Political Philosophy and the Left

by Ed Lewis, Stuart White

Stuart White is a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a member of Demos’s advisory council. He writes about political philosophy and its application, and is the author of Equality and The Civic Minimum. He spoke with Ed Lewis about the philosophical foundations of the left and their implications for social structure.

The first part of the discussion, which follows, focuses on the central values of equality and freedom. Part two can be read here.

What is political philosophy, and what do political philosophers do?

Political philosophy is about the exploration of concepts that play an important role in political life and political discussion.

Many of those concepts are value concepts, like liberty or equality or social justice - the kind of concepts that politicians, as in the recent election campaign, will refer to at length. For example, Nick Clegg launched his party’s manifesto saying he was going to hard-wire fairness into British society. But what’s ‘fairness’? What political philosophers do is they step back a bit, and they examine these concepts: what exactly do or should we mean by ‘equality’, ‘liberty’, ‘fairness’? Political philosophers might also talk about concepts like ‘power’ or ‘the state’, which are implicated in a lot of political discussion but which aren’t necessarily values.

So that’s centrally what political philosophers are doing. Sometimes academics who are grounded in political philosophy might then go a little bit further. They might move towards prescription, towards trying to answer questions about what ideally ought to be done. I mean, presumably, if you’ve got a theory about what social justice is, then that’s going to tell you a lot about how ideally a society ought to be arranged. So at that point, political philosophers might start to get into prescribing particular kinds of institutions or policy – I think we’ll talk a bit about some policy ideas later in our discussion. All I would say now is that when political philosophers start to do this, then their project starts also to draw on social science. You can’t really engage in policy or institutional recommendations without combining the philosophical analysis – the clarification of concepts, the argument for a particular understanding of justice, and the like – with some empirically grounded understanding of the social world.

We’re going to be talking in more detail about the values and prescriptions of the left, but I want you now to give us an initial sketch of leftist political philosophy. What would that look like?

I think one way into that question is to identify three issues which have always been pretty central to what political philosophers have been discussing from the Ancient Greeks on.

First there is the issue of authority. Is authority – that’s to say, the right to command – legitimate? On what basis is it legitimate? Here I think leftism tends towards some sort of egalitarian answer to the question. In the extreme you might get the anarchist view which is that authority as such is illegitimate, nobody has the right to command another. A less radical view would obviously be to prescribe some sort of democratic account of authority.

The second big issue is the issue of social justice: what makes a society – its institutional arrangements, such as its economic system – just, in terms of the way it distributes burdens and benefits? And, again, I think a leftist answer is going to be an egalitarian one.

And then, thirdly, there’s the issue of what makes for the good life.

On this issue, I’m less clear that there’s necessarily a clear leftist answer. I think that political philosophy itself is divided between a tradition which thinks that politics should answer the question of what the good life is, and another tradition which thinks that we disagree about the good life – we have different religious views, say, or we give different priority to things like work over leisure – so the point of a good polity is not to promote a particular vision of the good life, it’s to ensure that goods are distributed fairly so that we can then go out and pursue our respective visions of the good life on a fair basis. But it’s not the job of the state to promote a particular account of the good life.

I’m sympathetic to the latter view, but I think the left as a whole is divided between the two philosophical positions.

Let’s go back to equality for now, because that’s of course the concept that the left is most closely associated with, as has come through in the answer that you’ve just given. Can you first of all tell us a bit more about the kind of equality you think is characteristic of the left? I’m thinking in terms of social justice and material equality because that’s what the left is most famous for, and what there has been quite a lot of debate around in political philosophy in recent years.

I think one way to get at this is to start with a concept that’s there in mainstream political debate: the concept of meritocracy, or the related idea of equality of opportunity.

In its strongest form the idea of meritocracy is that we should have a society where there is competition for jobs and other offices, there’s an inequality of reward attached to these jobs and offices, but there should be equal opportunity to compete for these jobs and offices: your chances for getting jobs and rewards shouldn’t be detrimentally affected by things like race, ethnicity, gender or your class background.

Now I think a left approach to equality is not going to be satisfied with meritocracy. Meritocracy captures a requirement of justice but it’s deficient because even under a perfectly meritocratic system - where we’ve controlled for unequal opportunity due to race, ethnicity, gender, social class - people will still be unequally rewarded through no fault of their own because of differences in the talents and capacities that they have, which the market will reward unequally. This is an important insight of philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin (Rawls, 1999, Dworkin, 2000).

