Joel Feinberg, Social Philosophy, 1973.


The Concept of Freedom


There was a time when to call a man "free" was simply to describe his legal rights and duties and to contrast them with those of a slave.1 In time the word "free" became the name not only of a legal status but also of a set of character virtues especially becoming to a man of free status. "Free" in this sense is opposed to "servile," which was used to refer to qualities characteristic of slaves and hence inappropriate in a freeman. A servile person is "alternately fawning and insolent";2 a free man, having nothing to fear, is dignified and deliberate, and can look any man in the eye. In asking what freedom truly is, we may be asking for a fuller account of these qualities; in describing a given man as free, we may be simply ascribing such virtues to him. It is more likely, however, that our contemporary interest in a person's freedom is not simply a concern over his legal status or his character. What then are we saying of a man when we say that he is free?

We may be saying very little, for the word "free," without further specification, is often incompletely informative. Most general ascriptions of freedom are best understood as elliptical, or abbreviating for some longer expression. There are three kinds of ellipses that can render sentences about freedom obscure; depending on the context, a given ascription of freedom may contain each or any of them. To make such sentences more informative, we may have to add specifications of what someone is free from, is free to do, or more precisely who it is whose freedom is at issue.

If a stranger casually informs you that he is free, you may have little idea of what he intends to convey until he tells you what he is free from. "Has he just escaped from prison, from his debts, from his wife, from his sins?"3 Until this further specification is forthcoming, you can infer only that he is asserting (with pleasure) the absence of something which he regards as an impediment or constraint.4 Perhaps you can guess what his desires are, but you must know something of his special circumstances to know what barrier to those desires he claims to be missing.

Because of the intimate tie between constraints and desires, it is natural to think of the abridgment of freedom as necessarily productive of frustration. When we are constrained in the most obvious cases, our wants are denied their satisfaction. That condition is frustrating, and frustration is a kind of unhappiness, which of course is an evil. It may be for this reason that we are so certain that freedom, which is the absence of constraint and hence of frustration-unhappiness, is a Good Thing. But there is another tendency in our ordinary thought (or another conception of freedom) which denies the logical link between constraint and frustration. According to this conception, one can be constrained without being frustrated. A man can be having the time of his life while locked in a room, either because he doesn't know that the door is locked or because he doesn't care;5 an armed guard with a gun at one's head can "force" one to vote for the candidate one had intended to vote for all along for one's own reasons. These examples of constraint and compulsion are certainly not examples of frustration. The constraints illustrated do not affect one's actual desires, although they do restrict one's opportunities and narrow one's alternatives. The freedom they destroy can be called a hypothetical or dispositional liberty, since if (contrary to fact) one were to choose to leavel the locked room or to vote for the other candidate, then one would be blocked and frustrated.

Why should anyone value freedom for desires he merely might come to have, or possibly could have in the future, when at any given time he can do what he wants without frustration? This question is no mere theoretical puzzle. We condemn and fight foreign tyrants for restricting the dispositional liberty of their subjects, even when we know that because of ignorance, resignation, or love of an inspirational leader, few subjects feel really deprived. Why complain that a subject is not free to criticize his Führer when he loves the Führer and agrees with all his policies? One answer that suggests itself immediately is that merely "possible" desires have a way of becoming actual. We can rarely foresee with certainty the course of changes either in ourselves or in our circumstances, and so we feel much safer if there are genuine alternatives available, even though we have no present use for them. Moreover, even if there is no chance that our desires will ever change, it is reassuring to know that there are always alternatives, just in case. The love of freedom can be a love of breathing space, of room to maneuver, of a chance to change one's mind. A strong case has also been made for the superiority of freedom conceived simply as the absence of present frustration. The ancient Stoics and Epicureans argued that the quest for freedom viewed as "breathing space" is itself bound to be a source of frustration to the desires that impel it, whereas total freedom from frustration is within every man's power and can be found in totalitarian as well as "free" societies. To be perfectly free, they argued, is always to be able to do what you actually want, at the time, to do. To gain this freedom one must either be powerful enough to bend the whole world to one's will, or flexible enough to adapt one's will to what must inevitably happen. Surely the latter is the easier course. If you adjust your desires so that you always want to do what you must do, then you can never be disappointed. "Demand not that events happen as you wish," cautions Epictetus, "but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will get on well."6

