Just another word for nothing left to lose?
At Jmeqvist, you’ll find a great post distinguishing between positive and negative freedom. I’d like elaborate on these to get you good and confused:
1. Negative Freedom. Here I’m quoting Johan at Jmeqvist as he says it so well:
“…we are free in so far as external forces do not prohibit us from making certain choices. This concept of freedom is negative in that it concerns an absence of something, which in this case is the absence of interference.”
I might call this concept of freedom “common sense freedom” since in ordinary language (esp. in North America, as Johan carefully points out), this is usually what we mean by the word.
2. Positive Freedom. Here again I’ll quote Johan and then elaborate with a few examples:
“…a free person will be one who has a psyche that is properly ordered, so freedom on this concept is not about an absence, but about a presence of order in the psyche. This way of speaking has become marginalized, and may strike us as antiquated, but we see it arise when people talk about the way in which people’s desires can render them unfree.”
Plato: Those of you who are familiar with Plato know that he often spoke of being a slave to desire (consider the metaphor in the Gorgias which likens the blind hedonist’s soul to a leaky jar that can never be filled). One cannot be free until one has knowledge of what is good. Otherwise one is left to snatch at random desires, which will only lead to dissatisfaction in the long run, even if you happen to get lucky from time to time. Freedom in the Platonic sense will lead to happiness, happiness and wisdom being inextricably tied.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: One can be constrained in the #1 sense and still be free. “And all, being born free, alienate their liberty only for their own advantage,”—Ch 2 of the Social Contract. And: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” Here we have a sticky philosophy indeed, but I’m not capable of giving the best summary of it right now. What I will say is here we have a sort of Platonic idea of freedom, but replace knowledge of the Good with the Law and the General Will and you have a closer fit. The problem is the General Will need not be the general will of the majority, so Rousseau’s effort to bring the Good down to earth seems to have failed. The Good and the General Will remain just as abstract as before.
Kant: Freedom is unconditional, self-causing; in other words, it’s autonomy from the world of contingency for rational beings. Since we can’t control everything that goes on in the world of cause and effect, we, as rational beings, shouldn’t place our moral laws on empirical foundations, but instead on the Categorical Imperative. Freedom is noumenal and cannot be known, but must be assumed. Also, being a free agent doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. Morality and happiness do not necessarily coincide.
3. Existential Freedom. This area is not my forte, so there’s my word of caution. If we suppose, like Nietzsche, for instance, that there is no clear definition of what it is to be human, then there can be no ordering of the psyche. Achieving perfection cannot be a goal unless it is taken to mean something subjective (which, in my opinion, is not really the same thing as #2.) Without these definitions we move into a territory beyond black and white, beyond good and evil. One must scratch out one’s own meaning, own’s authenticity, in this world despite seeing beyond false, imposed definitions, and this self-invention ex nihilo is existential freedom.
Johan asked an interesting question of #1 and #2: Are these definitions of freedom contradictory?
It is certainly true that existential freedom (which Johan doesn’t go into) contradicts positive freedom, but what about positive and negative?
Johan says: “Unless we hanker after a single definitive sense of the concept of freedom, there is no reason to think that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are fundamentally incompatible.”
I agree with Johan, but I wonder how the various relationships would play out in the extreme.
Suppose you are given a choice between two boxes, but you don’t know what’s inside either box. You are free in the sense that you get to choose a box and no one is stopping you, but since you have no knowledge of what’s inside them, you have no rational basis on which to make a decision and are therefore not free in a positive sense (Let’s leave aside the possibility of abstaining from choice, please). Here positive and negative freedoms don’t seem to be in fundamental conflict, they just refer to different aspects of the situation.
However, having only negative freedom puts you in a crappy place. You have to gamble, and you don’t even know what’s at stake. You still have reason in this scenario, of course, which is why Kant’s freedom would not apply here. But in this case, reason is rendered entirely inoperative.
Let’s amend this metaphor and put a thousand mosquitos inside one box and a magical infinitely delicious calorie-free cupcake in the other. Throw in world peace if the cupcake is not enough for you.
Reverse the scenario. Suppose you know the cupcake and world peace are in one box, and you know mosquitos are in the other box, but someone has your hands tied behind your back and your mouth taped shut and so on so you cannot engage in your choice. Here we have one freedom (positive, knowledge-based freedom) but not negative.
But what good is knowing which box the cupcake is in if no one can eat it? What good is knowing how to bring about world peace and absolute guilt-free deliciousness if these things cannot come to pass?
Is positive freedom necessary for negative freedom to thrive?
Is negative freedom necessary for positive freedom to thrive?
How would you play out this thought experiment for a society?
In what ways do these thought experiments pertain to real life situations?
What is your conception of freedom?
As usual, feel free to answer any of these questions. In fact, feel free to answer this question: Would you take the cupcake or world peace? And would it be chocolate or vanilla? Or something involving cream cheese?
Many thanks to Johan for his insightful post!