So another view that’s emerged within political philosophy, which tries to address the deficiency of meritocracy, is a view called luck egalitarianism. This is a view set out particularly clearly by the late G.A. Cohen (Cohen, 1989). One key idea of luck egalitarianism is: if an inequality is due to brute luck, due to forces over which the disadvantaged have no control, then that inequality is unjust and there’s a presumption to do something to correct it. If I’m earning less than you just because I’m genetically endowed with less strength or less intelligence, this inequality is unjust and a just society wouldn’t permit it, or at least there’d be a strong reason not to permit it.

On the other hand, luck egalitarianism says that if an inequality is due to lifestyle choice then it’s just and there’s a good reason to tolerate it. So if you and I have the same opportunities to earn income, and we just have different preferences – you prefer income, I prefer leisure – then any inequality which results in terms of income is just because is reflects choice and not brute luck.

Within contemporary political philosophy this has been one influential answer to the question what kind of equality we should be interested in. But it in turn has become subject to an important criticism, which is that allowing inequalities due to choice could in turn generate worrying inequalities of power or status (Anderson, 1999). Smith might end up destitute because he bet all his money on the wrong horse, and that would be fine for a luck egalitarian (simply as a luck egalitarian) because Smith chose to take the gamble. At the same time, Jones could end up very rich because her gambles turn out well. People like Jones are then likely to have power over people like Smith and/or to be seen as having a higher social standing.

The luck egalitarian perspective gets us some way in understanding what kind of equality the left should be interested in, but it needs to be complemented by a perspective which says it’s important that social relations not be characterised by domination or by inequalities of status. We shouldn’t have domination or humiliation in social relationships, and that might temper how far we apply this luck egalitarian ideal.

I’m interested to explore what the implications of luck egalitarianism would be. For one thing it seems that there are elements of luck egalitarian rhetoric in various attacks on welfare programs today. It seems that a benefit claimant who could work but chooses not to is enjoying rewards for which they’re not responsible, and so such rewards might be regarded as unjust from a luck egalitarian perspective. The whole idea of increasing means testing and increasing conditionality of access to benefits and social services and so on then seems consistent with luck egalitarianism. And yet this is something that the left, of course, has tended to be very hostile to, seeing such policies as an attack on the disadvantaged in society. So how would you respond to that?

You’re absolutely right that arguments for these policies that condition benefits on behaviour are often rationalised in terms of ‘the state has a responsibility to protect people against involuntary disadvantage but not voluntary disadvantage’.

However, I think there are two problems with defending these sorts of policies from an egalitarian point of view.

First, even if we’re looking at things just within the framework of luck egalitarianism, the problem is that contemporary politics picks up only, or to a much greater extent, on the choice-sensitive side of luck egalitarianism, the side that says people should be held responsible for their choices. It doesn’t pick up, to anything like as great an extent, on the other idea, which is that inequalities due to brute luck should be neutralised. The same people who call for tougher sanctions in the benefits system might also be people opposing inheritance tax or greater ‘redistribution’ to those who are low-paid through no fault of their own.

And that makes the way the idea is applied politically highly questionable. What we risk doing is making things worse for people who on the whole are worse off than others through no fault of their own. These conditionality policies increase the pressure on people who are to a considerable extent involuntarily disadvantaged. It increases the pressure on them to get into low paid work.

Perhaps, in a society which had done a lot more to address these brute luck inequalities – in other words in a society where, for example, you didn’t have inequalities in inherited wealth, where there was much less inequality of reward between skilled and unskilled workers – maybe in that society there would then be a stronger case for this kind of choice-sensitivity. It’s worth recalling that some socialist thinkers of 19th and 20th centuries were not hostile to the idea of conditioning benefits on work as such. Very often their descriptions of a future socialist commonwealth include this kind of conditionality. But it applied in a society envisaged to be much more egalitarian in other respects.

Let’s now turn to the second egalitarian worry with welfare conditionality policies. This relates to the criticism of luck egalitarianism referred to above. Even if we thought the policy was justified in purely luck egalitarian terms, we might be concerned about its possible implications for inequalities of power or status. Would such a policy demean the welfare recipient and/or make them vulnerable to domination or oppression? The philosopher Jonathan Wolff has made this point specifically with regard to the danger of demeaning welfare recipients (Wolff, 1998).

