a philosophy blog

Berlin on prepositional freedoms

Notes on Isaiah Berlin,“Two Concepts of Liberty.”


Tobias Wong - Another notion of possibility
Tobias Wong,
Another notion of possibility

Berlin paraphrases Heine who was thinking of Kant: “philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilization.” [Heine, a friend of Karl Marx, was trying to weigh in on the side of philosophers, who, by and large, are ignored by the mill of history until, and as, convenient (even Marx). Just about anything or anyone, not just Rousseau (harnessed by Robespierre)—a scripture, a box cutter, a distaste for broccoli—can be, has been employed to hurry on events. The difference between a philosophy and a boxcutter is that one requires less imagination to use.]

The negative conception: “liberty from.”

All interference is bad as such, according to Mill’s classical conception, while noninterference is good as such.

But Mill also thought the individual ought to develop his capacities and character in a number of civilized, (non-piggish) ways that he claims negative liberty is conducive to. Few dispute this as far as it goes, but is negative liberty a necessary condition for this second Millian imperative? Berlin, citing James Stephen’s attack on Mill, suggests that it is not.

The notion of a certain sacred sphere of personal autonomy is a modern notion, perhaps not older than Occam.

The connection between self-government or democratic institutions and negative liberty is not as tight as advocates of each may want to believe. Some autocracies may be more efficient at protecting this kind of liberty.

To think otherwise leads us to the positive conception of freedom—freedom to rather than mere freedom from—one that asks “Who is to say who I am, and what I am not, to be or do?” [Lorenne Clark in her feminist critique of liberty makes use of this distinction.]

For it is this—the ‘positive’ conception of liberty: not freedom from, but freedom to—to lead one prescribed form of life—which the adherents of the ‘negative’ notion represent as being, at times, no better than as specious disguise for brutal tyranny.

On this page, Berlin neatly characterizes what he means by a “positive freedom.”

He calls attention to the tendency for freedom to be hypostatized into a supervenient conceptual entity overarching the particular freedom any given individual may have or claim. It then becomes the temptation to serve this larger notion at the expense of unreformed ignorance or recalcitrant inertia that may preside in the individual. This slip in service is the beginning, Berlin says, of tyranny. He finds the idea residing in Plato and Hegel (and, presumably, in Marx). It facilitates neglecting the actual, flawed selves with their local vagaries in favor of some derived “higher,” “truer” self. The individual’s wish can be discounted, the individual even discarded, since nothing peculiar to him comes to represent anything of value to the larger derived or imposed conception.

It is one thing, Berlin continues, to coerce the individual for his own good and another to attribute agreement to go along with this coercion to the higher, truer self in the individual. The latter move obviates criticism targeted at the coercing institution. The institution can take cover in the imputed better self of the individual. It would always be the inferior self that would be criticizing.

This “sleight of hand” played with the notion of freedom is more easily accomplished, it seems to Berlin, with the “positive” than with the “negative” one.

[Berlin no doubt had Soviet Russia in mind, but I think that was an accident of his time. Today, I see the “negative” notion evincing the same ambitions. It has made itself sacred to the point that now it demands coercion in its service. Any gesture perceived as critical or resistant of its hallowed status is dismissed as rooted in a grab for illegitimate institutional power. In the United States in the first decade of the new millennium, for example, “democracy” and “freedom” are forcibly exported. The suggestion that this may be paradoxical is branded a failure to understand their universal applicability. The only kind of interference (e.g., taxation) permissible is that to indulge the vocation of carrying through with the application.

That negative freedom, construed as noninterference, is a moral good presupposes some basis for thinking that human beings left alone are and do good things. Is this true? We can’t mean this literally or the supreme moral condition would consist of living on an otherwise hospitable desert island alone. To introduce even one other is to interfere. Moral considerations enter only with this initial interference. Now this individual must share the island. He or she must accede to interference for the very possibility of good to arise…

Thus the Biblical Adam was, until Eve made her debut—whatever God may have thought of his creation, not only ignorant of, but incapable of goodness. She was an other: in this case, not only an other who counted but an other qualitatively—thus introducing and complicating morality at once. She brought into being both knowledge of and capacity for goodness.

At the opposite extreme would be the individual as an atom in a vast compound: interchangeable, expendable, and serviceable only to the extent the compound requires. A bee in a hive. Good here attaches to the welfare of the hive. Noninterference in the affairs of this particular bee amounts to rejection and constitutes a positive non-good (i.e., “a bad”) for the collective and for the individual but only so far as it suits the collective which alone would be significant.

I don’t think Berlin is right to suggest that one or the other of these freedoms is more susceptible to political abuse. Which will depend on the ascendancy of other factors. That they will be abused is the only thing certain. Given this, perhaps we can modulate the abuse by dividing up power between them. Given, further, as we argue elsewhere, that each of Berlin’s two notions of liberty is tied to a gender—even central to its definition, we arrive at one argument for parity of the sexes.]

The search for autonomy by retreating from desire and possession becomes a search for security, something at first glance quite different from freedom.

