Morality, Social Policy and Berlin’s Two Concepts – .political philosopher Isaiah Berlin

Morality, Social Policy and Berlin’s Two Concepts – .political philosopher Isaiah Berlin – )

Robert Grant

THE sociologist Helmut Schoeck once observed that envy is so shameful that it is the only human passion to which no one who harbours it will ever admit.(1) When we feel it, therefore, we have always to disguise it as something more respectable. By a reverse application of the same principle, freedom or liberty (there seems no point in trying to distinguish between the two) is a thing that even the worst of tyrannies claims somehow to stand for. No standard political concept has been more subject to semantic abuse, not even that of democracy. The Fascists and the National Socialists at least had the good grace to make no bones about democracy, their opinion of which was like Dean Inge’s of sin: they were against it, and never pretended otherwise. But everyone loves, or professes to love, freedom.

Is freedom (or liberty) then a mere Humpty-Dumpty word, meaning whatever one wants it to mean, and thus a term that we would do well to dispense with? I think not. It is well worth trying to distinguish “true” freedom both from equally respectable cognate goods, and from its less respectable impostures.

Isaiah Berlin’s distinction, in “Two Concepts of Liberty,” between negative and positive liberty (Berlin, 1969) may be less illuminating than it at first seems; not because those things are not distinct (they are), but because, like sausages and roses, they may well (to use Berlin’s own expression) be incommensurable. Each, doubtless, is a good. We may sometimes have to choose between them. But it is not clear–at least, not prima facie–that they are sufficiently the same kind of thing to deserve their common designation as “liberty”.

Possibly only the negative kind qualifies unequivocally as liberty proper (which is not to say it is always a good). It is conceivable, though not certain, that the positive kind, though no less valuable, belongs essentially to a different category of goods. Perhaps it acquired the title of liberty simply by way of an honorific, and might, though rated no less highly than now, have been called something else in an age or culture that set less of an official premium on liberty. As for negative and positive liberalism, which are not Berlinian expressions, superficially they ought to mean versions of liberalism–libertarian and left-liberal respectively (say)–which in social philosophy and policy systematically favour one kind of liberty over the other. Things are not so simple, however, because those two liberalisms also differ about which spheres of human action ought to be governed by which kind of liberty.

The libertarian seems more consistent (indiscriminate, his critics would say) in seeing laissez-faire (negative liberty) as the model for both economic and moral life. The left-liberal, on the other hand, will favour positive liberty (which usually implies state intervention) in economics and (particularly) welfare, but negative liberty, or laissez-faire, in morals. But there is, in fact, consistency here too. Not only is there a common ethical principle (hedonism) behind the left-liberal agenda, but also an underlying logic, since the consequence (to be argued later) of moral laissez-faire is people who, being incapable of autonomy or self-direction, must naturally become dependent on government. Government accordingly must be enlarged, and, under democracy, sustain itself, whether intentionally or not, with “tied” votes from both its clients and the welfare bureaucracy which caters to them. If this is the reality, or something like it, of left-liberal government (and even left-liberals seem now to concede that it may be), surely the same ought similarly to follow from the libertarian’s moral premises. Does it, or not? I shall return to these questions at the end.

Berlin’s notion of negative liberty is clearer than his notion of positive. One reason is surely that the first is simpler and (perhaps oddly, for something negative) more tangible, and thus easier to be clear about. (One might call it “shallower”, without thereby denying its significance.) I enjoy negative liberty in a given sphere so long, and so far, as there is no wilful or deliberate human impediment to my action in that sphere. It is “negative” because it specifies, and turns on, an absence. It does not attribute any particular content (or indeed value) to my freedom, or say what I could or should be doing with it. As Bentham rightly stressed, it would be no less a freedom (in its way) if what I did with it were bad, either for me or for others.(2) The very fact that it can be abused is one reason why it cannot in practice be allowed to be limitless; the same idea, in slightly different form, was emphasized by Hobbes, to the effect that liberty, if limitless and universal, is self-cancelling, affording to each no practical protection against (or freedom from) his neighbour’s incursion (i.e., freedom to invade). The purely moral permission, therefore, that, according to Hobbes, each still theoretically enjoys to do as he might wish is valueless.

Negative liberty can be understood in terms of rights, but only when those are construed in the classical liberal manner, as freedoms or permissions rather than as claims. My negative liberty involves no substantive claim on others that they supply me with X, or deliver X, or perform X for me, where X is something to which I have a “right” (whether natural or contractual). Still less, being contentless, can negative liberty be considered as a substantive, welfare-style entitlement. I have a right, not that you, or the state, or whoever, do or provide X for me, but merely that you leave me alone to do (or not to do) X, Y, or Z (if I want).

This requirement sounds almost too wispy or minimal to count as a right, though in practice it has real weight, as immediately becomes obvious once it is withdrawn. To reinforce its general negativity, the idea amounts equally to this, that you have no right to obstruct my actions (of such-and-such a kind). This could be recast as your having a duty not to prevent me from performing them. If I wish to and can, that is; the facts that I may not want to and may not be able to are irrelevant, as they are not in the case of positive liberty.

In its negative conception, political liberty is proportionate to the number and extent of permissions, that is, of spheres of action, and items within them, protected against invasion. There is no suggestion that everyone can actually do what is permitted (though the permission seems pointless unless someone can): an individual’s personal, social and economic circumstances may determine otherwise. But what is important, and consequently disregarded by anarchists and extreme libertarians (who have other ideas), is that the state, and in particular the law, will step in to prevent anybody who seeks to prevent the individual from doing whatever it is, if he does want to and can.

In essence this is what, at the political level, classical liberalism has always advocated, and it stops there, for a reason which from the classical liberal perspective is plausible enough. Though largely implicit, this reason is that any “deeper”, more “positive” kind of freedom (e.g., that supposedly instantiated in “self-realization”) could not be guaranteed by the state. Further, the state’s attempt to guarantee or deliver it will always necessitate the state’s appropriating powers that effectively decrease the sphere and extent of permissions (negative liberty). And further still (we might add), the “deeper” a conception, the remoter it is, by definition, from everyday experience. Some things (`scientific” explanations of self-consciousness, for example) may be so “deep” as not to engage with experience at all, in which case for all practical purposes we can surely dispense with them. (Which is not to say that positive liberty in general is illusory.)

