Negative idea of Liberty

Berlin’s defines a negative idea of liberty as freedom from interference by other people. It is freedom from external restraints. He defines the areas to which people should be allowed to exercise their freedom without interference by other people. Negative liberty is imposed by people and not natural cause or incapacitation of people through disability or lack of income. If an individual is prevented from doing what one could otherwise do then to that degree an individual is said to be unfree. According to Berlin when another person restricts another person’s freedom that is a form of slavery or coercion. Coercion is defined as the deliberate interfere of other human beings within the areas in which one could act.1 A situation such as a disease, poverty, and lameness that prevent an individual from moving is not regarded as a lack of freedom.

So long as no one acts as a barrier of the other person from making money with which could be used to pay for the bread then there is no negative liberty . Berlin, further argues that giving individual freedom does not mean one will be able to exercise their freedom fully. This is because some limitation on individual freedom is necessary for maintaining social order. Unlimited freedom will lead to social chaos and those who are strong in society will take advantage of the weak to limit their liberty. For example, those who are masculine or those in power may take advantage of their power to suppress the liberty of the weak .2 According to Berlin, man’s life is interdependent therefore there is no way man activity can be completely private to the extent he does not interfere with another person’s life in any way. Other people in society can enjoy their freedom when some other people’s freedom is suppressed.

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For example, if the freedom of those people that disrupt peace is suppressed then other people will have the freedom to moves and exercise their right. Examples of negative liberties include civil liberties such as freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of religious worship. Individual rights are protected under the constitution to give individuals freedom. Negative freedom is not strained by natural means such as being disabled or lack of money. Berlin used the concept of slavery and coercion to indicate scenarios whereby individual freedom is retrained by another person.3 For example, when a person is kidnapped he or she is retrained from making money or earning a living and freedom of speech and movement.

Furthermore, Berlin indicates that lack of income is not equated as an aspect of restraining freedom to purchase bread or anything of their choice so long as an individual is not physically restrained . This evidence is persuasive because as it denotes an aspect of a democratic state where people have the freedom and those freedoms are not curtained by other people. However, Berlin still recognizes that individual freedom cannot exist without being restrained by other people because people are interdependent. I agree with the author’s conclusion where there is no connection between individual liberties with democratic rule. This is because even though people might have liberties to do what they capable of doing that right somehow is curtailed. The author’s conclusion follows logically from the premises by connecting individual liberty to democratic rule.

Negative liberty is just a fallacy that cannot be achieved in a society ruled by law and order. The weak assumption of the negative freedom is that negative freedom exists only when not curtailed by individuals yet people are interconnected and action of another person may indirectly curtail freedom of another. For example, society’s moral values may restrict an individual number of choices they can make about their life. Individuals may be limited in making choices that have greater importance to them .

Positive Idea of Liberty

Positive freedom is the freedom to do something rather than freedom from interference. I wish my life and decision to depend on myself but not any external forces.4 Positive freedom would be achieved if an individual possesses the capacity to act upon one free will overcome external restrain on one action. Rational freedom is a matter of having the capacity to take the rational option as well as having an opportunity. Positive freedom entails seizing control of individual life to make rational choices for themselves. It is part of achieving potential rather than having potential. Berlin denotes that positive freedom requires one to choose his pursuit in life. Berlin is trying to make us believe that positive liberty is associated with freedom of choice and the desire to achieve a higher goal .5

Individuals can claim to be free when there is no inhibition from a social structure in carrying out their free will. Some inhibition such as sexism, ageism can inhibit individual personal freedom from achieving a personal goal. People with positive freedom can choose their pursuits in life. Berlin concluded by stating that the government should be able to create the condition necessary for an individual to achieve self-sufficiency or self-realization. This concept assumes that the individual achievement of a high goal is achieved without external influence from social structure. The assumption derived from positive liberty is that an individual acquires freedom without external influence. An example that explains this concept includes a decision to enrol in a course. When an individual wants to further their education no one interferes with their liberty to read but the individual is enslaved to their tendency to be sidetracked.

Why the positive idea of liberty is dangerous

Berlin indicates that positive liberty invites the specific kind of coercion that parades as liberation and thus it does so due to a psychologically predictable pattern. Positive liberty does not exclude tyranny and totalitarianism. The negative idea of liberty permits freedom while positive liberty does not necessarily permit liberty and prevents coercion from external forces. The concept of positive liberty is based on the notion of self-mastery or self-realization or self-actualization such that being free depends on the level of control an individual has over their life.6 One is only free to the extent he or she has effectively determined oneself and the shape of one life. Furthermore, external forces affect self –mastery in obscure ways. It is logical to recognize that external influence can have a huge influence on people’s motivation towards self-actualization.7 The external motivator may influence certain values to an individual whereby the individual would not be recognized as free.

For example, an individual might have several competing priorities to achieve in life like marriage, furthering their education, relocating to a new country, and investing. The decision to select one of these priorities may be influenced by external stakeholders hence limiting an individual from exercising their free will. An individual would be free if they followed a motive that was not unfairly motivated. Berlin’s sentiments are persuasive and support the notion that positive liberty is less likely to be free because every situation may contain external influence. For example, a student may be in dilemma on whether to enrol in either finance or major in an accounting course but the final decision the student arrived at is influenced by the lecture the student may be said to be unfree towards achieving self-actualization.


Isaiah Berlin, “TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY,” Four Essays On Liberty, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 118-172.

1Isaiah Berlin, “TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY,” Four Essays On Liberty, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 118-172.

2Isaiah Berlin, “TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY,” Four Essays On Liberty, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 118-172.

3Isaiah Berlin, “TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY,” Four Essays On Liberty, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 118-172.

4Isaiah Berlin, “TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY,” Four Essays On Liberty, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 118-172.

5Isaiah Berlin, “TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY,” Four Essays On Liberty, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 118-172.

6Isaiah Berlin, “TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY,” Four Essays On Liberty, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 118-172.

7Isaiah Berlin, “TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY,” Four Essays On Liberty, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 118-172.

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