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Charles Taylor's Critique of Negative Freedom

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Taylor is known for the criticizing of the moral philosophies because he believes they are inarticulate, since they rest on the controversial presuppositions that they fail to acknowledge. These inarticulate ideas have their myopias which lead to the practical confusions. Taylor explains that the Negative Freedom is an "opportunity-concept": one possesses the Negative Freedom if one is not enslaved due to the external forces, and has equal access to the society's resources, regardless of the time.

Taylor's criticism of the negative freedom, on the other hand, is a far more promising because it recognizes that the dynamic interaction between different ways of life is inevitable and that the dialogue is the best hope to keep interactions peaceful and progressive over the time. However, Taylor himself is inarticulate on how we might create in the citizens a culture that is willing and able to engage in the dialogue with each other. Indeed, I suggest that such citizens must possess the sort of liberalism, the deliberative virtues and pluralistic knowledge that are cultivated through liberal education. Taylor, however, fails to adequately emphasize this rather demanding requirement of hermeneutic liberalism, because it conflicts with the pluralism to which he is sympathetic. Taylor's ambivalence on his theory is through his support of the Quebecois cultural severance, which is in tension with his commitment to hermeneutic liberalism.

Taylor, and Isaiah Berlin, is deeply influenced with optimistic and pessimistic views, this paper discusses Taylor's hermeneutic liberalism. An important lesson drawn from the successes and failures of their theories is that liberal respect of pluralism requires the citizens to respect pluralism. This is no mean ethical requirements, for the successful liberal politics, citizens must be socialized and educated in order to respond to the pluralism in the right way. The Pluralists typically avoid the discussions on the citizen virtues and education, because of the ethical implications that these things have on the pluralism.

The liberal citizens must possess certain virtues which are cultivated through certain education, and then this requirement limits the amount of the pluralism that a liberal society can accommodate. The Pluralists must recognize that they cannot in principle accommodate the pluralism that fails to respect pluralism. Put starkly, pluralists must demand that the citizens be ethnically homogeneous in the sense that they have the virtues and the knowledge that enables them to maximally respect the pluralism as the liberal justice requires (Raz, 1986).

Liberty is the most precious and rare quality of a living condition.  Berlin states, `The periods and the societies in which the civil liberties were respected, and a variety of the opinions and the faith tolerated, have been very few and far between, oases in the desert of human uniformity, intolerance and oppression.'

Negative liberty circumscribes the area wherein the third person can be able to  prevent anybody to make a free choice. Berlin further explains this by describing a statement such as "I am slave to no man" as one of the Negative Liberty, that is, the freedom from another individual's direct interference negative liberty, which is also understood as the capacity of the individuals, exempted from the unimpeded external coercion or the constraint, to choose for themselves amongst the competing conceptions of goods or the valuable lives. Basing on these, a free society can be organized, with the absolute rights and the frontiers, which are defined in terms of the rules, within which men should be inviolable.
According to Berlin, freedom is not an end, but the means to create the room for the personal ends and happiness. He rightly criticizes Taylor saying that the freedom is the opportunity to act, not action itself.

Taylor on Negative Freedom

Taylor doesn’t deny the sad and unsettling historical lessons. He is very much aware of the totalitarian dangers in the positive liberty and therefore, he is eager to avoid such dreadful consequences. He remains unconvinced that the negative liberties are the adequate remedy for the ailment. From his article “What’s Wrong with the Negative Liberty”, Taylor was able to notice a strange paradox. While the proponents of the positive views tirelessly try to shake off their reputation as dangerous the pseudo-totalitarians that subscribe to the ‘forced to be free’   doctrines, the negative liberalists embrace the idea of freedom as a mere opportunity (Taylor, 1985).

