Monday, May 23, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Freedom

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.


Switters writes,
Bro,What is freedom? Or to be more specific, what do the philosophers have to say about freedom?
Politicians love to rant about freedom ad nauseum, but have the great thinkers ever weighed in on the subject?
Holy shit, Swits, (D'ya mind if I call you Swits?) have they ever weighed in on the subject. And the consensus is... well, I mean, there isn't one, which is exactly what you'd expect from philosophy.

But there are two broad ideas of freedom (or liberty), two camps into which most philosophers fall. Those camps are negative freedom and positive freedom. It's not that philosophers disagree over which one is real so much as they disagree over which one is more important.

So let's start with negative liberty. John Stuart Mill offers the most explicit account of negative liberty, and the gist of it is this: To be free means to be left the fuck alone. As long as we're not hurting anyone else or infringing on anyone else's freedom, what reason could anyone possibly have for stopping me from doing something? Who gives a shit if I want to be a Scientologist or chew tobacco until my face just is cancer, as long as I don't try to force anyone else to pay my medical bills when I'm inevitably hospitalized? If a bunch of bros want to get together and stare at the sun for no reason at all, except to prove that they're real men and whatnot, and they all agree to do it, you know, let 'em.

Should stoners have the right to smoke marijuana if they want? Why not? Even the KKK - I mean, I think we can all agree they're raging dickheads, but do people have a right to believe racist shit? Do Evangelical Christians have a right to believe that I'm going to Hell? As long as they don't hurt anyone else! Robert Nozick argued that liberty should include the right to enter into any agreement whatsoever, no matter how ludicrous, as long as one is fully informed about what he's entering into, and shit like taxes interferes with that. Taxes infringe on one's right to trade labor for dollars or sex or whatever. So we should only limit our actions if they infringe on the freedoms of others or harm them; otherwise, have at it. Yay for personal freedoms! 

Of course, it's not always easy to determine what the rights of others are, or where the infringement is. It's Monday, so obviously I spent most of this afternoon getting hammered and raging. But the asshole next door wants to take a nap or some shit, because he has work tonight and was up all night writing a paper. So he calls the cops. We're all of legal age and we're not over the area noise limit (yet), but someone else wants to nap. Are we infringing on his rights? Are we doing him a legitimate harm by interfering with his ability to work, or is it his own fault for putting off the paper for so long? You can modify the experiment any way you like to test various aspects of the question - maybe he's still writing the paper. Maybe he has a date tonight. Maybe he's allergic to how awesome I am. Am I infringing on his right to not swell up and choke, or is he infringing on my right to party like the world just ended

The second conception, positive liberty, is a little something more like this: to be free means to have self-determination. After all, how free are we really if we don't have the means to execute our desires? You might say I'm free to turn lead into gold, no one is stopping me, but, you know, I can't transmute. Not even I have that power. So if a man on the street is free to live in a house, except he doesn't have one, is he really free? So to free that man on a positive conception, someone would have to provide him with a house and some food while he looks for a job, and maybe someone would have to teach him a skill or something. Who? Well, most people look to a robust government for that. And on this conception, taxes are freeing. They allow everyone to eat and to work and to not worry about being homeless. Hooray for homefulness, a word I just made up that's the opposite of homelessness!

But here also we have the problem of deciding where lines belong - does everyone really have the right to eat as well as they'd like? Or do we only have to provide enough food, say, to maintain weight? Plenty of people in America think food stamps, which can be exchanged for food like cash, are dehumanizing because they embarrass and ostracize the people using them. Do those people have a right to not be embarrassed? And does that mean "They have the right to choose not to be embarrassed" or does it mean "They have the right to not be subjected to what they consider embarrassing situations"? It's very easy, on a positive liberty conception, to let an authoritarian state get too big. Stalin's five-year plans, which killed tens of millions of people, were backed with distorted rhetoric about ensuring self-mastery for everyone through the overthrow of capitalism's evil exploitation.

<broad, sweeping generalizations>Historically, Europeans have favored positive liberty, and Americans love negative liberty. You can get a sense of the extreme consequences of each conception by starting, as Rousseau and Locke did, from a state of nature. No government, just bros doing what they wanted. Now once you've got this complete state of freedom, bros who believe in positive liberty tend to be anarchists: they believe that we ought to work together to allow each person to self-actualize, without anyone having authority over anyone else. Those who believe in negative liberty tend to be anarcho-capitalists: they believe that we should be able to enter into whatever agreements we want, with whomever we want, without anyone telling us what is and isn't okay to bargain for. Locke thinks the second one is awesome, and is exactly how government came to be; Rousseau wishes the first one had come to pass, and the second one is pure exploitation. </broad, sweeping generalizations>

So that's freedom in a nutshell. Some people think it's about having as many options as possible; others think it's about having the ability to take the right options. In a perfect world, we'd have ample amounts of both. In this one, we're often asked to choose. Often by loud, uninformed politicians. How much does that suck?

