What Kind of Freedom Do We Have?


By David K. Johnson, Ph.D.King’s College

Many rebellions in history were started for the purpose of attaining freedom. But what exactly does freedom amount to? And what kind of freedom were these rebellions after? In “Two Concepts of Liberty”, philosopher Isaiah Berlin argues there are actually two kinds of liberty or freedom that we need to distinguish: negative and positive freedom.

Hands tearing apart shackles
Rebellions have happened in pursuit of freedom. But not all freedoms are the same. (Image: Sergey Chayko/Shutterstock)

Different Kinds of Freedom

Negative freedom is the kind of freedom we enjoy when we are free from outside interference or coercion. We are free to do X (in this sense) if no one else is threatening us not to do it. If there is a law against doing X, for example, then one is not free in the negative sense to do X. We might call this ‘freedom from interference’.

Positive freedom is the freedom of self-determination or self-mastery; someone who is ‘a thinking, willing, active being’, who bears responsibility for their own choices and can ‘explain them by references to [their] own [higher] ideas and purposes’ is positively free. 

Learn more about the concept of good vs. evil in Star Wars.

Freedom of Means

As an example of someone who is not free in this sense, Berlin points to drug addicts who want to quit, but who are ruled by their lower irrational desires. They are not masters of themselves; they are slaves to the drugs. They are not doing what their ‘true self’ wants. Another useful distinction is the following: 

Hard drugs and alcohol on a wooden table.
Drug addicts lack the positive kind of freedom; freedom of self-determination or self-mastery. (Image: Leszek Czerwonka/Shutterstock)

It’s one thing for someone to be a master of himself and choose a certain action; it’s another for that action to not be against the law. But it’s an entirely different thing to have the means or ability to do that action. Our true self might want to buy the rights to Star Wars from Disney, and it might not be against the law for us to do so, but we don’t have the means to do it—so in a sense, we do not have the freedom to do so. We might call this kind of freedom ‘freedom of means’.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

What We Don’t Understand about Freedom

These three kinds of freedom are often conflated and have not all always been recognized or even sought after. Although, in a political context, we usually think of freedom as ‘freedom from interference from the law’, this is actually a pretty new concept in the West. 

If you think about it, without freedom of means—the resources and abilities to do a particular action—laws permitting you to do that action don’t do you a whole hell of a lot of good. And for the majority of human history, most people haven’t had the means to do much; a select rich royal few did, and the rest of us were lucky to feed our family and survive. It wasn’t until capitalism gave rise to a middle class that freedom from interference became sought after.

This is why non-sci-fi movies like Braveheart are a bit anachronistic. William Wallace wouldn’t have been concerned with freedom from interference as he seems to be in the movie. The Scots wanted independence, sure, but because they wanted it to guard against abuses of power, like English soldiers raping brides, not because they had the means to do things that the laws of England were preventing them from doing. Wallace probably would have yelled ‘independence’, not ‘freedom’.

Learn more about Firefly, Blake’s 7, and political rebellion.

Liberal Arts Help Us Think Freely

Interference with self-mastery is something that actually happens all the time, through propaganda, ad campaigns, and the manipulation of the media. And it’s not just the government; corporations, businesses, political organizations are all trying to get you to desire what they want you to desire, to value what they value, and to think what you want them to think.

Liberal Arts education relief in People's Square in Rome
Liberal arts aim to teach critical thinking, turning people into a better version of themselves. (Image: Cris Foto/Shutterstock)

This is why the liberal arts, which emphasize literacy and critical thinking, are often called ‘the arts of freedom’. ‘Liberal’ here means ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’ in the sense of self-mastery. Liberal arts colleges aim to teach people how to think for themselves—to be masters of themselves and not let others do their thinking for them. It’s not just about getting you a job; it’s about making you a better person.

Perhaps ironically, while you do want the government to protect your freedom of means and self-mastery, you don’t want it to guarantee them. Berlin argues that attempts by governments to guarantee self-mastery have led to nationalism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism. 

The government decides what is actually in your best interest—what your ‘true self’ would want—and then forces you to conform to that mold by ridding you of ‘lower-order’ desires that it thinks you shouldn’t want.

Common Questions about Freedom

Q: In philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s opinion, what kind of freedom do drug addicts not have?

According to Isaiah Berlin, drug addicts are not positively free; the kind of freedom that means is self-mastery, since drug addicts cannot control their irrational desires.

Q: What are the three main kinds of freedom in philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s view?

He believed the main kinds of freedom were ‘negative freedom’ or ‘freedom from interference’, meaning we are free to do something if nobody is forcing us to, ‘positive freedom’, which translates to self-mastery and ‘freedom of means’.

Q: Why are the liberal arts sometimes called ‘the arts of freedom’?

Apart from the fact that ‘liberal’ here means ‘freedom’, the liberal arts explore critical thinking and emphasize it. The kind of freedom they aim for would be self-mastery, but in the end, they aim to make people better than they are.

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