What is liberty? ‘Freedom from’ and ‘Freedom to’

by Craig Knoche

“To coerce a man is to deprive him of freedom – [but] freedom from what? Almost every moralist in human history has praised freedom. Like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, the meaning of this term is so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist.” – Isaiah Berlin

How are we to understand this porous concept?

Imagine you are driving a car, and you come to a fork in the road. Nothing is preventing you from going left or straight on – no traffic, no diversions, no police roadblocks. You seem, as a driver, to be completely free. However, suppose the reason you turn left is you’re addicted to cigarettes and desperate to buy a pack at 7-Eleven. You wish you were free of the desire for a smoke that is not only threatening your health but you do not have the ability to stop smoking. 

This story illustrates two contrasting conceptions of liberty. With regard to your driving choice, you are free from any barriers, constraint, coercion, or compelling force, so you can turn as you choose. This is a negative conception of freedom, sometimes called ‘negative freedom,’ because the emphasis is on the absence of constraint. On the other hand, with regard to your choice of whether to smoke or not, you are not free in the sense that you are being compelled by your addiction. To be free in this latter sense requires the presence of a capacity (e.g., self-control). For this reason, this type of freedom is sometimes called ‘positive freedom.’ When you have sufficient character and self-control, you have the freedom to make correct decisions. 

Nearly everyone readily recognizes liberty as freedom from coercion. It is the prevailing conception of liberty, indeed so much so that it is regarded as essential to autonomous personhood. If government restrains you from working as you choose to earn an income, you will recognize the restraint as a loss of liberty and may well desire freedom from that coercion. On the other hand, the freedom to version of liberty is less intuitive to contemporary sensibilities. If no one restrains you from working as you choose, you may not as readily recognize that you may still lack freedom understood as the absence of compulsion by one’s passions as against reason. This is because people either tend not to think of passions as coercive or compelling or may regard following one’s passions as the right thing to do. Yet if one acknowledges that following one’s passions rather than reason can result in personal harm, then one must recognize that there are internal as well as external constraints to liberty and that these two conceptions of liberty may conflict.

But both conceptions of freedom are critical for understanding different opinions of authority, social and political order, morality, and education. The freedom from external constraint (aka ‘freedom from’) version of liberty places the focus on such questions as “What is the area within which I should be left without control or interference from others?” The freedom from internal constraint (aka ‘freedom to’) version of liberty places the focus on learning to control one’s passions in deference to reason and some higher human ends. In fact, some believe that one is only free from the internal constraint of passions when one is virtuous. Hence ‘freedom to’ liberty focuses on such questions as “What passions are to be controlled, when and to what ends?” and “How does one learn self-control and who provides such training?” Elucidating ‘freedom to’ liberty requires moral theory.

How freedom from external constraint is to be circumscribed and by whom has been a topic of considerable philosophic investigation. One option involves defining the realm in which the political authority cannot intervene. Adam Smith identified the realm of unfettered liberty as including a person’s life, their property, and their contracts [promises], the latter understood to be between consenting competent adults. This is the realm of commutative justice. 

“The most sacred laws of justice . . . are laws which guard the life and person of our neighbor; the next are those which guard his property, and possessions; and the last of all come those which guard what are called his personal rights, or what is due to him from the promises of others.” – Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments

John Stuart Mill defined the scope of unfettered liberty (individual sovereignty) as including a person’s own body, their associations, and their mind – understood as thoughts, tastes, passions, but he notably, omitted property.

A second option for circumscribing ‘freedom from’ liberty involves identifying other ‘goods’, whether individual or collective, that may supersede liberty either sometimes or always. Libertarians, for example, regard ‘freedom from’ liberty as the ultimate ‘good’ that should not be superseded by any other. However even they will acknowledge that there are occasions when other individual or social goods, e.g., war/national security, may trump liberty. Nevertheless, libertarians are warry of authority justifications for constraining liberty in the interest of “the moral equivalent of war”. 

Regarding freedom from internal constraint (aka ‘freedom to’) liberty, the issues to consider are those of human psychology (“How do reason, spiritedness and passion interact?”), morality (“What are good/honorable and bad/shameful passions?), education (“How are passions inculcated and shaped?”, “How is reasoning developed?”), and authority (“Who gets to decide what passions are good/bad and how reasoning is learned?”).

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