Although Isaiah Berlin is often credited with distinguishing positive from negative liberty, this view was, in fact, put forward in the 19th century by, among others, the English political philosopher T. H. Green, who provided a particularly cogent analysis of what positive liberty, or freedom, implies. Green put the matter this way:
We shall probably all agree that freedom, rightly understood, is the greatest of blessings; that its attainment is the true end of all our efforts as citizens. But when we thus speak of freedom, we should consider carefully what we mean by it. We do not mean merely freedom from restraint or compulsion. We do not mean merely freedom to do as we like irrespective of what it is that we like. We do not mean a freedom that can be enjoyed by one man or one set of men at the cost of a loss of freedom to others. When we speak of freedom as something to be so highly prized, we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others. We mean by it a power which each man exercises through the help or security given him by his fellow-men, and which he in turn helps to secure for them. When we measure the progress of a society by its growth in freedom, we measure it by the increasing development and exercise on the whole of those powers of contributing to social good with which we believe the members of the society to be endowed; in short, by the greater power on the part of the citizens as a body to make the most and best of themselves.
There are formidable defenders of the idea of positive liberty among contemporary political philosophers, among them Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Cass Sunstein, Ronald Dworkin, and Henry Shue. All of them conclude from their somewhat diverse approaches that the freedom or liberty to make progress (or advance, develop, or flourish) in one’s life is even more important to respect, secure, and protect than is negative liberty. Negative liberty, in the tradition of Locke’s natural rights theory, is the condition of not being interfered with or intruded on in one’s person and estate. This liberty is dubbed negative because it requires that everyone abstain from acting aggressively—that they refrain from invasive or intrusive conduct. Positive liberty or rights involve securing, for those in need, the capabilities to achieve the ends they seek.
The understanding of human nature underlying these two schools of political thought is markedly different. In the Lockean tradition of negative liberty—or the right to it—human beings are taken to have the capacity and responsibility to advance in their lives once a condition of negative freedom has been secured for them. In other words, (negatively) free persons can and should strive to flourish in their lives, and, to this end, they may only make use of provisions from others that are given or voluntarily exchanged. Social cooperation—in such areas as education, industry, science, philanthropy, and the like—is deemed quite likely (although not guaranteed) as a function of the self-responsible conduct in which everyone is expected to engage.
With respect to the conception of human nature that underlies the notion of positive liberty, it is generally held that those who are indigent, poor, or otherwise importantly lacking in provisions needed for their lives to flourish require support mandated from others so that they will become capable or enabled. Without such support, they will likely languish in their deprived situations and will ultimately suffer the indignity of helplessness.
Implicit in the position of those who embrace the idea of positive liberty is an emphasis on the right of all citizens to take part in political decision making. “Put in the simplest terms, one might say that a democratic society is a free society because it is a self-determined society, and that a member of that society is free to the extent that he or she participates in its democratic process.” Furthermore, “there are also individualist applications of the concept of positive freedom. For example, it is sometimes said that a government should aim actively to create the conditions necessary for individuals to be self-sufficient or to achieve self-realization.”
The basic idea here is that, by enjoying this kind of positive political liberty—namely, the liberty to take part in the determination and configuration of laws and public policy—citizens are capable of securing for themselves the conditions that are needed for their flourishing. They are able to vote into law the appropriate and necessary distribution of society’s resources.
Champions of negative liberty, who argue that laws and public policy should concentrate on extirpating social conduct that invades persons and properties of citizens (i.e., that violate our negative rights), object to this idea on the grounds that voting for laws and public policies that involve distribution of society’s resources amounts to unjust rights violations and discourage self-responsible behavior. Supporters of a political theory predicated on positive liberty reject this notion on the grounds that, without such mandated provisions, too many individuals will remain poor, ignorant, and helpless in innumerable ways.
The debate between the two schools hinges on numerous features of their respective positions. Are men and women who are forced to work for objectives to which they haven’t given their consent being treated unjustly? Will these laws undermine the productivity of those being forced to work in this way? In a society where resources are conceived of as commonly owned, will this inevitably lead to what has been called the tragedy of the commons? Alternatively, is the self-motivation that negative liberty appears to require simply a myth? Are those who are deprived indeed capable of choosing to advance, thus moving from their deprived condition toward one where their goals can be fulfilled? Is the protection of negative liberty or rights going to favor those who are well endowed to start with so that they will necessarily be advantaged while their fellow citizens will be left deprived? Will this create a class of privileged citizens?
