Sounds lovely, but not every human person is capable of narrating anything at all. Most people have a hard time constructing a coherent narrative of themselves, but some are unable to at all: comatose patients or someone who dies aged 3 or so. Would such people not count as persons, or would we be unable to tell whether they are one and the same person?

petr Vasicek personal identity crisis
Personal Identity Crisis by Petr Vasicek

Where does this leave us? Should we follow Hume in saying that we’re looking for  something that can’t be found, because there is no such thing as a person that persists through time? So far, not a single characteristic has been formulated that can solve the puzzle. Combination theories, involving some physical and some psychological criteria, might be promising. But the exact formula is yet to be found.


An excerpt from Philosophy for AS, an A-level textbook written by my colleague Michael Lacewing, is available online here. It gives a clear overview of the various physical and psychological continuity views and some additional problems and objections (i.e. the duplication problem).

* You may think: “but this qualitative sense, that’s what I’m much more interested in!” I understand. Don’t worry. We’ll discuss this qualitative question of personal identity in another class, I promise.