# Positive Freedom v. Negative Freedom: a binary or a spectruum?

I got interested in this question when I realized that, on one hand, some people who disagree with me (and argue for mean ideas) are fond of this distinction and, on the other hand, my ideas and that of my acquaintances do not seem to fit squarely in the strict binary distinction.

The people I disagree with claim there is a distinction between positive and negative rights, that negative rights are good, that positive rights are bad, and then just sort things into negative or positive rights to either adore or deplore specific public policies (obviously, I don't see it this way and think this is silly).

I believe they base their distinction of positive and negative rights on the distinction between positive and negative freedoms. I assumed, for the sake of the argument, that indeed the distinction between freedoms would imply the distinction between rights. So, I decided to investigate the distinction between freedoms first.

1) When I set out to think about it I tried coming up with a logical definition of each to then establish the distinction.

But, I believe I stumbled upon a perspective that shows that such a distinction is not accurate.

2) I unconsciously borrowed an idea from psychology. I am aware that in psychology people were once boxed in either introvert or extrovert, all very neatly defined, but now we see this as a spectrum of a cluster of traits. There were analogous conceptual changes in many other instances in psychology. This certainly was an inspiration for my idea.

3) I was able to write about a negative freedom as if it were a positive freedom and about a positive freedom as if it were a negative freedom, so it seemed like such a distinction is rethorical or a stylistic choice

4) If I define each freedom as two lists, one telling me what I can do and another telling me what I cannot do, the distinction between negative and positive freedom seems to disappear. Each injunction or handful of injunctions can be phrased, tautologically, as a negative or a positive. Borrowing the concept from mathematics, both lists have the same cardinality.

But, I could not find literature on this question.

Specifically on whether:

• (A) the binary distinction between Negative Freedom and Positive Freedom is precise and the ultimate reality
• (B) an aproximation of a spectrum with each at an extreme
• or (C) there is no distinction at all.

So, could someone give me some indication on this? Thanks!

P.S.: I did look at Wikipedia, SEP, etc. and could not find anything.

• What was originally meant was outward vs. inward freedom. Positive freedom was that of the transcendental will. Later this was grammatically abstracted to freedom-from vs. freedom-to. Commented Aug 10 at 13:51
• This article may relate to your question or broader interest in the subject: Negative Freedom and Death in the United States: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2951921. The main idea is that positive and negative freedom also impact statistical risk of harm to self or others. This article uses positive and negative liberty in the context of providing health care, health care insurance, and government mandated (or managed) health care. To me this type of article is an exposition of the underlying psychology of how people experience liberty, coercion, freedom, and responsibility. Commented Aug 10 at 16:56
• SEP, Positive and Negative Liberty:"in MacCallum’s view, there are a great many different possible interpretations of freedom, and it is only Berlin’s artificial dichotomy that has led us to think in terms of there being two... What perhaps remains of the distinction is a rough categorization of the various interpretations of freedom that serves to indicate their degree of fit with the classical liberal tradition." Commented Aug 10 at 19:28

If you'll allow me to get philosophical about this, the notions of 'positive' and 'negative' liberties are flat simplifications that people use because the concept of 'liberty' is subtle, complex, and difficult to master. To put this in an (again) over-simplified way, 'positive' and 'negative' liberties are merely defenses against each other. In other words:

• 'Negative' liberties are meant to protect against malign, offensive, ignorant, or unwitting applications of ('positive') liberties imposed by others
• 'Positive' liberties are meant to protect against malign, offensive, ignorant, or unwitting restrictions of ('negative') liberties imposed by others

To offer a salient current example, the US LGBTQ community claims a 'positive' liberty to express their sexuality and identity as they see fit, while elements of the US Christian community claims a 'negative' liberty to avoid exposure to what they consider 'unGodly' sexuality. The political problem is to determine the proper scope of 'liberty': to find a balance between the first community's push for self-autonomy and acceptance and the second community's push to avoid and restrict the behavior of the first. And obviously, neither community is looking for a 'balance', so things get knotty.

The problem here is that liberty is a social concept, not an individual one, and trying to talk about it in individual terms creates confusions. Rights relate to individuals: things that human beings ought to have merely by virtue of being human. Communities (states, nations, bowling teams, etc…) determine how (and if) liberties will be instituted and regulated to preserve those rights across the citizenry. In Liberal states, liberties are (ideally) broad but constrained, allowing everyone to act freely except in ways that negatively impact others. But that ideal is rarely achieved, and always contested, because many individuals seek to expand their own rights without consideration of the consequences for others.

Note that I've avoided the term 'freedom'. Freedom is more of an inspirational word that points to an ideal state where rights are fully and properly instituted as liberties. It's a great word, but not all that useful for analysis.

• i am not sure i agree with your conclusion, but i liked this entire question. it is true that 'freedom' is itself socially conditioned, but then couldn't the same be said of 'art' and arguably even 'ethics'. Commented Aug 10 at 23:58
• If you read Berlin's essay you see that his positive and negative freedoms have nothing to do with freedom-from vs freedom-to. In fact, he does not apply the positive and negative designation to individual liberties at all. Instead he talks about positive and negative conceptions of freedom, each conception intended to encompass all of freedom. The negative conception is that people should to the extent possible be able to do what they choose. The positive conception is that true freedom comes from virtue (e.g. an addict isn't free), so people should be free only to do virtuous things. Commented Aug 11 at 12:45
• @andrós: Sure, we can say that, so long as we make the distinction between 'socially conditioned' and 'socially determined'. Creativity can't be random; artists have to draw others into the art. But that just means expressing that creative innovation in ways that resonate with others. And ethics isn't ethics unless it honors the existence of others, but that doesn't mean it can';t change and evolve. Commented Aug 11 at 14:23
• @causative: This is why I used the term 'liberty', not 'freedom'. I think Berlin's view is consistent with what I've said, but the ambiguities in 'freedom' confuse things. I mean, clearly he's using 'negative' and 'positive' as a metric of ethical control: The lower (more negative) ethical control is, the more people are allowed to do whatever they choose. Typically people use negative/positive as a metric of social allowance (liberties). I suppose the real difference is that Berlin has take a virtue ethics approach whereas I've leaned into deontology, but I'm not sure how much that matters… Commented Aug 11 at 14:36