Would you say, then, that luck egalitarianism points in an anti-capitalist direction? Would you say that it’s a socialist value framework, if you like?

I think that’s a trickier question. It certainly points in the direction of an economic system which does a lot more to redress brute luck inequality.

But what kind of institutional framework could deliver the equality the luck egalitarian wants, that’s a more open, complicated question. Would it have to involve the complete suppression of private ownership of the means of production and the market? I don’t think so. But here we’re moving from clarification of concepts into institutional prescription, and as I said in the first answer, you can’t really answer those institutional policy questions without bringing a lot of empirical social science in as well, to tell you about how different institutions are going to work in practice.

OK, well I think we’ll probably fail to do all of that social science today. Maybe another time. But let’s move on to then to a different value, one that we actually haven’t discussed so far, which is freedom. I want to raise this partly because the characteristic leftist emphasis on equality is sometimes seen as conflicting with freedom, showing an apparent left-wing preparedness to violate our freedoms. So I wonder if you could say something about that putative conflict, and if indeed there is, again, a characteristic left conception of freedom which you think is important or valuable.

Well, one way into this is to start with the idea that Isaiah Berlin termed ‘negative liberty’ which is the idea that a person is free to the extent that they’re able to do what they want, or what they might want to do, without experiencing coercive interference by others (Berlin, 1958). This is often taken to be ‘the right’s notion of freedom’. When people talk about a conflict between freedom and equality, what they often have in mind is the idea that if you promote equality, you have to impose all kinds of restrictions on negative freedom as I’ve just outlined it. Hence the idea of a conflict.

I mentioned the philosopher G.A. Cohen in an earlier answer and I think one of the other insights in his work is to note the way in which any distribution of private property is also a distribution of negative freedom (Cohen, 1997). Let’s say you’re a person without much income. You want to go on the train from London to Liverpool but you don’t have the money to buy the ticket. You get on the train, the ticket inspector finds that you haven’t got the ticket, and you’re required to get off the train at Slough. Now, what you’ve experienced there, in virtue of your lack of income, is a restriction on your negative freedom. Your lack of income translates into a lack of legal permission to do something: to travel on the train from London to Liverpool. A lack of money limits the things that it’s legally permissible for you to do, and in that way it restricts your negative freedom.

Now this matters for the alleged conflict between liberty and equality. If the state comes along and arranges property rights so that there is a more equal distribution of income, it is not reducing liberty as such: it is changing the distribution of it so that we get a more equal distribution of negative liberty.

It’s very important for people on the left not to get too defensive when confronted with the claim that freedom and equality conflict. A lot of what the left stands for in terms of promoting equality is not about reducing freedom, it’s about redistributing freedom. And not some mysterious kind of freedom that’s different from what we ordinarily understand by freedom: what the left is concerned to achieve more equality of is straightforward, bog-standard, negative freedom – the freedom to do what you like, or might like to do, without being interfered with coercively by others. 

This approach to freedom almost sounds more anti-capitalist than luck egalitarianism. Let’s say our primary focus was to maximise freedom and that people should have equal freedom – I mean it’s a very common assumption that everyone should be equally free. Then if there’s a pretty straightforward connection between property and wealth, on the one hand, and freedom on the other, you’re not going to get this equal distribution of freedom without an equal distribution of wealth and income, which is more egalitarian than the luck egalitarian framework which allows and justifies certain inequalities.

If two people have different amounts of income and wealth, then one of has more negative freedom than the other in an immediate sense. But is that a problem in terms of justice? On the luck egalitarian view, we’d have to look at why one of them has more income and wealth than the other. Is it due to lifestyle choice or is it due to the factors over which the disadvantaged had no control. Only if it’s the latter, would there then be a justice-based case for correcting the inequality. But you’re right – if you put to one side the luck egalitarian view, and you just say, ‘Justice is equality of negative freedom at each and every moment in time’, then that looks like it might well support a degree of distribution that the luck egalitarian would be unhappy with.

