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Negative liberty

From Academic Kids

The philosophical concept of negative liberty is the absence of coercion from others. In this negative sense, one is considered free to the extent to which no person or person interferes with his or her activity. According to Thomas Hobbes, for example, "a free man is he that... is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do."

The distinction between negative liberty and positive liberty was drawn by Isaiah Berlin in his lecture entitled "Two Concepts of Liberty." According to Berlin, the distinction is deeply embedded in the political tradition: the notion of negative liberty being associated most strongly with the classical English political philosophers (e.g. Locke, Hobbes, Smith, and Mill) and positive liberty with thinkers such as Hegel, Rousseau, Herder, and Marx.

This usage of negative liberty has several noteworthy aspects. First, negative liberty defines a realm or "zone" of freedom. In Berlin's words, "liberty in the negative sense involves an answer to 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." Some philosophers have disagreed on the extent of this realm while accepting the main point that liberty defines that realm in which one may act unobstructed by others. Second, the restriction implicit in negative liberty is imposed by person or persons and not due to causes such as nature, lack, or incapacity. Helvetius expresses this point clearly: "The free man is the man who is not in irons, nor imprisoned in a gaol, nor terrorized like a slave by the fear of punishment...it is not lack of freedom not to fly like an eagle or swim like a whale."

The dichotomy of positive and negative liberty is considered specious by political philosophers in traditions such as libertarian socialism, social democracy, and marxism. Some of them argue that positive and negative liberty are indistinguishable in practice, while others claim that one kind of liberty cannot exist independently of the other.

Contents

Negative liberty and authority: Hobbes and Locke

One might ask, "How is men's desire for liberty to be reconciled with the need for authority?" Its answer by various thinkers provides a fault line for understanding their view on liberty but also a cluster of intersecting concepts such as authority, equality, and justice.

Hobbes and Locke give two influential and representative solutions to this question. As a starting point, both agree that a line must be drawn and a space sharply delineated where each individual can act unhindered according to their tastes, desires, and inclinations. This zone defines the sacrosanct space of personal liberty. But, they believe no society is possible without some authority, where the intended purpose of authority is to prevent collisions among the different ends and, thereby, to demarcate the boundaries where each person's zone of liberty begins and ends. Where Hobbes and Locke differ is the extent of the zone. Hobbes, who took a rather dim view of human nature, averred that a strong authority was needed to curb men's intrinsically wild, savage, and corrupt impulses. Only a powerful authority can keep at bay the permanent and always looming threat of anarchy. Locke believed, on the other hand, that men on the whole are more good than wicked and, accordingly, the area for individual liberty can be left rather large.

Negative liberty in various thinkers

John Jay in Federalist Papers No. 2: "Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of Government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers." Jay's meaning would be better expressed by substituting "negative liberty" in place of "natural rights", for the argument here is that the power or authority of a legitimate government derives in part from our accepting restrictions on negative liberty.

Thomas Paine in Common Sense distinguishes between society and government almost exactly with the distinction between positive and negative liberty: "Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices."

Bibliography

  • Isaiah Berlin: Four Essays on Liberty (especially Two Concepts of Liberty)
  • Isaiah Berlin: Freedom and its Betrayal

See also

External link

fi:positiivinen ja negatiivinen vapaus

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