According to their views, the extreme Hobbesian and the Benthamite interpretation of liberty need not be attenuated. Therefore, Taylor says that the reason for this easy embrace is that the opportunity concept is both very simple and safe by just looking at the quantity of the opportunities and, in doing so, it cuts out the dangers of the positive perversions at the root. However, throughout his article, Taylor has tried to show that the inclination towards the conceptual clarity is flawed. The defensive kind of the strategy of the negative liberals who have withdrawn behind their Maginot Line is just untenable.

As a result, the arguments that should support the conclusion could roughly be summarized in three steps derived from Taylor’s argument. First, Taylor has shown that speaking in terms of the opportunities always needs to be complemented by some sort of the valuations. We always need to revolve, this is according to Taylor’s, negative liberty as a mere opportunity concept is a useless notion; it is too thin and elusive to capture what we actually mean when we use the word ‘freedom’. The loss of sheer opportunities, when it includes the irrelevant, the worthless, silly or some ignorant opportunities, this is not necessarily a loss of liberty at all. The example of the traffic lights could even be developed further: we could defend the views that, instead of restricting our liberty, the traffic lights ‘set us free’. Through the means of them we are able to move about in the city in a more coordinated and very efficient way. Another contradiction is now readily apparent: the loss of the opportunities can be an increase of liberty.

This concludes as the Taylor’s first step but he quickly recognizes that this line of the critique could be easily incorporated by the proponents of the negative liberty. The idea of using freedom as an opportunity concept is perfectly able to acknowledge that there are many valuable and the less valuable opportunities. However, the proponents would maintain that liberty is restricted even if only the irrelevant opportunities are excluded; it is just that the exclusion would not be so bad. According to Berlin’s view; the liberty of the hangman should rightly be restricted. This response could backfire on Taylor. His example of the traffic lights primarily serves as a kind of an intuition pump, but surely our intuition would be pumped differently if we were asked to imagine having the traffic lights in the deserts. To put up such kind of the lights in the desert would be absurd this is because there is no traffic and the local aboriginals would unjustly be deprived of their individual or collective liberty.

Taylor would agree with this and say that the scheme of valuation depends, at least to some extent, on the given context with the horizon, or the background of the meaning. But if this is true, then we should not take any particular context for granted and it is questionable to simply affirm that the traffic lights are no impairment to liberty. If we are faced with the multiplicity of the horizons and the contexts then perhaps a mere opportunity concept of the liberty might still prove to posses some use. Taylor continues by pointing out that there are also the internal obstacles to the freedom. But as we have seen, it is not impossible to translate the positive ideals of the true self into an account of the negative freedom from the internal obstacles. However, one should be definitely aware of the external usurpation of that ‘true self’.

The second step in the perversion of positive liberty through the negative liberty is when Taylor wholeheartedly agreed. And yet he wanted to address the inner obstacles because it seems self-evident that they could easily impair the person’s liberty. Taylor gives various examples in order to jog our intuition in this situation. If one of this is paraphrased; imagine a person, who wants to become a professor but who has an irrational fear of speaking in the public gatherings. This fear prevents him/her from pursuing deepest ambitions; some of the valuable paths in life are being blocked ‘from the inside’. Because one is held back by certain constraints which are considered not to be ‘one’s own’, therefore ones liberty is clearly curbed. But, once again, the negative liberals are able to strike back.

As long as we take the person to be aware of the frustrations of one’s deepest desires, we could still avoid the danger of the external usurpation because an individual would remain the final judge of ones inner liberty. This retort is what Taylor refers to the’ halfway’ or ‘the middle’ position, and according to him it is untenable. Once the members of the negative group admits that the freedom is in need of the strong evaluation, or once they agree that people should not simply judge the relative force or the strength of some of their conflicting desires but also evaluate the worth of the desires against the background of understandings. However, they cannot prevent the practice of the second guessing. The fact that a person can be right or wrong in his/her desires entails that there is something on which one is to be right or wrong about.

