Negative and Positive Liberty: A Short History

The distinction between negative and positive liberty was famously discussed by Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 lecture ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. The essay is very widely quoted which is very odd in some respects since it is not a very good paper. It is readable introduction to the distinction in very vague terms. It refers to a distinction between freedom from restraint and freedom to improve the self. The essay vaguely gestures at Eighteenth Century origins without explaining them. The essay has a very polemical purposes, delivered as it was 13 years after the end of World War Two and 5 years after the death of Stalin. Berlin emphasises the value of negative liberty in distinguishing liberal democracy from Fascist and Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism, while leaving some room for the idea of liberty as the pursuit of human perfection.

There’s a lot more going on, here is a list with so elements of a discussion.

Seventeenth Century.
defines liberty as freedom from physical restraint. The political regime is irrelevant. Ancient ideas of political liberty are an illusion. A regime based on monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy all rest on obedience to sovereign authority.

Eighteenth Century
distinguishes between Ancient Republicanism and modern Monarchy.
Republicanism is Democratic, resting on the Principle of Virtue Or
Republicanism is Aristocratic, resting on the Principle of Moderation
Monarchy rests on the principle of Honour, which is refers to Ambition.
Monarchy offers freedom absent in Despotism which rests on the principle of fear.
In all regimes Montesquieu is concerned with liberty. Ancient Republicanism gives liberty on the basis of following a character of Virtue or Moderation, linking the right to political freedom with perfection of the self. Monarchy gives liberty through honour, the principle of competitive self-interest detached from political rights.
Morality refers to positive duties/freedom and negative duties/freedom. There are negative duties limit us from harming ourselves or others. There are positive duties which encourage us to be concerned with the gaols, and ends, of others.
Negative freedom in Kant is freedom from harming the self.
Positive freedom is the freedom to perfect the self from impurity, positive freedom is willing the good of all, the perfection of humanity as a whole.
Constant Liberty of the Ancients and the Moderns Hunboldt Negative Welfare and Positive Welfare
Humboldt: in the Ancient world, the state protected the negative welfare of the population, which refers to protecting its security.
In the Ancient world, the state protected the positive welfare of the people by acting to improve their souls.
In the modern world, state power is more dangerous because the possibilities of control and interference are much greater. In the Ancient world, dependence on the state was limited by the individual’s struggle with nature to survive and struggle with neighbouring states as as a soldier. Positive welfare in the modern world means the state bureaucracy interfering with the economy and providing social welfare for the poor. These measures result in a constant increase in the size of the state, and in a growing dependence of individuals on the state.

Morality and Ethical Community
In the freedom of private morality and conscience the individual is free from external constraint but has no external constraint on its consciousness and actions which are dangerously self-centred.
In the freedom of ethical community, the individual finds it is free through the family, civil society and the state, which all create the conditions for the individual to enjoy freedom though family relations, the economic corporations of civil society, the way in which the state establishes law.
In the Ancient world, the individual sees itself in the state and community of its limited social world. Following Montesquieu, Hegel suggests that in the Ancient world the state is identical with the community. In the modern world, the state is distinct from the complex structure of the community, which contains a complex civil society.
For Hegel, the complexity of the modern world gives more space for individual freedom, while establishing a a state which is the condition of modern liberty under laws.

Nietzsche and Liberalism with Teeth


Continuing with the theme set up in the last post on issues which came out of last semester’s teaching, as usual I find many students are associating Nietzsche with the ‘Master Morality’ outlined in Genealogy of Morals, Essay I. At the extreme, one student blamed Nietzsche for World War Two in an exam answer. The claim that Nietzsche was a proto-Nazi is a familiar one, but not one with much credibility amongst informed commentators. The more modest assumption that Nietzsche represents a morality aimed only at the elite, in which only the creation of the higher types of human counts, is one shared by many Nietzsche commentators.