In the contrast between freedom conceived in the "actually occurrent" and "dispositional" ways, two different ideals of liberty are involved: minimizing frustration versus maximizing the number of genuine alternatives open to a person, whatever the effect on his states of mind. According to the first conception, a person is free only to the extent that he can do what he wants to do when he wants to do it; according to the second, a person is free only if he can do considerably more than what he wants to do. Deciding which kind of liberty is the more suitable ideal may involve conflicting standards of value, but reflection will show that, questions of value aside, the dispositional analysis gives a more accurate account of our ordinary understanding of what liberty is (or what the word "free" means).

Suppose that John Doe can do one thousand things at time t, but not the one thing he wants most to do, whereas Richard Roe can only do one thing at time t, but it happens to be the thing he wants most to do. If freedom is understood as simple absence of frustration, then Roe is freer than Doe. However, on the dispositional or "breathing space" model, Doe is not only freer than Roe, but Roe is totally unfree, for if there is only one thing that circumstances permit him to do, then he is compelled (however willingly) to do that thing. That the dispositional analysis of freedom is closer to common sense is further shown by consideration of the case in which Doe can do one thousand things including what he most wants to do, whereas Roe can do only the thing he most wants to do. On the absence of frustration model, Doe and Roe do not differ at all in respect to freedom, even though Doe and Roe are equally content and Roe is forced to act with a bayonet in his back! These rough hypothetical examples strongly suggest that freedom is one thing, and want-satisfaction (or contentment) another.

Nevertheless, it may be true that (dispositional) freedom is valuable only as a means to want-satisfaction. If that is so, then there is no ground for preferring freedom if our want-satisfactions are guaranteed without it. But however we value freedom, whether as means, only or also as an end in itself, freedom should not be confused with the other goods to which it can be related. Some may reach the hasty conclusion that, whatever freedom is, it must be importantly good. They are then led to deny that freedom could ever conflict with other things that are importantly good, that a freedom that conflicts with contentment, for example, could not be a genuine freedom worthy of that glittering name. It is more honest and perceptive to admit that freedom is one value among many, and sometimes may not be worth its price as calculated in terms of other values. Sometimes the straightest road to happiness is through constraint, but that doesn't show that "true freedom" is constraint. It shows only that freedom is one thing and happiness another, and that one can't always have everything.

Not all forms of constraint and compulsion are of equal interest to the social and political philosopher. If there is a special kind of freedom that deserves to be called "political freedom" or "liberty," it must consist in the absence of that one special kind of constraint called coercion, which is the deliberate forceful interference in the affairs of human beings by other human beings. Coercion takes two main forms: direct forcing or preventing, such as by prodding with bayonets or imprisoning, and a threat of harm clearly backed up by enforcement power. In cases of coercion via threat, there is a sense in which the victim is left with a choice. He can comply or he can suffer the (probable) consequences. But if the alternative to compliance is some unthinkable disaster -- such as the death of a child -- then there is really no choice but to comply. In intermediate cases, between the extremes of overwhelmingly coercive threats and mere attractive offers, the threat, in effect, puts a price tag on noncompliance and leaves it up to the threatened person to decide whether the price is worth paying. The higher the price of noncompliance, the less eligible it will seem for his choice. For this intermediate range, threats are like burdens on a man's back, rather than shackles, or bonds, or bayonets. They make one of his alternatives more difficult, but not impossible. This is the way in which taxes on socially undesirable conduct can be said to be coercive. Although they discourage without actually prohibiting, they can quite effectively prevent.

| We have still to discuss the troublesome distinction between constraints (including forms of coercion) and mere inabilities. "It is not lack of freedom," said Helvetius, "not to fly like an eagle or swim like a whale."7 But why not? If a human being wants desperately to do just those things, won't his desire be frustrated? He will be prevented from doing what he wants just as effectively by his own physical constitution and the laws of nature as others are by policemen's bayonets and the laws of the state.

