Liberty - Philosophy


Liberty is a historically controversial philosophy. One understanding of liberty asserts that freedom is found in a person's ability to exercise agency, particularly in the sense of one having the freedom to choose what authorities one will submit to agency with in exchange for rights derived from that authority to develop resources to carry out their own will, without being inhibited; Social Contract. According to Thomas Hobbes, for example, "a free man is he that... is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do."

However, John Locke rejected that definition of liberty. While not specifically mentioning Hobbes, he attacks Sir Robert Filmer who had the same definition. According to Locke:

“In the state of nature, liberty consists of being free from any superior power on Earth. People are not under the will or lawmaking authority of others but have only the law of nature for their rule. In political society, liberty consists of being under no other lawmaking power except that established by consent in the commonwealth. People are free from the dominion of any will or legal restraint apart from that enacted by their own constituted lawmaking power according to the trust put in it. Thus, freedom is not as Sir Robert Filmer defines it: ‘A liberty for everyone to do what he likes, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws.’ Freedom is constrained by laws in both the state of nature and political society. Freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature. Freedom of people under government is to be under no restraint apart from standing rules to live by that are common to everyone in the society and made by the lawmaking power established in it. Persons have a right or liberty to (1) follow their own will in all things that the law has not prohibited and (2) not be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, and arbitrary wills of others.”

John Stuart Mill, in his work, On Liberty, was the first to recognize the difference between liberty as the freedom to act and liberty as the absence of coercion. In his book, Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin formally framed the differences between these two perspectives as the distinction between two opposite concepts of liberty: positive liberty and negative liberty. The latter designates a negative condition in which an individual is protected from tyranny and the arbitrary exercise of authority, while the former refers to having the means or opportunity, rather than the lack of restraint, to do things.

Mill offered insight into the notions of soft tyranny and mutual liberty with his harm principle. It can be seen as important to understand these concepts when discussing liberty since they all represent little pieces of the greater puzzle known as freedom. In a philosophical sense, it can be said that morality must supersede tyranny in any legitimate form of government. Otherwise, people are left with a societal system rooted in backwardness, disorder, and regression.

The concept of negative liberty has several noteworthy aspects. First, negative liberty defines a realm or "zone" of freedom (in the "silence of law"). In Berlin's words, "Liberty in the negative sense 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." Some philosophers disagree on the extent of this realm, while accepting the main point that liberty defines the realm in which one may act unobstructed by others. Second, the restriction (on the freedom to act) implicit in negative liberty is imposed by a person or persons and not due to causes such as nature, lack, or incapacity. Helvetius expresses this point clearly: "The free man is the man who is not in irons, nor imprisoned in a gaol (jail), 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."

The dichotomy of positive and negative liberty is considered specious by political philosophers in traditions such as socialism, social democracy, libertarian socialism, and Marxism. Some of them argue that positive and negative liberty are indistinguishable in practice, while others claim that one kind of liberty cannot exist independently of the other. A common argument is that the preservation of negative liberty requires positive action on the part of the government or society to prevent some individuals from taking away the liberty of others.

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