These commentators are wrong, though it is not surprising they make the interpretations they do. My students did not have previous knowledge of Nietzsche commentaries, and I presented a rather different emphasis, but the students still largely thought of Nietzsche as an extreme elitist, and even an enthusiast for oppression and cruelty. Those students who got past that image where I believe largely the ones who studied Essay II most carefully. Essay II makes clear Nietzsche’s distaste for the lust for cruelty he sees at the root of the punishment of criminals.

This is rooted in a theory of ressentiment, which refers to the pain of the restraint of instinct in consciousness, a pain that is discharged through cruelty. The act of cruelty relieves the pressure of damned up action, and that pressure increases in situations where we cannot take revenge against those who harm us. The slaves are in that position. It is important to note that ressentiment has origins that precede the master/slave relation. This is clear in the first few sections of Essay II, where a description is built up of how memory and calculative abilities emerge from violent restraint of instinct. It is clear that human consciousness develops through
the pain of restraint on instinct.

It is not only the slaves who have a morality of ressentiment. Those masters who become priests have the same morality, and it is the priest-masters who organises the ressentiment of the masses in religions and churches. It is not only the slaves who are condemned when ‘slave morality’ is condemned.

Nietzsche cannot be taken as finding a model in the master as warrior. The picture of uncultured violence is very far from what Nietzsche advocates. It is the master’s conquest of pacific agricultural communities which founds the state, and the state is something strongly criticised by Nietzsche in ‘The New Idol’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and ‘A Look at the State’ in Human, All Too Human.

Nietzsche clearly indicates that he advocates the position of the ‘Overman’, or ‘Superman’, who is unprecedented in history. The ‘Overman’ is not the same as the ‘Master’. The ‘Overman’ has capacities for creativity, self-legislation and integration of a multiplicity of strong internal forces. This does not correspond at all with the violence, lawlessness and one-sidededness of the master.

Nietzsche does not give his ‘morality’, or code which enhances life, in the Genealogy. The Genealogy is no-saying philosophy, according to Ecce Homo. The yes-saying philosophy is in Zarathustra. After Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote criticism of existing morality in Beyond Good and Evil and in the Genealogy. Zarathustra includes a section on the friend, which suggests another form of relationship apart from master-slave of the community of masters or slaves. The values promoted by Zarathustra include: a single goal for humanity, the generosity of the individual overflowing with strength, liberation from dependence on the neighbour, emancipation from all conformism.

Nietzsche advocates the development of life and the highest possible form of humanity. He points out that in history, cultures and elites have been created on the foundations of cruelty and slavery. That is not the same as advocating these phenomena or saying that they are necessary in future. Does Nietzsche argue for slave society now? No, though he does advocate ‘aristocracy’ and inequality. It’s clear that by aristocracy Nietzsche means inner qualities, not membership of a social class. He does not advocate the aggressive German Nationalism of his time, associated with the policies of Bismark, which were closely tied with the Prussian/German monarchy/Empire and aristocracy. Nietzsche condemned Bismarkian nationalism along with anti-Semitism and socialism. While Nietzsche did not care for politics, parliamentary debates and the associated culture of newspaper reading, he did have views on politics and those were very clearly in favour of the more liberal aspects of German politics. He clearly favoured Emperor Frederick III,who supported liberal policies in a rather short reign.

Another hero mentioned by Nietzsche in both Human, All Too Human(section 453 in ‘A Look at the State) and in Genealogy of Morals, Essay I (section 10), is Mirabeau the Elder, Physicocrat (liberal economist) and father of a prominent moderate figure in the French Revolution who aimed to reconcile the monarchy and the constituent assembly, according to the principles of limited government, on representative constitutional foundations. Another enthusiast for Mirabeau was the great German liberal philosopher, Wilhelm Von Humboldt, as can be seen by checking The Limits of State Action (download e-book).

The cruelty and mastery that Nietzsche advocates is only that of self-mastery, of the inner struggle of integration of conflicting forces. For Nietzsche the wish to be cruel to others is contemptible and is the sign of a lack of inner mastery. This is explained at some length in Essay II of Genealogy of Morals.

Lester Hunt, a Libertarian political philosopher described Nietzsche as supporting a ‘liberalism with teeth’ in Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue, he was right to do so.