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Two concepts of freedom
Two concepts of freedom

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3.3 Positive freedom

Positive freedom is a more difficult notion to grasp than negative. Put simply it is freedom to do something rather than freedom from interference. Negative freedom is simply a matter of the number and kind of options that lie open for you and their relevance for your life; it is a matter of what you aren't prevented from doing; the doors that lie unlocked. Positive freedom, in contrast, is a matter of what you can actually do. All sorts of doors may be open, giving you a large amount of negative freedom, and yet you might find that there are still obstacles to taking full advantage of your opportunities. Berlin sometimes talks of positive liberty in terms of the question ‘Who is master?’ I want to be in control of my life, but there may, for example, be internal obstacles to my living the way I really want to. Here we might talk of my increasing my freedom (in the positive sense) by overcoming my less rational desires.

This is easier to understand if you consider some examples. I might recognise the value of study for making my life go well, but keep getting sidetracked by less important, immediately gratifying activities, such as going out for a drink, or staying in and spending the whole evening watching ‘soaps’ on television. I know that studying is important to me, and will increase my control over my life. But I really enjoy going out for a drink and I really enjoy watching television ‘soaps’. So the short-term gratifications tend to seduce me away from activities which are better for me in the long term. My positive freedom would be increased if my ‘higher’ rational side could overcome my ‘lower’ tendency to be sidetracked. It is not a question of having more, or more significant, opportunities: the opportunity for me to study is there now. Rather it is a question of being able to take advantage of the opportunity by being in control of my life. Positive freedom in this example is a matter of my having the capacity to take the rational option as well as having the opportunity: whereas, according to a concept of negative freedom, the opportunities that I have alone determine the extent of my freedom. I am free to study in the negative sense since no one is preventing me from doing it; no one has locked away my books, or hidden my pen and paper; no one has dragged me out of the door to go to the pub, or chained me to my armchair in front of the television. However, I am not free in the positive sense; I am not truly free, because I am a slave to my tendency to be sidetracked. True positive freedom would involve seizing control of my life and making rational choices for myself. Those who defend positive freedom believe that just because no one is preventing you from doing something, it does not follow that you are genuinely free. Positive freedom is a matter of achieving your potential, not just having potential.

Consider another example, a real one this time. James Boswell, the eighteenth-century diarist and biographer of Dr Johnson, included the following in his journal for Sunday 31 March 1776. It describes how he spent a night in London following a dinner with friends:

I behaved pretty decently. But when I got into the street, the whoring rage came upon me. I thought I would devote a night to it. I was weary at the same time that I was tumultuous. I went to Charing Cross Bagnio with a wholesome-looking, bouncing wench, stripped, and went to bed with her. But after my desires were satiated by repeated indulgence, I could not rest; so I parted from her after she had honestly delivered to me my watch and ring and handkerchief, which I should not have missed I was so drunk. I took a hackney-coach and was set down in Berkeley Square, and went home cold and disturbed and dreary and vexed, with remorse rising like a black cloud without any distinct form; for in truth my moral principle as to chastity was absolutely eclipsed for a time. I was in the miserable state of those whom the Apostle represents as working all uncleanness with greediness. I thought of my valuable spouse with the highest regard and warmest affection, but had a confused notion that my corporeal connection with whores did not interfere with my love for her. Yet I considered that I might injure my health, which there could be no doubt was an injury to her. This is an exact state of my mind at the time. It shocks me to review it.

(Boswell (1992 edn), p. 295)

Here Boswell's confession reveals clearly the tension between two sides of his character. In his sober reflection he can see the foolishness of his having spent the night with a prostitute. Even soon after the event he is stricken with remorse, which he attempts to dispel by means of the transparent rationalisation that somehow, despite breaking his principle of chastity, his infidelity does not interfere with his love for his wife. Yet he can't hide behind self-serving justifications for long, when he realises that he has risked catching a venereal disease, something that undoubtedly has the potential to harm her. His higher self endorses a principle of chastity and fidelity; his lower self succumbs to temptations of the flesh. According to some theories of positive freedom, Boswell's ‘true’ freedom could only be realised by achieving a greater degree of self-mastery. To achieve ‘true’ freedom, your higher self must have control over the impulses of the lower self. Otherwise, you are simply a slave to passing emotions and desires; lusts in this case. Sober, Boswell is shocked by his actions of the previous night. Perhaps the only way he could have achieved ‘true’ freedom in the circumstances, given his lustful nature, would be to have been forced to go straight home to bed after dining with his friends. This would certainly have infringed his negative liberty in the sense of reducing his opportunities, but it would have allowed him to do what at some level he felt was best for him, and thereby to enjoy positive freedom in this respect.

