Tools for thinking: Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of freedom

‘Freedom’ is a powerful word. We all respond positively to it, and under its banner revolutions have been started, wars have been fought, and political campaigns are continually being waged. But what exactly do we mean by ‘freedom’? The fact that politicians of all parties claim to believe in freedom suggests that people don’t always have the same thing in mind when they talk about it. Might there be different kinds of freedom and, if so, could the different kinds conflict with each other? Could the promotion of one kind of freedom limit another kind? Could people even be coerced in the name of freedom?

The 20th-century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) thought that the answer to both these questions was ‘Yes’, and in his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958) he distinguished two kinds of freedom (or liberty; Berlin used the words interchangeably), which he called negative freedom and positive freedom.

Negative freedom is freedom from interference. You are negatively free to the extent that other people do not restrict what you can do. If other people prevent you from doing something, either directly by what they do, or indirectly by supporting social and economic arrangements that disadvantage you, then to that extent they restrict your negative freedom. Berlin stresses that it is only restrictions imposed by other people that count as limitations of one’s freedom. Restrictions due to natural causes do not count. The fact that I cannot levitate is a physical limitation but not a limitation of my freedom.

Virtually everyone agrees that we must accept some restrictions on our negative freedom if we are to avoid chaos. All states require their citizens to follow laws and regulations designed to help them live together and make society function smoothly. We accept these restrictions on our freedom as a trade-off for other benefits, such as peace, security and prosperity. At the same time, most of us would insist that there are some areas of life that should not be regulated, and where individuals should have considerable, if not complete, freedom. A major debate in political philosophy concerns the boundaries of this area of personal negative freedom. For example, should the state place restrictions on what we may say or read, or on what sexual activities we may engage in?

Whereas negative freedom is freedom from control by others, positive freedom is freedom to control oneself. To be positively free is to be one’s own master, acting rationally and choosing responsibly in line with one’s interests. This might seem to be simply the counterpart of negative freedom; I control myself to the extent that no one else controls me. However, a gap can open between positive and negative freedom, since a person might be lacking in self-control even when he is not restrained by others. Think, for example, of a drug addict who cannot kick the habit that is killing him. He is not positively free (that is, acting rationally in his own best interests) even though his negative freedom is not being limited (no one is forcing him to take the drug).

In such cases, Berlin notes, it is natural to talk of something like two selves: a lower self, which is irrational and impulsive, and a higher self, which is rational and far-sighted. And the suggestion is that a person is positively free only if his higher self is dominant. If this is right, then we might be able to make a person more free by coercing him. If we prevent the addict from taking the drug, we might help his higher self to gain control. By limiting his negative freedom, we would increase his positive freedom. It is easy to see how this view could be abused to justify interventions that are misguided or malign.

Berlin argued that the gap between positive and negative freedom, and the risk of abuse, increases further if we identify the higher, or ‘real’, self, with a social group (‘a tribe, a race, a church, a state’). For we might then conclude that individuals are free only when the group suppresses individual desires (which stem from lower, nonsocial selves) and imposes its will upon them. What particularly worried Berlin about this move was that it justifies the coercion of individuals, not merely as a means of securing social benefits, such as security and cooperation, but as a way of freeing the individuals themselves. The coercion is not seen as coercion at all, but as liberation, and protests against it can be dismissed as expressions of the lower self, like the addict’s craving for his fix. Berlin called this a ‘monstrous impersonation’, which allows those in power ‘to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their “real” selves’. (The reader might be reminded of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which shows how a Stalinist political party imposes its conception of truth on an individual, ‘freeing’ him to love the Party leader.)

Berlin was thinking of how ideas of freedom had been abused by the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, and he was right to highlight the dangers of this kind of thinking. But it does not follow that it is always wrong to promote positive freedom. (Berlin does not claim that it is, and he notes that the notion of negative freedom can be abused in a similar way.) Some people might need help to understand their best interests and achieve their full potential, and we could believe that the state has a responsibility to help them do so. Indeed, this is the main rationale for compulsory education. We require children to attend school (severely limiting their negative freedom) because we believe it is in their own best interests. To leave children free to do whatever they like would, arguably, amount to neglect or abuse. In the case of adults, too, it is arguable that the state has a responsibility to help its citizens live rich and fulfilling lives, through cultural, educational and health programmes. (The need for such help might be especially pressing in freemarket societies, where advertisers continually tempt us to indulge our ‘lower’ appetites.) It might be, too, that some people find meaning and purpose through identification with a wider social or political movement, such as feminism, and that in helping them to do so we are helping to liberate them.

