Sunday, April 05, 2009

Charles Taylor on Positive Liberty II

Let's cut the chase. Taylor's essay is about two forms of liberty which, even if they are kinds of positive liberty, are not the kind the reality of which is at issue in political philosophy. The essay is tightly argued enough and it is of interest in the analysis of individual liberty, a topic in metaphysics. But its overall importance to political philosophy was not well enough thought out before the writing. All this about Maginot lines and totalitarianism are meant to make it seem as though the kinds of liberty Taylor argues for are problems for the proponent of liberty and opponent of totalitarianism. But they're not.

There are three candidates for kinds of positive liberty in play:
  1. Freedom from the constraint upon one's actions of impulse desires which make one do what is not what one would prefer to do with full information and full coherence of prudential reasoning.
  2. Freedom from the constraint upon one's actions of mistaken beliefs about what is important to one.
  3. Political mastery, so that no one else is one's master.
Now, #1 and #2 are all well and good. But even if we accept that they are forms of positive liberty, they haven't the slightest tendency to support totalitarianism. #3 can easily be marshaled in support of totalitarianism, as the only solution to it is the General Will or some sort of fascist regime in government. Without that, someone is someone else's master at least to some extent. For unless we all dissolve into the state, some other individuals rule us to some extent.

In fact, #1 and #2 run counter to totalitarianism. It is precisely the state which ought to stay out of the way of the individual, so that he may be left to cultivating his liberty in the sense of #1 and #2. The state is ill-equipped to help you be rid of your impulse desires or to give you self-understanding; and it is dangerous when it is empowered for such a cause. Taylor's essay goes astray in overlooking this possibility and assuming the opposite.

Also, I'm not so sure that #1 and #2 are positive liberty. Taylor says they are the exercise of capacities, rather than the lack of external obstacles to one's actions. Well, they certainly are the lack of certain internal obstacles: rashness, incontinence, weakness of will, and cognitive failures. I don't see how they are capacities. They strike me as two kinds of negative liberty. If negative liberty is the lack of anyone's preventing one from acting, #1 and #2 speak to the special case of the lack of one's own getting in one's way in virtue of one's own vices.

So, the kinds of liberty Taylor uses to support the case for positive liberty and against the foe of totalitarianism are not kinds of positive liberty. Even if they were, they still wouldn't be the kind which we should count in favor of totalitarianism.

UPDATE: Yes, even #3 is arguably a covert form of negative liberty. We'll discuss #3 in the next post. But for the moment take note of the fact that totalitarian and General Will-supporting political viewpoints take one's political mastery to be a goal distinct from the the lack of a master over oneself. The latter is a logical prerequisite to the former but is not the goal whereas the former is. In any event, the genuine proponent of positive liberty desires that the individual melt into the General Will. His concept of #3 isn't a negative one.

UPDATE: Some trivial editing today.

UPDATE (10/22/2009): Bah! I didn't explain what I was driving at clearly enough. In short, #1 and #2 are forms of liberty to which the proponent of liberty is attracted, but they do not even tend to support totalitarianism, while #3 supports totalitarianism but isn't even slightly attractive to the proponent of liberty. Taylor's essay trades upon a blurring of this distinction between #1 and #2, on the one hand, and #3, on the other.