The notion of the primacy of the autonomous individual (in Kant and Rousseau)

is a form of secularized Protestant individualism, in which the place of God is taken by the conception of the rational life, and the place of the individual soul which strains toward union with Him is replaced by the conception of the individual, endowed with reason, straining to be governed by reason and reason alone, and to depend on nothing that might deflect or delude him by engaging his irrational nature.

Berlin looks askance at the tendency to enhance autonomy by jettisoning desire.

The doctrine that maintains that what I cannot have I must teach myself not to desire; that a desire eliminated, or successfully resisted, is as good as a desire satisfied, is a sublime, but, it seems to me, unmistakable, form of the doctrine of sour grapes: what I cannot be sure of, I cannot truly want.

He fears the strategic use of this strategy for shaping private visions of liberty and happiness by governing institutions. [First, the desire transcended is not as good as the one satisfied: it is better, superior—or rather, more accurately, altogether incomparable at least in the view of our Kant-inspired crew. It is this incommensurability that radically limits its application to politics, which is always firmly planted in the soil of matter and desire. Once you have altered your conception of what is fundamentally (ethically) valuable, if you are then offered control over what formerly you wanted control over, you will refuse it. Its attraction for you should have dissolved with the conversion. The grapes haven’t soured, there aren’t any. There is a difference.

It is not simply the problem of “teaching” oneself “not to desire.” It is either that of ceasing to have a self that requires teaching or an unregenerate faith in the teachability of selves. The latter is a view that Berlin does not appear cynical enough to deny (as indeed I might), nor would it help his case, given where he is going with his pluralist recommendations.]

If a tyrant succeeds at persuading his subjects to be happy with less, hasn’t he exploited the ethical insight above for political gain? So Berlin asks. This can’t be right—at least not politically. A nation of saints and martyrs can be manufactured in this way: after all what’s it to good people what source their salvation and enlightenment stems from? Self-flagellation or political torture, all’s well that ends well… [The problem, as Diogenes noted long ago, is that masters, too, need salvation. For their own good, we must not neglect our tyrants. This is what is wrong with tyranny: its inhumane treatment of those at the top… Berlin would be caught up in a misunderstanding if he thought this merely a joke.]

Berlin outlines “the positive doctrine of liberation by reason,” tracing it through Hegel and Marx.

How nearly all eighteenth century philosophers used reason to circumscribe a freedom that was compatible, even identical, with law. All but Bentham and the Anarchists. “But all forms of liberalism founded on a rationalist metaphysics are less or more watered-down versions of this creed.”

How to get people to accept “freedom” of this sort… Fichte on how education works: “you will later recognize the reasons for what I am doing now.” [A great faith must be placed in the possibility that the child will not later recognize that the reasons were bad. Or only as good as the reasons for doing something quite opposite.]

Fichte the “progenitor” of the “heroic doctrine” that people must be molded as raw material into something they themselves would appreciate as a worthy form were they judging with their higher, rational selves. Comte scientizing: if we don’t allow free thinking in chemistry, why do we allow it in moral and political thought?

We have wandered from our liberal beginnings. This argument employed by Fichte in his latest phase, and after him by other defenders of authority, from Victorian schoolmasters and colonial administrators to the latest nationalist and communist dictator, is precisely what the Stoic and Kantian morality protests against most bitterly in the name of the reason of the free individual following his own inner light. In this way the rationalist argument, with its assumption of the single true solution, has led by steps which, if not logically valid, are historically and psychologically intelligible, from an ethical doctrine of individual responsibility and individual self-reflection to an authoritarian state obedient to the directives of an élite of Platonic guardians.

[A major premise in Berlin’s pluralist argument. “Not logically valid,” Berlin admits, but “historically and psychologically intelligible…” Doesn’t this militate, a little, against Heine’s phrase earlier? If philosophers are to be blamed or credited for all that may “historically and psychologically” follow from their assertions, validity be damned, indeed they have much to answer for, like the makers of box cutters. (I belabor the point because it also applies to Otto Weininger’s checkered reception.)]

In a long footnote to a passage explaining how Kantian reverence for the individual’s capacity for reason could somehow evolve into the most brutal illiberalism and tyranny headed by a abstract notion, Reason, pitted against all human vagary—Berlin admits that human vagary is empirical. What reason could mean divorced from any link to human material desire or velleity puzzles Berlin. Kant’s kingdom of disembodied ends in harmonious and eternal deference to each other is Kant’s endpoint: where his explanations stop. [Heterocosmicity arises, however, in Kant as elsewhere, because of a deep-seated need on the part of fully half of the species: the male half, that part governed or aspiring to be governed by a masculine principle—to the extent it seeks governance at all. (This, as Weininger reminds us, does not mean all men nor exclude all women, nor does it include any man entirely, but, more as heuristic than sortal, it does describe one of the two determining principles of the “human condition,” to give that overused phrase a slight twist in meaning.) Reason elevated to the skies is an idolatry he is singularly liable to. But it is easy to exaggerate what is gained in this case, however, by calling it what it is, idolatry. It turns out he needs this myth: it is his particular tragedy that he does. This is why it persists. It will show itself in any competing notion of liberty championed by men. The pluralism Berlin is headed toward, thus, is misleading if it suggests that the enlightening contrast is going to be had with some empirically derived form of liberalism. The contrast lies elsewhere…]

Next, Berlin considers the heteronomy of seeking status, recognition, of even having an identity, etc.—all meaningless outside a social context:

The need spoken of here is bound up wholly with the relation that I have with others; I am nothing if I am unrecognized.