Of course, this raises many further questions. Does our current education system really work in children’s best interests, or does it just mould them into a form that is socially and economically useful? Who decides what counts as a rich and fulfilling life? What means can the state legitimately use to help people live well? Is coercion ever acceptable? These are questions about what kind of society we want to live in, and they have no easy answers. But in giving us the distinction between negative and positive freedom, Berlin has given us a powerful tool for thinking about them.Aeon counter – do not remove

Maria Kasmirli

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Sapiens

Sapiens-AUS

Just finished reading it and I was so astounded by how rich of the knowledge this book has. It’s so well-written by Yuval Noah Harari, a professor/Israeli historian, he tells a lot not only about the history of homo sapiens in general, but also pretty much about everything related to human. Imagine in less than 500 pages, we could learn so much about the origin of homo sapiens, what makes us different, the revolutions we’ve been  through, wars, politics, religions, economy, and prediction about the future. Well that quite sums everything doesn’t it? It’s the whole package of social science altogether that unfolds many layers about homo sapiens.

My favourites are the last three chapters of the book; A Permanent Revolution, And They Lived Happily Ever After, and The End of Homo Sapiens. I particularly like And They Lived Happily. Through all the revolutions at least for the past 500 years, it’s raising a question “Are we now happier?”

“Happiness” is such an enigmatic term. By coincidence, I’ve just read another two books from Jonathan Haidt, an NYU’s ethics professor that describes happiness. They are both compelling, the title of the books are The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis. I found the explanations are rather akin.

Perhaps people nowadays posses more prosperity but suffer greatly from alienation and meaningless, this is may contrary to our ancestor’s circumstances who found much contentment in community, religion, and a bond with nature. People assume that wealth brings happiness. And they are right, but only up to a certain point, and beyond that point it has little significance. For people in terrible economic condition, of course more money means greater happiness. However after a certain point, it won’t make a big difference. Another interesting finding is that illness decreases happiness in the short term, it’s becoming a long-term distress only if a person’s condition is constantly deteriorating. Family and community seem to have more impact on happiness than money and health. People with strong family and community relation are significantly happier than people whose dysfunctional family and never be a part of community.

Yet the most important finding is that happiness doesn’t really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather it depend on correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations — being satisfied with what we already have is far more important than getting more of what we desire. Then if happiness is equal to expectation, two pillars of our society — mass/social media and the advertising industry — may be the ultimate source of our depleting contentment.

We’ve talked happiness in social scientist point of view, in biological way happiness is determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. Our internal biochemical system are programmed to keep happiness levels relatively constant but vary between each person. So, to be happy, it can be as easy as taking prozac to change our biochemical.

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel prize in economics, found that happiness rather consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.

The important key is to know ourselves. Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings. People are not their feelings. Maybe it is not so important whether people’s expectations are fulfilled and whether they enjoy pleasant feelings. The main question is whether people know the truth about themselves.

South Sudan

I was surprised to learn that South Sudan surpassed Syria to become the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world (source: NPR). Little that I know about South Sudan, glad I found this Vox video, hope it’ll explain it better.

Such an irony that the newest nation is divided by the same cause why they separated from Sudan — civil war. The situation is worsened by mass exodus and starvation. This video from The Guardian explains why do people still got hungry.

So what can we do about it? One quick help is by giving donation through UNHCR. You can choose it either monthly or one time only. It’ll be used mainly on building shelters. If you choose one time donation, there will be range from 35 USD – 75 USD with each allocation relevant to the amount. Technology has made it so easy to outreach anyone and God has been so good that we all still have roofs above our heads with clean water and plenty of foods, we literally no longer need to have an excuse to not be thankful enough and help those in needs.

