THEORIES OF FREEDOM IN A NUTSHELL
This article does not discuss all positions of freedom-theorists, present and past. The idea is, rather, to give an overview of different perspectives on freedom as we find it in modern political theory:
— positive vs. negative liberty — ‘liberal’ and ‘republican’ interpretations of negative liberty — the republican ‘third way’ and its definition of freedom as being sui iuris or not being dominated — the relationship between ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ as seen from a linguistic perspective
Positive vs. Negative Liberty
In his inaugural lecture Two Concepts of Liberty given at Oxford in 1958 Sir Isaiah Berlin distinguishes between positive and negative liberty: ‘The first of these political senses of freedom or liberty […] I shall call the negative sense, is involved in the answer to the question ‘What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be able to do or be, without interference by other persons?’ The second, which I shall call the positive sense, is involved in the answer to the question, ‘What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?’ Berlin connects freedom to questions of interference or control, and singles out spheres and sources of liberty. In other passages, he discusses the distinctive notions of freedom from and freedom to. In his conception, negative liberty involves the absence of interference. One is negatively free insofar and to the extent that his choices and actions are both unimpeded and uncoerced. In contrast, positive liberty requires more than the absence of interference. It is indeed explicated as the wish on the part of the individual to be her own master, to achieve ‘self-realization’, or her being the possessor of reason, will and autonomy. In the introduction to the 1969-collection Four Essays on Liberty, Berlin clarifies some of his views — especially the entanglement of the two concepts of liberty: ‘The questions `Who is master?’ and `Over what area am I master?’ cannot be kept wholly distinct. I wish to determine myself and not be directed by others, no matter how wise and benevolent; my conduct derives an irreplaceable value from the sole fact that it is my own, and not imposed upon me. But I am not, and cannot expect to be, wholly self-sufficient or socially omnipotent. I cannot remove all the obstacles in my path that stem from the conduct of my fellows’. The question of how far the area stretches, over which one is or should be master is pivotal to Berlin’s argument, for, in the end, harmonious living with others and self-identity are not fully compatible.
In his 1967-article Negative and Positive Freedom Gerald MacCallum criticizes this theory and claims that Berlin had imposed an unsustainable restriction on the notion of constraint in stressing that negative liberty consisted in the absence of the deliberate interference of other human beings. Persons can be said to be coerced by inner factors as well, MacCallum argues, and the absence of such intrinsic constraints would be synonymous with a negative sense of liberty. This means that the distinction between freedom from and freedom to can no longer be upheld. MacCallum then sums up the remaining views on freedom as follows: ‘Writers adhering to the concept of negative freedom hold that only the presence of something can render a person unfree; writers adhering to the concept of positive freedom hold that the absence of something may also render a person unfree’. Rejecting the distinction between positive and negative freedom as unrewarding concentration on some kinds of freedom, MacCallum proposes a definition of what freedom is, eventually introducing a single concept based on a triadic ‘of-from-to-structure’. Freedom is always of something (or rather someone) from something, to do, not do, become, or not become something.
Among the defenders of positive liberty, Charles Taylor is probably the most influential. In his essay What’s Wrong With Negative Liberty (1979), Taylor insists that freedom in the sense of self-rule and independence cannot be subsumed under the negative rubric: ‘Doctrines of positive freedom are concerned with a view of freedom which involves essentially the exercising of control over one’s life. On this view, one is free only to the extent that one has effectively determined oneself and the shape of one’s life. The concept of freedom here is an exercise-concept’. On the other hand, he suggests that negative approaches to freedom can be labelled as opportunity-concepts, where being free is connected to chances and options, to what we can do and what is open to use to do, whether or not we act so as to exercise one of the options in question. Positive liberty, according to Taylor, is not in any sense characterized by the absence of something, but is rather the affirmative and self-confident achievement of self-realization. And therefore, he insists, it is a genuine second concept of freedom.