The sensitive theorist will feel two contrary inclinations at this point. Having already embraced the view that freedom essentially involves absence of constraint to actual and possible desires, he may wish to preserve a symmetry between different sorts of constraints, and make his analysis as general as possible. Consequently, he may reason as follows. Wherever it is meaningful to speak of a possible desire, it must be equally meaningful to speak of a possible constraint. Anything, even a law of nature, can be a constraint to some kind of desire, and constraints can be internal as well as external. People are constantly prevented from doing what they want, or what they might come to want, by their own poverty, weakness, and ignorance. Whatever prevents satisfaction of an actual or hypothetical desire is a constraint; since freedom is the absence of constraint, it follows that we are unfree to do what we are unable to do, whatever the source of our inability.

On the other hand, it may be confusing the issue to let the words "free" and "unfree" do so much work. There may be no limit to what we wish as the object of idle fancies, but not everything wished can be seriously desired. A five year old might wish that he could walk on the sun, as an adult might wish that he were young again, but it is conceptually impossible for anyone who understands these fanciful objectives to want them to come into existence. We should think of freedom as related to actual and possible wants rather than idle wishes. Even if we concede (as we should not) that there is no limit to what one can come to want or desire, the limits on what we can do or be are strict. I can lament that I was not born Winston Churchill, that I am not a mathematical genius or a potential weight-lifting champion, that I cannot give birth to a baby, or both be and not be at the same time. But to characterize these natural limitations as restrictions on my freedom would be to base a lament on a platitude. "To be," wrote Santayana, "is to be something in particular." That I am one thing rather than another is not so much a restriction on my freedom as a necessary consequence of my existing at all. Still, if I had been born into one of the lower classes in Brave New World, having been created in a test tube and deliberately conditioned to be inferior, I suppose my lament that I am not free to realize a higher potential might be at least intelligible. Although the line between inabilities that are also unfreedoms and those that are not is obviously hard to draw, we should make every effort to draw it with precision, for unless some incapacities are not considered to be unfreedoms, perfect freedom itself will be an utterly empty and unapproachable ideal.

In social and political discourse, at least, unfreedom usually means not just any kind of inability, but rather inability of one special kind -- namely, that induced directly or indirectly by the coercive power of other human beings. Perhaps the wisest course is to follow Isaiah Berlin, who claims that "Mere incapacity to attain your goal is not lack of political freedom."8 It is important, however, to point out that it is the presence of the word "political" in the quoted sentence that allows it to be incontrovertibly true. We can then compromise between our conflicting inclinations by saying that political and social philosophy are concerned with freedom only when conceived as the absence of coercion by others. Ethics and metaphysics may quite properly concern themselves with more varied sorts of constraints, and thus we can assume for a much wider range of cases that we are not free to do what we are unable to do -- though, as we have seen, there must be a limit to this principle even in ethics and metaphysics.

A final caveat. Often poverty, illness, ignorance, and other "internal and negative constraints" are themselves the indirect results of deliberately imposed and modifiable social arrangements. In such cases, we have every right to refer to them as restrictions on political liberty.9


When a speaker asserts that he is free, he might know quite clearly what he is free to do. but be quite vague about what constraint he is free from. Perhaps all he means to convey is that nothing now prevents him from doing X, in which case the intended emphasis of his remark is on the option now open to him, and no specific descriptions of missing constraints are necessary to fill out his meaning. As we have seen, if the X in question is something most of us are normally free to do anyway, we may be puzzled by the speaker's remark until he specifies more narrowly which former constraint to his desire to do X has now been removed. When this puzzlement does not arise, no description of specific missing constraints is required for clarity.

On other occasions, the primary or exclusive emphasis of a speaker's assertion of freedom may rest on a specific missing: constraint. He may, for example, claim to "be free" simply because one hated barrier to a given desire has been lifted, even though other barriers to that same desire still remain. All of the emphasis of his remark is thus on the removed constraint, and his newly asserted freedom does not imply that he can yet do any more than he formerly could. He is free from one barrier to his doing X, and that may seem to be blessed relief from an oppressive burden, but he may still be unable to do X. In an extreme limiting case, a speaker may have no concern with future actions whatever, and the existence of new alternatives for choice may be no part of his intended meaning when he asserts that he is free from C. He may be exclusively preoccupied with the removal of some odious condition, quite apart from any effect that removal might have on his other desires or options. He may simply hate his chains and conceive his "freedom" to consist entirely in their removal. In this not uncommon case, freedom from. . . implies no new freedom to. . . other than the freedom of being without the specific thing one is said to be free from.