Berlin wants to reserve a proper sense of the word “liberty” for one or the other of his two pet varieties and distinguish “social liberty,” the feeling of individuals who need and desire common dependence and affiliation in groups. It is a different “universal craving” than freedom of the sorts he describes. It finds identity, meaning, and purpose in being connected to a group. Moreover, it wants to call this true “liberty.”

But he confesses, “…the craving for status is, in certain respects, very close to the desire to be an independent agent.”

The purest liberalism (Mill and Constant [and, probably, Nozick]), with its minimal deference to social connection, has always appealed to “a small minority of highly civilized and self-conscious beings.”

It is the non-recognition of this psychological and political fact (which lurks behind the apparent ambiguity of the term ‘liberty’) that has, perhaps, blinded some contemporary liberals to the world in which they live. Their plea is clear, their cause is just. But they do not allow for the variety of basic human needs. Nor yet for the ingenuity with which men can prove to their own satisfaction that the road to one ideal also leads to its contrary.

Rousseau’s notion of (positive) liberty as the liberty to interfere in other people lives. Mill reacted to this threat to negative liberties.

When Rousseau declares “by giving myself to all I give myself to none,” Benjamin Constant “could not see why, even though the sovereign is ‘everybody’, it should not oppress one of the ‘members’ of its indivisible self, if it so decided.”

Hobbes, of course, just called it enslavement, no matter who (or what) was doing it, and proceeded to find some justification for it.

Berlin suggests that “the chief value for liberals of political—‘positive’—rights, of participating in the government, is as a means for protecting what they hold to be an ultimate value, namely individual—‘negative’—liberty.” [But how can the negative libertarian, even in theory, pull this off? Suppose a movement in liberal government is afoot to deliberately curtail personal negative freedom, assuming those in the movement know what they were doing (if they do not, then we can see the negative libertarian having an advisory role), may not these acquisitive libertarians, viz, those in government wishing to acquire new positive liberties, exercise their negative liberty to gain the perceived positive liberty? Could then our dismayed negative libertarian consistently want to thwart them? Would he* have to express himself as a positive libertarian to assert his (or our?) negative liberties? He has the same problem a militant anarchist has. He wants to tell me I have no right to do what he tells me I have every right to do. Surely someone somewhere has called this “the paradox of libertarianism”… Thus, though the positive libertarian may well be about to sell us down the river, the negative one tells us he can only help us by not helping us. The negative libertarian may comment on it, ruefully, I suppose. And perhaps that is no small thing—unless I, that is, as a member of a majority of positive libertarians, decide we’d rather not be bothered with such static and shut him up. For I, or we, collectively, know what is good for us. Who is going to say to us that we don’t? Surely not our negative libertarian who is, in principle, in the worst position to do this. (*Editor’s note: Luno, who is usually quite careful about his pronouns, no doubt, intends to imply that it is more likely going to be he than she.)]

Democracies have no special affinity for freedom on principle. If it gets in the way, freedom will suffer. For this reason only rights, not governments, may be given absolute authority. There are “frontiers” beyond which no state may go in its treatment of individuals, no matter the source of its authority. These have to be built into a generally accepted concept of human being and transcend any conditions or environment one may find oneself in. They stand as “absolute barriers to the imposition of one man’s will on another.”

This is almost at the opposite pole from the purposes of those who believe in liberty in the ‘positive’—self-directive—sense. The former want to curb authority as such. The latter want it placed in their own hands. That is the cardinal issue. These are not two different interpretations of a single concept, but two profoundly divergent and irreconcilable attitudes to the ends of life. It is as well to recognize this, even if in practice it is often necessary to strike a compromise between them. For each of them makes absolute claims. These claims cannot both be fully satisfied. But it is a profound lack of social and moral understanding not to recognize that the satisfaction that each of them seeks is an ultimate value which, both historically and morally, has an equal right to be classed among the deepest interests of mankind.

Berlin does not believe that all the ends of human beings, no matter how lofty or well-meant, can be brought into harmony with each other. There is ample empirical evidence for this in the lessons of Nazi Germany or Marxist Russia (or, he might (or could) have added, contemporary American programs for world ideological hegemony). He finds the positive conception of self-directive, self-perfecting, a priori teleologies morally bankrupt. Yet, he is careful to admit that these conceptions are indeed behind much beneficial social and political reform. And therein lies tragedy. There is a moral imperative to face individual choice between values; we cannot escape it. The choice is real and the imperative is real. The former because there is no single answer, the latter because responsibility beckons.

Posted by luno in political philosophy, sex differences (Tuesday December 26, 2006 at 1:20 pm)

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