Of course, there is another complication here. A luck egalitarian might also say, ‘Well, if you care about freedom, then you ought to care about people to some extent experiencing the consequences of their choices’. If I have more income than you because I choose to work harder, not because I’m just born with greater talent, then respecting freedom, caring about freedom, would seem to gel with the luck egalitarian idea that you should respect the income inequality that results from the different choices that people make. So even if you do take the view that justice is simply about equal freedom, there might be something a bit dodgy about trying to strictly equalise income at all moments in time, regardless of the choices that people make.

Another reason why the left is sometimes accused of being hostile to freedom is that the kinds of policies which might redistribute wealth are ones that have traditionally involved a lot of state action, and seem to empower the state significantly. Those policies themselves have been criticised by various strands of the left, of course. But it’s in this context that I’d ask you to bring the idea of ‘republican democracy’, because one of the starting points of that idea is a hostility to an overly empowered state. So can you tell us a bit about republicanism, and its connection with freedom.

In answering the question about freedom and equality I stressed how the left can rebut some arguments of the right by appealing to the straightforward notion of negative liberty. That’s not to say there aren’t refinements or revisions to this notion of liberty that aren’t also worth making.

One of the proposed revisions that some have come up with in recent years, notably Phillip Pettit and the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, is the idea that we should think of freedom not, or not simply, as the absence of interference but as the absence of domination (Pettit, 1997, Skinner, 1998).

The example that Pettit and Skinner give to illustrate the difference is that of a master and a slave where the slave’s master is either very lazy or very benevolent. The master, being lazy or benevolent, doesn’t actually coercively interfere with the slave’s actions very much. So if you think of freedom simply as the absence of interference, it might look as if the slave has a lot of freedom. But the point that Skinner and Pettit make is that nevertheless as a slave this individual is subject at all times to the master’s power to interfere at his or her will. And merely to be subject to that kind of power of interference at somebody else’s discretion, to live ‘at the mercy of another’ as Rousseau put it, that is destructive of one’s freedom. One of the ideas associated with republicanism is the idea that it’s the job of the state to promote liberty as non-domination in this sense.

This has implications both for the structure of the state itself – we want the state to have a non-dominating relationship to individual citizens, and this might imply that the state has to be not simply democratic, but that there have to be various kinds of checks and balances within the state to prevent relationships of domination emerging. It also has implications for thinking about the character of our social relationships: we don’t want social relationships between employers and workers, or between partners in a household, to exhibit domination. Hence we need to think about how economic institutions are structured to prevent such domination.

The second part, including references, follows soon.

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First published: 28 July, 2010

Category: Philosophy and Theory

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17 Comments on "Political Philosophy and the Left"

By Ben, on 30 July 2010 - 14:00 |

I take issue with some of the assumptions here.

For example, it is not unjust to reward greater talent with greater reward.

On the contrary, from the point of view of the one doing the rewarding, it is unjust to be forced to reward lesser talent with equal reward.  If I wish the services of a greater talent, it is my Human Right to offer more of my resources to attract it, and it would be unjust of me to then force you to offer the same level of reward to the lesser.

By Mordy, on 30 July 2010 - 18:18 |

Ben, I believe you’re misreading the discussion. There is no assumption that it’s unjust to reward greater talent with greater reward. White and Lewis are simply putting forward a way of thinking about equality—what they call luck egalitarianism. You are perfectly free to disagree with this particular way of thinking about justice and equality, and in fact they offer some other paradigms to consider, such as a meritocracy.

By Ed, on 31 July 2010 - 19:40 |

Exactly what Stuart White believes might not be totally apparent, I guess, since I asked him about what a leftist approach to equality would be, not what he thinks the right approach is. However, it’s pretty clear that he does actually endorse aspects of luck egalitarianism, though not all of it - as a leftist himself, what he considers to be the best that the left has to offer is pretty much what he himself endorses.

However, whatever Stuart thinks, the more important question is whether or not Ben’s challenge to luck egalitarianism is a good one.

Ben thinks we have an entitlement to use our resources to procure for ourselves the services of those with greater talent. If we were prevented from doing this, our human rights would apparently be violated (I would say the more intuitive line would be that our freedom would be violated, but anyway). Well, one trivial point to make is that there are almost certainly some limits on what we may justifiably do with our resources. A racist employer is not justified in preventing people from racial minorities from working for them, in my view. Nor, I would say, are racist shop-keepers entitled to prevent such people from purchasing their goods (analogously, recall the debate about the homophobic couple who didn‘t allow a gay couple to stay in their bed and breakfast: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/7495764/Gay-couple-turned-away-from-BandB.html). If justice agrees with me here, then justice supports limits on what people may do with their resources.

