John Christman Saving Positive

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  • 10.1177/0090591704271302POLITICAL THEORY / February 2005Christman / SAVING POSITIVE FREEDOM

    SAVING POSITIVE FREEDOM

    JOHN CHRISTMANPennsylvania State University

    In this article, I respond to Eric Nelsons claim (in Liberty: One Concept Too Many?) that themost prominent versions of a positive concept of freedom all reduce to negative notions. I arguethat in his otherwise scholarly and well-argued article, Nelson confuses a conceptual disputewith a normative one based on moral or political principle. Further, I point out that the tradi-tional critique of positive conceptions of liberty, which rests on skepticism about perfectionistconceptions of political value, is lost if we see the debate in the way Nelson lays it out. When theseissues are disentangled, I suggest that there is indeed conceptual space for uniquely positiveconceptions of freedom, and I suggest that the idea of autonomy can be taken for such a notionand indeed represents a value worth taking seriously in current discussions of justice.

    Keywords: freedom; Isaiah Berlin; Quentin Skinner; autonomy

    The supposed conceptual distinction between negative and positive free-dom was a great preoccupation of philosophers and political theorists for sev-eral decades after Isaiah Berlin directed renewed attention to it.1 That preoc-cupation seemed to reach an apex as writers remarked on the obviousplasticity of the notion of freedom (or liberty) and the numerous ways inwhich elements of that notion could be conceptualized. Also noted was theclear fact that freedom was an essentially contested concept which couldnot be neutrally unpacked in order to decide other questions of value or jus-tice. Conceptions of liberty embodied answers to such questions.2

    However, those who want to cling to a positive conception of freedom ofsome sort insist that liberty should be seen as not merely an absence of con-straintswhether those are considered as internal or external to the agent,the product of human action or accident, etc. Such theorists want to place thefocus of our concern for liberty on the quality of agency and not merely theopportunity to act. Admitting that such a position may not be politically ormorally neutral, defenders of such an understanding of freedom insist thatmerely establishing opportunities to act upon ones current desires (or what-

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    POLITICAL THEORY, Vol. 33 No. 1, February 2005 79-88DOI: 10.1177/0090591704271302 2005 Sage Publications

  • ever defines the motives of rational action) fails to secure for citizens the con-ditions of authentic self-government that make freedom meaningful as anideal. Seeing freedom as a quality of agency is different, conceptually, fromseeing it as an absence of something, no matter how robust ones conceptionof that something turns out to be.

    Now of course, one can claim that understanding freedom in this way isdangerous or leads to various difficulties of politics or policy. But that norma-tive position is different from the view that such an idea is not conceptuallydistinct from its negative counterparts at all. It is this latter idea that guides theanalysis in Eric Nelsons thoughtful and informed essay, Liberty: One Con-cept Too Many?3 Prof. Nelson argues that despite attempts by Quentin Skin-ner and others to resurrect a distinctively positive conception of liberty, thatconcept can always be understood in a negative fashion, with disagreementsover its meaning amounting really to disputes over the meaning of con-straint. Historical figures who have famously been designated as positivetheorists, he argues, can all be understood as promoting a conception of neg-ative freedom, albeit one that includes internal constraintsconstraintsthat operate to prevent the true, authentic self from emerging. Such think-ersfrom ancient writers such as Plato and the Stoics, to classical and civicrepublicans such as Machiavelli and Rousseau, to Hegel and the neo-Hegeli-ansall tout the notion that the free man is one who embodies a form ofself-realization, independent self-rule, or some related state of being reflec-tive of the most rational or virtuous life. But for Nelson this state turns out tobe nothing more than the absence of barriers to such realization and hence toa negative conception of freedom after all.

    But I want to suggest that this reductionist conceptual argument fails on itsown terms and also serves to disguise a more straightforwardly normativeposition that freedom ought not to be construed in any manner other than anegative one. Nelsons subtle and scholarly treatment of this controversyfails to take sufficiently seriously the way in which positive freedom can beconceptually distinguished from its negative counterpart whether or not sucha positive notion is morally or politically palatable in the end.

