Liberty: Who Needs It? 08:21

What does “liberty” mean in a philosophical context? Brennan parses out how the word is used.

Further Reading
Isaiah Berlin, Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty
(includes the essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”)

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Brennan: The United States calls itself the land of the free.  And a lot of other countries say that they’re into freedom.  But we’re talking about being free.  What does that even mean and what’s so good about freedom in the first place?  There’s a classic text by an English philosopher named Isaiah Berlin called Two Types of Liberty, and in that essay, he says if you look at the word liberty, this is a term in common English.  It’s not a technical philosophical term like say the term “supervenience.”  It’s a lay person’s term.  And if you look through the history of the English language, he says this word’s been used in over 200 different ways.  It has hundreds of possible different meanings.  Nevertheless, there are maybe two principled ways of dividing up, two principled ways that people tend to use the term as so he dubs it negative and positive freedom, negative and positive liberty.  And I’m going to use the words liberty and freedom to be synonyms here just as he does.  

So negative freedom or negative liberty is supposed to connote the absence of something.  And when you call it negative, it’s not to pass judgment on it.  It’s not like to say that negative liberty is a bad thing.  it’s just to say that it’s about the absence of something.  So in the same way, Friedrich Heinrich says that peace is the absence of violence and war.  So what is negative freedom?  Well people use it so many different ways and Hobbes, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes has very expansive notion of negative liberty.  He says you’re free when there’s absence of interference or obstacles in your way, literally anything that interferes when you’re trying to achieve your goals counts as an impediment to freedom.  So Hobbes would say there’s no metaphysical difference between a tree falling on you versus like a person pinning you down who’s trying to mug you versus say a policeman pulling you down because you were trying to mug somebody else.  In every single case, your freedom has been impeded.  There’s a moral difference among those cases and one case is just a bad thing happened, in other case, you’re doing something wrong, and the third case, it’s okay that your freedom’s being taken away because you shouldn’t have it because you’re trying to mug somebody.  But they’re all the same in terms of your difference of freedom.  Now some people, they don’t like this.  They have a more moralized conception of freedom so John Locke would say well freedom is about the absence of wrongful interference with your rights.  But all these different views of freedom is about freedom is the absence of interference with you in some way.  

So there also what we might call positive conceptions of liberty.  So Berlin, when he was talking about this, he looks at the ancient Greeks and says they had a conception of liberty where it’s about self mastery.  You’re free when you sort of autonomous self control.  And we often talk about freedom in that way.  But in other people’s hands especially let’s say Marxist or left wing thinkers, they tend to think of positive liberty as being about the power to achieve your goals.  So when we say that superman can fly, he has the freedom to fly and I don’t, what we mean is he has the power to fly and I don’t have that kind of power.  And on this conception of positive liberty where positive liberty is about the ability to achieve your goals, it looks like wealth is closely connected to freedom.  So as the Marxist philosopher Jerry Cohen said, if you think of it, money or rather the wealth that money represents is like a set of tickets.  The more of that you have, the more you’re able to do various things.  So a person who has billions of dollars can do anything he or she wants, and the person who has very little money can do very little.  

So throughout history for the past couple hundred, maybe a hundred years or so, there’s been this big debate about which is the real liberty, which is the right way to use the term or like confusion is one way real liberty, the other way’s not real liberty.  And often, people have thought that these different conceptions of liberty are closely connected to different ideologies so you often see that classical liberal or libertarian thinkers tend to think of liberty in terms of some sort of negative liberty, some of the absence of wrongful interference with the rights; whereas more left wing thinkers and Marxists tend to think of it in terms of positive liberty, what really matters is the freedom to achieve our goals through having the means to achieve our goals.  And Berlin was one of the first people to think this way.  He said if you advocate positive liberty, you’re going to be advocating a rather expansive state that’s going to in a sense force us to be free.  So I’m not so sure about that though.  I think there’s probably a mistake because I think most of the people who’ve been kind of party to this debate have been making an assumption, an assumption that they shouldn’t make which is that liberty is by definition a thing that ought to be promoted by government in a very direct way.  That doesn’t seem right.  Rather, it seems what we should do is first just figure out what we mean by the word liberty, and then after we figure that out, then it’s going to be an open question,  “Is liberty so defined a good thing or bad thing?  Is it something that your owed as a matter of justice or not?”  And then the third question is “What should we do to promote it or protect it if anything?”  

And government’s only going to get their job of doing that if it’s particularly good at it.  It might turn out that government isn’t particularly good at it.  So I think for that reason, there’s no particularly good reason for classical liberals to deny that positive liberty is a form of liberty or that it’s a valuable thing so Marxist would say it doesn’t really matter whether your rights are protected if you don’t have any money, if you don’t have any wealth, if you don’t have any opportunity because you’re just still going to be living under a bridge and poor and desperate.  Alright, so Marxists would say that what matters is that real people have the real means to achieve their ends whatever their ends would be.  And who would agree with that?  The classical liberal economist, Adam Smith.  In effect, that’s what he’s saying in The Wealth of Nations.  In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith reverses a lot of economic thinking at the time because he says the way you measure the wealth of nations isn’t by looking at the size of the king’s treasury but by looking at the amount of stuff and opportunity that the average person has, the typical person has.  So Adam Smith and others might say, sure, positive liberty matters and interestingly, it looks like this positive liberty is found in commercial societies so the average person in a commercial society has a high degree of positive liberty; whereas people in the non-commercial societies don’t.  So one consistent finding that you’ll see in economic thinking in the social sciences is that protecting negative liberty, imbuing everybody with extensive set of rights against interference might itself be the thing that tends to promote positive liberty.  It might itself be the very thing that makes it so that people have more power to achieve their ends whatever they might be.  So I think when it comes to thinking about liberty, we’re often told upfront, you have to choose does liberty mean this, does liberty mean that.  The English language uses the word liberty to refer to 200 different things.  You’ve got to pick one and deny the other 199.  I don’t think there’s any particularly good reason to do that.  Instead, it’s just good to be upfront and say, “What I mean by liberty is this.  Here’s why I think it’s good,” and then move on with the real conversation.  

Question: So a lot of times that you present to people the difference between positive and negative liberty or positive and negative rights, they’ll say negative rights theory is interesting but how can someone even have the basic right to life if they’re starving.  Therefore, some people need to have some positive rights like the right to food and someone else should be forced to give them food or pay for it.

Brennan: Yeah, that’s a really good question.  You’re touching on something which is that negative rights simply prevents other people from interfering with you so we’d say you have a right to free speech, we mean that as a negative liberty.  We mean other people can’t stop you from talking but it might still that you don’t have much opportunity to talk because maybe you don’t have access to a press.  It might be that with food as well.  If we say you have a negative right to life, what we mean is I shouldn’t kill you but it doesn’t mean I have any obligation to feed you; whereas if I say my children have a right to life, I held against me, what I mean is not only am I required not to kill them which is a negative conception of freedom but I’m required to feed them as well.  So, so far, all we’ve done is really de-viewed up the concepts of negative and positive.  We haven’t taken any stances on what rights people have if any, whether they should have any right, what freedom they ought to have.  We’re just separating the conceptual landscape.  So one of the big questions people are going to have is should we have positive rights, do we have positive rights against one another, do I have a right to be fed? And who should feed me?”

Topics Philosophy