Both negative and positive liberty (or rights) can be defended on either deontological or utilitarian grounds. The deontological approach—or something akin to this, such as a self-perfectionist or neo-Aristotelian position—implies that what is crucial in a human community is that the dignity of persons be respected and protected and thus they may guide their lives by their own decisions, for better or for worse. Thus, it does not matter so much how well off members of the community are—what is crucial is whether justice, predicated on a conception of negative liberty, or rights, prevails. Some go on to argue that a regime of purely negative liberty is more likely than not to also secure widespread well-being, but that is not its most crucial objective.
The utilitarian approach focuses on actual well-being and how prevalent it is in a society that respects and protects either negative or positive liberty or rights. If, in fact, one of these approaches to community life—to the laws and public policies of the society—is most likely to produce widespread well-being, over the long run, it will be deemed superior to the other.
Among those who argue for positive liberty or rights, some hold that these are the only kind that, in fact, exist. For example, in his book Basic Rights, Henry Shue maintains that, because negative liberty or rights are ineffective without being protected and their protection amounts to providing a service to others, negative liberty or rights actually amount to positive ones. Everyone is owed the protection of his or her negative liberty, but this protection is something positive—something that needs to be provided so as to be practically useful, even meaningful.
A similar line of reasoning has been advanced by Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes in their work The Cost of Right, Why Liberty Depends on Taxation. Without being dependent on taxes, which others owe as a reflection of one’s positive right (or, in Sen’s terminology, an enablement), no one can enjoy negative liberty—it will go unsecured and unprotected. In contrast, supporters of the notion of negative liberty or rights argue in response that unless the negative liberty or right exists, unless individuals have them, it is conceptually odd to speak of the need to secure or protect them.
We can be sure that this discussion will continue for some time because many deem it central to the issue of whether a robust welfare state or a society of limited government is the truly just political order, at least within the framework of the Western liberal political tradition. For example, the philosopher James P. Sterba has argued in several of his books, and is indeed planning several works, in support of welfare or positive liberty or rights, whereas the philosophers Jan Narveson, Eric Mack, Douglas B. Rasmussen, and others have argued, instead, for negative liberty or rights.
Of course, it also is possible to argue that this entire discussion rests on the mistaken notion that individuals have rights. Communitarians, among them Auguste Comte, object to this view. Comte argued, as far back as the early 19th century, as follows:
… Everything we have belongs then to Humanity… . Positivism never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service. On what human foundation then could rest the idea of right, which in reason should imply some previous efficiency? Whatever may be our efforts, the longest life well employed will never enable us to pay back but an imperceptible part of what we have received. And yet it would only be after a complete return that we should be justly authorized to require reciprocity for the new services. All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral. This [“to live for others”], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.
Contemporary communitarians, such as Charles Taylor, also hold that human beings actually belong to some community or other, and their conduct and pursuit of various goals are contingent on gaining the sanction of the community—they have no right to act on their own initiative unless they gained the community’s permission to do so. Any notion of individualism that takes it that people are independent agents is a false atomism.
Critics of communitarianism claim, however, that there are conceptual problems with denying some notion of individualism because in advancing their views communitarians are conducting themselves individualistically. They are assuming that they have the right to voice their views, that they need no permission from the community to disagree with the community, which is, at least in large portions of the West, individualistic.
Another source of support for the idea of positive liberty is a deterministic view of human behavior, which is increasingly popular. Those people who do not fare well may not be regarded as having failed, but more as incapable of doing what needs to be done for them to get ahead in their lives. As John Rawls puts the matter, the assertion that we “deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our talents is … problematic; for such character depends in good part upon fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit.” Thus, having more or less (or a higher or lower quality) of what others have is of no moral significance, but a matter of the various impersonal forces that shape a person’s life. Hence, it may be inferred that all who are disadvantaged are victims of circumstances and do not deserve their lot. This view counters the conception of negative liberty that libertarians embrace—namely, that once adult men or women are free from interference from others, their flourishing or lack thereof in life must be largely their own achievement.
In any case, despite the attempt to dismiss the debate between advocates of negative and positive liberty, the issue appears to have staying power because political philosophers will continue to affirm certain kinds of liberties or rights for human beings. Which are the proper kind is something that will remain both theoretically and practically significant.
Libertarians embrace the view that only negative liberty is consistent with a free society, believing as they do that individual goals are attainable without involving government and without mandating what libertarians deem to amount to involuntary servitude from others. They support this position from a variety of perspectives, but it is central to all these that individual human beings are sovereign and must not be used against their will by others, including the government.
Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Constant, Benjamin. Political Writings. Biancamaria Fontana, ed. and trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Conway, David. Classical Liberalism: The Unvanquished Ideal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. London: J. W. Parker and Son, 1859.
Narveson, Jan. The Libertarian Idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “The Social Contract” and Other Later Political Writings. Victor Gourevitch, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Originally published .