More typically, when we use the language of missing constraint, we imply that there is something we want to do (or might come to want to do), that the constraint prevents us from doing, and that to be free from that constraint is to be able to do it. In the typicalt case, then, "freedom from" and "freedom to" are two sides of the same coin, each involved with the other, and not two radically distinct kinds of freedom, as some writers have suggested. Indeed, it is difficult fully to characterize a given constraint without mentioning the desires it does or can constrain (that is, desires other than the exclusive desire to be relieved of it). The man outside of divorce court who tells us that he is now free (presumably from the woman who was his wife) has not communicated much until he specifies which desires he can now satisfy that he could not satisfy when he was married. Without this further specification, we know only that he is without a wife and quite happy about it; but then, as we have seen, that may be all that he had in mind when he said that he was free.

At any given time, a person is free to do some things but not free to do others, just as he may be free of one kind of constraint to a given desire but not free of another. To ask whether a person is "free" without any further specification, may demand a long and detailed answer. (Of course, the context usually gives clues to the particular desires and constraints being inquired about.) The situation is even more obscure when political partisans campaign for "freedom," or freedom as qualified by some adjective. Maurice Cranston quite rightly advises us to "call for the full version of all such abbreviated slogans."10

The full version of conceptually elliptical statements about freedom will normally take the form indicated in the following schema:

---------is free from---------
to do (or omit, or be, or have) ---------------.
One fills in the first blank by naming the person (or persons) who is the subject of the ascribed freedom, the second blank by specifying some compulsion, or constant, and the third blank by the specification of some action, omission, state of being, or possession actually or hypothetically desired either by the subject or the speaker. (Note all the sources of ambiguity in this formula!) If it is political freedom that is ascribed to the subject, then the constraint will be coercion, and the fullest version of the statement will specify riot only the technique of constraint employed but also (in a fourth blank) the identity of the coercers. Which blank in the schema is the most important depends on the context in which a given statement is made, and what is assumed to be understood by the persons addressed.


There are occasions on which it is important to fill in the first blank as clearly as any of the others. This is especially true when persons uncritically use phrases which do not mention the subjects of freedom, or slogans which conceal ambiguity by the crude device of adding an adjective in qualification of the word "freedom." Maurice Cranston reminds us that both sides in the American Civil War claimed (quite truly) to be fighting for "freedom," but the Norths meant the freedom of slaves from their owners to go where they wished, while the South meant the freedom of the states from the federal government to make their own laws. As for "freedom" as qualified by some adjective, Cranston writes that "Conservatives, when they speak of 'economic freedom,' usually mean 'the freedom of the national economy from the controls of the State.' Socialists advocating 'economic freedom' refer to 'the freedom of the individual from economic hardship.' "11

People who speak with rhetorical force and pretense to precision about freedom as qualified by some adjective should always be invited to fill in all the gaps in the schema. That is not to say that adjectival modifiers cannot be useful, but only that they can be dangerous. We have already distinguished "political freedom" from freedom generally by the nature of the constraints that can restrict it; but "political freedom" might just as well be used to distinguish a certain range of actions -- "political actions'' -- that might be impeded by restraints of any kind, or even a certain range of subjects -- "political officials" or perhaps citizens -- whose freedom is under discussion. The qualifying adjective, in short, might be taken as referring to any of the gaps in the schema, unless explicit directions are given for its interpretation.


It has often been said that there are two main concepts, or types, or ideals of freedom, one positive and the other negative, and that ideologies conflict insofar as they employ, or give emphasis to, one, the other, or both of them. Although writers who have attached great importance to this distinction have often gained important insights, their views can be preserved and expressed with greater economy in terms of the "single concept" analysis given here. The writers to whom I refer argue that only one of the two allegedly distinct concepts of freedom (the negative") is to be analyzed as the absence of constraints.12 We may be free of all constraints to our desire to do X, these philosophers maintain, and still not be free to do X. Hence, they conclude, "positive freedom" (freedom to. . .) is something other than the absence of constraint.

