Two concepts of freedom
Two concepts of freedom

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Two concepts of freedom

3.4 The misuse of the concept of positive liberty

One of the main claims that Berlin makes in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ is a historical one. It is that positive theories of freedom, or perversions of them, have been more frequently used as instruments of oppression than have negative ones. These positive theories typically rely on a split between a ‘higher’ and a ‘lower’ self, or between a ‘rational’ and an ‘empirical’ self as Berlin sometimes puts it. Coercion is justified on the grounds that it leads to a realisation of the aims of the higher or rational self, even if the lower, everyday, empirical self opposes the coercion with all its might. The final humiliation in such a situation is to be told that, despite appearances, what is going on is not coercion, since it actually increases your freedom. In other words, Berlin believes that positive theories of freedom have historically been used to justify some kinds of oppression and that it is a relatively short step from saying that freedom involves self-mastery to the justification of all kinds of state interference in the lives of individuals on the grounds that, in Rousseau's words, it can, in some circumstances, be right to be ‘forced to be free’.

Read the following extract from Berlin's article (ibid., pp. 131–4; see, pp. 161–3), and then answer the questions below.

The freedom which consists in being one's own master, and the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men, may, on the face of it, seem concepts at no great logical distance from each other – no more than negative and positive ways of saying much the same thing. Yet the
5 ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ notions of freedom historically developed in divergent directions not always by logically reputable steps, until, in the end, they came into direct conflict with each other.
One way of making this clear is in terms of the independent momentum which the, initially perhaps quite harmless, metaphor of self-mastery acquired. ‘I am
10 my own master’; ‘I am slave to no man’; but may I not (as Platonists or Hegelians tend to say) be a slave to nature? Or to my own ‘unbridled’ passions? Are these not so many species of the identical genus ‘slave’ – some political or legal, others moral or spiritual? Have not men had the experience of liberating themselves from spiritual slavery, or slavery to nature, and do
15 they not in the course of it become aware, on the one hand, of a self which dominates, and, on the other, of something in them which is brought to heel? This dominant self is then variously identified with reason, with my ‘higher nature’, with the self which calculates and aims at what will satisfy it in the long run, with my ‘real’, or ‘ideal’, or ‘autonomous’ self, or with my self ‘at its
20 best’; which is then contrasted with irrational impulse, uncontrolled desires, my ‘lower’ nature, the pursuit of immediate pleasures, my ‘empirical’ or ‘heteronomous’ self, swept by every gust of desire and passion, needing to be rigidly disciplined if it is ever to rise to the full height of its ‘real’ nature. Presently the two selves may be represented as divided by an even larger gap:
25 the real self may be conceived as something wider than the individual (as the term is normally understood), as a social ‘whole’ of which the individual is an element or aspect: a tribe, a race, a church, a state, the great society of the living and the dead and the yet unborn. This entity is then identified as being the ‘true’ self which, by imposing its collective, or ‘organic’, single will upon its
30 recalcitrant ‘members’, achieves its own, and therefore their, ‘higher’ freedom. The perils of using organic metaphors to justify the coercion of some men by others in order to raise them to a ‘higher’ level of freedom have often been pointed out. But what gives such plausibility as it has to this kind of language is that we recognize that it is possible, and at times justifiable, to coerce men
35 in the name of some goal (let us say, justice or public health) which they would, if they were more enlightened, themselves pursue, but do not, because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt. This renders it easy for me to conceive of myself as coercing others for their own sake, in their, not my, interest. I am then claiming that I know what they truly need better than they know it
40 themselves. What, at most, this entails is that they would not resist me if they were rational and as wise as I and understood their interests as I do. But I may go on to claim a good deal more than this. I may declare that they are actually aiming at what in their benighted state they consciously resist, because there exists within them an occult entity – their latent rational will, or their ‘true’
45 purpose – and that this entity, although it is belied by all that they overtly feel and do and say, is their ‘real’ self, of which the poor empirical self in space and time may know nothing or little; and that this inner spirit is the only self that deserves to have its wishes taken into account. Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress,
50 torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, performance of duty, wisdom, a just society, self-fulfilment) must be identical with his freedom – the free choice of his ‘true’, albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self.
This paradox has been often exposed. It is one thing to say that I know what
55 is good for X, while he himself does not; and even to ignore his wishes for its – and his – sake; and a very different one to say that he has eo ipso chosen it, not indeed consciously, not as he seems in everyday life, but in his role as a rational self which his empirical self may not know – the ‘real’ self which discerns the good, and cannot help choosing it once it is revealed. This
60 monstrous impersonation, which consists in equating what X would choose if he were something he is not, or at least not yet, with what X actually seeks and chooses, is at the heart of all political theories of self-realization. It is one thing to say that I may be coerced for my own good which I am too blind to see: this may, on occasion, be for my benefit; indeed it may enlarge the scope
65 of my liberty. It is another to say that if it is my good, then I am not being coerced, for I have willed it, whether I know this or not, and am free (or ‘truly’ free) even while my poor earthly body and foolish mind bitterly reject it, and struggle against those who seek however benevolently to impose it, with the greatest desperation.

