Positive Freedom Versus Negative Freedom

January 29, 2020 Updated: January 31, 2020


I want to begin this article with an intentionally open-ended and deliberately controversial statement: There’s something deeply disordered about how a growing majority of Americans think about freedom.

How many more think liberty is more aligned with occultist Aleister Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” than with the Declaration of Independence’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Objectively speaking, one of the greatest tragedies of our post-modern society is the continued perversion and distortion of how our culture defines freedom.

In this brave new world, in which we are told that morality is relative and there’s no ultimate truth, we begin to pretend that true freedom is being able to do whatever it is that our hearts desire. Without any hint of irony, we’re told that this slavers’ road leads to enlightenment rather than a willing captivity.

The concept of two types of freedom, positive and negative, isn’t new. One of the most recent and well-known examples of these two different types of liberty was written by British philosopher Isaiah Berlin in 1958. In his essay, Berlin states that negative liberty is being free from interference to do whatever we want, while positive freedom focuses on what we are free to do.

Whether we like it or not, true freedom isn’t being able to do whatever we want. Rather, true freedom is being able to live a life in which we are free to pursue the true, the good, and the beautiful. Having all exterior controls and restraints removed is not actual freedom, as nothing is truly being bestowed freely upon an individual. The truth is that so-called freedom from all constraints and limits isn’t actually freedom, but rather an attractive invitation into chaos, destruction, and/or addiction.

All human beings have the ability to make free choices in most things, with varying levels of consequences for those decisive actions. Removing repercussions for our actions isn’t freedom, it’s irresponsible.

Negative freedom would have you believe that freedom is just an increase in the number of potential choices we can make. If our freedom is never aligned toward our good, but rather toward doing what we wish, we have no liberty. We may think we are choosing to do something because it makes us happy. Eventually, the things we do no longer make us happy; however, we keep doing those things to maintain a baseline of not feeling absolutely terrible. That is the dynamics of the addiction cycle.

“The good man, although he is a slave, is free; but the bad man, even if he reigns, is a slave, and that not of one man, but, what is far more grievous, of as many masters as he has vices,” wrote St. Augustine of Hippo.

Try to imagine a world in which children, upon reaching the age of reason, are told, “Do whatever you want, for you are a free person.” That is negative freedom at its absolute purest, in which there are no defined paths, let alone any guides or barriers. Clearly, that’s not only an insane and completely illogical philosophy, but it’s inherently dangerous for the individual.

Instead, loving parents prepare their children by empowering them, giving them tools and teaching them concepts so that they know what they should do. This is positive freedom, in which the individual has the power and agency to choose what is aligned with the good. Parents who raise their children this way are giving them the freedom to pursue what is best for them.

We don’t look at guardrails on highways as oppression; they help channel us along the route in the best way, to the best end.

When we align our choices and actions with the greatest good, we aren’t less free. Rather, we are more free, as positive freedom is what gives us the grace to reach our maximum potential. This is why we must reject the sorts of relativism that permeates our culture today, in which we are told that all choices are equally good, as long as they are freely made and everyone involved consents.

Whether we like it or not, objective truth is undeniable.

There are many choices we can freely make that lead us into captivity; slaves may have some constraints removed by their master, but that doesn’t make them any less enslaved. We must seek out the types of liberty that we can not only survive, but also thrive in. Choosing oppression either for ourselves or others is not the act of a free man or woman.

Chris Erickson is a combat veteran and former Green Beret, with extensive experience deployed to various locations across the world. He now works in the communications industry. You can follow him on Twitter @EricksonPrime.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.