I think this way of indicating the distinction between positive and negative freedom will seem plausible only if the idea of a constraint is artificially limited. However, two important distinctions between kinds of constraints, cutting across each other, can be made, and once these distinctions are recognized, an apparent ground for the "two concept" analysis vanishes. The distinctions are those between positive and negative constraints. and between internal and external constraints. There is no doubt that some constraints are negative -- lack of money, strength, skill, or knowledge can quite effectively prevent a person from doing, or having, or being something he might want. Since these conditions are absences, they are "negative," and since they can be preventive causes, they are constraints.

How we make the distinction between "internal" and "external" constraints depends, of course, on how we draw the boundaries of the self. If we contract the self sufficiently so that it becomes a dimensionless non-empirical entity, then all causes are external. Other narrow conceptions of the self would attribute to its "inner core" a set of ultimate principles or "internalized values," or ultimate ends or desires, and relegate to the merely "empirical self," or to a world altogether external to the self, all lower-ranked desires, whims, and fancies. If the distinction between internal and external constraints is to be put to political use, perhaps the simplest way of making it is by means of a merely spatial criterion: external constraints are those that come from outside a person's body-cum-mind, and all other constraints, whether sore muscles, headaches, or refractory "lower" desires, are internal to him. This would be to use a wide "total self," rather than the intimate "inner core" self, in making the distinction.

The two distinctions described above cut across one another, creating four categories. There are internal positive constraints such as headaches, obsessive thoughts, and compulsive desires; internal negative constraints such as ignorance, weakness, and deficiencies in talent or skill; external positive constraints such as barred windows, locked doors, and pointed bayonets; and external negative constraints such as lack of money, lack of transportation, and lack of weapons. Freedom from a negative constraint is the absence of an absence, and therefore the presence of some condition that permits a given kind of doing. When the presence of such a condition is external to a person, it is usually called an opportunity, and when internal, an ability. Not every absent condition whose presence would constitute an opportunity or ability, however, is a negative constraint. Only those whose absence constitutes a striking deviation from a norm of expectancy or propriety, or whose absence is in some way an important consideration for some practical interest either of the subject or of some later commentator, can qualify as constraints.

If only positive factors are counted as constraints, then a pauper might be free of constraints to his (actual or possible) desire to buy a Cadillac. But of course he is not free to buy a Cadillac. Similarly, if constraints are restricted to external factors, then the chronic alcoholic and the extremely ill man in a fever or coma are both free from constraints to go about their business; but of course, neither is free to do so. Once we acknowledge, however, that there can be internal and negative constraints, there is no further need to speak of two distinct kinds of freedom, one of which has nothing to do with constraint. A constraint is something -- anything -- that prevents one from doing something. Therefore, if nothing prevents me from doing X, I am free to do X; conversely, if I am free to do X, then nothing prevents me from doing X. "Freedom to" and "freedom from" are in this way logically linked, and there can be no special "positive" freedom to which is not also a freedom from.

Still, I suppose there is no harm in characterizing "positive freedom" as the absence of negative constraints, and "negative freedom" as the absence of positive constraints, providing (1) that positive and negative freedom are held to be equally necessary to a person's freedom all told (without any qualifying adjective), (2) neither is held to be "higher," "lower," or intrinsically more worth having than the other, and (3) neither is analyzed as totally different in kind from the absence of constraints.


Most of us do not feel free to perform acts that are forbidden by rules or authorities that we have accepted, even when there are no effective external hindrances and we stand to profit by disobedience. We are constrained from disobedience not by external barriers and threats but by internal inhibitions. Whether the internal constraint is taken to be a restriction of the self's freedom to act depends upon how we model the self, that is, upon which of the elements of the "total self" we identify most intimately with. If we are prevented by some internal element -- an impulse, a craving, a weakened condition, an intense but illicit desire, a neurotic compulsion -- from doing that which we think is the best thing to do, then the internal inhibitor is treated as an alien force, a kind of "enemy within." On the other hand, when the inhibitor is some higher-ranked desire and that which is frustrated is a desire of lesser importance albeit greater momentary intensity, we identify with the desire that is higher in our personal hierarchy, and consider ourselves to be the subject rather than the object of constraint. When the desire to do that which is forbidden is constrained by conscience, by the "internalized authority" of the prohibiting rules themselves, we identify with our consciences, and repel the threat to our personal integrity posed by the refractory lower desire which we "disown" no matter how "internal" it may be.