There are some larger contexts, or the backgrounds, which can easily enable a person to understand what is appropriately and inappropriately. This kind of background reaches beyond the individuals criteria of the right and wrong thereby implying that they are not totally dependent on the private point of view. To the extent that this criterion transcends the highest level of the individual’s judgment, therefore, there is no reason to exclude the possibilities of the second-guessing: the individual’s criterion of the right and the wrong implies that they are not totally dependent on a private point of view. To the extent that these criteria transcend the level of individual judgment there is no reason to exclude the possibility of second-guessing: the individual is not the final authority concerning his liberty. For example, a person’s fear is inappropriate because it is somehow irrational: the fear is not in proportion to the ‘danger’ of speaking in public gatherings. Even if when a person is unaware of his/her irrational behavior, her fear remains an impediment to his /her freedom. To that extent, it seems as if a person can be somehow ‘forced to be free’. Therefore, I such situations people should not take a person’s desire to run and hide from her audience to be a very serious issue.

Charles Manson, to take Taylor’s more extreme example, was mistaken through his fundamental purposes. What he was able to identify as his real wants and his truest self was in fact not part of the legitimate self at all. Therefore Manson’s violent urges, rooted in what he held to be his ultimate purposes in his life that he is God and his role in the war of helter skelter, were shot through with the confusion and error. Just like a fearful person, he was wrong without even knowing he was wrong. The importance of strong evaluation pulls the individual out of the confines of his own mind, and allows us to acknowledge the boundaries and the criteria of the authentic freedom which are independent of the individuals and which, if necessary, can be used against him in overruling his direct and inauthentic desires.

As Stated most clearly by Taylor: “the subject is not the final authority on the question whether he is free; for he cannot be the final authority on the question whether his desires are authentic, whether they do or do not frustrate his purposes.” In summary: once the negative liberals are lured out of their Maginot Line of defense because they must acknowledge that the sheer opportunity is always in the need of valuation and the internal obstacles to freedom are judged by the means of strong evaluation they are bound to take up a middle position which cuts off the possibility of returning to their warm trenches of conceptual purity. (Sen, Amartya, 1980)

Negative and Positive Freedom

Berlin stresses that the difference between the negative and positive freedom is a difference between two legitimate questions and their respective answers. The question related to negative liberty has inquiry into the domain of the liberty and it goes: “To what extent am I free?”, “What are the options available?”, “How many doors are widely open to me?” In other words: the questions inquire into the external conditions of the freedom. Hence, a negative liberty can indeed be characterized as the “absence of the external obstacles” as long as the obstacles are imposed by other human beings, whether in deliberate, indirectly, unintentionally or institutionally, and only when it concerns the “alterable human practices”. This last condition can turn liberty into a political notion or issue, and pre vents the human limitations like the inability to fly or swim by being considered as obstructions to the liberty. (Berlin, 1969)

Taylor objects to these mere external characters of freedom, and he is absolutely right in saying that nothing in the idea of the negative freedom can prevent it from also including any possibility of the internal obstacles. The construction of the positive and negative aspects of the freedom bears witness to this fact. The negative dimension of the freedom was the “independency of the alien causes “such as the immediate desires and preferences, which would lead us to diversion from duty. When led by the desire instead of the law(s) of the practical reason, man would be the plaything of the alienating forces, with no control whatsoever; he would be heteronymous.

Berlin, however, explicitly avoids the use of the term negative liberty in reference to the ‘inner freedom’, and we should take this avoidance at face value. Indeed, the usage would be the translation of a positive ideal into the negative terms, Berlin warns us against such conflation. It is easy to reformulate the positive ideals of a higher self’ into the negative demands in which the individual should be liberated from his ‘lower self’. Berlin admits that nothing in the concept of the negative liberty prevents the positive translation.  History further proves that the negative theories are less prone to degenerating than their positive counterparts.  In the process of degeneration, it is important to first turn to the misconception of the differences between the two concepts of liberty which helps to expose their true nature. It has been argued that the conceptual distinction between the positive and the negative liberty tends to add to the confusion because of the dyadic expression of the negative freedom. Instead of placing a claim that the philosophers or the political thinkers apply different concepts of liberty, the discussion should focuses on the specific contents that various authors give to the three parameters. The debate need to be about the specific liberties that people want to see preserved.

