In political philosophy, Isaiah Berlin's distinction between positive and negative liberties is very influential. Many took this distinction and went on to argue that a political system should, first and foremost, aim to protect negative liberties.

If you write these ideas down mathematically, however, it becomes harder to make a case that the two are fundamentally different. Let A = {a_1,a_2,...,a_n} be the set of things that one is able to do, which includes "being able to live", "being able to walk around and not fear being gunned down", "being able to get decent healthcare", etc.

Negative freedom is about what is included in A. Worse negative liberty means certain things not included in A.

Positive freedom is about what is included in A. Worse positive liberty means certain things not included in A.

Therefore, from this perspective, it seems much harder to justify what is special about each type of liberties. Why make a fuss about this distinction, then?

  • You can start studying SEP's entry about Positive and Negative Liberty May 27, 2021 at 11:46
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    Although the distinction makes sense in theory, the fuss is mostly due to political motives, as it helps justifying conservatives/libertarian positions, who are exclusively in support of the negative aspect of liberties. This way they can argue they are all for liberties, except only "the good ones". In practice the distinction is much more fuzzy. For example one could argue that one of the best way a state can protect it's citizen from oppression (negative liberty) is to guarantee the right to education (positive liberty).
    – armand
    May 27, 2021 at 12:30
  • @armand I have a similar intuition. However, even if we think that Isaiah Berlin just "made up a category to include what people think of as important", it is still worth understanding, I think, why conservative/libertarian people think that these types of liberties are important in the first place?
    – J Li
    May 28, 2021 at 7:18
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    note that i dont take position on Isaiah Berlin's ideas because i don't know him. Just because you asked about the fuss, I gave my opinion about it but the fact that politically motivated people capitalize on his views does not mean he is not sincere.
    – armand
    May 28, 2021 at 10:59
  • Is there a concept missing here of the difference between a state and a goal? The reason negative liberties are preferable is because the social contract, which is a set of goals or constraints, not facts, is of finite length. (And partly because it is better if it does not make promises that it cannot always keep.) May 28, 2021 at 17:23

2 Answers 2


Isaiah Berlin's concept of "positive" liberty and "negative" liberty, as set out in his essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty," is not what you think. Specifically, the simplistic idea in which "positive liberty" is "freedom to do something or get something" and "negative liberty" is "freedom from being legally prevented from doing something," is simply not Isaiah Berlin's definition of the two ideas.

Positive liberty and negative liberty, according to Berlin, are not exactly different kinds of liberty. Instead, they are different ways of thinking that each attempt to address the whole concept of liberty. These two ways of thinking often, but not always, reach similar conclusions.

The freedom which consists in being one's own master [positive liberty], and the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men [negative liberty], may, on the face of it, seem concepts at no great logical distance from each other--no more than negative and positive ways of saying much the same thing. Yet the 'positive' and 'negative' notions of freedom historically developed in divergent directions not always by logically reputable steps, until, in the end, they came into direct conflict with each other.

In Berlin's essay, he introduces "negative" liberty as a school of thought in which liberty is the freedom to act as you wish, as long as you are not interfering too much with the freedoms of others to act as they wish. According to the negative liberty school of thought, liberty is the freedom to swing your fist as long as it doesn't contact someone else's nose. This is not too far off from what you said.

He introduces "positive" liberty, however, in a very different manner. Isaiah Berlin's positive liberty is a school of thought in which freedom is the ability to act only as a wise, rational person would act. According to Berlin's positive liberty, if you are ruled by alcoholism and drink to excess, you are not free, just the same as if you are bound in chains.

Politically, the negative liberty school of thought would suggest laws that just stop people from directly hurting each other. The positive liberty school of thought would also suggest more paternalistic laws that mandate people to act in a "wise" manner, such as laws against public drunkenness or drug use.

