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Berlin Isaiah Two Concepts of Liberty

Berlin Isaiah Two Concepts of Liberty - TWO CONCEPTS OF...

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Unformatted text preview: TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTYI IF men never disagreed about the ends of life, if our ancestors had remained undisturbed in the Garden of Eden, the studies to which the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory is dedicated could scarcely have been conceived. For these studies spring from, and thrive on, discord. Someone may question this on the ground that even in a society of saintly anarchists, where no conflicts about ultimate purpose can take place, political prob- lems, for example constitutional or legislative issues, might still arise. But this objection rests on a mistake. Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all politi- cal and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones. That is the meaning of Saint-Simon’s famous phrase about ‘replacing the government of persons by the administration of things’, and the Marxist prophecies about the withering away of the state and the beginning of the true history of humanity. This outlook is called utopian by those for whom speculation about this condition of perfect social harmony is the play of idle fancy. Nevertheless, a Visitor from Mars to any British—or American— university today might perhaps be forgiven if he sustained the impression that its members lived in something very like this innocent and idyllic state, for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philo— sophers. Yet this is both surprising and dangerous. Surprising because there has, perhaps, been no time in modern history when so large a number of human beings, both in the East and West, have had their notions, and indeed their lives, so deeply altered, and in ‘ This Inaugural Lecture was delivered before the University of Oxford on 31 October 1958, and published by the Clarendon Press in the same year. TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY 119 some cases violently upset, by fanatically held social and political doctrines. Dangerous, because when ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to them~that is to say, those who have been trained to think critically about ideas—they sometimes acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criti- _ cism. Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas : philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilization. He spoke of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as the sword with which European deism had been decapitated, and described the works of Rousseau as the blood—stained weapon which, in the hands of Robespierre, had destroyed the old regime; and prophesied that the romantic faith of Fichte and Schelling would one day be turned, with terrible elTect, by their fanatical German followers, against the liberal culture of the West. The facts have not wholly belied this prediction; but if professors can truly wield this fatal power, may it not be that only other professors, or, at least, other thinkers (and not governments or Congressional committees), can alone disarm them P Our philosophers seem oddly unaware of these devastating effects of their activities. It may be that, intoxicated by their magnificent achievements in more abstract realms, the best among them look with disdain upon a field in which radical dis- coveries are less likely to be made, and talent for minute analysis is less likely to be rewarded. Yet, despite every effort to separate them, conducted by a blind scholastic pedantry, politics has remained indissolubly intertwined with every other form of philosophical inquiry. To neglect the field of political thought, because its unstable subject—matter, with its blurred edges, is not to be caught by the fixed concepts, abstract models, and fine instruments suitable to logic or to linguistic analysi5*to demand a unity of method in philosophy, and reject whatever the method cannot successfully manage—is merely to allow oneself to remain at the mercy of primitive and uncriticized political beliefs. It is only a very vulgar historical materialism that denies the power of ideas, and says that ideals are mere material interests in disguise. 120 FOUR ESSAYS ON LIBERTY It may be that, without the pressure of social forces, political ideas are stillborn: what is certain is that these forces, unless they clothe themselves in ideas, remain blind and undirected. This truth has not escaped every Oxford teacher, even in our own day. It is because he has grasped the importance of political ideas in theory and practice, and has dedicated his life to their analysis and propagation, that the first holder of this Chair has made so great an impact upon the world in which he has lived. The name of Douglas Cole is known wherever men have political or social issues at heart. His fame extends far beyond the confines of this university and country. A political thinker of complete independence, honesty, and courage, a writer and speaker of extraordinary lucidityand eloquence, a poet and a novelist, a uniquely gifted teacher and animateur des ide’es, he is, in the first place, a man who has given his life to the fearless support of principles not always popular, and to the unswerving and pas- sionate defence of justice and truth, often in circumstances of great difliculty and discouragement. These are the qualities for which this most generous and imaginative English socialist is today chiefly known to the world. Not the least remarkable, and perhaps the most characteristic, fact about him is that he has achieved this public position without sacrificing his natural humanity, his spontaneity of feeling, his inexhaustible personal goodness, and above all his deep and scrupulous devotion—a de- votion reinforced by many—sided learning and a fabulous memory ——to his vocation as a teacher of anyone who wishes to learn. It is a source of deep pleasure and pride to me to attempt to put on record what I, and many others, feel about this great Oxford figure whose moral and intellectual character is an asset to his country and to the cause of justice and human equality every— where. It is from him, at