Thinkers use their means to differentiate between the negative and the positive freedom; the first means is interpreted as the freedom from something, the external obstacles, the barriers, or the constraints. The second is conceived as the freedom to do something through the actions, conditions of character or the circumstance. But Berlin shows, that this is not their true distinguishing mark. He believes that the negative liberty is essentially an opportunity concept.  However, it does not imply that the opportunities that are offered should also be realized. As Berlin puts it, “if a person sits in a chair and he has the standing up, then, if he decides to stay put chair, his liberty is thereby not impaired”. Once we understand this, we can easily see that an easy from the distinction between the positive and the negative freedom is almost collapsing: the negative freedom is always the freedom to do something, but its crucial feature is that there is something which remains unspecified. This is what sets the negative freedom apart, it is the general concept whereas the positive freedom is specific.(Gray, 2000)

The negative liberty is the mere opportunity, the more the doors that are open to a person, the freer the person is. The contents of this opportunity can be very diverse, it can incorporate the freedom of religion, the freedom to read books, or the freedom to murder an adversary. All of these opportunities are the instances of the negative freedom: some are crucial, others are highly valued. Thus, the concept of freedom is independent of the valuation accorded to it. If we stick it to the Berlin’s interpretation, we see that the negative freedom cannot be equated to self-realization, this is because the demand on the ideal to discriminate between the valuables and the worthless. At most, the negative liberty is the precondition for self- realization.  Elaborating on the ‘specific’ characters of the positive freedom and trying to understand why the Berlin saw an inherent danger for the perversion. The Positive liberty stems from a very different question, the answer to this question, it’s a normative implication that people want to govern themselves. People want to be in control of their own lives.  Therefore, Berlin stresses that the political implication of this deep-rooted desire which is mostly translated into the wish for the collective self-government or a kind of participatory democracy (MacCallum, 1967).

However, the political translation also provides the necessary ground for the dangers of the positive liberty to blossom. The desire to be self-governed gradually gets perverted into the opposite, and this perversion follows the lines of the two-step model. First, one is required to makes a distinction between the ‘true’ and the ‘false’ self. This kind of tension within the subject is not threatening to an individual’s freedom unless he/she is unable to overcome his heteronomy. At times, the valuable paths in life are being cut off by the internal inhibitions. For example, a person might not be to overcome a certain kind of fear, the desire, urge, or the craving and yet no one prevents him/her from doing anything. In such a case, there is no infringement in terms of the negative liberty.

The person realizes from the personal assessment that he is unable to achieve the goals he holds so dear due to the frustrations. However, the  positive and the  negative freedom develops into the opposing values when a second step is also taken: the characteristics of the ‘true self’ becomes externally assessable and the individual’s desires, the commitments and the projects get labeled as unimportant to the development and the realization of the true self. Berlin was very much aware of the historical consequences of the positive perversion as he witnessed the devastating results of the two great ideologies.


The discussion on the negative and positive freedom is inevitable, therefore Taylor’s communitarian ideas cannot be ruled out since he is an important contributor in this discussion. The two authors of the articles have their ideas based on optimism and pessimism which are two different ways of perceiving reality hence there is no avenue for falsification. Berlin’s two concepts of liberty create awareness of the underlying danger. In such a situation tension and ambiguity develops. Individuals with optimistic views have strong emphasis on their victories. The pessimists on the other hand are ready to explain the causes of failure to the optimistic ideas. Therefore, Berlin’s view in his article ‘Two concepts of Liberty’ oscillates between the pessimistic vigilance and the optimistic courage. Criticizing of Taylor negative freedom is one way of adding flavor to the discussion.

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