Berlin himself never really defined this “deeper” freedom, except vaguely to suggest that it had to do with self-realization; moreover, to its detriment, that it is the “freedom” to “lead one prescribed form of life” (1969: 131). That, of course, would be a highly Pickwickian freedom. It is found, admittedly, in some positive libertarians of a classical republican stamp (Robespierre being an extreme example), as also in some Romantic Idealists, though not in Kant or Hegel; but why should Berlin suddenly introduce this anti-pluralist component into the idea, except to discredit it? Others among his examples (`Two Concepts’, [sections] VI; 1969, 154-162) bear the marks of post-war decolonization.(3) implying that the “self” at issue is collective (i.e., national, or rather nationalist), and that its “realization” might involve very severe restrictions, both on individuals’ negative freedom, and (partly in consequence) on the possibility of their individual self-realization.

In these pages it is unclear just how Berlin’s sympathies are distributed between his “two concepts”. While obviously trying to “understand” post-colonial nationalism, and to see its “good” side (as typified by its aspiration toward collective self-respect), he is ironical about the Platonizing “positive liberty” (individual and collective) espoused by Sarastro’s enlightened quasi-Masonic brotherhood in Mozart’s The Magic Flute ([sections] V; 1969, 145-154).(4) What is clear, though, is that in some versions collective liberty, however inspiring to its devotees, must amount to no freedom at all. For, as Reich (1972 [1933]) and Fromm (1942) rightly pointed out long ago, many of its conditions are amply satisfied by fascist regimes, whose initial hold over their subjects is due precisely, in Fromm’s phrase, to their subjects…. fear of freedom” (my emphasis). In his Group Psychology (1921) Freud gave a suggestive analysis avant la lettre of the same condition (1967: 48, 545). In the supposed “primal horde”, he says anachronistically, each individual has substituted for his own “ego-ideal” (i.e., moral conscience, later called the superego) the image and will of the leader; and in this way, by surrendering what we would call the duties of self-direction and personal responsibility, has literally become one, a single ego, with his fellows.

What, though, of other “deep” (i.e., positive) kinds of liberty, whether individual or collective? Can we give them a more philosophical definition than Berlin’s, and show whether, and if so why, they are valuable? And further, how and how far they interrelate and interact with negative liberty?

An interesting attempt to elaborate a concept of positive liberty has lately been made by the Heidegger scholar Hubert Dreyfus and his co-authors Charles Spinosa and Fernando Flores, in their essay (subsequently expanded into a book of the same title) “Disclosing New Worlds”.(5) For them, freedom is linked to self-realization, but in a social, not a purely individual-centered, context. (And so far, as we shall see in discussing Hegel, they are surely right.) They select three activities by way of illustration: entrepreneurship (typified by Flores himself), citizen action (typified by the pressure group MADD, i.e., Mothers Against Drunk Driving), and cultural leadership (typified by Martin Luther King). These three activities have a common phenomenological structure and a common purpose, which is to “disclose new worlds”, i.e., so to reconfigure the collective perceptions, via a kind of Kuhnian Gestalt-switch, as to bring about “large-scale cultural and historical changes”. Each, more or less unselfconsciously, is an exercise of skill, an expression of freedom, and a building of solidarity through the recovery or discovery of human meanings.

All this amounts virtually to a (somewhat incongruous) Ruskinian or even Morrisian idealization of the so-called “American way of life”. Much in it is plausible, but the whole exercise, in leaving open the actual nature of the entrepreneur’s product, the citizen action and the cultural leadership, is excessively formalist. The substantive content of each is surely crucial in determining their worth, no matter how enjoyable or liberating they may be for those engaged in them. And, so far as skill and self-realization go, a torturer, such as de Maistre’s awesomely horrific bourreau, may take pride in his skill (“nul ne roue mieux que moi”) and fully “realize himself” in its exercise (see de Maistre, quoted at length in Berlin, 1990: 117-18n.). Like skill, freedom and solidarity (which the authors treat rather as ends in themselves), cultural leadership, citizen action and entrepreneurship can work as easily towards bad ends as good. Why, after all, formally speaking, should not Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan and Larry Flynt respectively be perfectly adequate representatives of those three pursuits?

For all that, there is something in what Spinosa et al. say. There is a connection somewhere between skill, freedom, self-realization and ends in themselves. Very likely it lies in the idea of an end in itself, particularly as that pertains to persons, and in the idea (or fact) that to recognise others as ends in themselves (that is, as having a right not to be arbitrarily and instrumentally conscripted into one’s own or others’ projects, i.e., to be to that extent free) is a precondition of the right to be similarly recognised oneself. Starting from the usual place, ancient Greece, it will be helpful to take a longish detour to that familiar Kantian destination.

For the ordinary Greek, as for what we now think of as “mainstream” Greek thought, freedom was a fairly simple matter. It was not central to his political discourse in the way it is to ours. One reason was that the Greeks did not have the modern idea of the individual, to whom, in our view, freedom pre-eminently attaches. The Greeks had an idea of the self, an idea of the person, and an idea of the soul, all of which are components of our idea of the individual. But for them the individual could not finally be separated from his various contexts: from his family, clan, tribe, city, or his general Greek culture (which served, when occasion demanded, to unite the otherwise perpetually warring Greek cities against the barbarian). The Greeks, to be sure, had an idea of private life. But the purely private person did not exist, for them, in any meaningful sense. Our word “idiot” (as is well known) derives from the Greek for “private”, as indeed Marx meant us to recognise, when he referred to the “idiocy” of rural–that is to say, of non-civic and non-political–life.

