Thursday, November 4, 2021

Pluralism on Positive & Negative Liberty

    Some political philosophers have taken a stand exclusively on either favoring positive or negative liberty.  Advocates of negative liberty commonly argue that the freedom government should provide is largely one of non-interference in the lives of its citizens or even non-domination.  Some critics have endorsed positive freedom that the liberty government should provide is one of enhancing control over one’s life such that one may fulfill one’s interests.  I espouse a pluralism that contains elements of positive and negative liberty.  

    Negative liberty is where there generally is an absence of external constraints or obstacles for action for an agent; obstacles that are arranged by other persons.  Positive freedom is where one has proper control such that one is self-determined, and one can realize one’s fundamental purposes and aims.  For positive freedom, there must be the presence rather than absence of something; namely, self-control or something like self-realization or self-mastery.  Positive freedom concentrates first on internal factors, where the external government might then proactively and paternalistically interfere to help us in these internal matters.  Meanwhile negative liberty denies positive liberty and concentrates first on external factors, where generally the government negatively ought not interfere in our lives and should prevent others from doing so as well.  

    An objection against positive liberty is that a slave can be made “free” if the slave diminishes his own desire set to be in accord with the restrictions set by his master.  The slave reaches his ultimate aims in life and is satisfied in bondage given that he has reduced what his ultimate life aims are.  If positive freedom is correct, the slave is now free.  However, obviously, the now happy slave isn’t free in this case, and the government should abolish slavery in the name of freedom, amongst other reasons.  

    Christenson adopts a modern positive liberty account and claims government shouldn’t be interfering to control the content of people’s desires but should be promoting (positive) freedom and autonomy in the way desires are formed.  Christman understands autonomy as where people should be self-reflective, and beliefs can’t be oppressively imposed on others or be indoctrinated through deceit.  A person should have the capacity to resist options, be instrumentally rational, and think with consistency.  This can include government interference like mandatory public education for children up to a certain age to receive relevant training.  

    Christman responds to the happy slave counterexample by stating that if the slave’s minimization of his desire set was oppressively imposed upon him, then the happy slave still isn’t free on Christman’s account.  Thus, the happy slave objection against positive liberty fails.  However, if the slave alters his desire set due to a rational and reflective process, the slave is free, and there is nothing that needs to be fixed here by the government.  Christman asks us to imagine a Tibetan monk who has carefully meditated his way to have a minimal desire set and then after this fact, is content meditating his life away behind a chained door.  The monk supposedly still is free.  
    However, my criticism is that to have a more analogous hypothetical with the original “happy slave” case, we should say that the happy monk is a proper slave that has a proper master; he’s a master with the power to control the monk’s life, who watches over the monk with whip in hand, and who has implemented rigorous constraints on the monk’s life typical of slavery.  The slave isn’t merely behind a chained door.  Now imagined as such, this is a poor example choice by Christman as even the Buddhist monk based on his religious doctrines would advocate the banning of slavery by the government.  Surely, we cannot say that the Buddhists are truly free with their masters hovering over them watching their every move and ready to strike.  
    Yet, negative liberty can be problematic too.  Republican liberty powerfully criticizes a more traditional type of negative freedom that is simply conceived of as non-interference.  For, a slave may have a master that allows her to realize her rich set of full desires.  The master may even let her do whatever she wants even though he technically is still her master and can revoke such freedom tomorrow on his whim.  Yet, we wouldn’t call this slave free even though there’s no interference at all today.  Non-interference isn’t enough.  Rather, freedom is non-domination, where one lives life in which non-interference is guaranteed by living within certain political institutions, such as a constitutional democracy with check and balances that disallows the government to wield power arbitrarily and disallows other practices like slavery.  

    Republican liberty can be viewed as a more extreme version of traditional negative liberty.  However, imagine a modern society in which an herb called ‘manna’ appears every day on the grass with the morning dew.  It’s highly addictive and makes those who eat it feel pleasure.  Everyone cannot help but eat it each morning.  However, it has the unfortunate consequence that it causes single people to live unmotivated lives regarding their careers despite their genuine fundamental desires to pursue ambitious jobs.  They eat by gathering wild fruits and vegetables and live in makeshift shacks.  They spend most of the day idle.  As most are single in this modern society, this results in most people being slaves in a different metaphorical sense.  They are slaves to manna and thus, cannot exercise their autonomy regarding their personal projects.  Rather they have a happy zombie like existence; they’re happy slaves that are high on manna but not on life.  Does political liberty require the democratic government to interfere in this case by using a safe cheap pesticide that easily eliminates and destroys manna from the grass so that the relevant people can attain self-realization?  Yes, it clearly does.  Positive freedom is required here. 
    Although this needs further development, I believe the above slave hypotheticals start pointing towards a pluralistic view on liberty where negative republican liberty is required at many times, but at some times the government should provide positive liberty.

John Park

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State


  1. Hi John, thanks for this piece.

    I'm not familiar with this literature, though I've always despised the distinction between negative and positive liberty. They are totally different things and using the term in both cases just causes unnecessary work for philosophers. I think it is much more clear to distinguish between liberty and empowerment, both of which are fine things that the government may or may not want to get involved in promoting.

    I think so-called negative liberty can easily handle the criticisms you note here. Absence of constraint entails that there be no constraint to changing your mind about how you want to live. That's why voluntary slavery is not acceptable too.

    The ability to change your mind in response to new evidence is an essential condition of liberty and rationality.

    1. Randy, when you distinguish between liberty and empowerment, is so-called negative liberty what liberty is?

    2. Kyle, yes, that is what I mean. Thanks.

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    4. Hi Randy, I'm very sympathetic to your distinction between liberty and empowerment as I think the current debate is confusing and can be confusing to students. They way you have it set up is much more clear.

      The Republican criticizer of traditional negative liberty may respond to your objection by saying that in their slave hypothetical, the master gives the slave complete control of their life and doesn't interfere at all. The slave can change her mind in response to new evidence. In fact, the master may never interfere and impose any constraints at all in the slave's life, but the slave still isn't free.

      Also, see below to my comment on Kyle's post for further discussion on this matter.

  2. It’s surprisingly difficult to find anyone who the republican’s example of the permissive master has any real bite against. So, for example, here’s the classical liberal economist, FA Hayek, in 1960: “The freedom of the free may have differed widely, but only in the degree of an independence which the slave did not possess at all. It meant always the possibility of a person’s acting according to his own decisions and plans, in contrast to the position of one who was irrevocably subject to the will of another, who by arbitrary decision could coerce him to act or not to act in specific ways. The time-honored phrase by which this freedom has often been described is therefore ‘independence of the arbitrary will of another’” You can find the same idea in Locke, Montesquieu, Hobhouse, Constant, Mill, Popper…

  3. Hi Kyle, yes, this is a good point that there is debate as to whether republican liberty is a more extreme negative liberty that can actually be distinguished from a so-called traditional negative liberty. It could be that "traditional" negative liberty encompasses republican liberty. In my larger paper, I attempt to avoid this debate by saying regardless of whether they can be distinguished or not, my thesis that pluralism holds between some kind of negative liberty and positive liberty still is true.

    1. Is the view pluralist in anything more than just the trivial sense that these states are normatively important? I mean, empowerment is awesome. Domination is bad. Interference is illegitimate absent sufficient reason. I guess I'm a pluralist? Ok.