Modern liberalism regarded liberty as a property of each individual, thereby conceptualizing it as free from politics. Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) criticized this "anti-political" conception of liberty and preached a return to the ancient political notion. For Arendt, freedom was something "disclosed" in the collective action of individuals toward a shared goal; freedom and the act of exercising power are synonymous, not mutually exclusive. Arendt's celebration of political practice in the polis of ancient Greece resulted in an assertion of republican freedom.
Although Arendt's conception increasingly received serious attention, what has determined the paradigm of the discourse on liberty since the middle of the twentieth century was Isaiah Berlin's (1909–1997) 1958 lecture "Two Concepts of Liberty," which was later published in Four Essays on Liberty (1969). Its basic framework is easy to draw: Berlin distinguished between positive and negative liberty. Positive liberty denotes rational self-determination or autonomy, while negative liberty denotes the absence of constraints imposed by others. Despite its simplicity, however, Berlin's conceptualization was controversial and required further clarification. In 1969 he reformulated the concept by introducing two questions. Negative freedom can be determined by answering the question: "How much am I governed?" By contrast, the positive concept can be determined by the answer to the question: "By whom am I governed?" Thus Berlin offered a revised definition of negative liberty: "not simply the absence of frustration (which may be obtained by killing desires), but the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities." Berlin's negative freedom concerns "opportunity for action rather than action itself," which was labeled later by Charles Taylor (b. 1931) as an "opportunity-concept."
Berlin acknowledged positive freedom as "a valid, universal goal," and yet his goal was to suggest the potential danger that positive liberty could readily be turned into the principle that legitimizes oppression, thereby demonstrating why negative liberty was preferable. Positive freedom as self-mastery, according to him, generates a metaphysical fission of the self into a "higher," "real," or "ideal" self and a "lower," "empirical," or "psychological" self. When the "higher" self is identified with institutions, churches, nations, races, and so forth, the doctrine of positive freedom turns into a doctrine of authority, or at times, of oppression. Berlin's discourse forms an intriguing parallel to Benjamin Constant's dual concept of liberty. Constant made a distinction between ancient and modern notions of freedom. He argued that liberty for the ancients was the freedom to participate collectively in the exercise of sovereignty, while liberty for the moderns was the freedom from interference by the community. Constant criticized Rousseau's unlimited notion of sovereignty—he read Rousseau's texts as supporting despotism. The resemblance between Constant's criticism of modern liberty and Berlin's caution about "positive" freedom is striking, and yet they differed significantly. Constant grasped modern liberty as the inalienable right of individuals, while Berlin's positive freedom is "choice among alternatives or options that is unimpeded by others" (John Gray). Constant's modern freedom and despotism are mutually exclusive, while Berlin's freedom and despotism can coexist.
Berlin's negative liberty was underpinned by his commitment to pluralism. For Berlin, the absence of constraint covers a diverse and conflicting range of values from good to evil. Berlin never tried to reconcile colliding and incommensurable values and rejected any principle that claims to resolve the conflicts. This position forms an intriguing contrast with that of Joseph Raz, who defended negative freedom, by anchoring the moral basis of freedom in autonomy. For Raz, the value of free choice-making is determined by its contribution to the positive freedom of autonomy, which is the intrinsic value. Berlin refuses to give negative freedom such an instrumental status; namely, he celebrates negative freedom as the intrinsic value.
The criticism against the negative concept of liberty highlights the notion's indifference to opportunities or choices. Charles Taylor argues that freedom is important to us because we are purposive beings; hence, we discriminate external obstacles (and, therefore, opportunities available to us as the result of the absence of the external obstacles) according to their significance. The restrictions of religious practice, for instance, may be deemed a serious obstacle and hence a significant threat to liberty, while more traffic lights may not be perceived as serious blow to our freedom. Furthermore, obstacles are not necessarily external; we may be fettered by feelings such as shame or fear or by two conflicting desires (for instance the choice between career and marriage), and we have to discriminate between our motives. Actions arising out of irrational fear or spite cannot be said to be free. Thus Taylor suggests that the negative notion as an "opportunity-concept" is seriously flawed, and abandons one of the important elements of liberalism, that is "self-realization."
Berlin's negative concept of liberty did not only attract criticisms but also found a loyal heir in John Rawls; he understood liberty as freedom from interference. Rawls did not offer an explicit general definition of liberty, but his attribution of the exalted status of liberty, which constituted one of the two principles of justice, is noteworthy. According to the first principle, "Each person is to have an equal right to most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for others." Rawls was very specific about "basic liberties," which included "political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience and freedom of thought, freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the rule of law." The priority of these liberties does not allow any of them to be sacrificed except for the sake of liberty.
In addition to the arguments surrounding Berlin's thesis, a "third" concept of liberty has emerged. Intellectual historians, including J. G. A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner, have explored the republican (or "neo-Roman") concept of liberty in early modern republican discourses, and the political philosopher Philip Pettit has theorized republicanism with a focus on the new notion of liberty as nondomination. Hannah Arendt's republican ideals were inspired by political practice in ancient Greece and the American Revolution, while this "third" concept of liberty does not originate in Arendt's vision but rather derives from sixteenth-century Italian humanism and seventeenth-century English republicanism.
Domination, according to Pettit, is exemplified by the relationship of master to slave or master to servant. The "third" concept of liberty proposed by Pettit is neither "non-interference" nor "self-mastery" but "non-domination" that requires that no one has the capacity to interfere on an arbitrary basis in the choices of the free person. Liberty as nondomination differs from the positive notion in that the former emphasizes avoiding interference rather than achieving participation. Yet, republican liberty also differs from the negative concept. Domination occurs without actual interference; and republican liberty would repudiate the presence of a master who did not actually interfere, while the negative concept of liberty would not. Republican liberty rejects arbitrary interference, and what is required for non-arbitrariness in the exercise of power is not consent to the power, as is often claimed by the contractarian theorists, but "the permanent possibility of effectively contesting it." Institutionalized contestability, Pettit argues, would promote "the absence of uncertainty, the absence of a need to defer strategically to the powerful, and the absence of a social subordination to others."
Quentin Skinner participates in the debate from an entirely different angle: he has revised the history of the concept, thereby offering a third concept of liberty that contemporary political philosophers have overlooked. Skinner's case studies of the history of the concept of republican liberty range from Machiavelli to seventeenth-century republican writers including John Milton. Skinner's notion of neo-Roman liberty underlines that it opposes dependence or slavery rather than coercion, on the one hand, and that it requires a specific institutional arrangement, namely the "free state," on the other. The former point represents an antithesis to the Rawlsian narrower notion of liberty as natural rights, and coercion as the antonym of liberty, while, as for the latter, Skinner departed from Berlin who asserted that liberty is independent of the forms of polity.
In the early 1990s Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the "end of history," in a work by the same title, marked by the victory of liberal democracy and market capitalism. Although the number of "liberal democracies" is steadily increasing worldwide, one can hardly say that the notion of liberty is universally shared. Indeed, the civilizations outside the Occidental world did not embrace liberty as a social and political concept until the encounter with Western ideas, especially in the middle of the nineteenth century. The reception of these ideas was, largely speaking, lukewarm at best and, more often, hostile. In addition, those who favored the Western idea confronted the following two problems: one was doctrinal—how to relate a foreign idea to the their own intellectual traditions—and the other was semantic—how to translate the word "liberty" into their own language.
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