John Stuart Mill's On Liberty is the negative liberty manifesto, basically.

Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia argues for a minimal government on the basis that any government more comprehensive will infringe on the rights of it's citizens. 

Isaiah Berlin's paper Two Concepts of Liberty lays out where the two concepts agree and where they depart, and how we might decide between them; Berlin himself favored positive liberty, though he didn't completely write off negative liberty.


  1. Another baller is McCallum, 1967, - 'Negative and Positive Liberty' - showing that all freedom is freedom from some bullshit to do something awesome.
    So to be left the fuck alone you need a government to keep other assholes from bothering you.

    Other things to note: even negative freedom usually only applies to people who are sensible enough to take care of their own shit. So children, and the mentally disabled are often denied freedom because they need other people to look after them.
    Mill, writing at the time of British Empire, decided that all the imperial subjects, the lesser brown people, were not able to take care of themselves and needed white boys to look after them.
    So even the bros championing negative freedom make enough exceptions to justify a racist dicktatorship.

  2. I first came across negative and positive liberty in Adam Curtis's The Trap: What happened to our dream of freedom. Great doco and relevant bit in it about Isaiah Berlin and Tony Blair. Interested to know whether others considered it accurate

  3. Freedom is a THING definable in the laws of physic; it is not an idea or a concept, so philosophy needs to simply butt out and graze over in its own pasture (you know, over there where the bull shits.) Freedom (another word for entropy) is a definable component of energy and entropy is as "thingful" (made it up) as it is possible to be. In fact, if you want to know exactly how useless and wrong philosophy really is most of the time, compare what is written above with the TRUTH about freedom found in a good elementary textbook of thermodynamics. What is written above has missed the mark by a light-year. Sounds good though, if you didn't happen to know better.

    1. you're response...sounds rather, ya know, philosophy-y.

  4. I'm not sure sure how Freedom can be made to be a physical concept, or how Freedom as such can be equated with the thermodynamic processes of entropy; I'd sure like to know. Do you mean something along the lines of "freedom is in the knowledge and acceptance of our inevitable decay", or is that not concrete enough, too philosophical? Please, explain yourself.

  5. Freedom refers to human actions. Human actions is based on his thinking and it can be rational or irrational. Rational thinking is what human most need to know what the concept of right is. And individual rights can only be violated by the use of physical brute force, coercion and fraud.

  6. Dear Bro,
    Why no mention of Spinoza when it comes to freedom, one of the representatives of a serious alternative tradition to the problem of freedom, which was the original question, rather than the problem of liberty? Many of the post-structuralists, putting forward the notion of "death of the agency", all the while writing volumes on "ethics" refer to him in one way or another. Why skip the liberty/freedom binary in your mailbag monday?

  7. Anonymous said:
    "I'm not sure sure how Freedom can be made to be a physical concept, or how Freedom as such can be equated with the thermodynamic processes of entropy"

    First, let these folks explain some entry level physical reality:

    Entropy is calculated based on the freedom of components of a system to arrange themselves in different ways and it is a component of real physical energy. Entropy is defined by and calculated from the mathematics of statistics. It is in no way ambiguous. Energy is what the stuff of the real universe is made of, and therefore entropy is quite real in an absolute physical sense. It is not an idea, an emotion or the product of anything having to do with human thought whatsoever. In fact, it existed before the first life evolved in the universe. Freedom has a lot more to do with how a refrigerator works than how the human soul works, in other words. Notice I am not saying that humans don't need it - but we need oxygen and water also. My point is, there is no question about what freedom is. It's definition is what the laws of thermodynamics are derived from. You can talk about the laws of physics, but you can't argue about what freedom is.
    If "John Stuart Mill offers the most explicit account of negative liberty, and the gist of it is this: To be free means to be left the fuck alone." and this adolescent gibberish is the best that philosophers can come up with, then it can be said that philosophy is so divorced from truth that it has absolutely nothing to contribute to this subject at all. If philosophy might always be as provably wrong as it is in this fact-checkable situation, then all philosophy might also be considered to be worthless until proven by physical means. Sorry bros, find a new idol to worship.