Roots

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Could you believe it’s been 6 months already since the last post? Planned to do the writing regularly but I guess I always had trouble with commitment eh, so yeah here’s the update finally.

Actually there were a quite few interesting topics to write though, especially since Trump became president. But I think it would be more relevant to talk about refugee, moreover 20th June also commemorated as Refugee Day.

Refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. I know that sounds very distant and hard to relate. It happened to me too, I felt terrible about it yet I was pretty sure that I’m never gonna be like them, I felt safe, at first.

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Tsunami Evacuation Camp, Siberut Island, March 2nd 2016

I remember quite vividly about that night, March 2nd 2016, things went as usual, we had dinner together and I went back to my room, nothing much to do in Mentawai at night — and actually I really enjoyed that, quite relaxing. After ten minutes on bed, I felt gently swayed, I thought I must be already dreaming but the sway getting intense so I woke up. I walked outside the house and had conversation with the neighbours, we were positive it must be an earthquake. Short after that, people bustled us to evacuate because it was confirmed as a 7.8 SR tsunami-potential earthquake, I was so confused. I rushed to my room and grab my backpack and flashlight. That night all the people in the village were dashing, running up to the hill searching safe place before tsunami reaching us. Well, I did think a glimpse about death but strangely I wasn’t too bothered, I just wished I hadn’t forgotten to put my ID in my backpack, so people could identify me easily in case I didn’t make it. What bothered me much in fact after we safely reaching the shelter on the hill. It was quite close-packed, I think half of them are kids and babies. I couldn’t believe that less than an hour ago kids were still doing their homework, babies were sleeping, and most people maybe just wandering what might they do in the next day. And suddenly, now we’re here together, forced to leave home, being both hopeless and hopeful. I was so fortunate that we were in good luck, no tsunami and we could get back home. But I will never forget the experience and the idea.

The idea that refugees are basically ordinary people like us — like you and me, who once had job and family and were so confident, so hopeful, and so optimistic that things are gonna be just fine tomorrow.

There might be no warning before, no time to prepare, all they knew is the urge to leave home in order to survive.

According to UNHCR, June 20 is the day the world commemorates the strength, courage, and perseverance of millions of refugees. The number of refugees in the world is the highest ever seen. Imagine there are 20 people per minute forced to leave everything behind. By the end of 2016, there are 65 million displaced people around the world — men, women and children who had no choice but to flee their homes to escape violence and persecution. What we can do about it? Refugee has become a major concern in the world and needs international cooperation to provide shelter and everything they need. Everything has been taken away from them, but it’s essential to assure that they still have hopes and dreams for safer future.

In order to achieve that, UN has made petition for decision makers to:

Ensure every refugee child gets an education.
Ensure every refugee family has somewhere safe to live.
Ensure every refugee can work or learn new skills to support their families.

The campaign continues until a global compact for refugees is adopted in 2018. I really really hope it goes well.

What we can do as an individual? 65 million refugees flee from war, persecution, and terror. It’s so clear that all rooted from hatred, or may I rephrase, all rooted from an unhealthy, blind, and excessive favouritism of something, that makes you believe that everything beyond that is a threat to you. What we can do to avoid that? Please don’t get consumed by the darkness. Put a light on everything including to your belief.

Please open your mind and shed a light to your heart and to your faith.

 

The Gap

Promised to write something about inequality, so here it is…

This writing mostly taken and inspired by “The Great Divide”, I accidentally found this book on my mentor’s bookshelf. It’s written by (believe it or not) her friend, Joseph E. Stiglitz, a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the John Bates Clark Medal. The book mainly focus on inequality as diagnosed greatest economic challenge in America but still relevant to inequality everywhere.
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Cover of “The Great Divide”

