Positive/Negative freedom

Descriptions of Positive/Negative liberty, as outlined by Isiah Berlin in the 50s and 60s.


Negative Freedom: Mill's 'harm principle'

The problem for political theory is to find some way to constrain

 people’s actions so that they can live together, which minimises the

impact on their freedom. One famous attempt to specify a bare limit to

negative freedom was John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle”: “the only

purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member

of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

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Negative Freedom: Hobbes' view

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan ch.21


“A free man is he that…is not

hindered to do what he has a will


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Negative Freedom: Complications

Imagine a slave-owner who allows her slaves to do whatever they like. Imagine also, that her slaves have no thought of running away – perhaps they are happy, well-fed, entertained, and so on. We would not usually consider such people to be free, and yet that is what the pure idea of negative freedom indicates.

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Positive Freedom: Rosseau's View (in 'Emile')

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile:

Bk 5 (1761)

"Up to now you were only apparently free. You had only the precarious freedom of a slave to whom nothing has been commanded. Now be really free. Learn to become your own master. Command your heart, Emile, and you will be virtuous."

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Positive Freedom: Example

Consider the case of a nicotine addict, with a compulsion to smoke cigarettes. According to the idea of negative freedom, as long as she is able to indulge her habit, then she is free. By contrast, a defender of positive freedom would object that the person is not truly free, because she is in the grip of a compulsion and not making a choice with which she can identify.

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Positive Freedom: Complications

Berlin worries the ideal of positive freedom might, paradoxically, impel revolutionary movements to become totalitarian. Suppose we are unwilling or unable to live up to the standards upheld by those in power; doesn’t this give the authorities a motivation for intervening to make us conform to their conception of good citizenship? The anxiety is that people might be forced into doing things against their actual wishes, because, it is claimed, this is what their “true” selves would desire. More subtly, Berlin also objects to the idea of positive freedom because it is monolithic; it assumes (or so he thinks) there is one system of values to which we should all aspire. By contrast, negative freedom is more consistent with the idea of value pluralism: the belief, as Berlin puts it, that “human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another”.


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Positive/Negative Freedom: A useful distinction?


G. MacCallum (1967)

"The distinction between them has never been made sufficiently clear, is based in part upon a serious confusion...  The corrective advised is to regard freedom as always one and the same triadic relation, but recognize that various contending parties disagree with each other in what they understand to be the ranges of the term variables."




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