From this it should be clear that the notion of positive liberty may rely on the belief that the self can be split into a higher and a lower self, and that the higher or rational self's priorities should be encouraged to overcome the lower, less rational self's inclinations: the passing desires that if acted on can so upset a life plan. The higher self has desires for what will make the individual's life go well; it wishes to pursue worthwhile and noble goals. The lower self is easily led astray, often by irrational appetites. Consequently, advocates of positive liberty argue, we need to be protected against our own lower selves in order to realise the goals of our higher, ‘true’ selves. In many cases this can only be achieved by coercing us to behave in ways which seem to go against our desires; in fact this coercion is necessary to allow us to fulfil our rational higher desires, desires which we may even be unaware of having. On this view, the freedom which is self-mastery, or positive freedom, may only be achievable if our lower selves are constrained in their actions. By preventing me from going out for a drink or from watching television all night you may help me to realise my ‘true’ freedom which is achievable only if I spend a significant portion of my available time studying. This is what I would have wanted had I been truly free. If Boswell had been forced to go home straight after dinner rather than given the opportunity to spend the night with a prostitute, his positive freedom might have been significantly extended.

This is Berlin's description of positive liberty and its origins:

The ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men's acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer – deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role – that is, of conceiving goals and policies of my own and realizing them. This is at least part of what I mean when I say that I am rational, and that it is my reason that distinguishes me as a human being from the rest of the world. I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for his choices and able to explain them by reference to his own ideas and purposes. I feel free to the degree that I believe this to be true, and enslaved to the degree that I am made to realize that it is not.

(Ibid., p. 131; see, pp. 160–1)

It is important to realise that Berlin's notion of positive liberty doesn't just apply to self-mastery at the individual level; it also encompasses theories of freedom which emphasise collective control over common life. So, for example, when someone calls a society a free society because its members play an active role in controlling it through their participation in democratic institutions, they are appealing to a notion of positive freedom rather than of negative freedom. In this example the people as a whole are free because they, collectively, have mastery over the life of their society. A free society based upon the concept of negative freedom would typically be one in which state interference in individual lives is kept to a minimum. This would not necessarily be a democratic society since a benevolent dictator might be concerned to provide an extensive realm of individual negative freedom for each of his or her subjects.

Activity 3: Positive and negative freedom

Which sort of conception of freedom, positive or negative, is appealed to in each case?

  1. The state intervenes to prevent an alcoholic drinking himself to death on the grounds that this is what, in his sober and rational moments, he would clearly desire and so is a basic condition of his gaining true freedom.

  2. The state protects an alcoholic's freedom to consume huge amounts of whisky in the privacy of her own home.

  3. I cease to be free when I follow my baser sensual appetites: I am in thrall to mere passing desire.

  4. It is an infringement on my freedom to prevent me from engaging in consensual sado-masochism in the privacy of my own dungeon.

  5. I don't need the nanny state forcing me to have fluoride in my drinking water for my own good: that infringes my freedom.

  6. You can only really be free in a well-governed state with harsh but well-chosen laws which shape your life in a rational way, thereby encouraging you to flourish. Increasing your opportunities to make a mess of your life doesn't increase your freedom in any meaningful sense.

Compare your answers with those below before reading on.


  1. positive.

  2. negative.

  3. positive.

  4. negative.

  5. negative.

  6. positive.

Berlin's distinction between negative and positive freedom remains a useful one, and much of are structured around it. However, his aim in the paper was not simply to make the distinction, but rather to make a claim about the ways in which theories of positive freedom have been misused.