Freedom or freedoms?

References to the concept of freedom are ubiquitous throughout contemporary political discourse, and given the way people speak it seems that everyone is in favour of freedom, and yet people disagree deeply about the nature of this concept. Following Isaiah Berlin I think there is more than one concept of freedom, or liberty, but in distinction from Berlin and others who follow him I want to suggest that different concepts of freedom often relate to distinctive subject matters. Such that just as we can speak of freedom of choice, we so too can speak to a free character or freedom as a status of a citizen. These multiple concepts of freedom are not necessarily in competition, but rather represent the way in which a single word can come to have multiple meanings that while related concern different subject matters or areas of life. To further illuminate the proceeding I will examine the concept of freedom as it pertains to choice, character and status.

Arguably the most common way of talking about freedom, especially in North America, is in the context of saying that someone is free if they are able to make choices without coercive interference from another.  For this concept of freedom, the dominant subject matter of freedom is choice, as we are free in so far as external forces do not prohibit us from making certain choices. This concept of freedom is negative in that it concerns an absence of something, which is in this case is the absence of interference.

Another concept of freedom relates to character. On this account, freedom is part of the character of a person. For example, we might say that a person always strives to excel over others in all competitions, but never finds themselves satisfied is unfree because they are enslaved by their desire to win, when they would be happier and more fulfilled if their character led them to recognize that what truly matters to their happiness is not winning every possible competition, but something else entirely. Consequently what makes this person unfree is not that they make certain choices, but rather that their character is dominated by a desire that should not dominate their character. Thus, this concept of freedom relates to character. Furthermore, unlike the first concept of freedom this concept is positive, as a free person will be one who has a psyche that is properly ordered, so freedom on this concept is not about an absence, but about a presence of order in the psyche. This way of speaking has become marginalized, and may strike us as antiquated, but we see it arise when people talk about the way in which people’s desires can render them unfree. Furthermore, there does seem to be something about it that resonates with us, because when we think of a free person, we don’t just think of someone who is able to choose freely in absence of external interference, but rather of a person whose psyche is ordered.

An additional concept of freedom and the most overtly political conception relates freedom to a status. To be free, on this account, one must not be subject to arbitrary power by the state or other individuals. Consequently, on this conception of freedom, freedom relates to a status, because one’s status as a citizen of a free state is what provides you with protection from being subject to arbitrary power, and consequently your status as a citizen constitutes your freedom.  Within an academic context this type of approach has been taken up by republican theorists with a particularly Neo – Roman bent such as Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, but it is not merely an academic concept as many people will refer to the way in which groups like gays, women and ethnic minorities are not free, and by this they do not just mean that these individuals are not allowed to make certain choices. Rather, what renders these groups of individuals unfree is that their current formal status as citizens does not adequately protect them from the arbitrary power of others.  Like the first concept of freedom this is a negative concept of freedom as it concerns the absence of something, rather than the presence of something.

These three concepts of freedom show that the distinction between concepts of freedom is perhaps wider than we might think. It is not as if we have multiple concepts of freedom that all have a different interpretation of what constitutes a free choice, instead these concepts of freedom are distinct in that they relate to different areas of life or subject matters. As a result there is no reason to necessarily see these conceptions of freedom as opposed to one another. In fact, I find myself attracted to all three concepts of freedom, and it seems to me we have significant reason to see these concepts as complementary rather than opposed, as they all seem to involve something we deeply esteem.  We deeply admire the person who is not enslaved to certain desires, we value our ability to make choices for ourselves in our own lives, and we value being protected from arbitrary coercion by our equal status as a citizen. It should be noted that none of this suggests that there is no conflict between differing concepts of freedom, but rather that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are not necessarily inherently incompatible with one another.

It could be objected that there is an inherent conflict between these differing concepts of freedom as the person who is free according to the free choice conception need not be the same person who is free on the free character conception. But while this critique is accurate in one sense it misses the point of the argument I am making. Yes, according to the free choice conception a person is free if they are not interfered with in their choices, which is different from the conception of a free person according to the free character conception, but it can be responded that there is no single definitive sense in which we could speak of somebody as a free person, but rather there are different senses in which we can be free that do not necessarily exclude one another, such that we could be free in one sense, while being unfree in another. Unless we hanker after a single definitive sense of the concept of freedom, there is no reason to think that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are fundamentally incompatible.

In addition, one other thing that we might take away from this subject is the political difficulty that is created by the concept of freedom. Given that there are so many various sense of the term freedom that are used it would seem that in any political discussion when the concept of freedom is invoked we are liable to confusion, misunderstanding and talking past one another. As a result we ought to be careful in invoking a concept of freedom when we engage in dialogue to ensure that our interlocutors understand what we mean by freedom, and that we are not merely talking past them.

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8 thoughts on “Freedom or freedoms?

  1. Excellent points, these conceptions of freedom seem quite separate and yet equally important. I suppose the question that presents itself is how far should the state go to protect these freedoms? I think your way of classifying the types of freedom as negative or positive is quite useful, as it seems to be agreed upon by many that the state should provide the negative freedoms, but it is less agreed upon that it should provide the positive freedom outlined as the second type — doing so would involve government in equalizing welfare/happiness. Is there a principled reason why the government should work for the negative conceptions of freedom and not the positive? Perhaps, but insofar as we are concerned with freedom for all, we are concerned with freedoms positive and negative, and this might suggest a more egalitarian outlook for a government. What do you think are some important implications of the distinction between positive and negative freedom?

    • Thanks for the interesting comment.

      I don’t think there is a principled reason to avoid having the state ensure positive liberty in general, but some conceptions of positive liberty may justify questionable forms of state intervention. For example, someone like TH Green endorses a positive conception of liberty, but his conception merely requires that state institutions facilitate the ability of individuals to develop their capacities. It is positive, because even if you are not encumbered by external forces you can be rendered unfree by certain pathological desires. However, there are some conceptions of positive liberty that would require trying to force people to value particular things and take particular kinds of actions which seems questionable and unjustifiable. Therefore, we have no particular reason in principle to reject state involvement in the protection of positive liberty.

      But the same rationale goes with negative freedom. I do not believe an unlimited freedom to make contracts make sense as it does not consider the way in which hierarchy and necessity can make these contracts unfair. Therefore, like with positive liberty there is no reason in principle to think that negative freedoms ought not to be protected, but there are certain negative freedoms that ought not to be fully protected because they conflict with other deeply important values.

      One interesting implication of the distinction between positive and negative liberty is that our freedom is not rooted in a single source. Libertarians tend to see our unfreedom as rooted in the state’s power over us , and certain Christians tend to see our freedom as rooted in our ability to overcome or at least distance ourself from sinful desire. If our unfreedom is not rooted in a single source this makes simplistic political philosophies that try to realize one value like negative liberty often seem deeply problematic, as while they may confront one source of our unfreedom, they do not address the human situation in its entirety. In this way the distinction leads me to a fairly thorough going pluralism. What implications does this distinction have in your mind?

  2. I was just about to write a post very similar to this. I have a few other kinds of freedom to add, and I want to expand on the positive freedom you describe. I also like the positive/negative distinction. I’ll definitely refer to your writing in my next post. Well done!

  3. Pingback: What is Freedom? | Diotima's Ladder

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