six types of freedom

(Ft. Lauderdale, FL, en route to Austin, TX) Here are six types of freedom. Isaiah Berlin cited the first two as part of his argument for pluralism. He believed that genuine goods were distinct and incommensurable. For instance, a reasonable person could value two types of freedom, but no social order could maximize both simultaneously. We would have to choose, not only between the two types of freedom that he described, but also among freedom, happiness, equality, and other worthy goods.

Much in the spirit of his work, I extend the list of freedoms to six:

1. Negative liberty: freedom from constraint in the form of tangible action against the person or her property or (much more commonly) the threat or fear of such. Because fellow human beings can threaten violence, anarchy poses dangers to negative liberty. (Think of failed states flooded with AK-47s.) Although parents must constrain the negative liberty of their children, they can abuse that power. To combat anarchy, intra-family abuse, and other forms of violence among citizens, states are probably necessary. Yet in most of the world, it is the state that can threaten violence most effectively and pervasively. It must be curtailed in the interest of negative liberty.

2. Positive liberty: the freedom to do something. You are not free to travel, for example, unless you can afford a fare. Positive liberty is a matter of degree, since human beings are simply not able to do everything we want. But there may be a list of fundamental capabilities that everyone should be able to exhibit, and they require external support. You can’t learn to read unless someone teaches you. If one has a meaningful right to a positive liberty (e.g., the right to read), then some other person or community has a duty to provide it; and the state may be the best means to enforce that duty. But if I must pay taxes for your kid’s education or face imprisonment, then my negative liberty has been curbed in the interest of her positive liberty.

3. Individuality: the freedom to develop and express a unique personality and life-story in both the public and private spheres. Individuality may require a degree of negative and positive liberty, but it also faces threats not yet mentioned. The social norms that are strongest in tight, traditional communities and the mass culture that dominates today’s global society both inhibit individuality. Mass culture already worried de Tocqueville, but it has been hypercharged by advertising and technology. The global mass exercises its power less through majority rule at the ballot box than through search algorithms, trendy catchphrases, and addictive tunes.

4. Freedom from manipulation: I am treated as a means to someone else’s ends when the other person sways, threatens, or pays me to do what he wants. I am treated as an end when the other person tries to decide with me what we should do. States and markets arrange people as means to each others’ ends, perhaps unavoidably. Freedom (in this fourth sense) exists in ethical communities whose members treat each other as ends in themselves. Neither positive nor negative liberty guarantees such communities.

5. Freedom to make the world (or to live in a world that we make). Society is an artifact. We are born into the society of our ancestors, with all its flaws. But we are not compelled to replicate it. We become freer in this fifth sense the more that we design and fashion the world that we inhabit. That is a collaborative task, so it requires some limitations on negative liberty. But it is also not the positive liberty of being given an education or an airplane ticket. It is a matter of active co-creation.

6. Equanimity: freedom from the dread, doubt, disquiet, and sorrow that are consequences of being vulnerable and mortal creatures who care about other fragile living things. Although it is harder to achieve equanimity under conditions of extreme duress (e.g., given a complete lack of negative or positive liberty), and although mass culture threatens equanimity, inner peace seems to have different conditions. Indeed, when positive liberty means incessantly choosing consumer goods, it is incompatible with equanimity, as is individuality when it turns into narcissism, or co-creation when it becomes a vain yearning to build wholly new and permanent things.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.