  • Thank you for the very helpful response. Yes, I'm indeed distorting Berlin's "positive freedom" concept. Two follow ups, if I may. First, a clarifying question: would a social policy that "allows everyone to get better healthcare than they currently do" be simply classified as unrelated to either type of liberty by Isaiah Berlin? Second, it does seem that many conservative/libertarians do consider the "positive liberty" I talked about much less important than negative liberty. I still wonder what might be the reason/justification for that position (the original purpose of my question).
    – J Li
    May 28, 2021 at 7:22
  • @JLi A policy that mandates universal healthcare might be justified under Berlin's positive liberty, by saying that a wise and rational person would give generously to those in need. So forcing people by law to do so is only helping them behave wisely, even if they, in their ignorance, would not make the choice themselves. It's not so much about the people receiving healthcare, or at least Berlin doesn't focus on that part. We could say they are more positively free (in the sense of self-mastery) because they aren't chained down by medical bankruptcy, but this is not Berlin's argument.
    – causative
    May 28, 2021 at 17:28
  • @JLi Berlin himself, in the essay, argues against positive liberty, saying that it can be used to justify dictatorship, because if the leader thinks himself wise and rational, then any who disagree with his policies must be misguided and so it's actually liberating them to make them obey. Berlin also argues that the freedoms of all the different people do not fit together into a single harmonious whole; he argues for pluralism, incompatible motives between different people without them being irrational. However, he also argues for mandated public education on grounds other than freedom.
    – causative
    May 28, 2021 at 17:39
  • @JLi He says this: "We compel children to be educated, and we forbid public executions. These are certainly curbs to freedom. We justify them on the ground that ignorance, or a barbarian upbringing, or cruel pleasures and excitements are worse for us than the amount of restraint needed to repress them. This judgment in turn depends on how we determine good and evil, that is to say, on our moral, religious, intellectual, economic, and aesthetic values; which are, in their turn, bound up with our conception of man, and of the basic demands of his nature"
    – causative
    May 28, 2021 at 17:40
  • I am sorry for my late reply. Your answer is very clear and helpful. I thank you again sincerely for this.
    – J Li
    Jun 28, 2021 at 0:13

The problem with a strictly mathematical approach to social issues — as a general rule — is that mathematics makes the reified assumption that all objects of a class are (for practical purposes) uniform and interchangeable. This is rarely true of human beings. When we make those mathematized assumptions about human beings, philosophy tends to collapse into solipsism, which in this case means that we start thinking about 'liberty' as though it were solely a property of an individual. In that context, positive and negative liberties start to blur together: what one is able to do doesn't seem much different from what one is not obstructed from doing.

However, if we start thinking in social terms, where individual humans are not uniform and interchangeable, we start to see that what one person considers a positive liberty might very well infringe on the negative liberties of others, and vice-versa. For a topical and evocative example, consider internet conversations. Most everyone would consider it a positive liberty to express themselves freely on public internet forums; we all have that desire to speak our minds. But one person might interpret that positive liberty to mean he can abuse, insult, and degrade others, lie incessantly or interject offensive comments, interrupt everyone for no particularly good reason, and otherwise troll the forum. This behavior impacts the negative liberty of everyone else, because it obstructs and inhibits more civilized, intellectual forms of discussion. Now we have a problem. Do we:

  • Push positive liberty, on the grounds that everyone ought to be allowed to troll everywhere, all the time,...
  • Push negative liberty, moderating and censoring heavily so that quiet, polite, sensible conversations are enforced, or...
  • Somehow balance these two different push-points?

Further, given natural human biases, most people will insist on positive liberties for themselves and for those they hold near and dear, but will find those exact same positive liberties threatening — a violation of their own negative liberty — in someone they distrust or dislike. Back when Reagan was governor of California he was a staunch proponent of 2nd amendment rights, up until the moment he saw the Black Panthers exercising that right and arming African Americans; then he quickly passed state gun control legislation. We all believe that we ourselves are sufficiently conscientious and morally upright to exercise positive liberties decently, but almost no one believes that everyone is sufficiently conscientious and morally upright. People are always trying to edge out ways to preserve and advance their own rights while inhibiting the rights of underspecified 'others'; the tension between positive and negative liberty becomes palpable when socially distanced groups rub up against each other.

I imagine that the positive and negative liberties of any given individual are tangentially equivalent. But that clearly isn't true across any range of individuals, and to the extent that different individuals are brought into engagement with each other the differences become pertinent social issues.

  • Ted - I appreciate your answer. To first address the narrower aspect, I don't think externalities is the issue. My question can be interpreted to include all interactions between people. We can simply think of the set A as the set of things that all people can do. More formally, a in A is a = (a_1, a_2, ..., a_n), where n is the number of people.
    – J Li
    Jun 28, 2021 at 0:09
  • Your deeper answer, however, is that it may not be a good idea to use mathematics (which enforces strict logical structure) to think about social issues. I agree with that, and that is very much what my question is trying to get at. Many of us have different intuitions about negative and positive freedoms. My question, IMHO, shows that these intuitions are not as logically consistent as we would like them to be. However, in general, human intuition and preferences are often not logical, and we simply need to live with that.
    – J Li
    Jun 28, 2021 at 0:11

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