Positive liberty

Positive liberty

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Liberalism sidebarPositive liberty refers to the opportunity and ability to act to fulfill one's own potential, as opposed to "negative liberty", which refers to freedom from restraint.Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. 1969.] Inherent to positive liberty is the idea that liberty is the ability of citizens to participate in their government. As Isaiah Berlin noted, positive liberty is interested in action by citizens in the government. This is why he called it "positive liberty", for pro-action. Berlin distinguished between two forms or concepts of liberty – negative liberty and positive liberty – and argued that the latter concept has often been used to cover up abuse, leading to the curtailment of people's negative liberties "for their own good".

Berlin believed that positive liberty nearly always gave rise to the abuse of power. For when a political leadership believes that they hold the philosophical key to a better future, this sublime end can be used to justify drastic and brutal means.

Although Berlin's 1958 essay "Two Concepts of Liberty", is typically acknowledged with being the first to explicitly draw the distinction between positive and negative liberty, Frankfurt School psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm drew a similar distinction between negative and positive freedom in his 1941 work, "The Fear of Freedom", predating Berlin's essay by more than a decade.

The positive notion of liberty plays a crucial, yet almost always implicit, role in many major political philosophies, such as direct democracy, socialism, and communism.

In contrast to negative liberty, which in its largest scope applies to individuals, positive liberty has often been applied by collectivist philosophies to whole segments of society or to a nation's society as a whole.


"Positive liberty" is often described as personal ability to achieve certain ends, while "negative liberty" is described as freedom from being forcibly prevented from achieving those ends. In a description of positive liberty from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

"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. But 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." [sep entry|liberty-positive-negative|Positive and Negative Liberty|Ian Carter]

In "Recovering the Social Contract", Ron Replogle made a metaphor that is helpful in understanding positive liberty. "Surely, it is no assault on my dignity as a person if you take my car keys, against my will, when I have had too much to drink. There is nothing paradoxical about making an agreement beforehand providing for paternalistic supervision in circumstances when our competence is open to doubt." [Replogle, Ron. Recovering the Social Contract. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (June 28, 1989). pg 164.] In this sense, positive liberty is the adherence to an agreed upon set of rules formulated by all parties involved. Should the rules be altered, all parties involved must agree upon the changes. Therefore, positive liberty is a contractarian philosophy.Fact|date=August 2008

However, Berlin opposed any suggestion that paternalism and positive liberty could be equivalenthttp://openlearn.open.ac.uk/mod/resource/view.php?id=170287] . He stated that positive liberty could only apply when the withdrawal of liberty from an individual was in pursuit of a choice that individual himself/herself made, not a general principle of society or any other person's opinion. In the case where a person removes a driver's car keys against their will because they have had too much to drink, this constitutes positive freedom only if the driver has made, of their own free will, an earlier decision not to drive drunk. Thus, by removing the keys, the other person facilitates this decision and ensures that it will be upheld in the face of paradoxical behaviour (ie, drinking) by the driver. For the remover to remove the keys in the absence of such an expressed intent by the driver, because the "remover" feels that the driver "ought not to" drive drunk, is paternalism, and not positive freedom by Berlin's definition.

Fromm sees the distinction between the two types of freedom emerging alongside humanity's evolution away from the instinctual activity that characterizes lower animal forms. This aspect of freedom, he argues, "is here used not in its positive sense of 'freedom to' but in its negative sense of 'freedom from', namely freedom from instinctual determination of his actions." [Erich Fromm, "The Fear of Freedom" (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1966):26.] For Fromm, freedom from animal instinct implicitly implies that survival now hinges on the necessity of charting one's own course. He relates this distinction to the biblical story of man's expulsion from Eden:

Acting against God's orders means freeing himself from coercion, emerging from the unconscious existence of prehuman life to the level of man. Acting against the command of authority, committing a sin, is in its positive human aspect the first act of freedom. [...] he is "free" from the bondage of paradise, but he is not free "to" govern himself, to realize his individuality. ["Ibid"., 27-8.]
Positive freedom, Fromm maintains, comes through the actualization of individuality in balance with the separation from the whole: a "solidarity with all men", united not by instinctual or predetermined ties, but on the basis of a freedom founded on reason. ["Ibid.", 29.]

The idea of positive liberty is often emphasized by those on the left-wing of the political spectrum, whereas negative liberty is most important for those who lean towards the right, such as classical liberals. However, not all on either the left or right would accept the positive/negative liberty distinction as genuine or significant. For example, Gerald MacCallum believes Berlin is in error and that, "Whenever the freedom of some agent or agents is in question, it is always freedom from some constraint or restriction on, interference with, or barrier to doing, not doing, becoming, or not becoming something" and that what Berlin is referring to as freedom is not freedom at all.

Some conservatives also embrace some forms of positive liberty. For example, (though the labels conservative, liberal, left, and right are anachronistic to them) Christian Puritans such as Cotton Mather, who often referred to liberty in their writings, tended to focus on the freedom from sin (for example, freedom from errant sexual thought and actions) even at the expense of liberty from government sanction. So, for the Puritans, who considered society and society's government to be practically indistinguishable, the idea of modesty mores being societally enforced was an idea that supported and enhanced community liberty. Such communitarian liberty is not liberty that those that are called individualist or libertarian would recognize; it is positive liberty.

Many anarchists, and others considered to be on the left-wing, see the two concepts of positive and negative liberty as interdependent and thus inseparable; contrarily, those in the right-libertarian camp assert that the provision of positive liberty to one requires the abridgment of the negative liberty of another.

