On the importance of negative freedoms…

There’s a bunch of good reviews in this week’s Spectator. This one is on one of Oxford’s finest thinkers of recent times, Isaiah Berlin. The book is a compendium of his essays, and which traces the important lines of his thinking. The reviewer, Raymond Carr, notes that the decidedly pluralist Berlin’s bête noire was Rousseau: “a ‘militant lowbrow’ equipped with ‘the fanatical cunning of a maniac’”. Yet, Berlin clearly saw the practical limits of pluralism. As Carr concludes towards the end, “what underlies Berlin’s view of liberalism is ‘its awareness of the limitations and tragedy that haunt human life’”.Carr writes:

Rousseau starts with a noble defence of individual freedom. His problem is to reconcile this with the fact that men live in societies. He argues that men have actual wills (our desires) and ‘real wills’ (representing what we would loosely call our conscience). This should correspond with the ‘general will’ of societies or states. If men fail to achieve this, they must be ‘forced to be free’.

Berlin describes this as a ‘monstrous paradox’, calling it, ‘one of the most powerful and most dangerous arguments in the entire history of human thought’. Indeed he notes that “It would justify all forms of totalitarianism and must end in the gulag and the gas chamber”.

He continues:

Berlin’s two concepts of freedom are extensively examined in this book. For him true freedom is a negative concept: it means and only means freedom from constraint by other men. It has an absolute value superior to justice, equality or the happiness of the utilitarian. Contrasting with this is positive freedom, which essentially is finding self-fulfilment in identifying oneself with some higher purpose; for example, the historical process as conceived by Hegel or as defined in our Book of Common Prayer, ‘Oh God… in whose service is perfect freedom’. A slave may find fulfilment and happiness in serving his master, but he is not a free man.

Berlin never abandons his defence of negative freedom as set out in this book, but in his later work his emphasis shifts to the defence of pluralism, a much more fascinating subject and one which appealed to his relish for diversity and eccentricity. Men make values, they do not exist without us, and the values they choose may clash like tectonic plates. One may choose justice, another may choose equality or happiness, and so on. In one of his finest essays, on Machiavelli, he argues that you can be a Christian valuing humility or a Roman citizen proud of your city. You cannot be both. Berlin’s solution of conflict is trading off, say, a bit of justice for a bit of equality. But such a compromise may be impossible — as in the conflict between the Unionist North and Confederate South. The only ‘solution’ was a bloody civil war and the triumph of the Unionists.

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  • Garibaldy


    Firstly, great thing to post on. Stuff like this lifts Slugger well above what we might loosely call its rivals.

    On this thing about Rousseau and being forced to be free, this quote is much abused by those who seek to blame totalitarianism on the Enlightenment. The paragraph in which the phrase is used goes like this:

    “In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, ecures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.”

    In other words, society has the right to enforce laws which are freely made by the general will. Such laws after all are the safeguard of freedom.

    Right-wing totalitarians rejected Rousseau’s version of the social contract and the rest of the Enlightenment, yet were able to develop totalitarianism on their own. The notion that Rousseau is to blame for all this is rubbish. On top of that, Rousseau was to a large extent about independence, or negative freedom.

    I would also dispute the notion of positive freedom given here. Surely positive freedom is the freedom to achieve something by the provision of the necessary opportunities – housing, minimum living standards, education – rather than service to a higher ideal. It’s also ridiculous to say that Rousseau did not believe in pluralism – as anyone who reads the social contract on religious toleration will see.

    Berlin may well have been an interesting thinker – but more often than not, he was wrong.

    btw, the compendium of his essays link seems not to be working

  • Resolve

    Berlin? One of the ‘greatest’ thinkers? Don’t make me laugh… It actually speaks volumes on our current intellectual impoverishment that we should hold him up as such. An extremely intelligent and knowledgeable man, of this there is no doubt. What a speaker. But what exactly did he produce? Was he a profound and original thinker? I’d say he was neither…

  • Kilian

    It is a timely discourse to have through the perspective that only Northern Ireland could give.

    What do expect from freedom? ( A question for both sides of the current dialogue)

    Are we after the freedom to behave ourselves within a tightly legislated paradigm of laws and mores and societal expectations of humanity, sexuality,family, diversity?

    Is a freedom like that worth any of us losing sleep over? Does a freedom like that predominate in the democratic, or western , or first world models? Am I free in NZ? Are you free in Canada? Dublin?

    What about the freedoms they have in hizbollah, or Taliban controlled areas, or in any of the religiously fundamental arenas around the non-western world. Is it a worse freedom? a lesser freedom?

    If we are not too careful, the only thing left that we’ll be free to do, just like in the states, is proclaim our freedom.

    Anyway, good thread.

  • Hmm…

    The negative liberty stuff is all pretty dubious: he ropes in Kant as a stepping stone to totalitarianism, which is clearly nonsense. More significantly, (1) the negative liberty brigade have an impoverished notion of freedom itself (the right always misrepresents this as a debate between freedom and equality, which it isn’t). The claim is that we are only unfree when others are deliberately constraining us, but this simply ignores the many ways in which are freedom can be reduced without deliberate constraint. You don’t have to beleive in full-on autonomy to think that this is too narrow: republican (small ‘r’) theorists point to the way that simply being exposed to the possibility of arbitrary interference in one’s life renders you less free thatn you might otherwise be.

    While the negative liberty brigade think that all laws diminish freedom, it’s more realistic to acknowledge that sometimes they enhance it by protecting us from the possibility of such interference: a though which is a lot more central to the liberal tradition than Berlin’s negative liberty (Mill for example has a much broader idea of freedom than Berlin).

    (2) It’s also customary to map the negative/positive freedom distinction onto a further distinction between traditional, negative, civil rights and modern social or welfare rights which involve the costly provision of services, but this just doesn’t hold up. We can defend welfare rights simply by banning certain sorts of transaction (preventing pollution, for example, regulating employment, or planning) and there are also lots of negative liberties the defence of which require massive amounts of public spending: e.g. money spent on policing, cameras etc. to defend our freedom from assault etc. So the idea that negative liberty doesn’t require a big state in contrast to welfare rights just aint so!

    Berlin is much more interesting for his emphasis on value pluralism, not for the liberty stuff.

    And on a more local note: having recently followed the link to ‘A Long Peace’ I was very disappointed to see the attempt to tie Unionism, to a ‘Protestant’ tradition of negative liberty (a very interesting read nonetheless!). Should Unionism really tie itself to right in this way? & what about all those Labour voting methodists?? 🙂