Two Concepts of Freedom

Mar 31, 2020 in Sociology Essay

Sociology Essay

Nowadays, people are used to considering freedom as only a positive aspect of social life. Nevertheless, freedom, as well as any other thing in the world, can be harmful to society when it is redundant. Under the popularity of democracy and liberalism, people do not always notice that even freedom may have negative effects. Traditional liberal values such as freedom, equality, and fraternity are almost impossible to be harmonized and materialized in the framework of one system of principles. Moreover, they often clash with each other. Mostly, it happens because they are supposed to be ultimate and liberalism does not have any limits for these values. However, only moderate and selective integration of liberal principles and values into society would be beneficial. They cannot and should not be brought to perfection.

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Radicalism is not acceptable either for totalitarianism or for liberalism as any extreme views are not only harmful, but also impracticable. Contrary to the libertarian point of view, freedom can be positive as well as negative. The government can abuse freedom not only restricting citizens, but also allowing them everything. In case of restriction it would lead to the establishment of autocracy that would eliminate freedom. In case of permissiveness, it may result in anarchy that will bring the society into chaos. Total freedom from interference and control over one individual would result in loss of control over the whole society.

Isaiah Berlin tried to distinguish both concepts of freedom. Berlin (1958) considered that negative freedom is the absence of any restrictions that prevent people from acting the way they want, while positive freedom is the ability to act, think and make decisions without interference. Berlin’s (1958) maxims “I am slave to no man” and “I am my own master” explain the difference between negative and positive freedom. The former statement refers to negative one and the latter describes positive freedom. Although the difference may be unclear at first, actually it is immensely considerable. Negative freedom means that no one can prevent a person for being and doing what this person wants. However, it is only related to the violation of freedom by people. Assuming that any restrictions of freedom are based on some natural causes or inability of a person to do what he/she wants, it has no relation to the violation of negative freedom. It means that the negative freedom is broken only when other people impact on it, but not when, for instance, a person cannot run faster or jump higher. Thus, according to Berlin, negative freedom only gives people the freedom to strive freely for the target that is beneficial for them.

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Berlin supported the ideals of negative freedom, rejecting “positive conceptions of freedom, which depend on a rationalist doctrine” (Smith, 2002). Actually, positive freedom conception is largely based on utilitarian doctrine as well. Aiming at the achievement of greater good for greater number of people, positive freedom sets restrictions for other people’s liberty that may have negative effects on the society. Positive freedom suggests only freedom of choice to be and do what an individual wants. However, it does not suggest any assurance that the rights and freedoms of an individual would not be broken. Berlin (1958) states that minority gains a freedom by exploiting majority, which means that a freedom of a group of people is caused by the efforts of other larger group of people; this system is not appropriate for the modern society.

One of the most striking examples of positive freedom is the United States. McGowan (2007) states that positive freedom is the integral notion in American liberalism, which is totally different from liberalism in its original sense. As a result, negative freedom of the US citizens is often violated by the government. Freedoms and rights of US citizens are supposed to be the greatest value of the society, and its violation by the government or other citizens is considered as the greatest crime. Nevertheless, one cannot be convinced that the government do not control or restrict the rights of citizens. Basically, American citizens are not able to feel either social or personal freedom to do everything they want. For instance, after the revelation of the American surveillance system IRS, Americans found that the government collected their personal information without their acceptance. Social harmony and technological progress cannot be the reason to neglect the right for privacy, and its violation suggests authoritarian government policy. However, the United States cannot be viewed as the only country where positive freedom predominates over negative freedom.

Isaiah Berlin (1958) states that positive freedom may sometimes justify totalitarian restraints against citizens’ liberties. However, positive freedom is not the same as totalitarianism; it is rather a proper alternative to totalitarianism (Baum & Nichols, 2013). Allowing people to do everything they want would mean that the government does not govern. That is why even the basic liberties are impacted by the conceptions of positive freedom nowadays.

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For instance, it concerns the freedom of speech. Formally, all individuals are able to express their opinion freely. Nevertheless, they cannot utter anything that provokes violence or discrimination. Thus, they are restricted by the government to speak about things they are concerned about if their words are not accepted by the society or violate the law. Although people are morally and physically able to express their thoughts, not all thoughts are allowed to be expressed. The interaction between positive freedom and justice is very close. Therefore, Baum and Nichols (2013) suggest to “align positive freedom with the pursuit of social justice” in order to illustrate how this concept has evolved. Another example of a positive freedom is the right for self-realization. An individual is free to develop intellectually and physically in order to become successful, but nevertheless, it does not guarantee him/her a good position and social status.

Since the negative freedom is considered to be the freedom of an individual from any restraints to do what he wants, class conflicts are also the result of this freedom. Formally, people have a freedom to earn the same money and have the same social status. However, in practice this equality cannot be reached. Other examples are sexism, racism and other types of discrimination based on ethnicity or religion. For instance, women can be deprived from getting a job in a certain establishment only because of sex. Thus, their freedom and rights are broken because they are not secured from interference of other individuals in their freedom to do what they want. Although people have freedom of religion and cannot be discriminated because of their beliefs, nowadays one may encounter extreme pressure for belonging to a religious minority. The similar situation can be associated with racism that is also an example of how the negative freedom can be violated. Formally, people cannot be persecuted for the colour of their skin, but it still is a common occurrence around the world. 

The concepts of positive and negative freedom became general notions in Western political philosophy. The impact of these concepts can hardly be underestimated. The role of positive and negative freedom is still essential nowadays as well as it was in Berlin’s time, during the Cold War. However, even after the decades it impossible to choose the best way for development of the society. This dispute may be compared to the discussion about what market economy is better, uncontrolled or controlled one. As well as these contrary concepts of market economy, the concepts of positive and negative freedom have its own advantages and disadvantages. Finally, the differences between positive and negative freedom resulted in their collision, which was considered to be inevitable by Isaiah Berlin. The problem is that negative freedom can be reached only under compulsion of the government or other powerful group of people. Liberal ideals in their traditional sense can be hardly accepted by the society and separate individuals without duress. At the same time, it would mean that government would urge citizens to free, which could be hardly called a true freedom. Notwithstanding that positive freedom also is not voluntary for individuals, it looks more applicable in the modern times.

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