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Positive and Negative Freedom: Distinction and Ethical Problem

Freedom is one of the philosophical categories that characterize a person as multidimensional, which is determined by the individual’s ability to think and act following his ideas and desires, and not as a result of internal and external compulsion. An individual can be forced to perform specific actions, which is the absence of negative freedom; however, it can benefit him and increase his freedom in a positive sense. The paper is devoted to a comparative analysis of the positive and negative concepts of freedom to identify critical points of contact and differences.

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The negative concept of freedom implies that it is the absence of obstructions. Negative liberty is individual freedom, the ability to dispose of one’s personality. It is freedom from restrictions imposed by other people or the whole society, from interference with privacy (Mamlok 89). The critical point to which the supporters of the negative concept pay attention is coercion, which does not allow an individual to do as he wants. Oppression means the deliberate intrusion of other people into the area where a person could act freely. Thus, a broader field of non-interference from others leads to a higher degree of freedom.

On the other hand, a positive concept suggests that freedom is being the master of life. Unlike the negativists, the positivists do not pay much attention to the barriers limiting freedom; they are concerned on who is setting up these barriers (Eliasz and Załuski 4). Positive freedom leads to some prescribed way of life, such as being a supporter of a political party, adhering to personal views, and conducting activities. Therefore, positivists place particular emphasis on the individual’s desire to be the master of his life.

There are two main differences between positive and negative freedoms. The first concerns the degree of their clarity: the concept of negative liberty is clear, while the idea of positive freedom generally needs to be explained, and there are, therefore, different concepts of positive freedom (Eliasz and Załuski 4). The positive freedom can be interpreted in different ways: the opportunity to involve in self-government; thus, it encompasses a political context. The second is actual freedom to have something, to perform an action. The last is complete autonomy, independence, and self-realization. These understandings of positive freedom largely overlap; for example, self-realization is impossible without participation in politics.

The second point concerns persuasiveness as a legal-political value: while negative freedom is usually perceived as an undeniable legal, political value, many thinkers question the importance of positive liberty in the legal-political sphere. Authorities can use positive freedom to justify significant restrictions on citizens’ negative freedom (Eliasz and Załuski 5). Citizens cannot reach the level of their actual or noumenal self and, therefore, cannot be real masters of themselves; they must be deprived of those options that can be chosen by the empirical person. Berlin adheres to the same position, claiming that the idealistic concept of positive freedom is doomed to political danger (Simhony 4). The danger lies in manipulating positive freedom, understood as rational self-control, into a legislative instrument of tyranny, forcing people to freedom.

Moreover, the concept of freedom, either positive or negative, raises an ethical problem. “Unlike Berlin’s notion of positive and negative freedom that forms a border between individuals and the state, Dewey and Tufts deem that one’s actions should inherently reflect social customs” (Mamlok 91). The refinement between the individual and the social misshapes the phenomenon of community. A perfect society is competent in shaping a community in which all its members’ interests are shared. In contrast, an unwanted organization internally and externally sets up obstructions to free communication and exchange of experiences. Thus, the concept of an ideal community recognizes the need for individual and social growth as entirely interdependent.

Freedom cannot be reached only by external forces that limit or make possible their actions, but rather by internalizing social standards that have been set up within the equitable point. While Berlin theorizes freedom as subordinate to the nonappearance or nearness of confinements, Dewey conceptualizes freedom to become an individualized self (Mamlok 91). Human individuality implies the ability to intelligently fulfill one’s desires through a reflexive process and make one’s own choices. Consequently, achieving freedom requires the reconstruction of social situations that will allow a person to act freely.

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The educational system promotes the values of democracy and freedom. Harmonizing the various elements of society and creating a shared culture would provide the right conditions for a law-based and free community. According to Mamlok, “the role of education, in this sense, is in preparing students to become active participants in a democratic society” (94). In other words, the teacher’s job involves a dynamic relationship with students and the provision of conditions for continued participation in democracy. Children should be instructed to connect activities to the results, and continuously make intelligent choices, coming to share within the beliefs of the more extensive society.

In conclusion, a positive concept of freedom is a deeper and broader concept than negative freedom. The idea of achievement or success is central to the second way of interpreting positive freedom. Positivists are often accused of substituting thoughts because the concept has no legal and political value. However, to solve the ethical problem, it is necessary to strengthen the educational system since teachers are incubators of youth’s democratic activity.

Works Cited

Eliasz, Katarzyna, and Wojciech Załuski. “Legal values: freedom.” Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, edited by M. Sellers and S. Kirste, Springer Science + Business Media, 2017, pp. 1-7. doi: 10.1007/978-94-007-6730-0_234-1

Mamlok, Dan. “Negative and Positive Freedom: Considering Education and the Digital World.” Philosophical Studies in Education, 2016, pp. 88-97.

Simhony, Avital. “Berlin and Bosanquet: True self and positive freedom.” European Journal of Political Theory, vol. 15, no.1, 2016, pp. 3-21. doi: 10.1177/1474885114531239

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