Is Positive Liberty Dangerious?

In Berlin’s essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, positive liberty is defined as being one’s own master or self-realisation. For Berlin positive conceptions of liberty have a tendency towards totalitarian ideals in which the individual may be forced to be free. For Berlin this tendency renders positive liberty a dangerous political idea.

Berlin’s argument for this position is as  follows. The metaphor of self-mastery lends itself to a distinction between a higher rational self and a lower irrational self whereby in order to be a self-master the lower self must be disciplined by the higher self.  Thus my rational self’s desire to not eat an excessive amount of chocolate cake disciplines my lower irrational self’s desire to eat chocolate cake and in so doing renders me an individual who is a master over his lowly desires for cake. One is a self-master to the extent that one’s rational self is dominant and one’s lower self subordinate. Since positive liberty consists in a way of life and others might know better than oneself about what constitutes that life, it follows that others who know better than one does may legitimately act on behalf of one’s higher self against one’s lower self by forcing one to do something which is taken to be a better way of life. Thus other more informed people may force me to not eat chocolate cake because they know that doing so would ensure a life in which my lower self’s desire for cake is disciplined and thus a life in which my higher self was more dominate and my lower self more subordinate. In forcing me not to eat cake other people are forcing me to be free.

Furthermore, the real self can be taken to consent to this allegedly forced act and even desire said act if there exists within someone an entity that is taken to be their true self. This true self is distinct from their empirical self of space and time which knows nothing to little about the true self. It is thought that this true self is the only self that deserves to have its wishes taken into account and that it wishes to act in the way that one knows is better for the higher self. Thus when one dominates the lower self and so forces another to be free, the actual real self consents to it.  So when I am made by others to not eat cake, despite the fact that my empirical self is protesting and indignant, my real self nonetheless desires and consents to the act because the act disciplines my lower self and so I am not in fact being forced to not eat cake or indeed being forced to be free. This is made even more dangerous when the real self is taken to be identical with a social structure  (the state, the tribe, a class, a race etc) such that  all the actions of the social structure are really the particular agents and so none of the actions against the agent by the social structure can even in principle count as coercive or freedom limiting.

There are several problems with Berlin’s argument. Firstly, the danger of positive liberty as a political idea is at its greatest in the instance when the real self is identified with a particular social structure. To justify this identity one would not need to rely on the claim that others know better than one does about what sort of life should be led since what the social structure did and wanted would be what oneself did and wanted. Thus, it seems that the great danger that Berlin points to comes not from the fact that positive liberty is a way of life but that certain social structures are identified with one’s true self. The danger is thus one’s particular beliefs about social structures and their relation to particular individuals and not positive liberty. This is further strengthened if one notes that Hobbes has a negative conception of liberty but given his beliefs about what the just state is, namely Leviathan, he arrives at strongly totalitarian beliefs.

A probable response to this argument is that positive liberty is dangerous in so far as its metaphor of self-mastery makes one more disposed towards the  totalitarian belief that one can force another to be free. Thus, while beliefs about social structures may render one more or less totalitarian, positive liberty itself still makes people more disposed to totalitarianism, However, it is not obvious why positive liberty makes one more disposed towards this belief. This is because even if we accept the premise that if one person knows what is good for another person, then they are warranted in coercing that person into that good, there would still nonetheless be certain sorts of goods that have value only if they are chosen freely. Such goods therefore cease to be of positive value the moment one is forced into them. An example of such a good would be the good of playing. If one forces a person to play they may well end up doing a similar sort of action to what they do when they play but they would not be playing because it seems that playing has to be chosen voluntarily by the player in order to be an instance of playing. Thus, the domain of good ways of life that one could be forced into is perhaps smaller than initially appears.

Given that this is the case one could argue that freedom is the sort of good that is no longer of value when one is forced into it. Therefore, Berlin’s argument does not hold for positive conceptions of liberty that see freedom as residing in individual autonomy because while such views do usually adhere to a distinction between one’s higher and lower self they also contain the view that it is an integral part of the free way of life that the individual living it has chosen that life, rather than being forced to adopt it. Thus one could argue that certain sorts of life are in principle freer than others but that a life that an individual was forced into, even if it were in principle freer than their life prior to being forced, would not in fact be a free life for that individual because they were forced into it. So while Berlin’s argument applies to conceptions of positive liberty which do not emphasize individual autonomy, it does  not apply to conceptions which do emphasize individual autonomy.

Lastly, even if we concede that Berlin’s argument does apply to all conceptions of positive liberty which rest on a higher/lower self distinction, it is also the case that not all theories of positive liberty rest on such a distinction and so it is not obvious how Berlin’s argument would apply to them. Humboldt for example believes freedom is composed of two components. The first component is that a person is free to the extent to which they are engaged in a course of action in which they are exercising their powers and capacities in such a way that these powers and capacities are also being further developed. The second component is that they are in control of said courses of action, as in they voluntarily decide to engage in the activity and maintain control during said activity. Thus one is made unfree by another if they prevent one from developing one’s powers and capacities, force one into a certain activity or maintain control over oneself during the activity. Humboldt’s theory is a positive conception of liberty because it rests on notions of self-realisation, namely realising oneself by exercising and so developing one’s capacities and powers. Yet since Humboldt’s theory is concerned with the realm of action rather than the realm of reason versus desire it is difficult to say that it relies on notions of a true self or a higher and lower self and so it is difficult to see how Berlin’s argument applies to it. Moreover, since Humboldt’s explicitly argues that individuals should have control over their activities it would go against Humboldt’s theory to advocate a form of paternalism in which one individual made another individual act in accordance with a particular way of life which developed a particular sort of capacities and powers. Such a way of life would remain alien and external to the person since they did not freely choose it and so would not constitute genuine self-realisation and so freedom.

To conclude, positive liberty in and of itself is not a dangerous political ideal in the sense that Berlin argued it was for the following reasons. Firstly, the greatest danger from positive liberty is really derived from totalitarian beliefs about social structures and not positive liberty itself. Secondly, within theories of positive liberty centred around notions of autonomy people are made unfree when they are forced to live a certain sort of life even if that sort of life is in principle a freer sort of life. Thirdly, not all theories of positive liberty rely on a higher/lower self distinction and as a result Berlin’s argument is not relevant to them.

*This piece is largely a summary of Raymond Geuss’s essay ‘Freedom As An Ideal’ in ‘Outside Ethics’


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