Brief Essay on Liberty

The concept of liberty captures a relationship between three terms: it refers to the freedom of an individual X, from an obstacle A, to do B. In other words, Ms. X is not restrained by A from doing B, or in the absence of restraint A, Ms. X is free to do B. Gerald MacCallum who offered us this understanding of the meaning of freedom, argued that it was specious to want to divide analysts of liberty into advocates of negative liberty or of positive liberty, since all theorists of liberty used these three terms (MacCallum, 1967).

We feel, however, that conceptions of liberty can still be differentiated by the contrasting emphasis they place on A or B. Negative conceptions of liberty use B to denote an infinite set, (starting from the act of doing nothing), whereas they use A for a much narrower set, sometimes counting intentionally imposed physical barriers alone as restraints, and more frequently allowing laws as well to be included in the set of restraints. Positive liberty theorists do the opposite: they do not allow every action under B – it is not freedom to sell oneself into slavery – whereas their set of restraints is defined as much wider to include not only physical barriers and laws but also incapacities, whether in the form of a lack of material or psychic resources.

Let us, before we look at the two specific conceptions of liberty in more detail, make some general observations about the concept of liberty. Sometime ago, specially among critical theorists, there was widespread disappointment at liberty not being able to deliver on its promise. Discussions of the value of freedom were often hedged with caveats and warnings.

Some writers extended: the Marxist criticism that the freedom of capitalists is based on the Jack of freedom of the working class to argue that in all of human history, the freedom of some has required the domination of the many: the freedom of male Greek and American citizens was the lack of freedom of slaves, that of men is based on the domination of women, and the freedoms enjoyed by populations of the rich Northern countries result from their control over poorer Southern  nations. This historical evidence yields the general principle that “the freedom of some makes the dependence of others both necessary and profitable; while the unfreedom of one part makes the freedom of another possible”. (Bauman, Z, 1988, p. 19) If freedom has the meaning of being I free to subjugate others, then as such it is not of any normative value.

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Critics also disparaged the existing emancipatory traditions as masks hiding the reality of the modern society as a system of increasing controls. Modernity has seen not only the large scale expansion of coercive state apparatuses, but also many regulatory institutions like schools and bureaucracies, which require citizens to act in ways which extend not their freedom, but their subjection. Modernity’s intellectuals were faulted for using conceptions of freedom glossing over I this hidden domination. (See Foucault, Discipline and Punish)

Finally, some feminists attacked the prevalent theories of freedom as infected with a masculine bias and therefore, problematic for enlarging the freedom of women. Freedom has been conceptualised so far, they argued, solely on the basis of male experience and circumstances. Accepting this conception of freedom means ignoring a large part of the activities of women, and so applying this conception to women cannot be in their interests. It has even been said that concentration on the value of freedom can have anti-women implications: to see freedom, defined as absence of restraints, as “the hallmark of humanity provides another means of asserting women’s non-human status”. (N.J. Hirschmann, 1989, p. 1236)

These misgivings about freedom did not, of course, result in its rejection. It is evident that throughout the world today, opposition movements continue their struggles in the name of freedom and it remains the inspiration behind many movements against oppression.


The task for theorists, then, is to use their critical stance towards freedom to come up with such a notion of freedom that is able to meet each of the earlier objections: that the freedom of some always requires the lack of freedom of others; that modernity, in insidious ways, makes everyone less free; and that current conceptions of freedom just cannot apply to both sexes. It is interesting to note that the search for an adequate conception of freedom is no longer conducted by joining either one of the two camps – of negative and positive freedom – in which supporters of freedom have traditionally been divided. It used to be that discussions of freedom after accepting its core idea to be self-determination, would then generally define and contrast negative and positive conceptions of freedom and take a position defending one, or a qualified version of one theory of freedom. Recent discussions, on the other hand, actually seek to question the internal structures and problematic of both conceptions of liberty, and want to replace both of them with another conception of freedom.

The theory of negative freedom, for instance, has been criticised on the basis of its starting point, an individual with given desires and preferences. Defining freedom as non-interference in the fulfillment of a person’s possible preferences, this theory fails to consider that the notion of freedom as self-determination requires an examination of whether the formation of these preferences is autonomous or not, given the existing social circumstances. A theory of freedom must include an analysis of such circumstances not only with respect to the absence of physical and legal interference, but also to make autonomously formed desires and preferences possible.

The positive conception of freedom, it is admitted, does not assume individuals with given desires, and goes beyond viewing freedom as merely non-interference. Since it defines freedom as the following of self-given rational rules, it analyses the process of the creation of an individual’s selfhood, which becomes the basis of that person’s freedom as self-determination. In addition, it also recognises the necessity of the availability of external resources, over and beyond the lack of physical and legal obstacles, for self-determination. This conception has been faulted, however, for formulating the formation of autonomous selfhood, or autonomous preferences and purposes as an act of individual reason with no link with social conditions, as “an act largely independent of any social context”.(P. Patton, 1989, p. 263) This can certainly be said of some theorists of positive freedom, like Kant.

Dissatisfied with the two traditionally dominant conceptions of liberty, the theorists of freedom today are struggling to formulate certain crucial social conditions of freedom. These social conditions of freedom are not exhausted by the publicly guaranteed protection of certain areas of life from physical and legal impediments, and the social provision of resources like income, education and health to individuals. In addition, they are said to include two other provisions on which there is less consensus than on the first two.


The third social condition of freedom consists of one’s cultural context being valued in the society in which one lives. This cultural context is part of the process by which an individual forms autonomous preferences, and its importance lies behind the demand for cultural rights; that is, it underlies the claim that individuals are not equally free in any society in which different cultures are unequally valued. The fourth social condition of freedom is some notion of collective freedom, which is more than the political freedom of everyone having the vote, or the right to freedom of expression. In order to counter the objection that freedom will always mean the freedom of some to dominate others, we have to look at, and develop arguments making the freedom of some dependent on the freedom of others.

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