In consequence, when the Greeks thought of freedom, they generally thought of it as belonging less to the individual than to the society or state of which he was part. A “free” city (as Hobbes later noted) might have any form of government, including many that we should call far from free. What, in their terms, defined it as “free” or otherwise was whether or not it was a sovereign state; in other words, whether it lived under its own domestic government, or under that of a foreign power. The nearest the Greeks got to the notion of individual freedom was in the very important contrast they drew between freedom and slavery. The free man was whoever was not a slave; and part of not being a slave (the “positive liberty” part) was the right one had of participating in politics.(6)

To be a slave was much more than merely to be subject. It was a question, rather, of what you were subject to. For Greeks in general–at least, the “mainstream” Greeks already mentioned–regarded themselves as subject to something, and in no way supposed that all forms of subjection were incompatible with freedom. However free he was, a Greek still saw himself as subject to the ties of family and clan, to the obligations of friendship, and above all to the laws of his city, if it was so fortunate as to be ruled by law. In his reconstruction of Pericles’ Funeral Oration for the dead of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides (1972: 145) puts some famous words into the statesman’s mouth: “Free and tolerant in our private lives’–thus, in addressing them, Pericles characterises his countrymen–`in public affairs, obedient to the law.’

It is obvious that this is not really an antithesis, but rather two sides of the same coin. The “private life” of which Pericles speaks is not the egoistic “idiocy” celebrated by some libertarians. His point is that what made them free, notwithstanding their many cultural and customary obligations (which they were legally free to disregard), was that they were substantively obedient only to the law (which, of course, they also helped to make). What made a slave a slave, on the other hand, was that he was obedient, not to the law (though there were, as there were not in ancient Rome, laws to protect him), but to the arbitrary will of his master. It is some such Aristotelian contrast that the 17th-century English statesman Harrington had in mind when he called for “an empire of laws, and not of men”.

That is the classical, or at least the dominant, Greek conception of freedom. Largely though by no means wholly “negative”, it survives in the writings of modern classical liberals such as F. A. Hayek and Michael Oakeshott. But it is not the only conception of freedom that the Greeks had. For it was originally worked out, and championed, by Democritus, Plato and Aristotle, in opposition to another conception of freedom, which is also still with us.

This alternative conception approximates positive and negative liberty to each other, in identifying freedom directly with power (which implies both an absence of constraint, and an object, or person, upon which or whom power is exerted). It was advanced in particular by some of the younger Sophists, a tribe of itinerant professors of public speaking. Names that have come down to us in this connection are Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, Callicles in his Gorgias, and Lycophron in Aristotle’s Politics. In keeping with their profession, the Sophists’ object was not to discover the truth–for, like postmodernists, they believed (self-contradictorily) that no such thing existed–but simply to train their pupils in the arts of persuasion. Truth was a fiction, being merely whatever people believed or could be induced to believe; and since, in democratic Athens, power hung upon the ability to convince (that is, to induce belief), “truth” and power, and thus freedom too, were almost indistinguishable.

In modern times perhaps the best-known representatives of this view are Nietzsche (who made no secret of his admiration for the Sophists, and handed it on to postmodernism) and Sartre. The view, then as now, was roughly this: freedom is not merely freedom from another’s (or a collective other’s) arbitrary will, but freedom from any constraints or obligations whatever. Only the man who acknowledges no imperatives but those he gives to himself–so runs the formula–is truly free.(7) The most obvious of the confusions which this view generates is simply this: if I am free to disobey anyone, I am surely free to disobey myself. To say that I am subject only to my own commands is to speak nonsensically, since, as their author, I may also at any time release myself from them.

The Sophistic, ultra-individualist view in fact amounts to a celebration of the lawless individual; of the man who, because he acknowledges no ties, in fact belongs nowhere.(8) This is the man of whom Aristotle, quoting Homer, said that he was “clanless, and hearthless, and lawless”. Such a man, Aristotle added, could not be human, but must be either a beast or a god (1978: 5-6). And we might add that it is just when man, intoxicated by his powers, aspires to the condition of godhead, that he most shows himself to be a beast.(9)

Under this view, freedom is a zero-sum game. Only some can be free. The more freedom I have, the less there must be for you. The free are the strongest. The rest have simply to obey them, since the strongest are constrained by no laws (if they were, they would not be free in the sense intended). If there are laws, they work, or are made to work, in the interest of the strong. This ultra-individualist position is in fact an apology for despotism.

It is worth asking, however, whether the despot, or the individualist, is really as free as he thinks; or, if he is, whether his freedom can be said to have any value. Obviously it will have little in the eyes of those subject to it (unless, as Mill said, they are lucky enough to find themselves subjects of an Akbar or a Charlemagne); but could it have any value for the despot either? In short, can a tyrant, or despot, be free, in any sense that leads to a fulfilment whose worth he himself would acknowledge once he had achieved it? (He is of course maximally free in the negative sense, by definition.)

In his Phenomenology of Spirit (178-196; 1977, 111-19) Hegel set forth a famous parable, usually called the parable of the Master and Slave (alternatively, Lord and Bondsman). It is meant to illustrate the phase of self-consciousness in which we become aware of ourselves as existing separately from the world of people and things, as empowered to act upon it, and as obliged to concede its independence of our egoistic desires. But for present purposes let us take Hegel’s parable literally, as pertaining wholly to people, though clearly it already has, and is meant to have, moral and political overtones.

Hegel imagines that the Master wants the Slave to acknowledge his, the Master’s existence, since it is only through others and their reactions to us that we acquire any true, objective idea of ourselves.(10) Without that, we cannot be convinced that we exist. Someone who had grown up alone on a desert island, or somebody like the Wild Boy of Aveyron (see Truffaut’s brilliant and moving film, L’Enfant Sauvage), would not, in fact, know that he existed. He would have no conception of himself as a person, because he would have no human model outside himself upon which to construct a personality. If you have never seen, or known, a human being other than yourself, you cannot know even that you are one.

Now the master, or tyrant, who knows others only as his slaves, is in just the position of a man on a desert island. For in holding others in subjection, he never experiences them as they really are; that is, as full human beings, free centres of consciousness, motivated not outwardly by his commands, but inwardly, by the law of their own spontaneous nature. His power, so to speak, dehumanizes them. The fear in which he holds them leads them always to lie, always to tell him only what he, the master, wants to hear.