A person who had no hierarchical structure of wants, aims, and ideals, and no clear conception of where it is within his internal landscape that he really resides, would be a battlefield for all of his constituent elements, tugged this way and that, and fragmented hopelessly. Such a person would fail of autonomy not because he is a mere conformist whose values are all borrowed secondhand, for his wants, ideals, and scruples could be perfectly authentic and original in him, but because these values lack internal order and structure. This defective condition, which in its extreme form tends to be fatal, Durkheim called "anomie." It is interesting to note why, on the unitary "absence of constraint" theory of freedom, it is intelligible to speak of anomie as a kind of unfreedom. Our picture of the undisciplined or atomic man is not of a well-defined self with a literal or figurative bayonet at its back, or barriers, locked doors, and barred windows on all sides. Rather it employs the image of roads crowded with vehicles in the absence of traffic police or signals to keep order; desires, impulses, and purposes come and go at all speeds, in all directions, and get nowhere. The undisciplined person, perpetually liable to internal collisions, jams, and revolts, is unfree even though unrestrained by either the outside world or an internal governor. To vary the image, he is a person free of external shackles, but tied in knots by the strands of his own wants. In the apt current idiom, he is subject to "hang-ups." When he may "do anything he wants," his options will overwhelm his capacity to order them in hierarchies of preference. He will therefore become confused and disoriented, haunted by boredom and frustration, eager once more simply to be told what he must do. To be unfree is to be constrained, and in the absence of internal rules, desires will constrain each other in jams and collisions. Surely it is more plausible to construe such a state as unfreedom than as an illustration of the dreadfulness of too much freedom.


There is another use of the word "free," not yet mentioned, that provides still another -- and a far more plausible -- way of making a distinction between "positive" and "negative" kinds of freedom. This use has its primary and probably original13 application not to individuals but to states and other institutions. Its inevitable extension to individual human beings was part of that elaborate parapolitical metaphor which since the time of Plato has so colored our conception of the human mind. To understand its extended use we would be well advised to consider first its literal application to states, which is a great deal clearer. When one nation is the colony of another, it is not said to be free until it gains its independence, formerly, it was governed from without; now it is governed from within. Hence, freedom in this sense, and independence, and self-government all come to the same thing. Freedom in the sense of independence, as applied to states, does not at first seem to fit the unitary absence-of-constraint model (though it can be made to conform with a little tugging and pulling). The "free state" may be an impoverished tyranny with very little freedom for its citizens or for itself vis-a-vis other states and nature. Self-government might turn out to be even more repressive than foreign occupation. Yet, for all of that, the state might still be politically independent, sovereign, and governed from within, hence free.

Analogously, it is often said that the individual is "free" when his ruling part or "real self" governs, and is subject to no foreign power, either external or internal, to whose authority it has not consented. Suppose that John Doe wants nothing more than to have all his desires, actual and potential, free of constraints. He wants as many options as possible left open, especially those that are most important to him. He believes that Richard Roe knows best how to arrange this state of affairs. Hence, he puts himself under Roe's control, obeying as if commanded every piece of advice Roe gives him. The example becomes even more forceful if Doe makes this arrangement irrevocable. He is no longer self-determined, but receives rich dividends of satisfaction, having found a more effective way of getting all the particular things he wants or may one day come to want. (Self-direction is not one of the particular things he wants, nor is it important to him to keep open the option of one day repossessing it.) He may also want "breathing space" and "genuine options," in which case his benevolent director, Roe, arranges his life with these goals in mind. If this picture is coherent, the situation is analogous to that of the nation which gains freedom from constraint by becoming a colony of a wiser benevolent power. In each case, the subject can increase its freedom from constraint by relinquishing some of its power to govern itself. Both examples tend to show that self-government is a different kind of freedom from the absence of constraint.14

I think we can continue tospeak of self-government as "freedom," however, without committing ourselves to the view that it is a kind of freedom unanalysable in terms of the constraint model. Putatively distinct "concepts" of freedom frequently turn out to be different estimates of "the importance of only one part of what is always present in any case of freedom"15 -- the importance of one class of subjects as opposed to another, or of one class of desires or open options as opposed to another, or of one class of missing constraints as opposed to another. I think the point of calling individual self-direction freedom may be to emphasize the overriding importance of one particular kind of desire or option, namely, to decide for oneself what one shall do. Even wise and benevolent external direction is a constraint to the desire, actual or possible, to decide for oneself. Hence there is a point in calling the absence of that constraint (or the presence of self-direction) freedom.

