Freedom as a Moral Concept (Update)

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, there have been some interesting posts recently on moralized and non-moralized conceptions of freedom. Jason Brennan says defining liberty to mean only negative liberty is “linguistic revisionism” without philosophic import. He then makes the case that bleeding-heart libertarianism (or Rawlsianism or various other non-traditionally-libertarian conceptions of property rights) does not necessarily violate the “non-aggression axiom.” Finally, he argues against moralized conceptions of freedom. I agree with the first two posts but not the last one.

It’s true that people use “freedom” to mean different things. Hobbes infamously defined it as the absence of physical constraint. Jason prefers something like “ability to realize one’s ends.” Both of these definitions are non-moralized. As Jason makes clear, positive liberty is not only not good by definition, it is not always good. My freedom to swing my fist into your nose unprovoked does not deserve respect — but it’s still freedom, in this non-moralized sense.

Now, Jason is absolutely right that nothing substantive turns on how we define our terms. He’s also right that simply defining freedom as justice (that which is, in the final analysis, right) abuses ordinary language and is tautological. On the other hand, I will note a tension between the claim that positive liberty is not always good and this claim:

The thing that Marxists and others mean by “positive liberty” is valuable and worth promoting. One of the best arguments for classical liberal institutions is that as a matter of fact they do a good job getting people positive liberty.

But if positive liberty is not only not good-by-definition but is also not good-by-inference, then the mere fact that a system tends to promote positive liberty is not a point in that system’s favor. The fact that system X makes it easy for people to swing their fists into other people’s faces whenever they want, thus helping them achieve their ends, is not a point in favor of the justice of system X. Now, the claim might be that swinging fists into people’s faces hurts the positive liberty of those victims, and I agree — but I don’t agree that we can simply sum up positive liberties across people and truthfully say that everyone ought to try to maximize that sum. That’s a controversial moral claim. Indeed, Matt Zwolinski refutes the view strongly here, and even says, “No serious libertarian intellectuals think about libertarianism in terms of maximizing liberty.” I don’t know how this statement squares with what Jason says he and David Schmidtz are arguing about how we ought to evaluate the regime of negative liberty.

Furthermore, I don’t think we can rule out all moralized conceptions of freedom as tautological. People in ordinary language use freedom in a moralized but non-tautological sense all the time. When someone says, “I can say what I want, it’s a free country,” she’s not saying, “It’s a country where I can realize my ends.” She’s saying something like, “In this country, we are not supposed to be subject to the arbitrary domination of others’ wills.” Freedom as non-domination means a great deal to people, arguably more than the mere ability to realize one’s own ends. The reason slavery is so repugnant is not really that it makes the slave unhappy, but that it enshrines an extreme form of inequality and domination. (I’m making a substantive, controversial moral claim here.)

But freedom as non-domination is also not the whole of justice. Marxists like G.A. Cohen arguably accept non-domination just as much as libertarian anarchists like Murray Rothbard. They just disagree about the proper conception of property rights, which also belongs to the domain of justice. Now, if you are persuaded about the libertarian account of property rights, then a Marxist regime imposed without consent looks like unjust domination, un-freedom. Still, even if we read back into “freedom” claims about justice, freedom-as-non-domination is not tautological: it doesn’t simply define freedom as justice. Yet it is a moralized conception of freedom common in everyday discourse.


Jason Brennan responds by e-mail:

Thanks for posting that. Does this clear up things?

1. I don’t literally mean that positive liberty is always good, but rather that it tends to be good and tends to be worth promoting. Schmidtz and I talk at some length in BHOL about how there’s not clear measure of positive liberty, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make good estimates. If people are living longer, have more options, have more money, have more technology, etc, they will usually have more positive liberty.

2. I prefer to use non-moralized definitions of liberty: Neg lib = absence of obstacles, pos lib = power or capacity. But Schmidtz and I note that in common language, we often mean much more specific ideas when we use the terms “liberty” or “freedom”. If someone says, “X is a free country,” we assume she means they protect a wide range of negative liberties. My raise gave me the freedom to enjoy life, we assume she means positive liberty as capacity/power. And so on.

Schmidtz and I would agree with Matt Z and Nozick that negative rights are side constraints–we shouldn’t have a utilitarianism of rights. But negative and positive liberty are different. Negative liberty first and foremost should be respected, and then promoted. Positive liberty is to be promoted (when it’s good, and if doing so is consistent with our rights).

My response to Jason:

Thanks for the response. It clarifies a great deal. I clearly misread your position on positive freedom. I can’t quarrel with your description of the conceptual landscape below. Substantively, too, we’re not far apart, though I don’t think it’s generally morally impermissible to refrain from promoting the positive liberty of humanity in general (for instance, in order to focus on one’s own life projects).

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