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What Is Liberty? Does It Matter?

March 16th, 2011 · 11 Comments

The recently-launched Bleeding Heart Libertarians is rapidly becoming one of my favorite blogs. Jacob Levy, in particular, has been articulating with uncanny clarity a whole cluster of thoughts that had been bouncing around the back of my own head for a few months now. But since agreement gets boring quickly, let me pick on one strain of argument that strikes me as less than fruitful. In one of the early posts on the blog, philosopher Jason Brennan writes:

If you’re going to philosophize about liberty, here are three questions to ask:

1. What is liberty?
2. What value does it have, if any?
3. What, if anything, should government or other institutions do about it?

The most intellectually honest way to deal with these questions is to answer them in this order.

Alas, most people who are interested in politics are more concerned with defending their turf and maintaining their sense of themselves than seeking the truth. So, it seems that most people reverse the order of these questions. They start with a predetermined conception of what government ought to do, and then come up with a theory of liberty and its value to fit and reinforce this conception.

This is the prelude to an ongoing series of posts that ask the question “What is liberty?“—and argue against the position that it should be conceived in primarily negative terms, as freedom from interference or constraint. Yet I doubt this is a particularly useful argument to have.

Let’s start with the claim above. It’s surely true that people often do a kind of hackish imitation of “philosophy” that’s little more than casting about for whatever “first principles” seem to rationalize their preexisting policy preferences, then pretend the policy preferences were arrived at by pure deduction from these abstract values. But it seems to me that the reason to criticize this tendency is precisely that it’s intellectually dishonest, not because the correct procedure is to really proceed by this kind of pure deduction from the abstract to the concrete. If that’s what Brennan means to suggest, it seems especially odd given that this is a group of writers who share an interest in fusing libertarian ideas with the theoretical insights of John Rawls. Because one place I’ve always thought Rawls was closer to the mark than many 20th century libertarian theorists was in his endorsement of the method of reflective equilibrium in ethical reasoning—a process of mutually revising higher-order principles and particular moral judgments in light of each other, without giving primacy to either, in order to arrive at a coherent view. On that approach, it seems perfectly admissible to let one’s ground-level moral judgments about government policies or social institutions inform one’s assessment of the weight or priority due the values implicated by those policies and institutions. A considered conviction that some policy or institution is morally repugnant seems like a perfectly good reason to reject—or certainly regard with extraordinary skepticism—any higher order framework that appears to permit it. And while Brennan’s probably right that it would just muddy the water to insist on using “liberty” in a way that applied it only to morally good things, the attempt to totally divorce the term from normative valence is itself in tension with the colloquial usage Brennan wants to invoke against those who prefer a restrictive (negative) definition of “liberty.” In ordinary language, calling a limitation on action a “denial of liberty” often does imply that the action in question is something the limited party would normally be morally entitled to do—or at least a member of a class of actions that are mostly morally permitted.

My own preference is to mostly use “liberty” in the negative sense for the purposes of political philosophy, and use more concrete terms (“wealth” or “opportunity” or “an adequate range of life options”) for the stuff normally grouped under the rubric of “positive liberties.” After all, domain-specific conversations often give terms more restrictive meanings than they have in all discursive contexts. (“I’m afraid I’ve taken quite a liberty…” is not normally a statement with political implications.) Again, this seems to me to be something Rawls got right: He was scarcely hostile to positive rights to a variety of “primary goods” but he still found it useful to distinguish between “basic liberties” (in the negative sense) and “the fair value of liberties.”

But hey, whatever! This is a matter of decision, not discovery. We can adopt whatever definition we like as long as all the participants in the conversation understand how the terms are being used. If someone thinks it’s illuminating to group certain goods as “positive liberties,” we can stipulate that for the sake of a particular conversation. Squabbling over terms mostly seems like a waste of time—better to just cut to the chase and get to the question of what sort of value the members of the class have, and what implications it has for policy.

Tags: Libertarian Theory



11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Noah Yetter // Mar 17, 2011 at 11:49 am

    We already have a perfectly good word for “positive rights/liberties”: privileges.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Mar 17, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    Well, a “privilege” is (by definition) something that not everybody can claim to be entitled to as a matter of basic justice. Since that’s a point of contention, it’s probably better to avoid a term that begs that particular question.

  • 3 Angus Lander // Mar 21, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    I’m not sure the decision about what sense we ought to use “liberty” is as much a matter of mere “whatever” preference as you suggest. The most central platitude about political liberty – more central than whether it concerns “freedom from” or “freedom to” (obviously: that is hotly contested) – is that it is intrinsically valuable. Thus, which conception of political liberty we ought to use depends on which conception of political liberty picks out something that we plausibly ought to non-derivatively care about (because if we use a conception of political liberty that DOESN’T pick out something intrinsically valuable then we confer an unearned rhetorical benefit – the platitude about liberty being intrinsically valuable – on that conception).

    My view is that it is more plausible to think we have reason to care about, not negative liberty, but freedom qua capabilities / positive liberty (which can, but need not, be ENABLED BY wealth and opportunity, and so is analytically distinct from both). If so, that is the conception of political liberty with which it is least disingenuous to operate. (The reason I think positive liberty is more valuable than negative liberty is that there are circumstances in which I don’t care about negative liberty at all – e.g. if I’m trapped in the bottom of a crevice – whereas I never cease to care about having the capability to determine my own life.)

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Mar 24, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Yep—as I noted in passing, if the guide here is supposed to be ordinary usage, then clearly “liberty” IS a normatively loaded term. But Brennan is quite explicit that he wants to go very much in the opposite direction: He wants a purely descriptive and neutral definition of “liberty,” precisely because he wants to be able to consider a range of different views about which types of liberty are valuable. At least for the purposes of *that* conversation, everyone needs to be able to use terms in a way that doesn’t presuppose an answer to the very
    question being debated.

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  • 7 When Libertarians Go to Work… « Corey Robin // Mar 7, 2012 at 1:49 am

    […] Ordinarily, most libertarians dismiss such talk as blurring the lines between negative liberty (the absence of coercion) and positive liberty (the capacity to act). The latter, they often add, is not a species of liberty at all, but something more akin to power or ability. […]

  • 8 Collective Conscious » Cato & the Kochs // Mar 7, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    […] Ordi­nar­ily, most lib­er­tar­i­ans dis­miss such talk as blur­ring the lines between neg­a­tive lib­erty (the absence of coer­cion) and pos­i­tive lib­erty (the capac­ity to act). The lat­ter, they often add, is not a species of lib­erty at all, but some­thing more akin to power or ability. […]

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