Berlin: Two Concepts of Liberty

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1 Berlin: Two Concepts of Liberty Isaiah Berlin ( ) Born in Riga, Latvia (then part of the Russian empire), experienced the beginnings of the Russian Revolution with his family in St. Petersburg (Petrograd) Educated at Oxford, under the influence of logical positivism, where he later became Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory (from 1957 until 1967 a chair later held by Charles Taylor) Arguably not all that terribly productive as a scholar, but very influential as a public intellectual e.g., Gerry Cohen, Charles Taylor, Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff 1

2 Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) Delivered as Berlin s inaugural address as Chichele Professor; ;possibly the most influential lecture in 20 th century political philosophy. Contents: Partly an exercise in the history of ideas, ostensibly an exercise in conceptual analysis, but most explicitly a defense of liberal pluralism. The historical i context t of the lecture the th Cold War, the struggle against fascism clearly influences its content. Negative Liberty: The area (domain) in which we are free from constraints imposed by other people. p The latter qualification is important for Berlin: Like Hobbes, Berlin holds that we must distinguish between freedom and a lack of power 2

3 If my poverty were a kind of disease which prevented me from buying bread as lameness prevents me from running, this inability would not naturally be described as a lack of freedom, least of all political freedom. It is only because I believe that my inability to get a given thing is due to the fact that other human beings have made arrangements whereby I am, whereas others are not, prevented from having enough money with which to pay for it, that I think myself a victim of coercion or slavery. (91, emphasis added) Coercion and Other People Berlin: So, a lack of power counts as a restriction of freedom only insofar as it is the result of arrangements made by other people; coercion is a deliberate interference within the area where I would otherwise be free (90-1). People aren t coerced by poverty, ignorance, etc., unless other people have made it so. On the one hand, this stipulation may seem a bit peculiar: Is a nicotine addict free to not smoke? But perhaps this does make sense of negative freedom in the political domain? Rousseau: the nature of things does not madden us, only ill will does 3

4 Negative Freedom in the Liberal Tradition Human purposes do not automatically harmonize with each other, so at least some restrictions on freedom are necessary (e.g., for the sake of justice, security, happiness). Private/Public Distinction: But there must be at least a minimum area of personal freedom that is inviolable. Otherwise, we degrade or deny our nature (92). Hobbes: A possibly very small minimum (as we ve seen) Mill: As much liberty as possible, consistent with others having the same (as we will see) Political Upshot (for Classical Liberals) Some more or less extensive variation on the nightwatchman a state For libertarians like Nozick (and Locke, Jefferson, early Mill), a good thing. For socialists like Lassalle (and Marx and others not to mention fascists), a sad, objectionable limitation on what the state t could (or should) achieve. 4

5 Preview: The Marketplace of Ideas In fact, for Mill (and market liberalism), a kind of automatic harmony supposedly can emerge precisely when the private realm (area, domain) of personal freedom is left quite wide and effectively protected by law. The Market View: The development of civilization, the pursuit of truth, etc., require a free market of ideas. People must be given considerable freedom to pursue whatever goals of self-development they may choose, else we remain in collective mediocrity (Mill). Berlin: Three Facts 1. Mill assumes that maximal freedom is a necessary condition for the development of independent, non-conformist, truth-seeking persons. But this is at best, empirical love of truth and individualism are also compatible with a highly disciplined community. 2. Contingency: The idea of individual liberty (and of a private domain immune from public control) is a comparatively modern, local idea. 3. Individual liberty does not entail democratic self-government: The answer to the question Who governs me? is logically distinct from the question How far does my government interfere with me? (93) 5

6 Positive Liberty: The condition in which one is free to be one s own master, to be a subject rather than an object; to achieve self-realization. Who governs me? is indeed logically distinct from How far does government interfere with me? But it is in this difference that the great contrast between the concepts of negative and positive liberty consists, (93) One Interpretation: Because I am a rational being, something distinct from the rest of nature, I want to conceive my own goals and projects and to be free to realize them but which projects? Which goals? T.H. Green: If I unreflectively accept whatever goals and desires I happen to have, and am left free to act on them, I may not be my own master but simply a slave to nature (an old idea in philosophy, going back at least to Plato) If I m to avoid this, mastery must be given to my higher self, my real self, my autonomous self or some such thing 6

7 But often, on positive liberty views, my real self is identified with something bigger and/or more powerful or permanent than the individual: My nation, my class, my church, my state. This, Berlin says, is the great danger: Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf of their real selves, in the secure knowledge that t whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, fulfillment of duty, wisdom, a just society, self-fulfillment) must be identical with his freedom the free choice of his true, albeit submerged and inarticulate self. (95) Monstrous Impersonation Concession to reality: In fact, we sometimes may know what is in a person s best interest better than she does. But, says Berlin, this must be kept distinct from claiming/pretending that she chose our preferred action on her behalf and, therefore, is not being coerced. consists in equating what X would choose if he were something that t he is not, or at least not yet, with what X actually seeks and chooses, is at the heart of all political theories of self-realization. (95) 7

8 Enough manipulation with the definition of man, and freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes. Recent history has made it only too clear that the issue is not merely academic (95) 8

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