Positive Liberty in Various Thinkers

Rousseau's theory of freedom, according to which individual freedom is achieved through participation in the process whereby one's community exercises collective control over its own affairs in accordance with the ‘general will’. [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] Rousseau clearly believed that liberty was the power of individual citizens to act in the government to bring about changes; this is essentially the power for self-governance and democracy. Rousseau himself said, "the mere impulse to appetite is slavery, while obedience to law "we prescribe ourselves" is liberty." [Replogle, Ron. Recovering the Social Contract. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (June 28, 1989)]

Hegel once said, "Freedom is the fundamental character of the will, as weight is of matter... That which is free is the will. Will without freedom is an empty word." [GEORG WILHELM FRIEDRICH HEGEL (1770-1831), Philosophy of Right, 1821.]


While he described the concept of "positive liberty", Isaiah Berlin argued that the unbridled pursuit of positive liberty could lead to a situation where the state forced upon people a certain way of life, because the state judged that it was the most rational course of action, and therefore, was what a person "should" desire, whether or not people actually did desire it. [Berlin, Isaiah. "Four Essays on Liberty". 'Two Concepts of Liberty'. Oxford University Press: 1969, p. 134.]

Individualist philosopher David Kelley argues against positive liberty, saying that it requires that persons be guaranteed positive outcomes which often requires the coercion of others to provide it. Meaning, positive rights "impose on others positive obligations to which they did not consent and which cannot be traced to any voluntary act" [Kelley, David E. 1998. A Life of One's Own. Cato Institute Press. p 23-24] Kelley notes that positive liberty evolved out of economic and natural risks such as poverty and old age. [ ibid, 32] Rising living standards contributed to a visible difference between those improving their life and those left behind. Economic progress increased population size and allowed many to live who otherwise would have died, including many who could now live into old age. [ibid. 33-34]

Kelley, among other critics of positive liberty, argues that positive liberty's concept of coercion is also misapplied. Positive liberty attempts to correct ills from economic and natural risks, but Kelley argues that these do not constitute coercion. Kelley states, "Advocates of positive freedom have exploited [concepts of coercion and freedom] , insisting that lack of a certain opportunity deprives a person of the freedom to choose that opportunity." [ibid. 68] Kelley notes that a person's inability to run a five-minute mile does not remove the person's freedom to do so, it is simply a fact of nature, nor is one's freedom restricted by a more limited menu at a dinner, or a woman's refusal to accept a marriage proposal a limitation of the man's freedom to marry her. [ibid. 68-69] . Advocates of positive freedom also insist that threats to health require the provision of positive freedom, but critics assert that disease and old age are inevitable features of human life, not a restriction of freedom. [ibid, 71] Kelley notes that this concept of positive freedom is "a notion that makes sense only if we assume that individuals in some new sense "ought" to be able to choose their fates in complete disregard of the facts." [ ibid, 71]

According to Kelley, positive freedom attempts to defy economics by providing for individuals without the need to produce. [ ibid, 72] He argues that production is a natural requirement for consumption and a lack of production, for reasons of inadequacy or unemployment are not coercion and they do not leave you worse off. [ibid, 74-75] Kelley concludes that, "the concept of positive freedom arises from an invalid attempt to ignore the distinctions...by insisting that the presence of certain options among one's alternatives is equivalent to freedom of choice among one's alternatives and that the absence of an option is equivalent to coercive interference with one's freedom" and that "the price of positive freedom is the sacrifice of genuine liberty. [ibid, 69, 75]

From a socialist perspective, it is important to distinguish between production deriving from personal labor and production deriving from capital, or the investment of wealth. Some people are able to provide for themselves while engaging in little productive labor, by investing wealth either come upon by chance, or passed down from previous generations, or both. Sometimes, this intergenerational transfer takes the form of inheritance, but it is more often in the form of subsidization of the education of children and their establishment in professions or businesses. In this view, production deriving from the investment of capital always results from the contractually purchased labor of other people, and is therefore outside the boundaries of personal liberty. As such, freedom from government interference should be extended only to individuals, not to families, businesses, or other corporate entities formed by contracts.

Defenders of "positive liberty" say that there is no need for it to have totalitarian undertones, and that there is a great difference between a government providing positive liberty to its citizens and a government presuming to make their decisions for them. For example, they argue that any democratic government upholding positive liberty would not suffer from the problems Berlin described, because such a government would "not" be in a position to ignore the wishes of people or societies. Also, many on the left see "positive liberty" as guaranteeing equal rights to certain things like education and employment, and an important defense against discrimination — here, "positive liberty" could be the right of (for example) a woman to be considered on equal terms with a man in a job interview.

From an anarchist perspective, positive liberty means every individual having the right to fully develop themselves, their abilities and exercise their freedom. This means things such as the right for workers to own and control the means of production, the right to democratic decision-making power within the workplace, the right to equal decision-making power in a self-management and direct democratic regime and the right to equal condition. To anarchists, positive liberty does not mean the right to bind others to obligations against their will or the need for a government to step in and provide rights since anarchists believe that liberty can only come from below rather than from above (and anarchists believe government action would violate negative liberty). Anarchists would argue that any freedom handed down from a government is not liberty but an allowance from established power which also has the power to take those same allowances away should it change its mind.


* Isaiah Berlin: "Four Essays on Liberty" (especially "Two Concepts of Liberty")
* Charles Taylor: "What's Wrong With Negative Liberty"

ee also

*Negative liberty
*Real freedom
*Negative and positive rights
*Mutual Liberty
*The Trap (television documentary series)

External links

* [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberty-positive-negative/ "Positive and Negative Liberty" from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
* [http://www.mises.org/rothbard/ethics/twentyseven.asp "ISAIAH BERLIN ON NEGATIVE FREEDOM"] by Murray N. Rothbard, from his book "Ethics of Liberty"


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