Is Freedom the Right Thing to Strive For?

“You are ready to aid in the shaping and application of those wise restraints that make men free.” John MacArthur Maguire (Harvard Law School Professor)


The assignment for next week in my class on the “Essence of Liberalism” at HILR is Isaiah Berlin’s quite famous two liberties lecture. Berlin compares and contrasts two opposing types of liberty: positive and negative. The latter has roots that go back to the classic liberals of the 18th Century who, in one form or another, were concerned with the power of the establishment to suppress an individual’s right or ability of free expression and action. Depending on the particular time and thinker, the establishment could be the monarchy, the aristocracy, the parliament, or even public opinion.

The same idea of liberty can be found today in the libertarian wing of the Right, such as the Tea Party. The concept has lasted, but the name has taken on its mirror image. Liberals today seek what Berlin calls positive liberty. Since Hegel’s time, this form of liberty has meant the ability of an individual to reach what Abraham Maslow called self-actualization. I call it flourishing. This concept assumes that it takes more than the absence of constraints for this to occur. Society, not only government, is needed to provide resources to support an individual’s development towards being liberated. Almost all discussion about liberty has a political slant, especially in the political history of the United States.

I want to take a different perspective in this post and discuss liberty from an existential point-of-view. I’ll start with Maslow, in hopes that he is more familiar than the existentialists. Maslow argued that self-actualization sat at the top of a hierarchy of psychological conditions that had to be satisfied in turn before one could actualize (realize) the “self.” These were in turn, basic physiology (subsistence), safety, love/belonging, esteem, and then self-actualization. His step-wise hierarchical formulation has been questioned, but not the requirement for the several inputs. It should be obvious that some, if not all, of these require a surrounding set of social institutions. Love, belonging, and esteem all come from outside the individual’s body. Negative liberty, the absence of any positive or negative encroachments, cannot create the whole human being, if Maslow’s model correctly tells us how humans are constituted.

Beyond Maslow, the first “existentialist” philosopher, Martin Heidegger, saw that human personas were formed in the course of life itself. Human beings are “thrown” into the world from which they acquire all the meaningful experience that shapes who they are. There is no inherent human nature or natural rights in the sense of the model that strongly influenced the early liberals and their belief in negative liberty. Without interaction with the world and all its institutions, one would remain an empty shell. But there is more to the story.

The immersion in life leaves its traces in the brain in the form of an autobiographical self, a storybook of all the meaningful memories one retains. The kind of person one becomes rests in the choices that one makes among the possibilities inherent in the story. Other existentialist philosophers, like Sartre, argue that the only meaningful thing humans can do is make those choices. He goes so far to say that humans are condemned be free, referring to the fundamental human feature of having to choose among the possibilities that one’s prior history has provided. Here are his words; “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.”

So what kind of freedom is this: negative or positive? Not easy to answer. At the moment of choice, the individual is alone in the world with no apparent constraints. She would appear to be completely free from the negative liberty point-of-view. But is she? What about the part of the autobiography that was written earlier, and tells of the pressures, restraints, and rules placed on her by external institutional and personal happenings. If they were part of the context of the immediate choice, classic liberals and later libertarians would probably argue that they lack full negative liberty, and perhaps criticize those entities as encroaching on her liberty. But what if the choice is, in some part or entirely based on possibilities that have been created interactions with such external entities? Then, we would say that positive liberty is at hand, and modern liberals would applaud the existence of those institutions and, perhaps argue for more. They would be happy that people care for one another in the sense of interacting to increase the future possibilities of the targets of their care.

Heidegger can help a little here. He claimed that there are two forms of human existence: authentic and inauthentic. Inauthentic applies to actions coming from choices made on the basis of rules set by external entities. Examples would be the rules (shoulds or oughts) one learns at home from parent, lessons from schooling, or any rules set by government authority. Inauthentic life corresponds to a life lacking negative liberty, the kind of freedom that comes from absence of all these external rules. Authentic applies to actions coming from the actor’s own set of shoulds or oughts, which have been self-generated and embedded in the memory. Given the apparent absence of external constraints, authenticity appears to parallel negative freedom.

