Apr 4, 2014

Positive and Negative Freedom, an Introduction by Isaac Snow

The classic notion of negative freedom comes from Hobbes and means that a person is free when he can do what he is able to do without human interference. Outer blocks that arise as a result of human arrangements take away this freedom. Isaiah Berlin uses Hobbe’s notion of freedom with some added elements to create a definition for negative freedom. He believes that there is more to freedom than Hobbe's freedom; for example, coercion, which is allowed under Hobbe's notion, is not compatible with Berlin's negative freedom.

Berlin defines positive freedom as concerning the question, “what, or who, is the source of control or interference, that can determine someone to do, or be, one thing rather than another?”. Positive freedom only occurs when the individual takes control of his life and realizes his fundamental purpose. This definition of freedom actually allows for some restriction to negative freedom; for example, a child can be restrained from doing something that may hurt him by an adult assuming that the adult is helping the child to achieve his true will. The child is now acting the way he would if he were in full control of his mind and the scenario.

Berlin believes that positive and negative freedoms are in direct conflict with each other. Positive freedom in Berlin’s sense can lead to external control being compatible with freedom. Freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes. Society can be ruled in a totalitarian way based on the idea that a doctrine can be written that gives the power to the people in control to determine the way the individual should live his or her life. The interests of the individual, in this society, are no longer related to the individual but to the society as a whole; individuals are free in the positive sense if they are coerced into acting out these interests. Ultimately, what is best for the child in our example is defined by the parent.

The Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor has a slightly different understanding of positive and negative freedom. He defines negative freedom as an opportunity concept of freedom; freedom is a matter of what we can do. He examines two countries, Albania and England, using negative freedom and comes to the disagreeable position that Albania is more free than England due to England's mass amount of traffic lights; thus concluding that negative freedom is an indefensible view of freedom. Alternatively, positive freedom contains an exercise concept; freedom includes the idea that one needs to be able to realize himself in his own way, thus the free man exercises control over his life.

Taylor believes this later concept of freedom is superior because it allows the discrimination among motivations. Taylor's positive freedom also takes into account the fact that humans experience some desires and goals as intrinsically more significant than others; negative freedom does not allow for any notion of significance. A man is not free if he is motivated by fear, inauthentically internalized standards, or false consciousness, as these elements serve to thwart his self-realization. Taylor does not allow positive freedom to lead to justified totalitarianism because the individual is the final arbiter on his self-realization, and no rulers can define what is best for the individual.

In the end I believe that Taylor does have the stronger argument. I definitely believe that the notion of freedom is much more than simple external blocks. For example, I do not feel free if I am psychologically forced to fuel my drug addiction; even if I have plenty of money to afford it. I think that freedom can be compatible with governance. For example, The British Columbia Lottery Corporation offers a voluntary self-exclusion program. This program gives addicts an opportunity to restrict their own freedom of gambling. The man who joins this program willingly restricts his opportunity to go into casinos, but he gains freedom from his addiction. The man is more free than he was before. Ultimately, the concept of freedom needs to move away from the allowance of instinct into the allowance and drive towards self-realization. Defenders of negative freedom need to be more willing to adjust their views in order to take into account higher order desires, motivation, and significance. Freedom consists of the absence of external blocks caused by human intervention and the absence of internal mental blocks that prevent the man from realizing his potential.

“There can be no real freedom without the freedom to fail”
Erich Fromm

Isaac Snow
With the freedom to publish in Vernon, BC
January, 2014

Further Reading:

The Stanford Encyclopedia has a nice article discussing these two types of freedom. I recommend reading it for a more thorough discussion than what is presented here  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberty-positive-negative/

No comments:

Post a Comment