Taylor’s opportunity-exercise-dichotomy has recently been criticized by Eric Nelson in his article Liberty, One Concept Too Many? (2005). Nelson points at the problem that a positive formulation of freedom as self-realization seems to indicate that self-realization is neither the condition enjoyed by free people nor the achievement that makes freedom possible, but that it is actually freedom itself – a claim that is unacceptable, in his opinion. Nelson then suggests that opportunity-theorists and exercise-theorists as much as theorists of positive and theorists of negative liberty do not disagree in their understanding of liberty. Rather their opinions differ about the notion of constraint. Starting from an in depth analysis of the statement ‘If people are free, they will realize themselves’, Nelson distinguishes normative and descriptive aspects in theories of freedom. People are free, if they are not constrained; what counts as a constraint is a normative claim. People realize themselves, if they do or do not certain things, if they are or are not something; what the situation of uncoerced people will look like is a descriptive claim. The essential point in Nelson’s argument is that normative claims determine the shape of descriptive claims. Re-reading classic and current theories, he comes to identify freedom as the absence of some constraint. Within this broad set, however, visions and meanings of freedom differ considerably. They are the fruits of different claims about the ends of human life, the character of human beings, and the elements that can constrain us and render us unfree.
A new scheme of positive and negative liberty has recently been presented by Maria Dimova-Cookson. Her conceptual reconstruction of freedom — which supports the two types of freedom in their own right — is based on the writings of the British idealist Thomas Hill Green, especially on his lectures On the Different Senses of Freedom as Applied to Will and the Moral Progress of Man and Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract. Following a double splitting up of a) the personal and the political realm and b) the goods we pursue as human beings — which are either ordinary or moral, Dimova-Cookson develops the main distinction between negative and positive freedom from the relation of freedom to the will. In ordinary actions, an agent pursues her own good. In moral actions, an agent pursues her own good together with the good of others. According to this scheme positive freedom is gained by engaging in moral action and thereby producing goods for others, whereas negative freedom is connected to the receiving of goods coming from someone else’s moral actions. The meaning of freedom varies because it is related to the individual’s will, and as a consequence, to various understandings of what is good. In the personal sphere, we can speak of two meanings of freedom. The first meaning of freedom as the power to act according to preference, is called ‘juristic’. The second meaning of freedom is found in the pursuit of moral self-perfection. In the political sphere, positive freedom refers to an agent producing moral goods or social care. Negatively free, an agent is a recipient of such goods or care. Finally, freedom should not be seen as a person’s power to do or ask for anything she likes, the author reminds us, but as her power to do something valuable for other people and for the community.
Interpreting the Liberty from Interference: ‘Liberal’ and ‘Republican’ Readings
As sketched out previously, negative conceptions of liberty refer to the extent of freedom from interference or constraint. In the following, I shall concentrate on the notion of liberty as non-interference. In his essay on Liberalism and Republicanism Philip Pettit presents two meanings of being free in the sense of not being interfered with: a) non-interference is simply the absence of interference; b) non-interference is the absence of interference plus the guarantee of such absence. Pettit attributes the first conception of liberty to the liberal tradition, the second to the republican. In his opinion, liberalism emphasizes the quantity of non-interference as the measure of freedom, whereas republicanism focuses on its quality — in particular on the quality of protection, legal and other, whereby liberty is secured. Three short historical examples might help to clarify this:
- Thomas Hobbes was most likely the first theorist to present liberty as ‘non-interference’ or to be more precise as ‘non-coercion’, if we put it into modern terms. This led him to argue that law itself is an invasion of people’s liberty, however benign. As a consequence, people only have freedom where laws to do interfere. Freedom is the silence of the laws. In Leviathan, Hobbes illustrates this argument with the following equation of freedom in republican Lucca and despotical Constantinople: ‘There is written on the Turrets of the city of Luca in great characters at this day, the word LIBERTAS; yet no man can thence inferred, that a particular has more Libertie, or Immunitie from the service of the Commonwealth there, than in Constantinople. Whether a Commonwealth be Monarchical, or Popular, the Freedome is still the same’.
- In Oceana, published only few years after Leviathan, James Harrington gives a republican answer to Hobbes’ challenging thesis: ‘The mountain hath brought forth that we have a little equivocation! For to say that a Lucchese hath no more liberty or immunity from the laws of Lucca than a Turk hath from those of Constantinople, and to say that a Lucchese hath no more liberty by the laws of Lucca than a Turk hath by those of Constantinople are pretty different speeches’.
- A similar criticism can be found in Alexander Ross, where in response to Leviathan II/20 he traces the distinction between a king and a tyrant as follows: […] he is also injurious to good Princes, when he makes no difference between them and tyrants [between despotical and paternal dominions, making tyrants and Sovereigny by institution all one in rights and consequences] This is to put no difference between the Father and Butcher of his Country, between the Shepherd and the woolf, between sharing and fleaing of the sheep. A King governs, and is governed by laws; a tyrant hath no law but his will’.