One possible reason why justice may support such limitations on resource-use is that it makes some people worse off than others due to factors over which they have no control. Well, if that is something we object to, then we are also committed to people not being made worse off than others because of ANY factors which they can’t control. This is luck egalitarianism. And of course, the relevant factors include your genetic endowment and the social environment of your upbringing - both of which play significant roles in determining the talents that you end up with. So is it really so bad to say that people shouldn’t use their resources in such a way that violate the outcomes desired by luck egalitarians?

It’s also worth pointing out that the focus need not really be on what people do with their resources, in terms of paying others to provide services and so on. To take an example used by the ultra-right philosopher Robert Nozick, suppose lots of people want to go and see a guy called Wilt Chamberlain play basketball, and they part with their money to do so. We can have an egalitarian society in which this is perfectly possible, but because of the rules about income distribution, Chamberlain doesn’t become rich as a result. Are the human rights of the punters violated as a result? Doesn’t look that way to me

(Nozick, of course, thought that unless Chamberlain did become rich in this scenario, then freedom must be unjustly violated. But I think this is pretty obviously false. If you’re interested in a discussion of it, though, see again G.A, Cohen - Robert Nozick and Wilt Chamberlain: How Patterns Preserve Liberty, in his book Self-Ownerhsip, Freedom and Equality).

By Grant, on 02 August 2010 - 04:19 |

Mordy, how can you say there is “There is no assumption that it’s unjust to reward greater talent with greater reward?”  From the article, luck egalitarianism posits that “If I’m earning less than you just because I’m genetically endowed with less strength or less intelligence, this inequality is unjust.”  That’s not a conclusion based on particular assumptions, as written, its a straight up assumption.

By Dennis Whitcomb, on 02 August 2010 - 15:14 |

Very nice discussion. Thanks for posting it.

By Robert Hockett, on 02 August 2010 - 15:42 |

Very nice distillation of the content ,and contemporary policy relevance, of much of the best work in justice theory done over the past several decades.  Bravo.  One other point worth drawing out more, I think: many on the right, too, are committed to a luck egalitarian conception of justice—by their ‘equal opportunity’ rhetoric if by nothing else.  The problem is that they fail spectacularly to follow through on their own commitments. Doubtless this is one reason that Dworkin has suggested that his conception of justice has something in common with the ‘third way’ advocates of the 1990s. The right emphasized responsibility, the left equality, and the third way for took root in the observation that there is no inherhent conflict between these values—indeed, quite the contrary.

By Alan, on 02 August 2010 - 17:02 |

Grant. There is an important difference between (A) If greater talent receives a greater reward, then it is unjust. And (B) If greater talent receives a greater reward AND that talent is solely the result of a genetic endowment, then it is unjust. B may be true while A is false. Mordy says that A is not assumed, and the quote you use is an instance of B. So, the quote does not contradict Mordy.

I’ll also note that it’s plausible for A to be false. A is plausible because rewarding greater talent that results solely from a person’s hard work is not unjust. Perhaps two twins, treated equally by family and social institutions, are both surgeons. One practices, the other doesn’t. Surely it’s just that the one with better talent via practice gets greater reward.  That’s a counterexample to A.

By Big Fez, on 03 August 2010 - 16:25 |

“If the state comes along and arranges property rights so that there is a more equal distribution of income, it is not reducing liberty as such: it is changing the distribution of it so that we get a more equal distribution of negative liberty.” I think most people are familiar with the ways in which the state can take away negative liberty, but can it really give it back out again? Is there a way, in your example, to give people the legal permissions they require to get on a train wherever they want ? I am not just talking about the practical problems, but fundamentally whether it is possible to ‘give’ people freedom, in the narrow, negative sense. Could a permission derived from a redistributing state ever be this kind of freedom? And, if not, is it still a kind of freedom we value enough for it to outweigh the restriction on those who are taxed to fund it?