Accordingly, the master never learns, and never gains an objective view of himself. All he ever sees is his own will, blindly reflected back to him in his slaves’ servility. He has absolute power, but in vain, since it is that very thing which stands in the way of his true self-knowledge. For self-knowledge can only come from exposing oneself to the frank and free responses, and criticism, of others; that is, from treating them as existential equals and Kantian ends in themselves. And so to treat them is effectively to accord to them a measure of negative (and perhaps also of positive) freedom. (How great that measure should be, and how proportioned to the stages of their development, are questions to be dealt with later.)

Above all, such a master can never be loved, because love, like trust, belief, and charity, cannot be compelled, but must always be freely given. By terror or bribery, you can induce someone to flatter you; you can compel him to say that he loves you; but until you set him free (as the husband does his wife in The Lady from the Sea), you can never know whether he really means it (as Ibsen’s lady does). Indeed, your consciousness of your power over him leads you always to suspect that he is lying, just as you yourself would lie in his position. And since you cannot see past his dissimulation, actually into his head, you are left permanently dissatisfied and unfulfilled. The one thing, perhaps, for which you sought power, the confirmation of your own existence and worth, is the one thing which your power, like money, cannot buy. You can only get what you want by giving up your power, and giving others their freedom; but that, of course, is what you most fear to do (especially when you recall the hatred and resentment your slaves must feel toward you).

So you finish up, for all your power, in the unenviable position of Shakespeare’s tyrant Macbeth, who, having driven many good men into exile, and murdered others, and reduced those who remain to a cowed, impenetrable silence, finds that all the true ends of human life have eluded him:

I have lived long enough; my way of life Is fallen into the sere, the

yellow leaf; And that which should accompany old age, As honour, love,

obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have; but in their stead,

Curses, not loud, but deep, mouth-honour, breath, Which the poor heart

would fain deny, and dare not.

“Honour, love, obedience, troops of friends”–are these not precisely what Aristotle understood to be the ultimate ends of life in the polis, that is, of human life? And are they not precisely those things which tyranny makes it hazardous, or even impossible, to pursue? If we are to value freedom, it is not for its own sake (whatever that might mean), nor for the sake of “choice”, nor for the sake of power, but for the sake of the moral and cultural ends that it makes possible; which actually constitute, we might say, freedom in its deepest sense. These are things we really want and need if we are to flourish Aristotle-fashion, i.e., achieve our maximum individual happiness or fulfilment; and we are constrained, unfree, to the extent that we are deprived of them.

Such a notion of freedom is certainly “positive”, but by no means necessarily monistic, or unitary, or any other of the collectivistic, monolithic epithets applied to it by the committed pluralist Berlin. (Nor, since it embraces us all, is it “elitist”.) What it involves is an end in one sense, but a beginning in another: the ability, irrespective and in advance of any specified further goal, to enter, negotiate and pursue the moral life, which is that of the free being in association with his kind. This association, once achieved, though it is certainly an end, and intrinsically satisfying as such, in no way prescribes what the associates are subsequently to do, either separately or in concert.(11) In that respect, it resembles negative freedom, in being a kind of baseline. And if the necessity of recognising others, reciprocally, as free beings entails (as it does) a constraint on our dealings with them, to the effect that there are ways in which they absolutely may not be treated (to wit, those in which we would not like to be treated ourselves), so be it. As Hegel’s fable shows (at least in my interpretation of it), that is the price we must pay (and it is a price worth paying) for the freedom that comes from self-knowledge, and which is unobtainable except in interaction with other free beings, whose freedom one has already conceded in renouncing one’s egoistic designs on them.

“Freedom,” said Matthew Arnold, “is a very good horse to fide, but to ride somewhere.” What kind of freedom you want for man, and whether or not it is valuable, depends upon what kind of creature you conceive him to be. The freedom of a tyrant, as I have shown, must be valueless, even to himself. He can never break out of it to enjoy the only thing that matters, the unforced, spontaneous regard of others. He is permanently enslaved by his own freedom to command, that is, by his power-determined perspective, his empirically-incorrigible fantasy about himself and his subjects (accompanied by the all-too-empirical reality of his control over them). In that respect even the slave has the advantage of his master. For though he is powerless to act, he is not powerless to think, nor to see through other eyes than his master’s. He sees in his master, not a reflection of his own will, but his master as he really is. His master, on the other hand, is condemned always to perceive himself as entirely his own fragile creation. Like the unfortunate Great Gatsby, he is quite literally a self-created man, with all the attendant limitations.

It is not, however, only tyrants who are thus enslaved. Human beings are complex creatures, and harbour within themselves impulses that are no less imperious, metaphorically speaking, than an external master, but only if they are allowed to have their way (one has the choice, as one has not with slavery). No one but an extreme libertarian, surely, would deny that the negative freedom of a drug addict to indulge his habit amounts in the end to a reduction of his overall “deeper” freedom, in fact, to no worthwhile freedom at all.(12) And the same is true of many indulgences which, harmless though they may often seem, amount no less than tyranny to the pursuit of fantasy, and often fall in peculiarly pat with tyranny’s purposes.

Take sexual license. It is not my purpose puritanically to single out so time-hallowed a human propensity for especial condemnation. There are, after all, worse things; as C. S. Lewis observed, the cumulative effect of everyday trivial meannesses, perpetrated as often as not by the chaste and respectable, is probably more productive of human misery, at least where (as in Lewis’s time) sexual license is not widespread, and is always constrained by guilt or scruple of some kind. What I wish to condemn is not so much sexual license itself (and I take it merely as an example), as the extraordinarily widespread superstition that sexual license, like other kinds, is not only harmless, but also a good, and even a right, to be piously upheld in the name of freedom.

