An Affirmative Defense of the Liberal Tradition

Freedom and Its Betrayal consists of reconstructions from transcripts and drafts of six lectures that Isaiah Berlin broadcast in 1952 on the BBC, and, new in this second edition, three early drafts of Two Concepts of Liberty. The broadcasts discuss six thinkers; the issues on which Berlin concentrates are the ones that motivate Two Concepts.

That Berlin believes a significant difference exists between positive and negative liberty is well known. But the substance of his view is not well understood. To possess negative liberty is to be unobstructed by others, to not be hindered by them in one’s actual and potential choices. Positive liberty is self-direction, a view connected to Rousseau, the Stoics, and ascetics, each of whom purveys some notion of a higher self whose dominance constitutes freedom. Berlin, in contrast, considers negative freedom to reduce barriers to the varied ends and purposes people actually have.

Berlin does not give us a formula by which to judge the proper amount of negative liberty. Such mock precision would violate his view of what is possible and desirable. Equality, justice, love, and love of truth, moreover, are values just as liberty is. None is completely compatible with any other. Liberty requires conditions, furthermore, and advancing it for some will restrict it for others: liberty’s conditions differ from liberty itself. (Parents should not be free to fail to educate their children.) We should not confuse liberty as the unhindered conduct of our actual selves with its conditions or with other values.

Berlin’s worry about positive freedom is not with the bare sense of self-direction but with the belief in a higher or truer self. This tends to become a view that the higher self should direct us, and that it is identical in all of us. If we cannot live up to it, others can make choices for us. Moreover, this authoritative self often becomes identified with a national or group self of which I am a part, or with a single “creative” self for whom the rest of us are mere material.

The potential difficulties with positive liberty are legion. The most obvious is that its exponents easily become bullies and tyrants, often to horrible excess. They believe themselves to be altogether correct and others to be fortunate recipients of the perfection to which we are being delivered. Their actions therefore know no limits.  Communist and Fascist tyrannies are current reprehensible examples.

Berlin would worry about the dominance of a higher self even if one could demonstrate that there is a self all should serve, because we would lose the actual choices and freedom that help constitute our own humanity. But, in fact, no such demonstration exists. Others’ control in the name of one’s high or national self is almost inevitably a false justification or a mere cover for tyranny.

No such demonstration exists, however, because our ultimate values are incommensurable. Ultimate values, however purely we pursue them, sooner or later clash. Justice, love, liberty, equality, truth, art, virtue and morality cannot be reduced to or substitute for each other. Moreover, the patterns of life that these values’ differing substance and importance define are also incommensurable. Berlin does not offer an exhaustive list or analysis of such values or explore exactly why they must be incompatible. But his main point is clear: their incompatibility means that there is no single “true” self. More, this incompatibility means that negative liberty allows the least hindrance to any of these values, or the greatest opportunity to choose among them. This is the major element in Berlin’s affirmative defense of negative liberty; much of the rest of his analysis involves detailing the difficulties with positive freedom.

These details come out when he discusses central figures in the history of ideas. Indeed, much of his view of liberty emerges from or together with these analyses. It is not applied to them formulaically. In Freedom and Its Betrayal Berlin discusses mid-18th through mid-19th century figures: Helvetius, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon, and Maistre, several of whom are today fading from intellectual view in the United States.

Berlin does not simply identify positive liberty with the thinkers he discusses in Freedom and Its Betrayal or with romantic thinkers generally. Utilitarians also direct us to a single end. More generally, technocratic or scientific politics, any view that sees politics merely as finding the means to bring about supposedly unified and unimpeachable ends will suffer from its dangers. Berlin interprets Saint-Simon in this technocratic way. Helvetius too believed that he had discovered the single true point of view – pleasure and pain from which everything could be understood and governed. Rousseau and Hegel are more subtle and complex, but they also believe that a single overarching standpoint exists from which contradictions among goods can be resolved – Hegel more or less obviously, and Rousseau when thinking from his Calvinist or virtue-laden standpoint. Rousseau also proclaims the sincere or authentic self, a true self in whom desire is restricted to assure success and limit alienation. The result is Hegel’s celebration of stifling power or the links between Rousseau and Robespierre’s terror.

Berlin’s worries about positive liberty and the thinkers who advance it are clear. It is foolish to ignore them. This is not to say, however, that his analyses are altogether convincing. In general, he does not study particular works from beginning to end, so details, nuances, and qualifications are bypassed. The complex elements in Hegel’s discussion of liberty, for example, receive short shrift. Moreover, Berlin’s concern with positive liberty leads him to identify too fully quite disparate thinkers. More broadly, the fully radical nature, intellectually, of the historical or romantic turn, the gap between natural right and any historical or romantic thinking, is not part of his discussion.

