Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of freedom – Maria Kasmirli

‘Freedom’ is a powerful word. We all respond positively to it, and under its banner revolutions have been started, wars have been fought, and political campaigns are continually being waged. But what exactly do we mean by ‘freedom’? The fact that politicians of all parties claim to believe in freedom suggests that people don’t always have the same thing in mind when they talk about it. Might there be different kinds of freedom and, if so, could the different kinds conflict with each other? Could the promotion of one kind of freedom limit another kind? Could people even be coerced in the name of freedom?

The 20th-century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) thought that the answer to both these questions was ‘Yes’, and in his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958) he distinguished two kinds of freedom (or liberty; Berlin used the words interchangeably), which he called negative freedom and positive freedom.

Negative freedom is freedom from interference. You are negatively free to the extent that other people do not restrict what you can do. If other people prevent you from doing something, either directly by what they do, or indirectly by supporting social and economic arrangements that disadvantage you, then to that extent they restrict your negative freedom. Berlin stresses that it is only restrictions imposed by other people that count as limitations of one’s freedom. Restrictions due to natural causes do not count. The fact that I cannot levitate is a physical limitation but not a limitation of my freedom.

Virtually everyone agrees that we must accept some restrictions on our negative freedom if we are to avoid chaos. All states require their citizens to follow laws and regulations designed to help them live together and make society function smoothly. We accept these restrictions on our freedom as a trade-off for other benefits, such as peace, security and prosperity. At the same time, most of us would insist that there are some areas of life that should not be regulated, and where individuals should have considerable, if not complete, freedom. A major debate in political philosophy concerns the boundaries of this area of personal negative freedom. For example, should the state place restrictions on what we may say or read, or on what sexual activities we may engage in?

Whereas negative freedom is freedom from control by others, positive freedom is freedom to control oneself. To be positively free is to be one’s own master, acting rationally and choosing responsibly in line with one’s interests. This might seem to be simply the counterpart of negative freedom; I control myself to the extent that no one else controls me. However, a gap can open between positive and negative freedom, since a person might be lacking in self-control even when he is not restrained by others. Think, for example, of a drug addict who cannot kick the habit that is killing him. He is not positively free (that is, acting rationally in his own best interests) even though his negative freedom is not being limited (no one is forcing him to take the drug).

In such cases, Berlin notes, it is natural to talk of something like two selves: a lower self, which is irrational and impulsive, and a higher self, which is rational and far-sighted. And the suggestion is that a person is positively free only if his higher self is dominant. If this is right, then we might be able to make a person more free by coercing him. If we prevent the addict from taking the drug, we might help his higher self to gain control. By limiting his negative freedom, we would increase his positive freedom. It is easy to see how this view could be abused to justify interventions that are misguided or malign.

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Sir Isaiah Berlin OM CBE FBA (1909–1997) was a Russian-British social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas

Maria Kasmirli is a philosopher and teacher. She is currently a research associate at the University of Sheffield and a teacher at the School of European Education in Heraklion, Crete. 

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