In “Two Concepts of Liberty,” British philosopher Isaiah Berlin defines positive freedom as “the ability to be one’s own master,” and negative freedom as the realm within which a person can “act unobstructed by others.” The former involves doing as you please; the latter, the state of not having to deal with the actions of people around you.
When you are home alone, you have the positive freedom to listen to Katy Perry sing “Firework” as loud as your speakers will go. When you are in a dormitory surrounded by people whose musical taste (whew!) has gotten past “plastic bags / drifting in the wind,” you must respect their negative freedom from having to listen to your music.
Public debates in America often hinge on how we align the axis between freedom to and freedom from. What contemporary issues can be evaluated on this axis? How might introducing the concepts of positive and negative freedom allow for more rational and productive discussions of these topics?
The end to which ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ are employed in language is the signification of two distinct intuitions about the nature of action. The first use is semantically instantiated as “freedom from”. This use is the referent of Berlin’s “negative freedom”, as such a freedom negates the presence of preventive mechanisms in a system. This concept of freedom serves to answer questions of the form: “What is the circumstance in which some actor is (or should be in the case of normative inquiry) left to do or be what they are able to do or be?” Alternatively, Berlin’s ‘positive freedom’ (freedom to) posits the presence of an ability or capability to act, rather than an absence of a preventive being. While I doubt that there is a sufficient extent to which Berlin’s freedom-semantics serve as an effective component in language with which to communicate about action or ability, I feel that its use can be introduced into contemporary American discourse to increase its productivity. Specifically within topics that regard legal restriction or legal rights. The means by which its introduction might improve discourse’s productivity is by its use as a distinction between types of the currently ambiguous ‘freedom’.
In some of my political circles, I’ve heard this concept being described as “positive rights” and “negative rights.” Some logical assessments can be made with it, for example, the right to life is the same as the right to not die, but that isn’t the same as the right to not be killed. Clearly, we can’t be free from death, but we can and should make it to where we’re at least free from being killed. It’s easier to see which kinds of freedoms can and should be kept with this kind of framework.
Introducing the ideas of positive and negative freedom may help debates be more focused, however, positive and negative freedoms are already the center of many debates. Positive vs. negative freedoms could be debated as liberty vs. authority. We’ve seen this debate take place since the beginning of the debate and will see it continue with the FDA approval of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. It’ll be interesting to see where the vaccine is required and how it is enforced.
How might introducing the concepts of positive and negative freedom allow for more rational and productive discussions of these topics?
The contemporary issue of Muslim women wearing Hijabs when they don’t want to only because of what other people will do can be evaluated on this axis. Introducing the concepts of positive and negative freedom will humanize the topic of wether or not Muslim women should be allowed to not wear hijabs. This in turn rationalizes the harsh rule into a more compassionate setting allowing more productive discussions of this topic.
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Everyone will view the freedom axis differently. Some will say that we should all be considerate of others and respectful to the point you feel the world is surrounding you with parents. On the other hand, you have people want to blast their music and quote, “do whatever the hell I want.” We have to find a happy medium between positive and negative. We need to let people, “blast their music,” in, “their headphones.” That is a good place to start when discussing positive and negative freedom.
The argument around masks can be argued based on this dichotomy. Using this framework is helpful to establish what exactly is being argued.
The right to be without vaccination is a main issue as of right now. By introducing positive and negative freedom, people can be more open to discussion that might be controversial to their beliefs. As a human, we all have rights. These basic rights are significant of our positive and negative freedoms. By knowing our boundaries, we know what freedoms belong to us and which ones do not.
This is a very sensitive topic I must say, but I think that it depends on the situation in order to decide if its better to have more freedom on that situation, or less freedom in order to be protected from it. I do believe it is better to have freedom to than freedom from in most cases but there are exceptions to by belief. Another conflict I think goes along with this topic is that while many are fine with giving up some of their freedoms in order to be protected from those things, that in pursue of such protection can infringe on other’s freedoms to the same things. But in the end, I think it leads onto an individual case by case basis when deciding which side to lean.
When more people understand the difference between liberty and freedom, more will be able to provide and insightful discussion on how we may find our own footing in America. The freedom of speech is a great example of how many may use their liberties to say inappropriate things. We all have the freedom to say whatever we want to say, but at the same time we have to understand that others have the freedom to not listen.
Most issues where there are two distinctive sides can be evaluated on that axis. By introducing the concepts of both positive and negative freedom in discussions, there is always the possibility of creating a more rounded knowledge and understanding of the concept. This method would allow for less heated arguments and much more productive conversations.
For this reply alone, I will be speaking about freedom in general, simply because when you are someone of color, freedom is a lot more complex. But as Easterling said, America gives you the right to do anything you want, but there are consequences for your actions. Whether they are more serious like a life sentence, or something as infantile as someone making fun of you, there are consequences.