In his article “Two Concept of Liberty” Isaiah Berlin talks about two opposite form of liberty, namely-
- Positive Liberty
- Negative Liberty
Positive liberty refers to “freedom to”. It is related to answering a very simple question, “who governs me?”. It is basically the liberty of an individual to govern himself/herself.
Negative liberty, on the other hand, refers to “freedom from”. It is related to answering a very simple question, “how far does the State can interfere with me ?”. It is the liberty of an individual to be free from excessive control by the government.
Negative Liberty is the absence of barriers, resistance, hindrance, opposition, obstruction, etc. It is simply being let alone to do, whatever one desires to do.
According to Berlin, Negative liberty is all about freedom from interference or intervention from others. Negative liberty deals with the sphere, where individuals are free from opposition from others. As such, the larger the level of non-intervention, the greater one’s negative liberty.
Berlin states that negative liberty indirectly affects the lives of others. Therefore there is a need to reasonably restrict this liberty for the survival of other values such as equality and justice.
Berlin argues that complete negative freedom can be granted to the people only in a utopia, where every individual possess higher rational thinking and where the desire of individuals are in complete harmony. However, for Berlin, such type of society can never be established.
The concept of positive liberty is very complex in comparison to negative liberty. It is not liberty from interference rather it is the liberty to do something.
Negative liberty is the matter of not preventing individuals from doing something but positive liberty is the matter of being free to be in control of one’s own life.
In case of positive liberty, an individual may find that there are lots of opportunities, which are giving him/her the freedom to be the master of his/her own fate, but still, he/she might feel that there are still barriers, which are preventing him/her from taking full advantages of the opportunities.
For example, I know that studying is very important for me as it will help me to be the master of my own life. But I really love going out with friends or watching a movie, etc. So these short term gratifications tend to seduce me away from the works or activities that are important for me in the long term.
So, in this situation, my positive liberty will be increased if my higher rational side could overcome my lower tendencies to be sidetracked.
If I take the same example in case of negative liberty, what I find is that the freedom to study is there as no one is resisting me from study or no one has hidden my book, pen, etc, which indicates that I am negatively free.
However, in a true positive sense, I am not free, because I am a slave to my short term gratifications.
It is noteworthy that Berlin’s idea of positive liberty not only implies self-control or self-mastery at a personal level, it also implies collective control over common life.
So, from the above discussion, one thing has become clear that negative liberty is concerned only with the presence of opportunities, whether you take these opportunities or not is a separate matter.
However, positive liberty is not concerned with the presence of opportunities, it only focuses on being able to take advantage of opportunities by increasing the control over life and by being free from internal obstacles and irrational desires.
It is for this reason Berlin argues that just because no one is stopping you from doing a particular work, it doesn’t mean that you are free. You will be free only if you can overcome your internal irrational desires or short term gratifications.