There are many things claimed as reasons for inequality; labour-saving technology, worldwide marketplace triggered by globalisation, but another thing could not be ignored, the fact that there is a group of people benefited from this circumstance. One of big reason why we have so much inequality is that the top 1% want it that way. With the money and power they can have profit from tax policy, monopolising the market, and manipulating the the financial system.
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What’s so wrong with that? Imagine 1% or maybe less, have control over massive share of wealth and where a main determinant of power is wealth, the system tends to corrupt, holding back policies that would improve life for people in general. When a certain group holds too much power, the policies stipulated to gain profits for themselves in short term rather than help society in long term. With too much money piled up on top, the consumption rate or average spending will be declined, and the demand will suffer. Inequality plays significant role in distorting our society in every imaginable way. With social media as a well documented lifestyle, it affects people outside the top 1% to progressively live beyond their means, in America it relates to credit bubble, another way of widening gap. The most damaging consequence of income inequality is inequality in chances. No children in this world could choose their family or where they want to grow up. But unfortunately, as result of inequality, they have different condition of welfare, education, social justice, political right, basically anything that can help them to live up their potential.
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When is this going to end? It will eventually stop when rules of economic globalisation are no longer likewise designated to the rich. Government holds a significant role to make policies in favour with people. We need to define growth better than merely GDP. Government should start to aim more for sustainability; by developing and investing in infrastructure, education, and technology, and by preserving the truly most valuable resource: people, so they can live up their potential.
“The only true and sustainable prosperity is shared prosperity.”
― Joseph E. Stiglitz

Secondhand Judgement

To hate somebody just because someone you know hates them or to like somebody just because someone you know likes them without even knowing them well or interacting with them more than once or twice, well I find it similiar to watch a movie review. Maybe it could describe the movie well, but most of the time you should watch the entire movie to decide.

Self-Interest Rightly Understood

“Self-interest rightly understood.”

Without doubt, everyone has their own self-interest. But rightly understood? This makes quite contrast. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans voluntarily join together in associations to further the interests of the group and, thereby, eventually to serve their own interests. Putting common self-interest becomes essential condition before attaining self-interest. Turns out taking care of other isn’t only a good for soul but also for economy.

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Alexis de Tocqueville

In the beginning of history, the concept of “self-interest rightly understood” is one of many motivating forces behind democracy, transforming United States into a strong economy power country. What about now? America is still the richest but it’s also the most unequal nation. What does it mean? The economic growth has not been fairly shared and the gap between rich and poor become wider. In a nutshell, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, with higher presentation goes to, of course, the poor. Does it happen only in America or other rich countries? No, it happens across the globe. In developing countries, as stated in UNDP report (2015), a significant majority of households in developing countries—more than 75 percent of the population—are living today in societies where income is more unequally distributed than it was in the 1990s with the income inequality rate increasing 11 percent in only 10 years.

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I plan to write about why does inequality matter and what we can we do about it in the next post. Anyway it’s been 5 months since the last post (phew, what have I been doing tho? Like seriously?). Hope we don’t have to wait that long for the next post. In addition, here are few great related articles:
For more comprehensive source about income inequality, I recommend you “The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them” by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former chief economist of the World Bank.

Why “What can we do about it?” is The Best Response

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“That’s very sad” or “I feel sorry about that” is a common response when we heard a bad news. Wether it’s sincere from our heart or just an expression of sympathy, we have to admit one thing; the situation would likely remain the same. An intention to jump-in and help is in another level. It embodies a will to posses the problem and being altruistic. How can one does not truly care about what possibly can take and simply just give instead? This notion will make no sense for individual interest, but in bigger picture,  it maybe the best solution for our sustainability and well-being problem which predominantly revolves around modern individual tendency to become more and more self and fortune-centered.

So the next time we hear an unpleasant news or aware of terrible condition, after express our sympathy and condolences, let’s try to ponder for a moment “what can we possibly do about it?”.

Are We Living in A Bubble?

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Bubble is a metaphor for a comfort shell that distances human empathy in modern life.

The breadth of the world depends on how we see it. How far we set the horizon. Unfortunately we tend to see what we want to see. The horizon of our sight is so cramped, it resembles partition of those sad office cubicles. The source of information mainly revolves around social media, which mostly superficial and distances us from the actual and more important things. It appears that now, each of us is living in a separate bubble, floating to the air by social status that acts like buoyancy. Regularly we see other bubbles hovering in the not so different level than us, but we scarcely see at distant bubbles. We need a bridge to connect and we have to work for it.