Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Abuse and Positive Liberty

Isaiah Berlin famously made the distinction between negative and positive liberty in his essay Two Concepts of Liberty, which he delivered in a lecture at Oxford University in 1958. It seems plain to me that totalitarianism had been much on his mind (and why not!) and he wanted to show how some forms of liberty could be abused. It's tempting, because of the negative/positive nomenclature, to think they are two sides of a coin, but this is wrong. Berlin is talking about two distinct concepts of liberty.

By negative liberty Berlin means the freedom to conduct our lives without obstruction from other people or groups of people, including the state.

How free we are in the negative sense depends on the range of options available to us, and their nature. Berlin illustrates this liberty by comparing it to the availability of doors:
The extent of a man’s negative liberty is, as it were, a function of what doors, and how many are open to him; upon what prospects they open; and how open they are. 
We needn’t take advantage of the opportunities available to us; they should simply be there. For example, as a child growing up in the sixties, I spent Sundays in a fug of boredom. Sunday specific laws shut down shops and entertainments that were available on other days of the week, thus reducing my negative liberty. Today, my daughter regularly shops on a Sunday, visits the cinema and goes bowling. In that respect, she is freer, in Berlin’s negative sense, because those ‘doors’ are unlocked. However, I may ground her, and once again reduce her negative liberty. I am freer than I was too, even if I never go shopping, to the cinema, or bowling on a Sunday; it’s sufficient that I can if I want. Conversely, the religious might think that opportunities for worship have been reduced by this relaxation of Sunday laws, adversely affecting their negative liberty in this respect.

Berlin is concerned with political freedoms only, so natural constraints are excluded. If Sunday bowling was available to me, but I couldn’t play because I was disabled, this wouldn’t be an infringement of my negative liberty, since the restriction has not been placed on me by another person, group of people, or the state. So there is an element of coercion in the concept.

By positive liberty Berlin means the freedom to choose the ideal life; ideal, that is, according to informed reason.

Berlin draws the distinction between two inner selves – a ‘higher’ rational self and a ‘lower’ empirical self. If we behave according to our higher self we would act in the ideal way to fulfil our potential and goals as human beings. Our baser instincts and desires corrupt this ideal mode of behaviour.

So we may have been granted a completely free hand in Berlin’s negative sense, but still be unable to play that hand. To return to the Sunday example, I now have a number of activities available to me, on that day, which were not there before. Despite these distractions, I might spend the day sorting out some jobs around the house, doing some gardening, and enjoying time with my daughter baking a cake. Let us assume these are the proper goals of my higher rational self. However, if there’s a big game on I may ‘find’ myself down the pub watching Sky’s Super Sunday, and neglect those higher callings. Ironically, in this instance more negative liberty (the pub’s open and there’s Sunday football on TV) has resulted in less liberty for me, in Berlin’s positive sense. If I manage to resist the call of the pub, I would increase my positive liberty.

In some cases, coercion is employed by the state to help people realise these higher goals. For example, down the pub, it is now illegal to smoke inside, and this reduction in negative liberty is aimed at increasing our positive liberty, by gently coercing a healthier lifestyle. This is a paternalistic control imposed by the collective, to help us achieve more well-being; something we ‘really’ want; that is, what our rational higher self really wants.

Because some limited paternalistic coercion is understood as acceptable to increase positive liberty, a danger presents itself. Berlin argues that misuse of the notion of positive liberty can occur when this paternalism is extended, and a ‘final solution’ imposed by groups of people, or states, on the individuals within. By ‘final solution’, he means that those in authority come to believe there is one ideal way of living that reconciles every person’s ideal way of living, and so maximises freedom for the person and the state. Berlin does not think that such a reconciliation of a population’s aims is possible, so such a project would be ill-conceived from the start.

Coercion by the group is then seen as an extension of the individual higher self, and a judgement is made that what an individual truly wants is better known by the group than the individual. And, further, that the individual being coerced actually wants these things, only sub-consciously, to achieve more positive liberty. The result is paradoxical: coercion is employed to make folk ‘free’. Berlin saw the dangers of such misuse in the totalitarianism of the twentieth century, in Nazism and communism; an authoritarianism which coerces individuals for their own supposed good. Although I think Berlin had twentieth century totalitarianism uppermost in his mind when describing these concepts, it's plain to me that they also apply well to that other seat of authoritarianism - religion. Once a church gains sufficient power to wield over the populace, primarily through indoctrination, they wield that power by asserting their knowledge of the 'real' greater good and demanding believers follow their unlikely doctrines, for their own good.

It’s a rule of law that would be hard to argue against. If a citizen agrees with a course of action, all well and good; if she disagrees with it the authority could say that the higher self ‘really’ agrees, and assume a mandate for the greater good of the state, or religion. It’s a rule imposed against the wishes of the people but supposedly for the wishes of the people, in the mistaken belief that a set of unified wishes can be established. And so institutional cover-ups of massive abuse to further the institution become the norm. As Enda Kenny said:
The rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and 'reputation'.
One can't help thinking that throughout, the Catholic authorities believed they were protecting the priests because it was the best for the Church, because they know what is best for everyone.

That sort of approach cannot be allowed to continue in any institution. Until religious ones drop their claims to  a divine truth, the danger of this abuse of positive liberty, and therefore children and adults, continues.


Warburton, N. (2002) Arguments for Freedom (A211 Book 1), Milton Keynes, The Open University


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