In a similar way, almost anything can be made out as a constraint to some actual or possible desire. Hence the absence of anything at all (e.g., cloudy skies) can be identified with "true" or "positive" freedom. The point of singling out the desire to govern oneself for this special status is to acknowledge its supreme importance among desires. For those to whom the desire for self-government is so important that few other desires can yield significant satisfactions so long as it is constrained, there is every reason to preempt the word "freedom" for the absence of constraint to it. This singling out of a supreme desire is not a purely arbitrary or subjective thing. A powerful case can be made to show that other acknowledged values have self-government as their precondition, in particular that dignity, self-esteem, and responsibility are impossible without it.


One final distinction between types of constraints can obviate still other difficulties in interpreting singular judgments of the form "Doe is free to do X." A speaker might mean by this judgment either of the following:

  1. X is something Doe may do, i.e., something he is permitted (but not required) to do by someone in authority over him, or by moral or legal rules to which he is subject. (Another way of saying this is that Doe is at liberty to do X.)
  2. X is something that Doe can do, i.e., something he is not in fact prevented from doing (or required to do) either by coercion (direct or indirect) from others or by other kinds of constraints. (In this case, talk of "liberty" is not always interchangeable with talk of "freedgm.")

When commands or rules are not effectively enforced, a person might well be able to do something he is not permitted to do. Similarly, a person might be permitted to do something that he is unable to do because he is prevented by constraints other than rules backed by sanctions. A person might be also incapable of doing some act simply because it is prohibited by commands or rules that are effectively enforced. In that case, the enforced rule is itself a constraint.

Corresponding to the distinction between what may be done and what can be done is that between two perspectives from which singular freedom judgments are made, namely, the juridical and the sociological. The former is the perspective of a system of legal or legal-like regulations. When I say that no one in New York State is free to play poker for money in his own home, I am simply reciting what the New York legal codes prohibit. My judgment is confirmable or disconfirmable by reference to (and only by reference to) those codes. In fact, thousands of persons play poker for money in private homes in New York every night with little or no risk of apprehension by the indifferent police. When I speak from the sociological perspective, I might well say that everyone in New York is in_effect free to play poker. This judgment is subject to a different kind of confirming or discontinuing evidence, including how effectively a law is enforced by the police, how intimidated by the law poker players actually feel, and how many of them are willing to run the risk of detection and conviction.

From the juridical perspective, what I am free to do in a given case is not a matter of degree. Any given act or omission is either permitted or it is not; I am at liberty (entirely) to do it or I am not at liberty to do it at all. Of course there are more subtle forms of legal control which employ variable constraints that permit talk of "degrees" of freedom. If there is a $100 tax on conduct of type A and a $500 tax on type B, I am left by authority, in a quite intelligible sense, more free to do A than to do B. In the case of criminal law, however, and all other regulations that control conduct by enjoining, permitting, and prohibiting, my freedom to do any act is, from the law's point of view, either entire or nonexistent. On the other hand, from the sociological perspective, it is always intelligible to speak of degrees of freedom or unfreedom even of a particular person to do some given act, and even when that act is unconditionally prohibited by law, if only because the probabilities of being detected and/or convicted vary from offense to offense.16


A speaker may intend nothing so precise as is suggested by our schema with the three blanks when he asserts that he or some other person is free; but the second kind of thing he might mean presupposes and builds upon the singular noncomparative judgments discussed in this chapter. He may intend to convey that he is on the whole free, or at liberty, to do a great many things, or to do most of the things that are worth doing, or perhaps to do a greater percentage of the worthwhile things than are open to most people; or he might be emphasizing that he is free from most of the things that are worth being without in their own right (disease, poverty), or freer from those things than are the members of some comparison class. "On balance judgments" of freedom are of necessity vague and impressionistic, and even the comparative judgments that they sometimes incorporate are usually incapable of precise confirmation.

