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Liberty - Essay Example

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In many ways it is easy to interpret the philosophy of positive liberty as a critique of negative liberty - which is as it was formulated. Negative liberty, as it is often characterized by liberalism and those who support this interpretation of freedom, is generally the notion that freedom - which is most commonly recognized as a political ideal to aspire to - is a quality that should be maximized by the individual, and that any system of government is morally obligated to impinge upon this freedom as little as possible or not at all…
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So, doubtlessly, the concepts of positive liberty and negative liberty are inexorably linked; yet it is difficult to truly contend that positive liberty is a comprehensive critique of negative liberty, or, more pointedly, that they are incompatible at all.
Broadly, positive liberty and negative liberty are simply different sides of the same coin. Liberty - as a pure concept or an ideal - can come in many forms or varieties. And even if we choose to only accept the notion of individualistic freedom as the foundation of our political philosophies, we still must admit that defining it in terms of either all that an individual is capable of or all that an individual is permitted to do comprise merely opposite ends of a wide range of controls upon an individual's ability to act freely. In the real world, for example, we find a hybrid of these two extreme views - and this is true regardless of which nation or society in which a person lives.
A person in the United Kingdom who lives in poverty, for example, has his freedoms limited by laws, by the extension of other people's freedoms, and by his own internal inclinations. He may be prevented from killing his neighbor's barking dog simply because it is illegal to do so; meanwhile, he may be prevented from traveling to New York City simply because the distribution of wealth is such that others can do this while he cannot; and, at the same time, he may be prevented from reading Kant because he is unable to read. Ultimately, the reason why the concept of positive liberty is not a comprehensive critique of negative liberty is that while one is concerned with the limitations on individual freedom imposed by an abstract governing force, the other subject to the limitations on individual freedom imposed an individual's mental circumstances, which are often external as well. This makes it troublesome to argue that the two theories are fundamentally incompatible; they may be virtually impossible to reconcile in a coherent political theory, but they actually exist, in practice, on a daily basis in the real world. In other words, to say that positive liberty does not exist is to deny the innate inequalities and limitations of human beings - which will be assumed to exist in this paper - but on the other hand, to deny the existence of negative liberty is to deny the existence of social or political controls. So while it may be impossible to ground a political philosophy in some combination of these ideas - the importance of which Berlin convincingly points out - it is certainly possible that both ideas can be used as lenses through which to perceive the actual functioning of any society that exists or could ever be expected to exist.
Berlin describes positive freedom in the following manner: "The 'positive' sense of the word 'liberty' derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind."1 This way of characterizing ... Read More
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