I leave on one side, as too obvious to need mention, the medical consequences of extreme sexual license (Mapplethorpe, Foucault, and tens of thousands more). Irrespective of those, what counts is the socio-political consequences of sexual license, or rather of treating it, either as a matter of indifference, or as a positive good. Those amount to a significant part of the long-prepared social catastrophe now unfolding before our eyes, and impossible any longer to ignore, explain away, or even (idiotically, with a few as yet undaunted “progressives”) to celebrate: the gradual erosion and increasing collapse of the marital, familial, and even friendship relations that lie at the heart of any worthwhile social order; that is, of any genuinely “free” society. (“Free”, because the security and trust on which social cohesion is built, and which depend in part on sexual fidelity and restraint, inhibit not only social breakdown but also the constraints and anxieties that come in its train.) And all that is to say nothing directly about the morality of sexual license per se. Even ignoring that (and assuming it to be a separate issue, as it may not be), how is it possible to set such things at naught? Cui bono?

The freedom nowadays claimed for virtually any kind of sexual behaviour is certainly freedom of a kind, but it necessarily denies expression to profounder and more important human impulses, whose satisfaction we experience as a sort of freedom, even though their cultivation–which enables us to see why they and their satisfaction are important to our well-being–rests on restraints that we first have imposed on us, and subsequently (having seen their point) adopt as our second nature. So how far, then, we might ask, is sexual license “real” freedom? Such qualitative distinctions, as Mill was forced to admit in his Utilitarianism, are surely crucial. And notice, that the “freedom” currently demanded often goes beyond mere legal tolerance–for that already exists, with the effects just noted–to substantive cultural approval or moral endorsement.

Many of these Johnny–come-lately freedoms, particularly in the sexual and domestic spheres, are precisely those that tyrannies such as Soviet Russia (at least in its early, Bolshevik days) have historically been readiest, or even eager, to grant. In Rex Warner’s anti-totalitarian fable of 1941, The Aerodrome, the all-knowing, all-powerful, and nameless Air Force colonizes an imaginary English village, forcibly diverting all the inhabitants’ energies to the service of its own sinister, inscrutable ends. It takes good care, however, to encourage guilt-free sexual indulgence amongst them, providing all the now-familiar panoply of back-up services such as free contraception and abortion. For it has correctly seen that the traditional moral constraints upon sexual activity–shame, reticence, prudence and long-term family and other human loyalties, in short, love–are precisely what also prevent people from falling in with its, the Air Force’s, designs. There is no need to expatiate upon the similar function that sexual indulgence performs in Huxley’s Brave New World.

What these examples show, of course, is the immense value of license to a dictatorship, in destroying the permanent bonds of trust and moral scruple upon which a free society depends; indeed, which actually constitute a free society. (Again, “free”, not only for the reasons already given, but also because inter alia, and as Burke observed, where those spontaneous, internal promptings are lacking, an external discipline must take their place if society is to subsist at all. And once in place, that same external discipline may be used, when licentiousness has done its work, to extinguish it, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.) Like it or not, it is those permanent bonds, and the qualities that go to compose them, that historically have furnished our deepest motivation; those, that the whole elaborate yet spontaneous artifice of culture exists (or once existed) to honour and to defend; and those, accordingly, that constitute the most serious obstacle, and radical challenge, to the power of the dehumanized State.

The Czech philosopher Patocka (a fellow-pupil, with Heidegger, of Husserl’s) observed that a life that was not prepared to sacrifice itself to its own meaning was meaningless (quoted in Havel 1987: 150). By this he meant that the only things of permanent value were those that a man was prepared, if need be, to die for (even though he himself would no longer be there to enjoy them). In a famous dictum, Voltaire remarked that though he might disagree with what you said, he would defend to the death your right to say it.

It is doubtful whether this is plausible, always, absolutely, and everywhere, of free speech, precious though that undoubtedly is. But it is surely not true of the freedom to produce and to use pornography;(13) to experiment upon human embryos or abort them absolutely at will; to divulge state secrets “in the public interest”, irrespective of their usefulness to an enemy; or to disavow responsibility, or escape punishment, for whatever crimes one has committed. It is hard to imagine anyone seriously going to the stake for any of these freedoms, despite the enormous amount of noise generated on their behalf in recent years. And let us make no mistake: they are freedoms, albeit negative ones (permissions). The question is simply how far, even if morally worthless, they deserve political protection, or whether they do at all; or to put it more tendentiously, whether they should be defeasible under pressure from weightier considerations. These amount to establishing the conditions for a superior kind of freedom, a freedom in which we exercise our capacity for rational, long-term choice, not freedom just for our immediate desires.

The reason no one would seriously go to the stake for the permissions just mentioned is simple, namely that they belong to an ethos that, though nowadays ferociously moralistic on the surface, is at bottom selfish and hedonistic. Being egocentric, this outlook, which now unjustly adorns itself with the once-honourable title of liberalism, simply cannot imagine that anything whatever could be worth dying for. To the modern liberal, death–the one law he can never hope to evade, to pervert, to reform, to abolish, or to ridicule–is the worst of all possible evils, being the total negation of the supreme liberal value, choice. A society in which such a view prevailed would be unable to protect itself against an enemy, since it would capitulate at the least sign of danger, and in so doing lose even the things for which it had capitulated. Such a society would also fail to engage its members’ loyalty, since each, being out merely for himself and his passing appetites (doubtless officially dignified as “rights”), would be unable to recognise in himself and his fellows anything worthy of respect.

We have an animal nature, and a human. For the most part, there is nothing especially loathsome or terrible about our animal nature. Indeed, if we do not look to its welfare, we cannot survive. But, if we seek freedom for our animal nature alone, we shall discover that we have lost all the freedom that, if life is to be worth living, our human nature requires. It was no surprise to discover, when visiting the Eastern bloc before the collapse of Communism, that no one there gave a snap of the fingers for the burning issues of so-called “personal” morality that continue to agitate us here at home. What they cared about was freedom for the grand values: for family, friendship, culture, national honour; above all, for freedom to participate in the moral community, to treat others as ends, and to be treated as an end oneself.