  8. Cool story bro. Hey, what if - and this is crazy but go with it - we're using the same word to mean different things?

    You know, like the way you guys use 'mass' to mean certain properties of matter, and Catholics use 'Mass' to refer to their central act of worship, and sociologists use 'mass' to refer to large numbers of people?

    Or think of all the ways we use the term 'work' - you have a technical definition, but we also use it to mean, say, tasks performed for pay, hard physical labor, unpleasant tasks we don't want to do - anything that's not leisure, really.

    Anyway, go read some Wittgenstein on how language actually works, it's fascinating shit and maybe it'll help you be less of a boorish asshole in conversation. We've all been that guy at some point in our lives, don't worry about it - just hurry up and move past it. Girls hate dickheads. Thank me later.

  9. bluegrazzz,

    Your concepts of Freedom as thermodynamic law are intriquing, to say the least. I'd actually enjoy hearing more about it. Still, I'm afraid such an approach will little assist ministers in their approach to government; unless, of course, you take the term "political science" super-fucking-seriously. A politics dictated by "fact" and "proofs" sounds a bit too Orwellian, though. Besides, you're missing the mark on estimating the worth of human creativity. Sure, works of art cannot be scientifically proven to be valuable, yet they've nonetheless provided joy and meaning to humankind. Certainly, you could hammer art down into a scientific framework, but that would really be taking the piss out of it all. There's this thing call "Scientism" and it's a bit like...well, idolatry. The world you've constructed for yourself doesn't sound like much fun, and you're patronizing tone makes me like it even less. So, forgive me for not joining you there. Only realise that other people have to live with you, so try not to be a dick.

    P.S. You aren't wrong; only inaccurate.

  10. Hmmm.... nothing to rebut me with except

    1) You are a dickhead (I'm not- trust me)
    2) Freedom doesn't mean freedom (I can't argue with stupidity, but then what I consider to be stupidity you see as your own brillance ... maybe you had something ther... nahh. You've chosen the most trivial and elementary response to what I had to say and you really do know it)
    3) You don't know how language works - go read Wittgenstein (I pretty much do and I have... what he says is exactly contrary to what you are claiming. I am not your grasshopper, Oh Mighty Master)
    4) I'm a boorish asshole (And you know this because???)
    5) I'll grow out of it if I try to be (No thanks)

  11. @bluegrazzz

    Physicists treading in the garden of philosophy should watch for sinkholes on the way in. Your confusing "free will" with "freedom." It's basic. Free will precludes freedom and is about whether the motion of our atoms over time is determined. But Freedom, regardless of physics, exists as a concept of whether and how to impose (or remove) limits on the ranges of culturally permissible actions (like practicing your religion or protesting.) Even if physical determinism holds and there's not actual free will, we're all just random instances of enthalpy interacting in this universe we are still going to want a system of interacting on the societal level that addresses freedom of men to not be persecuted by autocrats and the like.

  12. Geoff-
    It's true that we need freedom - as I said, like other real things (oxygen, water, food, a narrow temperature range, etc.) Our minds are poorly understood and I am very open to the idea that we may have genuine free will, because our minds interact freely with nonphysical but real things like mathematics. (Math is always the same, it is discovered & not invented, but it has properties that do not include temporality, mass, energy or spatial restraints.)
    I won't quibble with those who throw contemporary culture, feminism, gay rights, marxism, capitalism, justice, society, politics, laws and so forth into the mix if that's how they want to chat about freedom, but this stuff changes daily and it's fucking BORING. Gossip is a fine way to pass time too. If, as Vonnegut says, I'm just a lump of clay that gets to sit up and look around for a time, I don't want to waste it on this ephemeral shit. I'm more interested in wisdom that is eternal and unchanging. Rooting it in reality is the best start. Not in a pretentious way, mind you. Although I think I have a better idea filter, I'm probably no further along the path than a dolt like Philosophy Bro is.

  13. You are still being VERY condescending, and I wish you would knock it off. You are certainly entitled to your opinion and I celebrate your practicing of that freedom; but if there is to be meaningful exchange of thought, if there is to be real communication, then mutual respect is a natural demand, and I still don't believe you, bluegrazzz, are allowing one iota of respect towards those who see things differently than you. Nor can I excuse the tone and content of Philosophy Bro's response; it only escalated an already disrespectful thread. Please, present your views without the aid of ridiculing your opponents; it shows strength of mind and of character.