Republicanism, as Pettit reads it, ‘sees liberty as the social status of a citizen, who is recognized and empowered, equally with others, before a suitable rule of law; it sees liberty as a status that is secure only so far as the republic is peopled and run by individuals who display civic virtue […] it sees the dispensation of liberty as something that may in principle require a large state presence in areas like education, medicine, and social security. Liberalism, at least in its pure form, presents liberty as a condition ideally enjoyed, out of society, when there is no one else around […] and it interprets the demands of liberty in a way that supports a minimalist assumption about how government ought to behave’.
The discussion of liberty in John Rawls is related to his Theory of Justice (1971, revised edition: 1975). He follows Isaiah Berlin in negatively defining liberty in terms of coercion and Gerald MacCallum in advancing a triadic conception of freedom. Therefore — he writes — ‘I shall simply assume that liberty can always be explained by a reference to three terms: the agents who are free, the restrictions or limitations which why are free from, and what it is that they are free to do or not to do’. For us it is interesting that Rawls speaks of restrictions or limitations as constraints. Following Pettit’s line of argument, this should be accounted for a non-interference position; but I am not quite sure, whether this is sustainable or whether it would be more precise to distinguish non-interference both from non-coercion and non-domination as in the third concept of liberty sketched out by Skinner and Pettit. However, Rawls considers that the basic liberties or individual rights — such as political liberty, freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience and freedom of thought, freedom of the person along with the right to hold private property, and freedom from arbitrary arrest — must be assessed within a broader system: ‘Liberty is represented by the complete system of the liberties of equal citizenship, while the worth of liberty is proportional to their capacity to advance their ends within the framework the system defines’.
Freedom as Being and Living sui iuris
The third concept of liberty in the sense of freedom from domination or being and living sui iuris has been developed and presented by Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner in a series of seminal publications. With intellectual histories of a neglected civic-republican line of political liberty, later called the neo-Roman tradition, Quentin Skinner has presented historical alternatives to both positive and negative theories of freedom. The early pillars of his reconstruction are contributions to the notions of liberty in the Italian city-republics, Machiavelli and Hobbes. In his 1984-Tanner Lecture on Human Values on The Paradoxes of Political Liberty, Skinner argues that the major paradoxes found in liberal approaches to negative liberty can be resolved. He further defines these paradoxes as a) the criticism that freedom of participation in the political process is no freedom at all, since freedom presupposes the absence of any constraints or obligations, and b) the view that social freedom in the sense of freedom of action must be associated with the absence of restraint or coercion by any human agent, including legal compulsion by the State. Skinner reminds us, that within the classical and early modern European republican traditions, largely derived from Roman legal language and moral philosophy, the discussion of political liberty is generally embedded in an analysis of what it means to speak of living in a free state. The liberty in question is the liberty of the body politic as a community. Like a free person, a free state is understood as one that is able to act according to its own will, in pursuit of its own chosen ends. As Skinner puts it: ‘It is a community […] in which the will of the citizens, the general will of the body politic, chooses and determines whatever ends are pursued by the community as a whole’. Or, as Machiavelli explains at the beginning of his Discorsi: ‘Free states are those which are far from all external servitude, and are able to govern themselves according to their own will’.
Until Thomas Hobbes — to whom liberty signified nothing more than absence of impediments to motion, or rather matter in motion — freedom was conceptualized in this close relationship between being free and living in a free state. This did not mean an equation of the two concepts, rather living and acting freely could only be envisioned in a life as a citizen of a free state. The reason for this, according to Skinner, is that in the early modern English discourse freedom was the name of a status and not merely a predicate of individual actions. To be free meant to be independent of the arbitrary will of others, and hence to be ‘your own man’ rather than being anybody else’s servant or slave. To live under any form of government other than one in which the laws alone rule, and in which the body politic of the people makes the laws under which they all live, means living as subjects to discretionary, arbitrary powers — held by a single person, a group or an institution. And to live in such dependence was taken to be what it meant to have the status of a slave.