This freedom is particularly hard to exercise without a degree of political freedom. Nevertheless, it was a freedom which dissidents not only claimed, but actively asserted, not merely in their personal lives, but politically too, in the moral challenges and invitations to dialogue that they issued to the authorities. Furthermore, the moral community, while being the locus of positive liberty par excellence, is entered by voluntarily according negative liberty to one’s fellows, that is, by renouncing the desire, or the imagined right, to control them. So it seems as though, in the immediate, interpersonal sphere, and however excessive the lengths to which it can sometimes be extended politically, negative liberty does have a necessary minimum extent and a genuine basis in obligation, that is, an irreducible moral content. This is why the subject peoples of Eastern Europe wanted it politically as much as they did: only with freedom of action can you do what is wrong (or, more accurately, be held responsible for doing it); but without a certain minimum freedom of action, you cannot, unless you are outstandingly courageous, do what is right either.

Those, then–the positive, “grand” values conducing to human fulfilment and self-realization, and the negative freedom to pursue them–are the things above all which totalitarianism must suppress, though its attempt to do so has rarely been wholly successful. And it was those things, not the stock liberal causes, for which the dissidents in such countries spoke up with such courage, and (extraordinary as it may seem) continued to support from within, even when, as was often the case, they had been given the freedom, and sometimes even a cash inducement, to emigrate. That must be real freedom, if, in order to defend it effectively, men and women used voluntarily to choose something not far removed from slavery, with the risk (even latterly) of unjust and untimely death.(14)

Our capacity to engage in the moral life, as the latter is described by Kant and elaborated by Hegel, is innate, which is why it is fair to reckon it in as part of human nature. To be sure, the moral life takes different forms in different societies; but, as Berlin observed in his essay on “Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century Thought” (1990: 80), relativism can only go so far: “their variety cannot be unlimited, for the nature of men … must possess some generic character if it is to be called human at all.” And that much allows us to observe further that, though the detail and content of morality may differ between societies, some societies are manifestly more highly developed morally, and others manifestly more lax, corrupt or decaclent, than others. Our morality may not be identical with another culture’s; but even we, looking in from outside, can see that the other’s is a morality, and assess its state of health.(15)

In other words, and though innate, the capacity for the moral life is one that may be impeded or thwarted. The provision of negative liberty alone will not enable a human being to realize his moral nature, that is, to understand and to interact with others as equals; nor, in individual cases, and though generally desirable, is negative liberty always absolutely necessary, as we have seen from the example of Eastern Europe (and as the Stoics claimed). Indeed, the exclusive, single-minded concentration on negative liberty–what used to be called “the permissive society”–seems ultimately to be destructive of the moral life.

Negative liberty in the political sphere is obviously a good in itself, when those on whom it has been bestowed are also morally educated in its use. But it is equally obvious, per contra, that without a certain amount of negative liberty, to be used, abused, learned from, enjoyed and gradually increased up to its maximum in adulthood, this moral education will be harder (though not impossible) to acquire, since the dimension of ethical practice, and the means to acquaint oneself with its unpredictable contours and hidden passages, will be lacking. In Eastern Europe and especially in Russia, where liberties we had taken for granted for centuries were totally unknown until yesterday, virtue and the moral life would often twist themselves into the most fantastic, otherworldly shapes, and, once released into the political arena, have sometimes ended up doing even more harm than moral indifference. It follows that negative liberty is not only an object of moral obligation (we must grant a certain minimum to others if we are to join the moral community), but also a necessary part of the healthy political organism. Not only may it be a useful brake on unrealism, fanaticism and similar extravagances, but we might also agree with Mill that it is a useful source of cultural and other innovation.

Having said that, though, we must re-emphasize that negative liberty and its maximization are not the sole political good. To claim that they are and proceed accordingly undermines human values at another level, the moral, by so to speak delegitimizing those values and casting them adrift to sink or swim by themselves. No doubt where the moral culture is robust enough, and homogeneous enough, it can survive on its own resources (which, if so, will almost invariably be religious). But a robust moral culture will generally be neither hesitant nor fastidious about demanding political reinforcement. (It is also unlikely to be very liberal or tolerant.) If this reinforcement is not forthcoming, and the moral culture is exceptionally vigorous, the consequence will be the delegitimization not of the culture, but of the political power instead. Something like this happened in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, where religion was particularly strong; but there the threat to the indigenous moral culture was not from liberal permissiveness, but from a dogmatic, secular, state-enforced ideology.

If morals are to survive in a society that is both secular and liberal, it is clear that they cannot be politically imposed (and the society remain liberal). (It may be that, as under Communism, the very attempt to impose any morality politically must destroy its credibility.) But it is equally clear that they must be underwritten somehow, and not destroyed through neglect or indifference. Most of the constraints and permissions we ordinarily experience occur in the private rather than the political sphere, since that is where we spend most of our lives, and there, accordingly, that nearly all of our moral education takes place, as it should.

Values in the private sphere, and the sanctions used to enforce them–disapproval, ridicule, ostracism, peer pressure, institutional or parental discipline–can never, by definition, possess legal force, for once they do (a thing for the most part impossible anyway) they cease to be private. They can, however, be legally upheld if challenged or (usually with limited success) legally prohibited. And no doubt some few are rather unlovely, and do indeed deserve to be prohibited. Most, however, must be upheld if morality is to remain what in essence it is, a living, spontaneous, adaptable process, rather than degenerate into, or be supplanted by, a set of instructions mechanically imposed from outside by government.

One way in which the state and law can uphold morality without actively imposing it is by protecting the institutions which sustain it, and within which it is learned. There is a good case for restoring marriage to the “public” sphere, making it (at least where children are involved) no longer dissoluble absolutely at the whim of the parties or without due process, and subsidizing it through the tax system. Further, the reasonable exercise, within its proper sphere, of non-state or “private” authority (school, family, etc.) should be permitted and made safe (so far as possible) against statutory intervention. There is probably a case for making such authority the subject of a permanent legal right, so that governmental attempts to interfere with it can be struck down by the courts. In other words, by according negative freedom to responsible non-state authorities and institutions, the growth of unlimited, irresponsible negative freedom at the individual level is checked. (This also has the advantage of curbing, even as it draws on it, the direct power of the state, whose authority in domestic matters is almost tailor-made for abuse.)

