Positive Freedom, And Isaiah Berlin's Two Concepts Of Liberty

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In his essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin favours negative over positive liberty as it is “the truer and more humane ideal” and argues that positive law threatens individual autonomy by justifying paternalistic coercion. In his work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville views liberty as a benefit produced by political life under a free government and posits a conception of positive liberty as political participation. This essay will argue contrary to Berlin, that positive liberty is equally as important as negative liberty for liberalism as the latter is insufficient in ensuring self-realization. Further, it will argue that the establishment and maintenance of negative liberty is contingent on the exercise of individuals’ …show more content…
He defines negative freedom as an “area within which a man can act unobstructed by others” (Berlin, 122). Obstruction implies coercion rather than an inability preventing an individual from acting. Berlin defines positive liberty as being “not freedom from, but freedom to” (Berlin, 131). It is freedom from internal constraints and derives from the individual’s desire to be his own master: “I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside”. Positive freedom as self-mastery depends on the elimination of obstacles to one’s will, specifically, impulses and uncontrolled desires that override one’s higher, rational nature (Berlin, 146). Examples of laws that promote this liberty are those that restrict drugs and gambling and can include positive requirements as well, such as requiring government to provide education and …show more content…
Tocqueville attributes the loss of passion for freedom in France following the French Revolution to the centralization of political power, which resulted in political apathy, a decline in citizen participation and consequently, the passage of laws infringing on their liberties. He contrasts this with the political liberties enjoyed by Americans under a free government. He argues that these conditions are due to Americans’ high level of participation in associations and the energy with which they work to secure their rights. Although individuals are naturally inclined to join associations out of self-interest (to protect their rights and achieve their goals), associations themselves are not purely self-interested but are concerned with the common good. Associational life necessarily contributes to liberty by socializing individuals into an authority structure through which they are attached to government and can gain freedom in a non-revolutionary but habituated manner. These associations among other democratic institutions allow liberty to thrive by educating citizens in self-government and by keeping them interested in the public good. Political parties, for example, involve ordinary citizens in political causes, give members’ views moral force (as they are affirmed by a group)

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