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Negative and positive freedom

Negative freedom

Negative freedom, or freedom ”from”, or freedom as an absence of impediment, indicates within the political terminology the possibility that someone has to act without anyone intervening to hinder him or even the decision to remain passive without anyone forcing him not to act. The same situation applies if one of the two contrasting subjects (who acts or who wants to stop him), or both, is not represented by human beings as when, for example, we say that we have freed ourselves from the fear of the forces of nature or when a natural entity such as a river is free to follow its own course when it is not impeded by barriers or dams.

The theoretical distinction, in the opinion of Immanuel Kant, between freedom “to” (positive) and freedom “from” (negative) was first introduced by the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), professor of social and political theory:

”The essence of freedom has always consisted in the ability to choose how we want to choose and why we want it, without constraints or intimidation, without an immense system engulfing us; and in the right to resist, to be unpopular, to stand up for your beliefs just because they are yours. This is true freedom, and without it there is never freedom, of any kind, and not even the illusion of having it.”

Positive freedom

In the history of philosophy, on the other hand, “positive freedom” would theoretically coincide with free will, understood as formal freedom abstractly enjoyed in the moment of pondering the choice, which, once implemented, is found to exercise that real (negative) freedom that is opposed and it concretely denies everything that wants to prevent its free action.

In the rule of law or welfare state it is the freedom to, or positive freedom, that regulates society. The concept of positive freedom, ascribable to Jean Jacques Rousseau, is the one that evaluates freedom from the point of view of the participation of individuals in the direct production of the laws that they themselves must therefore positively respect:

“Obedience to the law we have prescribed is freedom.”

On the same line of thought is Immanuel Kant, for which legal freedom is “the faculty not to obey any law other than the one to which citizens have given their consent”

Positive freedom would be implemented according to Norberto Bobbio only if “my will is free and not determined by the will of others”

Freedom and the philosophy

Regarding freedom of action, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz differentiates between liberté de droit as freedom from coercion, which distinguishes the free from the slave, and liberté de fait as a positive freedom, which distinguishes the sick from the healthy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau initially defined freedom negatively as the lack of instinctual involvement of man in nature.

Immanuel Kant explicitly differentiates between negative and positive freedom (understood as free will). For Kant, freedom is first and foremost transcendental freedom as spontaneity, by which he denotes the ability of humans to “start a state of their own” or to be able to make a beginning. The transcendental freedom is an idea and to this extent conceptually negative, i. e. we can neither become aware of this freedom nor infer it from experience. The practical concept of freedom is based on transcendental freedom, which Kant initially defined negatively as “independence of arbitrariness through the drives of sensuality”. Negative freedom is the condition for positive freedom as the power of reason to give itself its laws. Man’s ability to determine himself independently of his inclinations and instincts enables him to moral self-determination (autonomy). Kant’s concept of political freedom is based on this determination of autonomy: Legal freedom is “the power not to obey any external laws other than which I have been able to give my consent”.

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling criticizes the theories of freedom that want to determine human freedom through independence from nature, and reverses the direction of the question, as it were, by also asking about man’s freedom from a God to whom the predicate of omnipotence is assigned:

”The Defenders of freedom usually only think of showing man’s independence from nature, which is, of course, easy. But their inner independence also from God, their freedom also in relation to God let them rest, because this is the most difficult thing.”

According to Schelling, specifically human freedom is defined by a twofold negative freedom:

“Because man stands between […] nature and […] God in the middle, he is free from both. He is free from God because he has an independent root in nature, free from nature because the divine is awakened in him […] ”
– Schelling: Stuttgart private lectures

For Schelling, positive freedom is religiosity, which he understands etymologically in terms of bondage and opposes morality: “Religiosity” is the “highest decision for the right, without any choice”. For Schelling, freedom is primarily free will.

In his lecture on Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Nature of Human Freedom, Martin Heidegger names five concepts of freedom. There he defines negative freedom as “freedom, freedom from” and positive freedom “as attachment to, libertas determinationis, freedom to”.

According to Isaiah Berlin, negative freedom, in contrast to positive freedom, is a state of freedom in which no constraints emanating from other people make behavior difficult or prevent. According to Isaiah Berlin, the counterpart denotes a state of freedom in which the possibility of passive freedom can actually be used, or, according to a more extensive view, a state in which the possibility is actually used.

Freedom and the law

“Freedom is the right to do whatever the law allows.” (Montesquieu, De l’esprit des lois, XII, 2)

Wright, John Michael; Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Aged 89; National Trust, Hardwick Hall; (John Michael Wright; Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Aged 89; National Trust, Hardwick Hall)

The presence of the law or, even more, the absence of it, favors the negative freedom of those who, for example, can write about any subject because there is no institution of censorship or of those who can freely disobey a state law that imposes the service military because he represents the exception to a general rule such as exemption for reasons of conscience. In both cases the decisive element is represented by the absence but also by the presence of the law from which the principle that one is free to operate anything that is not expressly prohibited by law derives. In this last case, the principle highlighted by Hobbes of libertas silentium legis (freedom from the silence of the law) is presented:

”But since all the movements and actions of the citizens have never been brought within the scope of law, and cannot be because of their infinite variety, the things that will neither be commanded nor forbidden must be almost infinitely; and each man can do that or not at his discretion. In this man is said to enjoy his own liberty, and liberty here is to be understoon in this sense, viz as part f natural right which is allowed and left to the citizens by te civil laws.” (Hobbes, De cive, XIII, 15)

This definition of negative freedom also adopted by John Locke:

”[…] freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it. A liberty to follow my own will in all things where that rule prescribes not, not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man.” (J. Locke, Second Treatise of Government)

The liberal state

John Locke(John Locke)

Negative freedom is the foundation of the liberal state which must not interfere in the free personal initiatives of citizens who are all the more free the more the state does not intervene to moderate or regulate their actions and indeed the political power must protect with public initiative the freedom of individuals which also aims at the formation of private property which is an asset that extends to all citizens:

”The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests. Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.”

”The state seems to me the society of men constituted only to preserve and increase civil goods. I call life, freedom, the integrity of the body and its immunity from pain civil goods, and the possession of external things, such as land, money, furnishings, etc. ” (John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration)

By safeguarding the freedom of individuals, the State guarantees the social and economic development of a system based on profit such as to procure the best advantage for all.

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