Still, Berlin sees the importance of the romantics and the emphasis on history as few do. His view that irreconcilable differences exist among important values, moreover, means that when he is not emphasizing positive liberty he can notice significant differences. He sees with no illusion, for example the difference between the qualities or virtues that Machiavelli esteemed and Christian characteristics, and does not paper over this split. Yet, Machiavelli’s radical intention with regard to philosophy and religion escapes him. Berlin is an imperfect guide to the authors he discusses in Freedom and Its Betrayal, and elsewhere, but a better guide than most.

Berlin’s notion of negative liberty has the great merit of looking at liberty directly in liberal (or, these days, “conservative”) terms, and saving it as a common sense phenomenon at the root of liberal democracy. Choosing for oneself is essential to being human, and he clarifies what it means to choose freely. Clear eyed champions of such liberty are becoming rare, and are to be prized.

Nonetheless, Berlin’s discussion must be questioned, and I will conclude by raising two issues. His case for the incommensurability of goods rests primarily on two facts. Different communities have directed themselves to different goods in different degrees at different times. And, I can see that I might need to curtail my liberty to advance reverence, love, greater equality, or a more just distribution of goods. These facts do not require, however, that there can be no general standard. To fully employ our powers and fully enjoy goods is such a standard, for example, and according to it all ways of life or significant values, passions, and activities are not equal. Plato’s argument in the Republic about the superiority of the philosophic life, or Aristotle’s about greatness of soul’s comprehending the other virtues are not vitiated by a general claim of incommensurability.

One also sees the limits to Berlin’s claim if we reflect on the fact that we seek to judge the better choice, the better reasons, the fuller ends, and that this judgment is only rarely about capacities and situations unique to oneself. Berlin somewhat distorts matters because he looks at historical claims without, as it were, attending to their judgment about each other – Machiavelli and Christianity would, correctly, not think each other to be inscrutably incommensurable – and because he wishes to treat each individual’s choice as in some way equal. One can show with some success that ethical virtue is superior to material hedonism, or philosophical questioning to religious quietism or domination. The truer or higher self that seeks virtuously to control rather than to yield to passions, or to understand rather than to wallow in dogma or opinion is indeed a truer or higher self, but it is not so for everyone identically, because our powers and circumstances differ.

A second issue concerns the split between negative and positive liberty. Hindrances and obstructions come to light when one tries to move or direct oneself. Liberty as self-direction and as being unimpeded occurs together. Berlin therefore cannot simply split them once he develops his understanding. “The sense of freedom, in which I use this term,” he tells us in the introduction to his Four Essays on Liberty, “entails…the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities – absence of obstructions on roads along which a man can decide to walk.” Freedom “is opportunity for action.” The self and self-direction that is implied by Berlin’s discussion is one for whom eliminating anything that might be a hindrance constitutes freedom. This is the liberal self, the self of Hobbes or Locke. The enactment of such a self, however, cannot help but advantage some lives over others. Among the obstacles to philosophical and artistic excellence, to virtuous and responsible character, to faith and reverence, are an orientation to wealth and a view that happiness is the easy satisfaction of equalized desire. But these are endemic in the liberal community and cannot help but affect everyone’s education and self-understanding. Berlin’s conception of negative liberty involves the opportunities of the liberal self, understood as the true self. Although this self is in a way comprehensive, it is not neutral; it puts extra obstacles in the way of significant activities.

This also suggests that a defense of negative freedom that rests on neutrality about ways of life is insufficient. For, such freedom is broad, but it also constricts. Liberal democracy differs from regimes that demand economic equality or class or racial inequality, or that require piety in the form of exhaustive ritual. Liberal democracy advances individuals who are unlikely to be attracted to such ways. It cannot be altogether impartial. One therefore needs an affirmative defense of the liberal self for whom such negative freedom is most useful. We find such an affirmative defense in the justification of equal natural rights in Locke, Hobbes, and the American Founders. Their authoritative, natural, individual self belongs to what is true about human freedom and excellence, although it is not the whole truth. An affirmative argument reminds us of the benefits of liberal openness, and its practical superiority, while also allowing us to recognize its limits.

Berlin did not mount such an argument in Freedom and Its Betrayal or elsewhere because he did not think it possible or because it cut against his notion of the incommensurability of ultimate things. His admirable defense of negative liberty, his intelligent understanding of the novelty and implications of various intellectual teachings, his impressive and uncommon seriousness, his thoughtful judgment, and his commendable loyalties should not blind us to the need for such an argument or the possibilities of offering one.