And it is important that it be checked. A human being whose negative liberty has never been subject to limit becomes the kind of being for whom negative liberty is not a good at all. Lacking any internal constraints, he can only be controlled from outside, either by the totalitarian state (which may, as in Warner or Huxley, have deliberately set out to produce such a being with the ultimate object of controlling him), or by the justice system of a normal society. And it would go without saying, had the point not already been made above vis-a-vis the Sophists, that such a person’s negative liberty is not good for the rest of us either, since it will, when exercised, tend massively to encroach upon our negative liberty.

It is perfectly reasonable, since negative liberty is a matter of degree, to limit it, when this is necessary to ensure that we grow into the kind of being for whom negative liberty is a good (and who, accordingly, is fit for more of it). Nobody until recently (and with consequences which need no underlining) would ever have contested the principle as applied to the bringing up of children, where its truth (one would have thought) is self-evident. Children’s freedom was, and still is, restricted in order to make it a good thing, rather than a bad thing, to grant it. It is a good thing to grant it to someone who uses it well; a bad thing to grant it to a criminal (which, as Bentham says,(16) is why we don’t). But to become the kind of person who uses freedom well one must also learn duties, constraints, shame, scruples, self-respect and the rest; and the evidence is that people do not learn these things if they are free to live without them, as the contemporary liberal state virtually ensures they are. It does so, first, by undermining every authority but its own (and eventually that too); secondly, by not only protecting people from the consequences of their (resulting) fecklessness, selfishness and irresponsibility, but actually rewarding those things.

All of which brings me to the second way for the state to uphold morality without actively imposing it, which is simply to stop encouraging and rewarding its opposite (which in itself is a form of injustice, and understandably resented by those made to pay for it). Nobody contests the need, nor that it is morally right, for charitable and welfare organizations–private, public or both–to provide assistance in cases of genuine misfortune, where the victim is or has been unable to do enough, or anything, for himself, and where it would be unreasonable and inhumane to expect those closest to him to burden themselves excessively with his care. Such cases are comparatively rare, and both private and public purses are capacious enough to meet them adequately and even generously, as is right.

But to provide assistance (or indeed, total subsistence) in cases of self-inflicted misfortune, or plain indolence, not just once per recipient, but often continuously, and for a substantial fraction of a lifetime, is simply to guarantee the growth of the phenomenon in question, not only by removing from it all natural penalties, but by making it an economically rational option. The framers of welfare legislation never intended such a consequence, though their critics (such as Herbert Spencer) foresaw it.

Further, welfare indiscriminately and impersonally dispensed through state bureaux means that, though huge in the aggregate, the cost of payments to particular recipients falls on no particular donors. This breaks the ethical link between donor and recipient, making it easier for the latter to exploit the former (which is certainly no less a matter of justice and morality than so-called “social” justice). To be brutally frank: my teenage neighbor (for example) would be a lot less likely to have an illegitimate child by an absconding father if she knew she would have to apply to me and her other neighbours, rather than the welfare bureau, for its upkeep (and even if she knew we would be forced by law to pay). It is said that welfare ought to be “enabling”, that is, contribute to the recipient’s positive liberty by putting within his economic or educational reach goods which negative liberty alone cannot secure to him (and which too much negative liberty to start with may well have put beyond his reach). The idea is usually that once so equipped (e.g., with “training”, rather than with money) he will be able subsequently to secure them for himself. What he needs, even left-liberals say nowadays, is “a hand up, rather than a hand-out”. This is true, if only because nothing is worse than the repeated, guaranteed hand-outs which, on top of the demoralization which made them necessary, have produced the current situation.

How, in such matters, do things fare with the libertarian? His notion was this, that no authority, and certainly no public or state authority, has the right to prescribe, or even (in the conservative manner suggested above) support what is moral, or enforce morality so conceived. So in respect of morals the libertarian, just like the left-liberal, believed in unrestricted negative liberty. How would he deal with the consequences?

It is difficult to say, because almost by definition we have no examples of libertarian government. A radical libertarian egoist, one supposes, would simply refuse to pay for them, and let the products of his neglect stew in their own juice, too late perhaps for this experience to have the desired educational effect. If so, he deserves as much censure as the left-liberal, and, by effectively denying moral education to rising generations, has shown as little concern for their potential for autonomy and self-responsibility. Where the left-liberal spends fortunes on welfare (which, from the point of view of public order, is a kind of Danegeld), the egoistic libertarian would probably have to find equally vast sums for ever more prisons and private protection agencies, both of which also would soon reveal themselves as a menace to the freedom they were designed to defend.

Other libertarians, of a more communitarian stripe, might claim that social institutions would arise spontaneously out of the market in morals, and that those best adapted to the realities of the situation and to mediating between competing interests would consolidate themselves by natural selection and common consent. Their success in so doing would, in effect, constitute genuine moral authority, and moderate the ill effects of unrestricted negative liberty. (How far would they be allowed “politically” to restrict it? What kind of physical sanctions might they employ? Could they employ any without in effect becoming government?) Except in its lesser reliance on the state, however, this position differs little from conservatism, proposing merely to rerun endlessly and from scratch the historical process which the conservative says has already delivered its pragmatic judgment as to what is “moral”, viz. whatever has shown itself to work best.

There is no escaping the conclusion that negative liberty is not the sole value, still less the only one which the state exists in order to secure. Nor, as we have seen, can it easily be disentangled from issues of positive liberty: autonomy, self-realization and the rest. For it is those things which endow negative liberty with value and substance (that is, make it worth having), and it is a mistake to think they will emerge spontaneously from negative liberty alone. They need to be learned, and mere experience, or “discovery learning”, is a poor teacher. We cannot shirk our responsibility for moral education, which for all its early constraint is (like all education) a kind of liberation; but once it is completed, authority, like Prospero in The Tempest,(17) can break its staff, drown its book, and set us all free, itself included.

(*) I am grateful to Roger Scruton for his helpful comments on the penultimate draft of this article, and only wish that I could have made the result worthier of his association with it. The first two paragraphs, and the entire central section, from the Greek notion of freedom up to the Patocka reference (note 14), are adapted and expanded from a speech (one of six by different speakers) given at New York University in 1988 to mark World Freedom Recognition Day.


