freedom from & freedom to

hearkening back to Handmaid’s Tale, a distinction between negative and positive liberty:

The ‘two liberties’ clarified

It’s frustrating but I guess not surprising to see the sort of abject misunderstanding of ‘negative’ vs. ‘positive’ liberty (or rights) that we’ve seen in the blogosphere for the past 24 hours. Most of it was in response to Will Saletan’s piece in Slate (for example, this and this). Let me make a stab at clarification.

Positive and negative liberty are not two kinds of liberty. They are two interpretations of liberty (or, if you want, of ‘liberty’).

It is not the case, then, that ‘negative liberties’ conflict with ‘positive liberties.’ Rather, different theorists have conflicting theories of what liberty is.

For some theorists, liberty is essentially negative — a freedom from. For other theorists, liberty is essentially positive — a freedom to. Of course, freedoms-from require certain freedoms-to, and freedoms-to require certain freedoms-from. So no theory can be pure. Still, the debate is over how to conceptualize the nature of liberty and thereby over what liberties there are. So you just can’t speak of these two “kinds” of liberty in a theoretically neutral way.

What’s the basis of the theoretical dispute? Simple: a dispute over conceptions of the self and their relations to political agency (or praxis, as we used to say).

Libertarians, who view liberty as negative, view the self as straightforwardly there independently of political agency. Social democrats and old-fashioned social conservatives, who view liberty as positive, view the self as in some way constructed through political agency — such that you don’t yet have a self, and therefore cannot exercise any genuine liberty, apart from your participation in appropriate forms of political agency. (For conservatives, the appropriate form is the traditional life of the community; for social democrats, it is (roughly) democratic social deliberation.)

Debate over the ‘two liberties’ is not a debate over what liberties there are. It is a debate over whether and how each of us is implicated in political life.

Update: Several philosophers have written to say that even though I’m right about the basis of the debate, there is nonetheless a legitimate sense in which untheorized ‘negative’ liberties conflict with untheorized ‘positive’ liberties. I thought I’d captured that sense with my talk of ‘freedoms-from’ and ‘freedoms-to.’ But if you want to dress that up using ‘negative’ and ‘positive,’ go right ahead. My only claim is that the debate between proponents of negative liberty and proponents of positive liberty is a debate about the nature of liberty, rather than merely a debate about what liberties there are.

Posted by Ted H. at June 8, 2004 05:32 PM

from diachronic agency on 2004-06-08