Activity 4: Comprehension

  1. Lines 1–2. Which of the following two phrases describes the concept of positive freedom and which the concept of negative freedom?

    1. ‘The freedom which consists in being one's own master.’

    2. ‘The freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men.’

  2. Lines 8–30. Put the main point of these lines in your own words. You should not use more than fifty words to do this.

  3. Lines 16–30. Why has Berlin put the words ‘real’ and ‘higher’ in such phrases as ‘ "real" nature’ and ‘ "higher" freedom’ within scare quotes?

  4. Berlin (lines 31–41) says that coercing people for their own sake is sometimes justifiable. What, then, is the ‘good deal more than this’ which advocates of positive liberty sometimes go on to claim (lines 42–53)?

  5. A paradox is a situation which yields an apparent contradiction. What is the paradox that Berlin refers to in line 54?

Compare your answers with those below. Then re-read the whole extract before reading on. You should find that your understanding of the main points made in the passage has increased significantly.



    1. positive.

    2. negative.

  2. The metaphor of being master over one's own life, no one's slave, still leaves open the possibility of being a slave to one's own passions. The idea of a higher and rational self (the master), which should keep in check the lower irrational self (the unruly slave), comes from this.

  3. Berlin put these words within inverted commas to indicate that he does not necessarily accept that such a nature is real or that such a self, if it exists, is higher. He is reporting how other people use these words rather than endorsing this way of speaking himself.

  4. Berlin claims that some advocates of positive liberty have gone so far as to insist that other people don't necessarily know what they really want, what their higher selves seek. Such advocates of positive liberty may ignore what other people say they want and bully, oppress or torture them on the grounds that that is what their ‘real’ selves would want. This, they claim, is not coercion, since it is what their victims’ ‘real’ selves wish for. It is not a case of forcing people to do what would be good for them because they can't appreciate what is good for them; it is a matter of forcing people to do what at a level unavailable to them they, allegedly, wish to do.

  5. The paradox is that people are forced to do what they say they don't want to do on the grounds that they really do want to do it. What they really want to do, on this analysis, is what they really don't want to do.

Although Berlin doesn't actually use the term, in the passage you have just read Berlin contrasts paternalism with a particular way in which the concept of positive freedom has frequently been misused. Paternalism is coercing people for their own sake. An example of paternalism is putting fluoride in drinking water, whether or not the population wants it there, on the grounds that it will significantly reduce the incidence of tooth decay, and thus improve the health of the population. The fluoride is added for the good of the people who drink the water, whether they realise that it will do them good or not. Misuse of positive freedom differs from this in that it involves the claim that the coercion is something the people coerced have, in a sense, chosen: they have ‘chosen’ it as rational selves, but not in the everyday sense of ‘chosen’. Though it might not seem like it to them, they are, allegedly, freer as a result of the coercion. In other words, this misuse of positive freedom rests on the belief that it can be acceptable to force people to be free. Indeed, in some cases this seems to be the only way in which, according to the theory, some individuals will ever attain ‘true’ freedom. This move from positive liberty to forcing people to be ‘free’ has, in recent history, led to oppression on a massive scale. It has been the source of much misery and many ruined lives.

It is important to realise that Berlin is not saying that only the concept of positive liberty can be misused. In fact it is obvious that versions of the negative concept can also be used to justify some terrible states of affairs. In some situations, preserving individuals' freedom from interference might be tantamount to encouraging the strong to thrive at the expense of the weak. As it has been memorably put, ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’. The pike might think it an excellent idea to allow fish to go about their business unimpeded by rules or interventions. The minnows, who stand to be his lunch, will no doubt see the limitations of a negative theory of liberty which allowed them to be eaten on the grounds that otherwise the pike's freedom would have been seriously curtailed.

However, although theories based on a concept of negative liberty can lead to unsatisfactory situations, Berlin's point is that historically this is not usually what has happened. It is the theories of positive liberty which have led to human tragedy on a massive scale. The terrible irony is that the justification for oppression has so often been that coercion actually increases the ‘real’ or ‘true’ freedom of the coerced.

Berlin has sometimes been interpreted as saying that all theories of positive freedom are bad, and that the only type of theory worth defending is one based on the concept of negative freedom – freedom from interference. But this is a misinterpretation which he has been at pains to dispel. For instance, he has written:

‘Positive’ liberty, conceived as the answer to the question, ‘By whom am I to be governed?’, is a valid universal goal. I do not know why I should have been held to doubt this… I can only repeat that the perversion of the notion of positive liberty into its opposite – the apotheosis of authority – did occur, and has for a long while been one of the most familiar and depressing phenomena of our time. For whatever reason or cause, the notion of ‘negative’ liberty (conceived as the answer to the question ‘How much am I governed?’) however disastrous the consequences of its unbridled forms, has not historically been twisted by its theorists as often or as effectively into anything so darkly metaphysical or socially sinister or remote from its original meaning as its ‘positive’ counterpart. The first can be turned into its opposite and still exploit the favourable associations of its innocent origins. The second has, much more frequently, been seen, for better and for worse, for what it was; there has been no lack of emphasis, in the last hundred years, upon its more disastrous implications. Hence, the greater need, it seems to me, to expose the aberrations of positive liberty than those of its negative brother.

