Give a clear account of Isaiah Berlin’s ‘two concepts of liberty’

Topic: EnvironmentNatural Disasters
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Last updated: April 4, 2019

a) In short Isaiah Berlin held negative freedom to be the freedom of the individual or group to act without interference from others, and positive freedom to be the freedom of that individual or group to do something. These one-line definitions initially appear similar and require amplification in order to allow us to draw a clear distinction between them.Negative freedom is governed by the number of options available to an individual, whether they choose to take advantage of them or not. An example might be the freedom for me to apply for promotion to officer rank in the Royal Navy. The changing of certain rules have increased my negative freedom by removing impediments to my progress. A key point made by Berlin, however, highlights the fact that my potential inability to achieve the required standard is in no way a restriction on my negative freedom.

‘Mere incapacity to achieve a goal is not a lack of political freedom’ (Book 1, p. 15)Not all examples are as clear cut as this. Should one’s liberty be restricted by one’s place of birth, religion or financial status in that one is prevented from taking certain jobs or partaking in certain activities it is not necessarily a restriction of one’s negative freedom unless those restrictions are imposed by others. Should there be, say, a minimum personal wealth required for promotion to the officer corps and I am prevented from being promoted by a lack of money, then I could justifiably argue that my negative freedom is being restricted.Positive freedom, however, regards the removal of impediments to one’s opportunities. It is best illustrated by analogy.

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Should one have, say, a significant credit card balance, whilst still having income spare at the end of the month, it would be wise to use that money to reduce the debt thus increasing disposable income in the longer term. Ikea is a short distance away and those bookcases were never all that nice in the first place, thus instant gratification can be gained from spending that money on something one doesn’t need but would quite like.Berlin describes, whilst not endorsing, the conflict between the wise, thoughtful, ‘higher’ self and the (in this case) consumerist, short-term, ‘lower’ self.

If one can overcome one’s lower desire to have a prettier, though no more functional, bookcase then one might be regarded as having increased one’s positive freedom in that one has removed an obstacle to future happiness and financial well-being. This conflict has been used often in the last century to justify the actions of totalitarian government over its people by insisting that it (the government) is better aware of the best interests of its population than the population themselves. It must be remembered that, this warning notwithstanding, positive freedom could be a good thing in the eyes of Berlin and his liberal contemporaries.b) MacCallum disagreed with the two concepts of freedom on three counts. Firstly that the difference between them had never been satisfactorily explained; second that the idea was based on a confusion and thirdly that the whole idea was unhelpful to the examination of the difference between the various schools of thought. MacCallum’s belief was that freedom was ‘triadic’ in that there were three components, all of which apply implicitly or explicitly in all cases. These were firstly that freedom always has a subject, whether it be an individual, or group; secondly that it is a freedom from a constraint; thirdly that it is a freedom to take (or not to take) a course of action.

Any discussion of freedom must have all of these components, that is a subject, some constraint to be removed and some future state or condition to be achieved.In adopting this common model, MacCallum held, the debate on the nature of freedom could be moved on from an ‘unrewarding concentration’ (Book 1, p.31) on positive and negative freedom and towards a discussion of the parameters of each of the terms of the triadic model. This would, he feels, focus debate on the ‘truly important issues’ in this area.An example of MacCallum’s triadic model might be this; should a church school remove the requirement of a belief in God as a necessary condition of admission to the staff, the subject of the freedom would be all atheists who fulfil all other requirements. The constraint removed would be that of religious belief thus granting them the freedom to seek employment in a previously blocked post. In this way MacCallum combines Berlin’s positive and negative freedoms into a single simpler and more readily applicable concept.

However for this to be the case it would have to be true in all circumstances. The argument follows the pattern “All X are Y” e.g., “All ravens are black”. Should there be a single example of a non-black raven the argument is refuted by counter-example. Berlin attempts to provide a non-white raven by showing that in key examples MacCallum’s concept of a triadic system of freedom does not apply.

Berlin argues that an individual or group enslaved need not have any definite further aim other than their emancipation. ‘A man need know how he will use his freedom; he just wants to remove the yoke’ (Book 1, p.31). This, Berlin further states, applies to all levels of social grouping. Berlin holds that in this case there is not object or aim to the freedom other than the removal of the constraint, and so the triadic model does not apply. In so arguing he attempts to show that MacCallum’s concept does not allow for what we commonly understand as the most basic form of freedom. Berlin clearly does not believe that simply freedom to be able to decide how to use one’s freedom is sufficiently specific to be accepted as the third requisite parameter of MacCallum’s model.

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