But to the extent that others have been involved in any positive way in creating possibilities, clearly something present in everyone’s life, there must be, at least, a bit of positive liberty in both authentic and inauthentic existence. John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.” Authenticity is the mode of life that is arguably preferred by modern libertarians and classic liberals. It represent the fullest extent to which one’s individuality, those aspects the most set him or her as distinctive against all others can be attained. Incidentally, John Stuart Mill used the word, individuality, as his proxy for human development. But this says nothing about the extent of possibilities available to the individual.

A large dose of negative freedom and authenticity are not worth much if one has few possibilities to choose from, which is the condition of many poor in both the rich and the poor nations. The lack of possibilities in these cases is not due to external constraints. It comes from the lack positive, meaningful experience from which future possibilities are created. The lack of meaningful experience comes, in turn, from the lack resources to apply to whatever possibilities that one encounters. I hope you are beginning to see the contradictory nature of liberty and one’s potential for individuality or, again as I say, flourishing. There is a dialectical pattern to life that determines one’s future state of development.

Without external resources, no one can generate an autobiography full of positive possibility to call on as life moves along. Whether these resources are provided by human relationships or by societal institutions does not matter. They must be provided if one is to be able to find positive liberty in life, that is, the freedom to choose among many options or possibilities. Without past successes and the accumulation of resources, one lives in a vicious cycle: what might have, otherwise, been a possibility disappears. With sufficient resources, one lives within a virtuous cycle. Each successful choice opens up more future possibilities.

Disputation about the absence or presence of liberty is the wrong argument in any conversation aiming to improve the human condition. Human development-flourishing-depends on both. We should talk, rather, about care. Care entails actions of support, that is, providing resources, material or psychological, when their absence prevents us from achieving our intentions or objectives. We need others to care about us, whether those others are driven by familial or institutional motives. Although care is an action imposed from the outside, it is rendered is a manner reflecting the uniqueness of the receiver. This makes it distinct from the impersonal nature of most institutional interactions and the repressive effects on freedom, as expressed by negative liberty. While literally a similar source of diminished negative liberty, thus undesired, care is always a source of positive liberty. It increases the likelihood of present success and future possibilities.

Without sufficient worldly experience producing both the possibilities and the resources for choice one cannot flourish, even if he or she might claim they are free. One of the reasons that we are stuck in a bitter argument these days about whether there is too much or too little government is the absence of care from the world. Heidegger goes beyond what I wrote above to claim that the ontological foundation of human existence is care. Care, arising from the necessity to interact meaningfully with (care about) the world in the very process of living, is unique to human beings, he writes. If this were true, then I would expect to see much more support and resource building through relationships than institutional sources. But we do not. The trend appears to be going in the opposite direction. The causal chain in the last few sentences is the main theme of all my writing. Care has been pushed into the shadows by the forces of modernity, and with it the possibility of flourishing.

The best any human being can hope for is a life that generates enough authenticity to balance the inauthenticity inherent in those actions by which we incorporate resources and rules for their use from the outside world. Inconsistencies in the definition of freedom and liberty render them poor measures for designing societies. They are poor proxies for indicating the state of the human condition. Flourishing does a much better job, but is still difficult to clearly define or pin down. I believe it becomes present at some point when authenticity balances inauthenticity, that is, how often one acts from some internally generated source compared to externally imposed sources. One key difference in discussion of the two authenticities from liberty is that authenticity refers to the historical accumulation of constraints and resources, where liberty refers to the present moment.

As a final note, it is impossible to set some standard to find the proper balance point between authenticity and inauthenticity. Every individual and society must find it on their own. I am sure many will complain loudly about having to make that determination, but go back to Sartre and his admonition that human beings are condemned to be free. Not a bad verdict if we can get our thinking straight.

(Photo: Isaiah Berlin)