Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty I

This is a profound essay, a classic in political philosophy. I will suggest in this little series that it has a deep flaw, but you should read it if you have not. As I said before, it embodies part of liberalism's transition from classical liberalism evolved to big-government "liberalism." For now, two notes.

Negative liberty is "not being interfered with by others." Positive liberty, a rather more opaque concept, is autonomous action or being one's own master (by partaking in activities such as giving oneself the law, achieving an elevated status, and being in a society recognized as autonomous by other societies.) Berlin's explanation of the totalitarian dangers lurking in the concept of positive liberty is quite eloquent. But do not mistake the essay for a simple argument in favor of negative liberty and against positive liberty. In fact, Berlin defends positive liberty tenaciously.

In particular, Berlin describes the efforts of subjected societies to become democracies or to gain the status of respectable autonomy as a just cause ("their cause is just"). Indeed, he claims that "it is a profound lack of social and moral understanding not to recognize that the satisfaction" of this goal of positive freedom is, as well as negative freedom, "an ultimate value which, both historically and morally, has an equal right to be classed among the deepest interests of mankind." Again,

[I]t is the notion of freedom in its 'positive' sense that is at the heart of the demands for national or social self-direction which animate the most powerful and morally just public movements of our time, and...not to recognize this is to misunderstand the most vital facts and ideas of our age.

We'll take up Berlin's caveats later, but this is strong stuff.

I, for one, must stand as one who, in Berlin's eyes, suffers from "a profound lack of social and moral understanding." I do not accept that positive liberty has any worth whatsoever. Moreover, anything bad in the subjection of a society derives from infringement of individuals' negative liberty rights and has nothing to do with a lack of positive liberty or group autonomy, whatever those things are.

We have not gotten to the bottom of this flaw in Berlin's essay, but we will in the next post.