Article

Liberty

Ian Carter

in Philosophy

ISBN: 9780195396577
Published online January 2013 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0142
Liberty

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The definition of “liberty” (or “freedom”—most political and social philosophers use these terms interchangeably) is a highly contested matter. Under what conditions is a person free to do something? What kinds of obstacles would make a person unfree to leave the country or to attend church or to get a job? Is liberty simply a matter of having the opportunity to do something, or is it achieved only through effective action of certain kinds? Is liberty a property of individuals, or can it also be applied to collectivities? Under what conditions can an individual’s overall level of freedom be said to “increase”? The starting point for much of the discussion about the nature of freedom is usually the distinction, made famous by Isaiah Berlin, between “negative” and “positive” freedom. Theorists of negative freedom, who tend to be political liberals, hold freedom to be the absence of obstacles of various kinds, and they often limit their attention to obstacles that they hold to be “external” to the agent, or, more commonly, to obstacles that are created by other human agents. Theorists of positive freedom, on the other hand, see constraints on freedom where negative theorists deny their existence—for example, in the presence of internal factors that damage the agent’s capacity to be autonomous. For them, freedom is a matter of being in control of one’s life and determining one’s own fate. Only when such agential limitations are overcome, they hold, can an agent achieve self-mastery or self-realization. Also important for theorists of liberty is the relation between the freedom of one person and the power of another. Is the power of agent A over agent B only contingently related to the unfreedom of agent B? Or should freedom itself be defined as the absence of subjection to the power of others? The latter response is given by republican theorists of freedom, who claim to have traced a third way between negative and positive conceptions of liberty. A number of liberal theorists of freedom, who instead see freedom and power as contingently related, have resisted this republican claim and have continued to uphold the negative conception. Understanding the nature of liberty, and of its relation to coercive or dominating power, is also important for debates about distributive justice: Is liberty best guaranteed, or most fairly distributed, where the state limits its activities to the enforcement of private property rights and freedom of contract? Or is there a sense in which a government’s redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor enhances the freedom of the poor? Must egalitarians appeal to a positive notion of freedom in support of such enforced redistribution, or might the libertarians be mistaken in seeing egalitarianism and negative liberty as incompatible ideals? Yet another important area of enquiry concerns the measurement of freedom—whether of an individual or of a group. How, if at all, can the various single freedoms of individuals be aggregated, so as to produce overall comparisons of freedom, to the effect that one individual or group is “freer” than another?

Article.  10241 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art ; Epistemology ; Feminist Philosophy ; History of Western Philosophy ; Metaphysics ; Moral Philosophy ; Non-Western Philosophy ; Philosophy of Language ; Philosophy of Law ; Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic ; Philosophy of Mind ; Philosophy of Religion ; Philosophy of Science ; Social and Political Philosophy

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