(Berlin (1969), p. xlvii)

He has also expanded on this topic in an interview:

The only reason for which I have been suspected of defending negative liberty against positive and saying that it is more civilized, is because I do think that the concept of positive liberty, which is of course essential to a decent existence, has been more often abused or perverted than that of negative liberty. Both are genuine questions; both are inescapable… Both these concepts have been politically and morally twisted into their opposites. George Orwell is excellent on this. People say ‘I express your real wishes. You may think that you know what you want, but I, the Fuhrer, we the Party Central Committee, know you better than you know yourself, and provide you with what you would ask for if you recognised your "real" needs.’ Negative liberty is twisted when I am told that liberty must be equal for the tigers and for the sheep and that this cannot be avoided even if it enables the former to eat the latter if coercion by the state is not to be used. Of course unlimited liberty for capitalists destroys the liberty of the workers, unlimited liberty for factory-owners or parents will allow children to be employed in the coal-mines. Certainly the weak must be protected against the strong, and liberty to that extent be curtailed. Negative liberty must be curtailed if positive liberty is to be sufficiently realised; there must be a balance between the two, about which no clear principles can be enunciated. Positive and negative liberty are both perfectly valid concepts, but it seems to me that historically more damage has been done by pseudo-positive than by pseudo-negative liberty in the modern world.

(Jahanbegloo (1993), p. 41)

As can be seen from the mention of the Fuhrer and of the Party Central Committee, Berlin believes that in the twentieth century both Nazism and communism have perverted the notion of positive freedom and that both Nazi and communist states have coerced their citizens, often against their will, to realise what their coercers believe to be their ‘true’ freedom, or the ‘true’ freedom of their nation state.

Berlin is making a generalisation about the concept of positive freedom on the basis of his observation of history, some of it first hand (as a boy, he witnessed the Russian revolutions of 1917). This is a historical thesis rather than a philosophical one: it is a thesis about what has actually happened. In the part of his paper where he puts forward this thesis, Berlin is writing more as a historian of ideas than as a philosopher pure and simple. In Berlin's case his activity as a historian and as a philosopher are intimately entwined. However, it is important to realise that philosophers don't primarily put forward empirical hypotheses: their main concerns are the analysis of concepts (such as Berlin engages in, in his examination of the nature of the two types of freedom); and the analysis of arguments.)

The argument Berlin has presented about past perversions of the concept of positive freedom is based on empirical evidence; that is, its truth or falsity depends on facts, facts which are ultimately discovered by observation. It is not a logically necessary consequence of the intrinsic nature of the concept of positive freedom that it is prone to this sort of misuse. It is a contingent fact: this is just how it is, but it could have been otherwise. This distinction between what is logically necessary and what is contingent is an important one. If something is logically necessary you can't deny it without contradicting yourself. For example, it is logically necessary that all vertebrates have backbones; it is true by definition since ‘vertebrate’ just means ‘creature with a backbone’. Similarly it is necessarily true that if someone is dead they are no longer living: that just follows from the meaning of ‘dead’. Saying ‘I've found a vertebrate with no backbone’, or ‘My uncle is dead but he's still alive’ (unless you are giving a new meaning to ‘vertebrate’ or ‘alive’, in which case you would be guilty of equivocation) involves a contradiction. It would be like saying ‘Here is a creature which both has and does not have a backbone’ or ‘My uncle both is and is not alive’. In contrast contingent facts need not be as they are: as a consequence we usually have to make some sort of observation or conduct some sort of experiment to discover what they are. So, for example, it could have turned out historically that a concept of negative freedom was more often used as an excuse for oppression than a positive one. It is a contingent fact that, at least according to Berlin, things are the other way round. The way Berlin arrived at his conclusion was by considering the evidence of recent history.

Activity 5: Necessary truths and contingent statements

Which of the following are logically necessary truths, and which contingent statements?

  1. All aardvarks are animals.

  2. All heads of industry are overpaid.

  3. Many philosophers wear glasses.

  4. Some politicians are corrupt.

  5. Nothing that is red all over is turquoise.

  6. Everyone who is over 18 is over 16.

  7. The concept of negative freedom has rarely been invoked to justify oppression.

Check your answers against those below before reading on.


  1. logically necessary.

  2. contingent.

  3. contingent.

  4. contingent.

  5. logically necessary.

  6. logically necessary.

  7. contingent.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has over 40 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus