Positive liberty

Positive liberty is the possession of the capacity to act upon one's free will, as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from external restraint on one's actions.[1] A concept of positive liberty may also include freedom from internal constraints.[2]

The concepts of structure and agency are central to the concept of positive liberty because in order to be free, a person should be free from inhibitions of the social structure in carrying out their free will. Structurally, classism, sexism, and racism can inhibit a person's freedom. As positive liberty is primarily concerned with the possession of sociological agency, it is enhanced by the ability of citizens to participate in government and have their voices, interests, and concerns recognized and acted upon.

Although Isaiah Berlin's essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" (1958) is typically acknowledged as the first to explicitly draw the distinction between positive and negative liberty, Frankfurt School psychoanalyst and Marxist humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm drew a similar distinction between negative and positive freedom in The Fear of Freedom (1941), predating Berlin's essay by more than a decade.


The word liberty can refer to many things, but Isaiah Berlin recognized two main types of liberty. Berlin described a statement such as "I am slave to no man" as one of Negative Liberty, that is, freedom from another individual's direct interference. He contrasted this with a Positive Freedom statement such as "I am my own master", which lays claim to a freedom to choose one's own pursuits in life.[2]

Charles Taylor sees Negative Freedom as an "opportunity-concept": one possesses Negative Freedom if one is not enslaved by external forces, and has equal access to a society's resources (regardless of how one decides to spend their time). Positive Freedom, says Taylor, is an "exercise-concept": possessing it might mean that one is not internally constrained; one must be able to act according to their highest self – according to reason.[2] Suppose a rich and powerful actor is also a drug addict. This actor may possess a great deal of Negative Liberty, but very little Positive Liberty according to Taylor. By Taylor's definitions, Positive Freedom entails being in a mature state of decision making, free of internal or external restraints (e.g. weakness, fear, ignorance, etc.).[2]


In a description of positive liberty from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Put in the simplest terms, one might say that a democratic society is a free society because it is a self-determined society, and that a member of that society is free to the extent that he or she participates in its democratic process. But there are also individualist applications of the concept of positive freedom. For example, it is sometimes said that a government should aim actively to create the conditions necessary for individuals to be self-sufficient or to achieve self-realization.[3]

In "Recovering the Social Contract", Ron Replogle made a metaphor that is helpful in understanding positive liberty. "Surely, it is no assault on my dignity as a person if you take my car keys, against my will, when I have had too much to drink. There is nothing paradoxical about making an agreement beforehand providing for paternalistic supervision in circumstances when our competence is open to doubt."[4] In this sense, positive liberty is the adherence to a set of rules agreed upon by all parties involved. Should the rules be altered, all parties involved must agree upon the changes. Therefore, positive liberty is a contractarian philosophy.

However, Isaiah Berlin opposed any suggestion that paternalism and positive liberty could be equivalent.[5] He stated that positive liberty could only apply when the withdrawal of liberty from an individual was in pursuit of a choice that individual himself/herself made, not a general principle of society or any other person's opinion. In the case where a person removes a driver's car keys against their will because they have had too much to drink, this constitutes positive freedom only if the driver has made, of their own free will, an earlier decision not to drive drunk. Thus, by removing the keys, the other person facilitates this decision and ensures that it will be upheld in the face of paradoxical behaviour (i.e., drinking) by the driver. For the remover to remove the keys in the absence of such an expressed intent by the driver, because the remover feels that the driver ought not to drive drunk, is paternalism, and not positive freedom by Berlin's definition.[5]

Erich Fromm sees the distinction between the two types of freedom emerging alongside humanity's evolution away from the instinctual activity that characterizes lower animal forms. This aspect of freedom, he argues, "is here used not in its positive sense of 'freedom to' but in its negative sense of 'freedom from', namely freedom from instinctual determination of his actions."[6] For Fromm, freedom from animal instinct implicitly implies that survival now hinges on the necessity of charting one's own course. He relates this distinction to the biblical story of man's expulsion from Eden:

Acting against God's orders means freeing himself from coercion, emerging from the unconscious existence of prehuman life to the level of man. Acting against the command of authority, committing a sin, is in its positive human aspect the first act of freedom. [...] he is free from the bondage of paradise, but he is not free to govern himself, to realize his individuality.[7]

Positive freedom, Fromm maintains, comes through the actualization of individuality in balance with the separation from the whole: a "solidarity with all men", united not by instinctual or predetermined ties, but on the basis of a freedom founded on reason.[8]

Various thinkers

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theory of freedom, according to which individual freedom is achieved through participation in the process whereby one's community exercises collective control over its own affairs in accordance with the 'General Will'.[3] Some interpret the Social Contract to suggest that Rousseau believed that liberty was the power of individual citizens to act in the government to bring about changes; this is essentially the power for self-governance and democracy. Rousseau himself said, "the mere impulse to appetite is slavery, while obedience to law we prescribe ourselves is liberty."[9] For Rousseau, the passage from the state of nature to the civil state substitutes justice for instinct gives his actions the morality they had formerly lacked.[10]

However, this is only one interpretation of Rousseau's work. This view is not really describing the General Will in terms of its more modern interpretations. Rather, it is describing more the 'Will of All' (in Rousseau's terminology). The Will of All contrasts to the General Will in that the prior comprises the composite desires and appetites of those who make up society and the latter the reasoned, objective opinions and beliefs of those who see themselves as part of a nation and of a group of men. A law cannot be said to be of the General Will unless it is general in its origins and applications. Particular wills cannot be homogeneous in the way which the General Will requires. However, this does not mean that Rousseau's liberty is incompatible with positive liberty. Rather, we have to remove the implication that positive liberty requires collective control over affairs which is derived from the conscious and expressed decisions of men. The task which Rousseau gives 'the Lawgiver' in the Social Contract is that of deciphering the General Will from the mass of particular wills. If the Lawgiver, whatever form this may take, is able to do so, then the individuals who comprise a society have truly participated (via their real, reasoned and tempered will) in the collective control of their own affairs. As the extract above says, government by the Will of All is slavery. Rousseau's usual solution to how the Lawgiver may be able to do this is cultural homogeneity on the one hand and physically small states on the other. These two themes recur within Rousseau's works often with the view to homogenising inharmonious particular wills.

According to G. F. W. Hegel, "Freedom is the fundamental character of the will [...] That which is free is the will. Will without freedom is an empty word."[11]

See also


  1. Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. 1969.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Taylor, C. What's Wrong with Negative Liberty, 1985. Law and Morality. 3rd ed. Ed. David Dyzenhaus, Sophia Reibetanz Moreau and Arthur Ripstein. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2008. 359–368. Print.
  3. 1 2 Carter, Ian. "Positive and Negative Liberty". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  4. Replogle, Ron. Recovering the Social Contract. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (1989). p. 164.
  5. 1 2 "Open Learning – OpenLearn". Openlearn.open.ac.uk. Retrieved 2014-04-28.
  6. Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1966), p. 26.
  7. Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom, pp. 27–28.
  8. Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom, p. 29.
  9. Rousseau as quoted by Replogle, Ron. Recovering the Social Contract. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (1989), p. 105.
  10. Michael Rosen, Jonathan Wolff, Catriona McKinnon (eds.), Political Thought, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 63.
  11. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Science of Logic (1812), tr. A.V. Miller (Humanity Books, 1989), p. 146.

Further reading

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