Sunday, January 3, 2010

Isaiah Berlin - Two Concepts of Liberty

Modern European Intellectual History - 9

For Isaiah Berlin one of the dominant issues of the world was the question of obedience (Why should I, or anyone, obey anyone else?) and coercion (If I disobey, may I be coerced?), a question that he felt had long been a central one in politics. In investigating the answers to this question Berlin proposes two concepts of liberty, negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty addresses the question: “What is the area within which the subject–a person or group of persons–is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” Positive liberty addresses the question: “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” While these questions are different, he acknowledges that the answers to them may overlap.

Political liberty in the sense of negative freedom (he uses the terms freedom and liberty interchangeably) is the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented from so acting by the deliberate interference of other human beings I can describe myself as being coerced or even enslaved, depending upon the degree of interference. But for human society to avoid dissolving into chaos, some limits on individual freedom must exist. The question is, then, where are those limits drawn? Where is the line between private life and public authority?

Notions of positive liberty derive from the desire on the part of the individual to be their own master. It is not freedom from, but freedom to–freedom to live as you see fit. These notions may not seem to be very far apart, but Berlin claims that these ideas of freedom historically developed in different directions and ended up coming in direct conflict with each other. This can be seen by examining the question of what it means to be one’s own master. We can be slaves to our nature, or spiritual slaves, just as we can be physical slaves. And we can justify coercion by claiming that we are acting in the best interests of those whom we are coercing, and that if they were but more self-aware they would recognize the probity of our actions. Berlin believed that conceptions of freedom are derived directly from conceptions of what constitutes the self, a person, or a man. Manipulate the definition of what it is to be a man, and you can change the definition of freedom into whatever you wish it to be.

One way of attaining freedom is to liberate yourself from desires for things that you cannot attain. If we cannot change our environment (social, political or physical), change ourselves to suit it. But this attitude results in the reduction of the sphere of negative liberty, and leads Berlin to the conclusion that the definition of negative liberty to do what one wishes will not work. If I can do little of what I wish, I need only reduce or eliminate my wishes and I am free.

Another way of attaining freedom is through knowledge and understanding. This is the rational approach to liberty. If I understand why things must be the way they are then, as a rational creature, I must will them to be that way. Our knowledge liberates us not by offering us more choices, but by keeping us from attempting the impossible. Berlin calls this the positive doctrine of liberation by reason. But is such a rational life possible not just for the individual, but also for society? And if it is, how is it to be attained? I wish to be free and to live my life as my rational will commands, but so does everyone else. How do we avoid the collision of wills? Where is the line between my rationally determined rights and the rationally determined rights of others? And is there only one variety of rational society?

Will our rationality save us from tyrants and oppression? Will it lead us to truths that cannot be disputed, that are universal? There is also a notion here (perhaps naive?) that rational men would not want to oppress or exploit others. But who defines what is rational? And what do we do about those individuals who do not meet that criteria? Can we legitimately coerce them for their own good? Can we educate them or re-educate them, even against their will?

Berlin believed that the positive notion of liberty was at the heart of the demands for national or social self-direction that resulted in the most powerful and morally just public movements of his time. But at the same time he thought that the idea that a single formula could be found that would harmonize all the diverse ends of humanity was wrong. Instead, pluralism, with the measure of negative liberty that it entails, seemed to him a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek the ideal of positive self-mastery by classes, people, or humanity as a whole. In his view, pluralism is truer because it recognizes the fact that human goals are many and that they are not all commensurate with each other, and that some may in fact be in a state of perpetual rivalry.

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