least as much as from his writings, that many members of my generation at Oxford have learnt that political theory is a branch of moral philosophy, which starts from the discovery, or application, of moral notions in the sphere of politi- cal relations. I do not mean, as I think some Idealist philosophers may have believed, that all historical movements or conflicts be- tween human beings are reducible to movements or conflicts of TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY 121 ideas or spiritual forces, nor even that they are effects (or aspects) of them. But I do mean (and I do not think that Professor Cole would disagree) that to understand such movements or conflicts is, above all, to understand the ideas or attitudes to life involved in them, which alone make such movements a part of human history, and not mere natural events. Political words and notions and acts are not intelligible save in the context of the issues that divide the men who use them. Consequently our own attitudes and activities are likely to remain obscure to us, unless we. under— stand the dominant issues of our own world. The greatest of these is the open war that is being fought between two systems of ideas which return different and conflicting answers to what has long been the central question of politics—the question of obedience and coercion. ‘Why should I (or anyone) obey anyone else?’ ‘Why should I not live as I like?’ ‘Must I obey?’ ‘If I disobey, may I be coerced? By whom, and to what degree, and in the name of what, and for the sake of what?’ Upon the answers to the question of the permissible limits of coercion opposed views are held in the world today, each claim- ing the allegiance of very large numbers of men. It seems to me, therefore, that any aspect of this issue is worthy of examination. I To coerce a man is to deprive him of freedom—freedom from what? Almost every moralist in human history has praised free- dom. 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. I do not propose to discuss either the history or the more than two hundred senses of this protean word recorded by historians of ideas. I propose to examine no more than two of these senses—but those central ones, with a great deal of human history behind them, and, I dare say, still to come. The first of these political senses of freedom or liberty (I shall use both words to mean the same), which (following much precedent) I shall call the ‘negative’ sense, is involved in the 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 122 FOUR ESSAYS ON LIBERTY able to do or be, without interference by other persons?’ The second, which I shall call the positive sense, is involved in the answer to the question ‘What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?’ The two questions are clearly different, even though the answers to them may overlap. The notion of ‘negative’ freedom I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form of inability. If I say that I am unable to jump more than ten feet in the air, or cannot read because I am blind, or cannot understand the darker pages of Hegel, it would be eccentric to say that I am to that degree enslaved or coerced. Coercion implies the deliberate inter- ference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings.I Mere in- capacity to attain a goal is not lack of political freedom.2 This is brought out by the use of such modern expressions as ‘economic freedom’ and its counterpart, ‘economic slavery’. It is argued, very plausibly, that if a man is too poor to afford something on which there is no legal ban—a loaf of bread, a journey round the world, recourse to the law courts— he is as little free to have it as he would be if it were forbidden him by law. If my poverty were a kind of disease, which prevented me from buying bread, or paying for the journey round the world or getting my case heard, as lameness prevents me from running, this inability would not naturally be described as a lack of freedom, least of all political ' I do not, of course, mean to imply the truth of the converse. 2 Helvétius made this point very clearly: ‘The free man is the man who is not in irons, nor imprisoned in a gaol, nor terrorized like a slave by the fear of punishment . . . it is not lack of freedom not to fly like an eagle or swim like a whale.’ TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY 123 freedom. It is only because I believe that my inability to get a given thing is due to the fact that other human beings have made arrangements whereby I am, whereas others are not, prevented from having enough money with which to pay for it, that I think myself a victim of coercion or slavery. In other words, this use of the term depends on a particular social and economic theory about the causes of my poverty or weakness. If my lack of material means is due to my lack of mental or physical capacity, then I begin to speak of being deprived of freedom (and not simply about poverty) only if I accept the theory.I If, in addition, I believe that I am being kept in want by a specific arrangement which I consider unjust or unfair, I speak of economic slavery or oppression. ‘The nature of things does not madden us, only ill will does’, said Rousseau. The criterion of oppression is the part that I believe to be played by other human beings, directly or indirectly, with or without the intention of doing so, in frustrating my wishes. By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered with by others. The wider the area of non—interference the wider my freedom. This is what the classical English political philosophers meant when they used this word.2 They disagreed about how wide the area could or should be. They supposed that it could not, as things were, be unlimited, because if it were, it would entail a state in which all men could boundlessly interfere with all other men; and this kind of ‘natural’ freedom would lead to social chaos in which men’s minimum needs would not be satisfied; or else the liberties of the weak would be suppressed by the strong. Because they perceived that human purposes and activities do not automatically harmonize with one another, and because (whatever their oflicial doctrines) they put high value on other goals, such as justice, or happiness, or culture, or security, or vary— ing degrees of equality, they were prepared to curtail freedom in ‘ The Marxist conception of social laws is, of course, the best-known version of this theory, but it forms a large element in some Christian and utilitarian, and all socialist, doctrines. 