WHAT’S WRONG WITH NEGATIVE LIBERTY
Hobbes and Bentham see freedom simply as the absence of external physical or legal
obstacles. As we know from Isaiah Berlin’s essay the negative theories want to define freedom
in terms of individual independence from others; but the positive also want to identify freedom
with collective self-government. Behind this lie some deeper differences of doctrines.

Isaiah Berlin points out that negative theories are concerned with the area in which the subject
should be left without interference, whereas the positive doctrines are concerned with who or
what controls. Doctrines of positive freedom are concerned with a view of freedom which
involves essentially the exercising of control over one’s life. On this view, one is free only to the
extent that one has effectively determined oneself and the shape of one’s life. On the other
hand, negative theories can rely simply on an opportunity-concept, where being free is a matter
of what we can do, of what it is open to us to do, whether or not we do anything to exercise
these options. This certainly is the case of the crude, original Hobbesian concept we mentioned
above Freedom consists just in there being no obstacle. It is a sufficient condition of one’s being
free that nothing stand in the way.

The point discussed in Tylor essay is an exercise-concept of freedom, According to the
wiev point of Tylor, “being free cannot just be a question of doing what you want in the
unproblematic sense. It must also be that what you want does not run against the grain of your
basic purposes, or your self-realization. Or to put the issue in another way, which converges on
the same point, the subject himself cannot be the final authority on the question whether he is
free; for he cannot be the final authority on the question whether his desires are authentic,
whether they do or do not frustrate his purposes.”
For the restrictions on our libertiy, Tylor is giving an obstract sample . In his sample “our
freedom is restricted if the local authority puts up a new traffic light at an intersection close to my
home; so that where previously I could cross as I liked, consistently with avoiding collision with
other cars, now we have to wait until the light is green. By contrast a law which forbids me from
worshipping according to the form I believe in is a serious blow to liberty; even a law which tried

1 The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, ed. Alan Ryan, (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1979), 175–93.

2
to restrict this to certain times (as the traffic light restricts my crossing of the intersection to
certain times) would be seen as a serious restriction. Why this difference between the two
cases? Because we have a background understanding, too obvious to spell out, of some
activities and goals as highly significant for human beings and others as less so. One’s religious
belief is recognized, even by atheists, as supremely important, because it is that by which the
believer defines himself as a moral being. By contrast my rhythm of movement through the city
traffic is trivial. We do not want to speak of these two in the same breath. We do not even readily
admit that liberty is at stake in the traffic light case.
There are discriminations to be made; some restrictions are more serious than others, some are
utterly trivial. About many, there is of course controversy. But what the judgement turns on is
some sense ot what is significant for human life. Restricting the expression of people s religious
and ethical convictions is more signficant than restricting their movement around uninhabited
parts of the country; and both are more significant than the trivia of traffic control. But we have to
say that negative theories can rely on an opportunity-concept, rather than that they necessarily
do so rely, for we have to allow for that part of the gamut of negative theories mentioned above
which incorporates some notion of self-realization.. And this must be so, for the capacities
relevant to freedom must involve some self-awareness, self-understanding, moral discrimination

and self-control, otherwise their exercise could not amount to freedom in the sense of self-
direction; and this being so, we can fail to be free because these internal conditions are not

realized. But where this happens, where, for example, we are quite self-deceived, or utterly fail
to discriminate properly the ends we seek, or have lost self-control, we can quite easily be doing
what we want in the sense of what we can identify as our wants, without being free; indeed, we
can be further entrenching our unfreedom.

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