    Conceptions of positive freedom can be motivated by various consider-ations. Among such is the view that freedom concerns not only the absence ofintrusion (by others or by natural circumstance) but also ones effectivenessas an agent. Some have stressed for example that effective agency is mani-fested not only in ones internal or psychological capacities to govern oneselfbut also in ones ability to carry out ones wishes through action in the world.A person who faces no restrictions on action that can be called an intrusionor constraint (at least as that has been typically understood) may still bepalpably unable to act in any meaningful way. She may, for example, lack

    80 POLITICAL THEORY / February 2005

  • basic resources that all other normal people have easy access to. Leftistcritics of liberalism, especially those influenced by Marx, have seized uponthis thought to insist that resources that enable effective action increase free-dom (and so radical inequalities of resources amount to unequal freedom).4

    While this push to link freedom with material condition raises powerfulissues, it is not actually the focus here. Rather, Nelsons discussion revolvesaround conceptions of positive liberty that focus on internal achievements ofthe self. Positive freedom in this sense was indeed the brunt of Isaiah Berlinsfamous analysis, in that Berlin drew critical attention to those traditions thatsaw freedom as the operation of the higher more rational self, as somesort of self-realization. But it is important to note that in addition to the his-torical and analytical claims that Berlin made in his famous essay, he alsoadvanced a straightforwardly normative argument that construing freedomin a positive sense dangerously masked a contentious ideal of the good lifebehind the veneer of liberty. For a liberal like Berlin, liberty was the funda-mental requirement of a society which sees questions of fundamental value,including the ideals of the best life, as open and subject to ongoing debate andcontestation. To label as freedom the mastery of the lower desires by thehigher capacities of morality and virtue, not to mention mastery by the sup-posedly superior wisdom of a general will, marked a treacherous tilt towardthe justification of centralized power under the guise of moral superiority.Berlin was keen to alert us to the tendency that could be found in writers suchas Kant, Hegel, Rousseau, and neo-Hegelians such as T. H. Green to construefreedom in ways that enacted this masquerade.

    This is more than merely a historical or analytical claim as Nelson sug-gests; it is very much a political one. Berlin mounted what we could call apluralist, antiperfectionist argument against construing freedom in a positivemanner. For Berlin, skepticism about positive liberty was inextricably linkedto worries about the dominance of narrow and parochial horizons of value.

    Nevertheless, Berlins ruminations sparked a sustained conceptual debateabout the subtle and variable differences among concepts of freedom. Thelocus classicus for the schematic organization of conceptual elements of theidea of freedom is Gerald MacCallums Negative and Positive Freedom,where he claimed that all conceptions of freedom were composed of the same(variable) elements: x is free/unfree from y to do/be z.5 According to Nelson,McCallum dissolved the distinction between negative and positivenotions. But Id prefer to say that this schema does not actually dissolve thedistinction, it merely locates it in a different place. Rather than thinking thereare two (or more) fundamentally different concepts of freedom, McCallumsanalysis shows that we should think about freedom as one overarching con-ceptual schema allowing for several different conceptions. Positive under-

    Christman / SAVING POSITIVE FREEDOM 81

  • standings of freedom denote one set of interpretations of the variables in theschema and negative notions another.

    For example, Berlin (and others) claimed that for a constraint to properlycount as a limitation on freedom it had to have a human source. We could callthis the human source restriction. But this is different from asking whethera constraint must be internal to the agent to count as such. A factor relevant topursuing some action can come from a human source or not (and be volun-tarily, negligently, or recklessly introduced by such a source), or it can oper-ate internally or externally. These are different questions. It is true that onemight try to finesse the issue of whether internal constraints truly limit free-dom by claiming that as long as the source of them is (voluntary, intentional)human action it counts as such. But one can also claim consistently that someconstraints count as limitations whether or not they are introduced by humanaction and leave open the question of whether such constraints must beexternal to the agent to be counted as such.

    The focus of Nelsons comments is Quentin Skinners attempt to revital-ize a positive understanding of liberty as self-realization and the claim foran historical imprimatur for i