2 ‘A free man’, said Hobbes, ‘is he that . . . is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do.’ Law is always a ‘fetter’, even if it protects you from being bound in chains that are heavier than those of the law, say, some more repressive law or custom, or arbitrary despotism or chaos. Bentham says much the same. 124 FOUR ESSAYS 0N LIBERTY the interests of other values and, indeed, of freedom itself. For, without this, it was impossible to create the kind of association that they thought desirable. Consequently, it is assumed by these thinkers that the area of men’s free action must be limited by law. But equally it is assumed, especially by such libertarians as Locke and Mill in England, and Constant and Tocqueville in France, that there ought to exist a certain minimum area of personal free- dom which must on no account be violated; for if it is over— stepped, the individual will find himself in an area too narrow for even that minimum development of his natural faculties which alone makes it possible to pursue, and even to conceive, the various ends which men hold good or right or sacred. It follows that a frontier must be drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority. Where it is to be drawn is a matter of argument, indeed of haggling. Men are largely interdependent, and no man’s activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’ ; the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others. ‘Free— dom for an Oxford don’, others have been known to add, ‘is a very different thing from freedom for an Egyptian peasant.’ This proposition derives its force from something that is both true and important, but the phrase itself remains a piece of politi- cal claptrap. It is true that to offer political rights, or safeguards against intervention by the state, to men who are half-naked, illiterate, underfed, and diseased is to mock their condition; they need medical help or education before they can under- stand, or make use of, an increase in their freedom. What is freedom to those «who cannot make use of it? Without adequate conditions for the use of freedom, what is the value of freedom? First things come first: there are situations, as a nineteenth- century Russian radical writer declared, in which boots are superior to the works of Shakespeare; individual freedom is not everyone’s primary need. For freedom is not the mere absence of frustration of whatever kind; this would inflate the meaning of the word until it meant too much or too little. The Egyptian peasant needs clothes or medicine before, and more than, personal liberty, but the minimum freedom that he needs today, and the greater degree of freedom that he may need tomorrow, TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY 125 is not some species of freedom peculiar to him, but identical with that of professors, artists, and millionaires. What troubles the consciences of Western liberals is not, I think, the belief that the freedom that men seek differs according to their social or economic conditions, but that the minority who possess it have gained it by exploiting, or, at least, averting their gaze from, the vast majority who do not. They believe, with good reason, that if individual liberty is an ultimate end for human beings, none should be deprived of it by others; least of all that some should enjoy it at the expense of others. Equality of liberty; not to treat others as I should not wish them to treat me; repay- ment of my debt to those who alone have made possible my liberty or prosperity or enlightenment; justice, in its simplest and most universal sense—these are the foundations of liberal morality. Liberty is not the only goal of men. I can, like the Russian critic Belinsky, say that if others are to be deprived of it —if my brothers are to remain in poverty, squalor, and chains— then I do not want it for myself, I reject it with both hands and infinitely prefer to share their fate. But nothing is gained by a con- fusion of terms. To avoid glaring inequality or widespread misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all, of my freedom: I may do so willingly and freely: but it is freedom that I am giving up for the sake of justice or equality or the love of my fellow men. I should be guilt-stricken, and rightly so, if I were not, in some circum- stances, ready to make this sacrifice. But a sacrifice is not an increase in what is being sacrificed, namely freedom, however great the moral need or the compensation for it. Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience. If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral. But if I curtail or lose my freedom, in order to lessen the shame of such inequality, and do not thereby materially increase the individual liberty of others, an absolute loss of liberty occurs. This may be compensated for by a gain in justice or in happiness or in peace, but the loss remains, and it is a confusion of values to say that although my ‘liberal’, individual freedom may go by the board, some other kind of freedom—‘social’ or 126 FOUR ESSAYS ON LIBERTY ‘economic’-—is increased. Yet it remains true that the freedom of some must at times be curtailed to secure the freedom of others. Upon what principle should this be done? If freedom is a sacred, untouchable value, there can be no such principle. One or other of these conflicting rules or principles must, at any rate in practice, yield : not always for reasons which can be clearly stated, let alone generalized into rules or universal maxims. Still, a practical compromise has to be found. Philosophers with an optimistic view of human nature and a belief in the possibility of harmonizing human interests, such as Locke or Adam Smith and, in some moods, Mill, believed that social harmony and progress were compatible with reserving a large area for private life over which neither the state nor any other authority must be allowed to trespass. Hobbes, and those who agr...
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