Philip Pettit understands freedom as a status of non-domination which he sometimes also provocatively labels as ‘antipower’. At the centre of his political philosophy one finds the linkages between authority and freedom, the connections between authority and power and the shifts between these theoretical clusters. Pettit’s theory of freedom and government (1997) rests on a republican association between being free and not being dominated or subjugated by anyone — as paradigmatically exemplified by slavery but instantiated under various other relationships. The reason for this lies in the fact that domination may involve both a greater or lesser sphere of interference and coercion (its extent) and a greater or lesser degree of arbitrary power (its intensity). Pettit’s view derives from Roman republican usage, where the contrary of the liber was the servus, a person who was subject to the arbitrary power of another. He explains the crucial difference between his point of view and the liberal tradition as follows: ‘There is no loss of liberty without actual interference, according to most contemporary thought: no loss of liberty in just being susceptible to interference. And there is no interference […] without some loss of liberty. Taking the antonym of freedom to be domination, on the other hand, allows him to criticize defenceless susceptibility to interference, rather than actual interference, which can encompass a variety of possible behaviours such as coercion of the body, coercion of the will or manipulation. Pettit stresses that although interference always involves the attempt to worsen a person’s situation or choice, it need not necessarily involve a wrongful act: coercion remains coercion, even if it is morally impeccable. For Pettit, the asymmetry of rights and status as presented in the master-slave-relationship is problematic because of the possession by someone of power over someone else – the degree of which is of secondary importance. This scenario does not require that the person who enjoys arbitrary power actually interferes with the person whom she dominates; it does not even require that the power-holder be inclined to the slightest degree toward interfering. The master-slave-relationship is a power relationship which can be hypothetical or real, what matters is that the dominus could act arbitrarily.
Linguistic Nuances: Are Freedom and Liberty Twins?
In her 1988-article Hanna Fenichel Pitkin follows the traces of the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ by using the linguistic tools of etymology and ordinary-semantic-usage analysis. Although unique in their double existence going back to entirely different ancestries, these notions are used interchangeably in most philosophical and political contexts. Pitkin sums up the various and complexly interrelated etymological theories regarding the ‘liberty-tradition’ into three: the first one centering on a status classification: the contrast between slave and non-slave, which, in turn, depends on a notion of group membership; the second related to unimpeded motion and the third concerning sexually connoted symbols figuring at the centre stage of ceremonies of enslavement and emancipation; and thus indirectly related to the status-distinction between slaves and freemen.
The word ‘eleutheria’ appeared in the 5th century BC, at the time of the Persian wars, as the Hellens tried to articulate what was at stake: not being enslaved and not being ruled by foreign dominators. The Greek way of life included ideas of lawful, impersonal rule and collegiality, legal and political equality, private or social freedom. In short, it meant democracy. Hence, eleutheria was primarily a collective term, pertaining to the shared life in the polis, rather than the individual: ‘Eleutheria was a condition shared among the citizenry and embodies not so much in particular laws as in an entire constitutional system and ethos’. In Roman political struggles — Pitkin suggests a remarkable contrast — the noun ‘libertas’ had more to do with protections against the abuse of power than with access to power itself. Contrary to the Greek tradition, one can find two rival political notions of libertas, one articulated by the nobility and another by the plebs. For the nobles, liberty meant adherence to a traditional order and the prevention from power being excessively accumulated, in any hands. For the plebs, liberty meant protection and private security. To sum up the libertarian tradition, Pitkin develops a thesis articulated earlier by Kurt Raaflaub. For both classes, she argues, ‘libertas was passive, defensive, predominantly negative. It was also extraordinarily strongly fixed on institutions and rights and therefore connected to specific laws.
More important than further etymological details — for which I can only refer to Pitkin’s elaborate article — are the semantic differences between freedom and liberty suggested by ordinary idiomatic usage: Liberty seems to connote something more formal, rational, and limited than freedom. Although meaning the absence of constraint, liberty at the same time and without any exception implies the continuation of a surrounding network of restraint and order. Liberty concerns exemptions within a system of rules, liberty in that sense requires permissions. The following can be said, as to the remaining points. First, freedom is more likely to describe a holistic state of being, while liberty is pluralistic. Second, freedom is more likely to describe an inner status, integral to the self. Third, freedom includes the unobstructed movement in space, even of objects; liberty does not. And finally, because freedom and liberty refer to different limits or sets or rules, their antagonists are abuses of different kinds. The commonly mentioned abuse of liberty is license; while the abuse of freedom entails disorder and the loss of boundaries.
Antoinette Saxer, Queen Mary, University of London