In The Power of Freedom: Uniting Human Rights and Development, Jean-Pierre Chauffour deftly explores the meaning of “freedom,” weighing competing viewpoints and explaining his chosen interpretation:
At what point does one become ultimately responsible for a choice, taking into account all endogenous and exogenous factors influencing the decision? Are the poor and the unemployed free? Is the smoker free? What about the prostitute or the member of a sect? Or individuals suffering from dementia, schizophrenia, or clinical depression? While it is true that free will can simply be defined as the ability to do, or not do, something, freedom of will is supposedly subject to various determinants, including environmental, social, physical, psychological, biological, and theological.” Philosophers have debated this question for over two millennia, and just about every major thinker has had something to say about it.
For the purposes of this book, we will try to understand the notion of individual freedom, in the sense of absence of obstacles, barriers, or constraints on one’s capacity for freedom. A basic starting point for a theoretical discussion of the meaning and value of freedom is political philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (2002, p. 169). In Berlin’s words, negative liberty involves an answer to the question “what is the area within which the subject-a person or group of persons-is, or should be, left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” whereas positive liberty involves answering “what, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that.”‘
On the one hand, a smoker can be seen as being free to smoke (negative liberty) but, on the other, of being unfree to stop smoking and to realize his or her will (positive liberty). At the same time, the poor can be seen as free to exercise their capabilities, no matter how limited, yet also unfree to achieve their full potential due to their impoverished circumstances and the constraints of their environment. As American philosopher John Rawls (1971, p. 104) pointed out, most people inherit even their virtues so that a person’s character and capacity to cultivate his or her talents (for instance through entrepreneurial efforts) depend in good part on “fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit.” As we will see, much of this discussion relates to one’s conception of man and human nature.
While free will is subject to various determinants, Isaiah Berlin differentiates between the two concepts of liberty by declaring one internal to the agent (the “divided self”) and the other external (e.g., natural or social). The higher self is the rational, reflecting self, the self that is capable of moral action and of taking responsibility for what it does. This is the true self, since it is what distinguishes us from other animals. The lower self, on the other hand, is the self of the passions, of impulsive desires and irrational impulses.
Positive liberty concentrates on the divided self-the fact that one’s higher, rational self is in control and that one is neither a slave to one’s passions nor to one’s merely empirical self. To enjoy this positive liberty fully, help is often needed to realize this “higher self.” The next step consists in pointing out that some individuals are more rational than others, and therefore in a better position to know what is in their own and others’ rational interests. This then allows them to say that by forcing less rational beings to do the rational thing, thereby realizing their true selves, they are in fact helping to liberate them from their merely empirical desires.’ In this light, governments could shape the economy toward some higher conception of human purpose and possibilities rather than subjecting it to the amoral, alienating forces of the market. Berlin and other defenders of freedom came to the view that the positive concept of liberty brings with it the risk of authoritarianism.
In contrast, the concept of negative freedom concentrates on the external sphere in which individuals interact. It would seem to provide a better guarantee against the dangers of paternalism and authoritarianism. In that sense, to promote negative freedom is to promote the existence of a sphere of action within which the individual is sovereign, and within which he can pursue his own projects subject only to the constraint that he respect the spheres of others. For theorists who conceive of constraints on freedom in this way, this would mean that one is only unfree to the extent that other people prevent one from doing certain things. If one is incapacitated by natural factors (e.g., by a genetic handicap, a virus, or certain climatic conditions), one may be rendered unable to do certain things, but one is not, for that reason, rendered unfree to do them.
But what about the existence of adverse social factors that incapacitate individuals, for instance, because of obstacles created by impersonal economic forces? Do economic constraints such as recession, poverty, or unemployment merely incapacitate people, or do they also render them unfree? A clear answer can be provided by using an even more restrictive view of what counts as a constraint on freedom to say that only a subset of those obstacles created by others-obstacles created intentionally-counts as a restriction of freedom.”