Suppose that John Doe is permitted by well-enforced rules to travel only to Chicago, Houston, and Seattle, but may make adverse criticism of nothing he sees in those cities, whereas Richard Roe may go only to Bridgeport, Elizabeth, and Jersey City and may criticize anything he wishes; or suppose that Doe can go anywhere at all but must not criticize, whereas Roe cannot leave home but may say anything he pleases. In reply to the question, "Which of the two is more free?" it appears that the only sensible answer is that Doe is more free in one respect (physical movement) and Roe in another (expression of opinion). If the questioner persists in asking who is the more free "on balance" and "jn the last analysis," he must want to know which of the two respects is more important. If we are then to avoid a vitiating circularity, our standard of "importance" must be something other than "conducibility to freedom."

When two or more properties or "respects" are subject to precise mathematical comparison, they will always have some quantitative element in common. The difficulty in striking resultant totals of "on balance freedom" derives from the fact that the relation among the various "areas" in which people are said to be free is not so much like the relation between the height, breadth, and depth of a physical object as it is like the relation between the gasoline economy, styling, and comfort of an automobile.17 Height times breadth times depth equals volume, a dimension compounded coherently out of the others; freedom of expression times freedom of movement yields nothing comparable. If these areas of freedom are called "dimensions," they must also be labeled "incommensurable." Still, limited comparisons even of incommensurables are possible. If the average American has greater freedom in every dimension than his Ruritanian counterpart, it makes sense to say that he has greater freedom on balance; if they are equally free in some dimensions but the American is more free in all the others, the same judgment follows. What we more likely mean when we say that one subject is freer on balance than another is that his freedom is greater in the more valuable, important, or significant dimensions, where the "value" of a dimension is determined by some independent standard. A result of considerable interest seems to follow from this analysis. Since "maximal freedom" (having as much freedom on balance as possible) is a notion that makes sense only through the application of independent standards for determining the relative worth or importance of different sorts of interests and areas of activity, it is by itself a merely formal ideal that cannot stand on its own feet without the help of other values. One person's freedom can conflict with another's, freedom in one dimension can contrast with freedom in another, and the conflicting dimensions cannot meaningfully be combined on one scale. These conflicts and recalcitrances require that we put types of subjects, possible desires, and areas of activity into some order of importance; this in turn requires supplementing the political ideal of freedom with moral standards of other kinds. The supplementary values, however, are not external to freedom in the manner of such independently conceived rival ideals as justice and welfare, but rather are "internally supplementary" -- a necessary filling-in of the otherwise partially empty idea of "on balance freedom" itself.


1 See C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961)) pp. 111 ff.

2 Lewis, Studies in Words, p. 14.

3 Maurice Cranston, Freedom, A New Analysis (London: Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., 1953), p. 3.

4 The distinction between a constraint and a compulsion is a matter of diction. When we are constrained, we are prevented from doing, i.e., forced, to omit; when we are compelled, we are prevented from omitting, i.e., forced to do. In the case of constraint, we cannot do what we (mignt) want to do; in the case of compulsion, we must do what we (might) not want to do. Nevertheless, for convenience, I shall use the word "constraint" for both constraints and compulsions.

5 Cf. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1959), Vol. II, p. 317.

6 Epictetus, The Enchiridion, VIII.

7 As quoted by Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1961), p. 7.

8 Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, p. 7.

9 A point well made by Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, p. 8.

10 Cranston, Freedom, A New Analysis, p, 12.

11 Cranston, Freedom, A New Analysis, pp. 13-14.

12 See Ralph Barton Perry, Puritanism and Democracy (New York: Vanguard Press, 1944), Chap. 18, and T. H. Green, Lectures on Political Obligation (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1901), especially the lecture on "Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract."

13 Lewis, Studies in Words, p. 112.

14 Compare Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, p. 130: "The answer to the question -- 'Who governs me?' -- is logically distinct from the question -- 'How far does government interfere with me?' It is in this difference that the great contrast between the two concepts of liberty in the end consists."

15 Gerald C. MacCallum, Jr., "Negative and Positive Freedom," Philosophical Review, LXXVI (1967), 318.

16 Cf. Felix Oppenheim, Dimensions of Freedom (New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1961), p. 187.

17 Cf. Oppenheim, Dimensions of Freedom, p. 200.