  14. An Austrian reaction to Nozick:

  15. Ah, the trolls- you shouldn't feed them. Also, great article.

  16. @bluegrazzz - "Sorry bros, find a new idol to worship." Won't be you - and besides, who are you to say where and what is Philosophy's jurisdiction?

    1. The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, esp. when considered as an academic discipline.

    2. A set of views and theories of a particular philosopher concerning such study or an aspect of it

    This is the definition for "Philosophy"



    ...If, as Vonnegut says, I'm just a lump of clay that gets to sit up and look around for a time, I don't want to waste it on this ephemeral shit. [SO WHY ARE YOU?] I'm more interested in wisdom that is eternal and unchanging. Rooting it in reality is the best start. Not in a pretentious way, mind you. Although I think I have a better idea filter, I'm probably no further along the path than a dolt like Philosophy Bro is.


    Aside from this, I'm not really sure why you continue to attack Philosophy Bro.. He hasn't actually stated any opinions of his own but only taken what Philosophy/Philosophers in general have had to say in regards to Liberty, and put it into layman's terms. He's no Idol, but so far he's proved far more useful, and likable than you. If you have such a dislike for philosophy, why are you on a philosophy site partaking in this "ephemeral shit." LOL

    I enjoy the debates and constantly changing outlooks of Philosophy, and I'm grateful we [you included] have the Liberty to subscribe to opposing paradigms, and have discussions such as these. This is both philosophical, and scientific, the two subjects are wholly intertwined in MY opinion.

  17. Negative liberty was well covered, but, (especially in the field of "recommended reading") positive liberty seems to be lacking. Maybe libertarians write more accessibly than people advocating positive liberty?

    Gotta mention Marx's Economic and Philosophical manuscripts . He deals with why positive liberty is the important one in his talk about alienation.

    Also, why does negative liberty seem to get such a libertarian bent?

  18. My problem with negative liberty is that one of its basic consequences is "Everyone has the right to be an asshole."

    Well, that's all well and good for the asshole's, but not so great for those of us who have to put up with them.

    By contrast, positive liberty is about maximising people's ability to self-actualise. To me, that seems like a far more worthwhile goal.

    In short, I think that negative liberty serves bad people far more than it does good people. Positive liberty, by contrast, serves everyone equally. Sure, jerks will take advantage of it, but at least it does something for the people who aren't jerks.

  19. Hey Philosophybro

    So, I really like this, but I think that you've misunderstood positive liberty a little. Correct me if I am wrong, but I would say that under Berlin's conception (chapter 6 (7?) being the weird tangent in the essay about self-determination) PL is not strictly self-determination, but the ability to self-actualize - to be the best bro you can be. I've always thought that NL is the equivalent of self-determination, in a strict sense, where you, and not someone else, decides for you - others leave you the fuck alone, as you eloquently put it. PL is when you cannot just make your own decisions, but also choose who you are.

  20. do you think cavemen talked about freedom?

  21. Bro,
    My personal conception of freedom is a mixture, the both work together, you can't exclude one from another. In this way of thinking, self determination is a possibility, in other words, government or any other social convention has to give the possibility to learn about options and rule them in a way there is no abuse, so here we get to to the negative part of freedom, in which every person has full freedom as long as it doesn't affects other peoples freedom and rights. The respect between one's freedom and other's freedom has constantly been ruled by law, so that everybody knows their rights and other rights; coming from this idea, everybody has the capacity to defend their rights from others and from authority. So following Rosseau, this liberty to defend our own liberty is what's left to us after celebrating the social contract, but the respect to others rights contemplates in a written structure called law, gives the opportunity of a regularization and government structure.
    Well that's it, have a good one Bro.

  22. @Stuart Andrew

    I think positive liberty is what we really want to have; however, I also think it's worthless without negative liberty. It doesn't matter how much stuff I give you to enable your self-actualization if I beat you to death if you try to self-actualize.

    Similarly, what about positive liberty per se determines that there cannot be a positive liberty to be an asshole? There seems to be no reason that someone's actual self cannot be an asshole, and thus in fact engender in us a duty to support their assholishness, given a duty to support positive liberty.

  23. All i know is that i know nothing.

    I find these comments amusing. The old science vs art debate never gets old, but to claim that either is superior is invalid.

    We could all be in pods, matrix style. The fact is, no body knows anything. To think you that you do, or to think that whatever you do(science, medicine) actuallly helps humanity, that you are a contributing to a 'better' world, is false hope my friend. We are all goign to die, our time ultimetly is insignificant. But whatever you do to help cope with your inevitable death is fine by me...

    We're just rollin boulders man... rollin boulders.