(1) This was not true of the :ancient Greeks, to whom it seemed that any emotion must have its just or appropriate object. As is well known, they were intensely competitive, and fell (to our way of thinking) outrageously short of modern standards of sportsmanship. If an athlete crippled a rival before a contest (or afterwards, having lost to him), this was thought, if not exactly praiseworthy, entirely understandable. The story is told of a client (I think) of Demosthenes who, asked in court why he was suing a neighbour, replied, apparently to the general satisfaction, “Because I hate the bastard”

(2) “Is not liberty to do evil, liberty? If not, what is it? Do we not say that it is necessary to take liberty from idiots and bad men, because they abuse it?” (Bentham, quoted Berlin 1969: 148n.)

(3) The then British Colonial Secretary, Iain Macleod, offered as a justification of decolonization the assertion that “self-government is better than good government”.

(4) I have written at some length about The Magic Flute and its politics (implicitly defending them against Berlin) in “The Disenchanted Flute” (Grant, 2000: 59-74, esp. 61).

(5) The next two paragraphs are a digest of my contribution (Grant, 1995) to a symposium on “Disclosing New Worlds”. See the entire issue of Inquiry, 38. Their ensuing book is referenced below as Spinosa, 1997.

(6) See John Gray’s discussion, initiated by C. S. Lewis’s observations on the topic in his Studies in Words, in Gray 1991, 50. A narrower definition of the “free” man is found in Aristotle, and was handed on by him to the Romans. For the Romans, the liber was free from the necessity of earning his living, and could thus devote himself to “liberal” (i.e., useless, non-instrumentally valuable) pursuits (Aristotle’s schole), rather than “banausic” or vocational ones.

(7) Nietzsche’s Zarathustra exhorts his hearers to “hang your own will over yourself as a law”. Superficially, since it involves giving laws to oneself, this resembles the “autonomy” of Nietzsche’s bet noire Kant. But the difference is crucial, viz. that the Nietzschean individual’s “will” is purely contingent and subjective. Neither “rational” nor universalizable, it is not to be aligned in principle with anything “objective”, necessary or external. The Nietzschean would no doubt regard Kant’s autonomy as actually a form of heteronomy.

There are those, however, who read Zarathustra’s meaning that the said “law” is intended (like all laws) to apply to others than oneself. In which case, whose “law” are they to obey? Mine, or (since the exhortation is addressed to them) their own, in defiance of mine? We are back with Hegel’s “life-and-death struggle with the other”.

(8) For a striking attempt to show that the self and its integrity are actually generated by the obligations to which it is (often involuntarily) subject, see Havel 1987.

(9) Cf. Faust, Prologue, 11. 283-6:

Ein wenig besser wurd’ er leben, Hatt’st Du ihm nichts den Schein des

Himmelslichts gegeben; Er nennt’s Vernunft, und braucht’s allein Nur

tierischer als jedes Tier zu sein.

(He [sc. man] would live a little better / if thou [sc. God] hadst not given him the semblance of heavenly light; / [for] he calls it Reason, and uses it merely / to be more beastly than any beast.)

(10) Wagner’s Siegfried, however, who has never seen anyone but his evil, calculating foster-father, the repulsive Mime, cannot believe that he looks like him, and is proved right by the sight of his own reflection in water.

(11) I have in mind a “thicker” (in the Geertzian sense), culturally dense, more or less depoliticized version of Michael Oakeshott’s “civil association” (Oakeshott, 1974).

(12) This is not to say that drugs should not be legalized, and the consequences treated as (what they have been within living memory) a medical rather than a criminal problem. For the fact is that their prohibition has led to levels of crime that restrict the negative freedom of us all. We might simply have to write off the interests of actual and potential drug-users, though it is hard to imagine that they could ever be worse served than at present.

(13) Pornography is not really a “free speech” issue, since it does not actually say anything (except obliquely, that pornography is OK). In the days when pornography was outlawed few thought the ban a curtailment of free speech or a denial of “rights”.

(14) Patocka, though admittedly then an old man, died in 1977 after brutal police interrogation; and one supposes that the name of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko is not yet forgotten.

(15) Compare, e.g., Colin Turnbull’s celebratory The Forest People (1961) with his portrait of a wretchedly demoralized culture, The Mountain People (1973).

(16) See note 3 above.

(17) Prospero is very probably the model for Sarastro in The Magic Flute (see main text at note 4 above). Mozart’s librettist Schikaneder was among other things a Shakespearean actor. The resemblance between the two works was first remarked in print by Edward J. Dent (1913). It seems that Mozart was working on sketches for an operatic version of The Tempest when he died.


Aristotle. Politics. Ed. and Trans. Ernest Barker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978 [1946]).

Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

— The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas (London: John Murray, 1990).

Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Trans. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1967 [1921]).

Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1942).

Grant, Robert. “Must New Worlds Also Be Good?” Inquiry, 38:1-2 (June 1995): 123-141.

— The Politics of Sex and Other Essays (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).

Gray, John, Liberalisms (London: Routledge, 1991 [1989]).

Havel, Vaclav. Living in Truth (London: Faber, 1987).

Hegel, G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).

Oakeshott, Michael. On Human Conduct (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974).

Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Ed. Vincent F. Carfagno (London: Souvenir Press, 1972 [1933]).

Spinosa, Charles, Fernando Flores, and Hubert Dreyfus. “Disclosing New Worlds.” Inquiry, 38:1-2 (June 1995): 3-63.

— Disclosing New Worlds (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Rex Warner (London: Penguin, 1972).

Turnbull, Colin. The Forest People (London: Chatto and Windus, 1961).

— The Mountain People (London: Cape, 1973).

Warner, Rex. The Aerodrome: A Love Story (London: The Bodley Head, 1941).

Robert Grant is a Reader in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. His recent articles include “Heritage, Tradition and Modernity” in Town and Country (Barnett and Scruton, eds., Jonathan Cape, 1998), and “Values, Means and Ends” in Philosophy and Technology (Fellows, ed., Cambridge, 1995). His book The Politics of Sex and Other Essays is forthcoming (Macmillan/St. Martin’s, 2000).

COPYRIGHT 1999 New School for Social Research

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group