What is Freedom? (1): Three Kinds of Freedom

People usually talk about two kinds of freedom, negative and positive freedom. This common framing of the discussion about freedom is a result of the pervasive influence of Isaiah Berlin. However, this influence can be inhibiting in the sense that it can discourage other ways of thinking about freedom. Let me propose one other way.

We can, for instance, argue that there are not two but three kinds of freedom. Take the case of a business man being unfaithful to his wife. He tells her he’s going on a business trip but he’s meeting his lover instead. On his way to her, he’s not hindered in any way on his trip. There are no impediments or obstacles to overcome. His wife doesn’t try to stop him since she’s not aware of the affair. He takes the plane to see his lover and the airline cooperates in an unusually efficient way, security checks are cleared without any problems etc.

So the business man is free in the first sense of the word: freedom from external impediments. Let’s call this FREEDOM 1. It’s, in the tradition of Berlin, a negative kind of freedom.

However, the business man, while on his trip, is torn by guilt. Part of him tells him to stop and go back home. He knows that’s the best thing to do. But another part of him is driven by sexual desire and passion. The rational part wants him to be free of sexual desires because it knows that they may destroy everything that is dear to him.

So the business man isn’t free in this second sense of the word: freedom from internal impediments. He’s not free, not because of the presence of outside control, but because of the absence of self-control. Let’s call this FREEDOM 2. It’s also, obviously, a negative form of freedom in the sense that it requires the absence of internal impediments to a preferred action. (Berlin would not call this a negative freedom, but this post isn’t about Berlin, so let’s skip that).

We can also define this freedom 2 by way of the concept of “second-order desires” (following Harry Frankfurt). You are free if you can exercise self-control or self-mastery, and you can if you are able to act on your second-order desires. In our example, the businessman is free to have sex with his lover – no one forces him to have sex with her or to not have sex with her (this is freedom 1) – but he’s not free in the sense that he succeeds in acting on his second-order desire to remain faithful to his wife.

Freedom 1 is essentially a political concept, and receives most attention in political discourse. It’s the basis of concepts such a limited government, rule of law etc. Freedom 2 is usually part of discussions about psychology, personal morality and some forms of religion (such as Buddhism, which teaches that we should rid ourselves from desires). It also features in criminal justice (to what extent is a person criminally responsible for his or her acts, and to what extent is that person driven by passions, desires etc.). For this reason, freedom 2 can be likened or perhaps even equated to the concept of free will.

Freedom 2, although not political, can be reinterpreted in a political sense. Personal self-control and self-government – with the rational part of the individual taking control over the irrational and self-destructive part – can be seen as the starting point of a certain form of political freedom. Self-government is then translated from an individual notion into a collective one. If an individual wants to exercise self-government, he or she may also want to do that together with others. A society takes the model of individual self-control and uses it to exercise collective control over common matters.

Let’s call this FREEDOM 3: you’re free if, as a member of a community, you participate equally in the government of common affairs. This freedom is autonomy and democracy. One could call it a negative freedom as well, in the sense that a community, in order to govern itself, should be free from the rule of external forces (a dictator, a ruling class etc.). But even when those external forces are absent a community still needs to act together in order to govern itself. In that way, freedom 3 is not similar to freedom 2, and therefore it makes much more sense to call it a positive freedom: not merely a freedom from something, but a freedom to control a common destiny, a freedom to make your own rules and laws. (You could argue that freedom 2 is also positive in this sense, but it is much more negative than freedom 3 in other ways. And anyway I want to go beyond the positive-negative distinction here, so let’s drop that).

Freedom 3 is autonomy and democracy because it allows a community to take control of its common life. The problem with freedom 3, as already argued by Berlin, is that it can easily spill over in paternalism and become unfreedom. Rather than a collective acting together in a democratic spirit in order to govern their common affairs, we have a split in the collective: some use the split inside an individual between the rational part that tries to govern the irrational part and achieve freedom in this way (i.e. freedom 2), as a metaphor justifying a social distinction between more and less rational individuals. The former know best what is in the rational interest of the latter, and start to force the latter to act “rationally”, whatever that means (e.g. avoid adultery or compulsive gambling, live according to the communist worldview etc.). By forcing the irrational to act rationally, the paternalists make the irrational free, just like an individual who forces her irrational part to act rationally thereby makes herself free (freedom 2).

Coercively forcing an adulterer to mend his ways makes him free because mending his ways is presumed to be what he really wants (his second-order desire). So people are coerced for their own good, a good that they themselves are perhaps too blind to see.

This criticism was forcefully described by Berlin, and it remains very useful. However, I don’t think it necessarily discredits freedom 3. On the contrary, paternalism is a deviation from freedom 3, not its logical conclusion. Freedom 3 can avoid the pitfall of paternalism as long as it focuses on the mode of formation of desires rather than on their content. (See John Christman for a more elaborate version of this argument).

Freedom 3 remains important, like the other two types.

  • Freedom 1 is important because people want to be able to do what they want with a minimum of external impediments.
  • Freedom 2 is important because people often want to be able to decide rationally what they want, rather than instinctively. And rationally here means a thinking and reasonable assessment of the available options, which in turn means that you’re not forced into an option by your passions (or by your government, tradition, family etc. in which case we’re back in freedom 1).
  • And freedom 3 is important because people want to be autonomous and want to shape their common life. They don’t want their common lives dominated by a ruler or a ruling class.

If all three types of freedom are important, then none of them is sufficient by itself. Freedom 1 leaves the individual at the mercy of internal impediments and assumes – incorrectly – that the prior fixation of the individual’s volition is unproblematic. Freedom 2 shows that it is problematic. But it’s not only problematic because of the possible effect of passions; see here and here for some other reasons why the fixation of volition requires more than simply the absence of overbearing passions.

People do not simply want unimpeded action. They also want to reflect on what it is that they want. Freedom 1 is also insufficient for another reason. External impediments are often defined in a very limited way: to some who adopt freedom 1, only impediments intentionally produced by fellow human beings count, which means that unintentional impediments such as economic forces or non-human or natural impediments such as a handicap do not make people unfree (they merely make them “unable” to do something). That seems to me very restrictive. What difference does it make that my freedom of movement is impeded by an authoritarian government rather than by my poverty or disability?

Freedom 1 is insufficient because it can’t produce freedom 2, but also because it can’t produce freedom 3. It can’t be, by itself, the basis of democratic government. It’s perfectly compatible with some forms of limited dictatorship, on the condition that this dictatorship is relatively non-interfering. However, one could argue that a democracy – freedom 3 – is the best way to protect freedom 1 since a democracy protects human rights, and human rights limit external impediments.

Freedom 1 is insufficient, but so is freedom 2. Freedom 2 – the absence of internal impediments – can’t possibly produce freedom 1. On the contrary, it’s often a reaction to the absence of freedom 1. When faced with numerous external impediments, it can be reasonable to retreat into yourself and cut back your desires (like a Buddhist). The other option, going against the external impediments that block your desires, can be very costly, especially when the impediments are caused by your dictatorial government.

Freedom 3 as well is insufficient, even though it promotes freedom 1. After all, it doesn’t necessarily promote freedom 1, especially not for democratic minorities. And it’s completely unable to promote freedom 2.


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