By Chris Read, on 04 August 2010 - 12:56 |

Nozick’s introduction to his magnificent ostrich ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’ says ‘well, I’ll just assume humans have the right to own private property, cos Locke said so, so deal with it!’. I think the problem with anglo-american political philosophy is that it departs from a liberal standpoint and assumes private property and bourgeois rights without investigating their historical and social underpinnings. Plus in order to ‘own’, say, land, pencils, cars or cushions you need a police force to make sure some longhaired vagabond doesn’t make the same claim and steal it from you. Or perhaps just the M16 you smuggled back from Nam will do! This is really the whole problem with conceptions of negative liberty - they’re based on the peculiar foundation that we can somehow ‘own’ things so that taxation or state action is taking something of ‘ours’ away. Does that mean our Mum’s ‘own’ us?

By Stuart White, on 04 August 2010 - 15:31 |

I agree with the general gist of your comment at 9, but I was puzzled by this comment: ‘the problem with anglo-american political philosophy is that it departs from a liberal standpoint and assumes private property and bourgeois rights without investigating their historical and social underpinnings.’

Doesn’t the interview offer ample evidence that ‘anglo-american political philosophy’ is also a useful instrument for critiquing widespread assumptions about ‘private property’ and ‘bourgeois rights’?

(I’ll try to reply to some of the other comments (Ben, Big Fez) in the not too distant future.)

By Marcos, on 04 August 2010 - 16:52 |

I agree with Chris that in order to challenge orthodox views on ‘redistribution’ we need to challenge directly the ideas of ownership on which these arguments rely. So which is theft, property or taxation?

By Big Fez, on 09 August 2010 - 16:44 |

Sorry to rake over semi-old coals. But.
@Chris Read:
In fairness to Nozick, he is explicit that the structure of his argument is to start by simply assuming those ‘basic’ notions, and see how far they can go in explaining our more complicated moral and political practices. That he is able to explain as much as he does starting from such a skimpy basis then offers some kind of support for these principles.

By Andyg123, on 26 August 2010 - 20:49 |

I’m confused about Stuart White’s train example concerning positive/negative liberty.  If I understand negative liberty correctly it’s a lack of coercion from others; positive is the ability to do what one wants.  It sounds like the non-ticket holder *wants* to ride a train and so should have the liberty to do so (positive liberty).  The ticket holder doesn’t have the legal right because another person (i.e. the train owner) has that legal right, in the form of private property.  How can we get the rights to switch?  One way is by forcing the train owner to give a seat to that person; you would have to *coerce* her to do so, right?  Isn’t it exactly the same freedom-equality tradeoff White is arguing against?  (The other way would be to allow the train owner to voluntarily sell/give the seat to the non-ticket holder, without coercion).  I might be wrong—would appreciate any clarification.

By Ed, on 26 August 2010 - 23:11 |


It’s worth noting that Stuart doesn’t actually mention positive liberty at all. But I think that your definition of positive liberty fails to draw a clear line between positive and negative liberty. After all, his account of negative liberty means that you have it when you are not stopped from doing what you want. The only way in which this might not amount to what you are calling positive freedom is that you included the word ‘ability’ in your definition of that term (I could be unable to do something i wanted despite not being restricted from doing so by others - flying unaided any mechanical device, for example. I’ll come back to this). In any case, however, negative freedom is all that the impoverished train-passenger needs in order to get where she wants to go. She wants to be able to do something - take the train - without being prevented from doing so by others. So she just wants negative liberty; she doesn’t need positive liberty, whatever it is.

In order to ensure that she can take the train, then, we can give her money to do so, thus enhancing her negative freedom. Let’s say this comes about through increasing tax on people in the income bracket the train owner is in. Or (following your example) say the state issues her with a pass for the trains, and tells the train owner that she will just have to let anyone with such a pass on the train. Either way, the train owner is having her negative liberty reduced - by losing money, or losing some aspect of her control over the train, the scope of things she can do without coercive interference by others has been reduced. Consequently, we have a freedom-freedom tradeoff, not a freedom-equality tradeoff - if we implement either of the policies mentioned, the passenger’s freedom goes up, and the owner’s goes down.

Lastly, coming back to what positive freedom might be. Your account of the positive/negative freedom distinction is reminiscent of very condensed versions Berlin’s distinction which boil down to: negative freedom = ‘freedom from’, positive freedom = ‘freedom to’. But I think this is wrong. When you’re free from the coercive interference of others (negative freedom), you’re free *to* do something. The barrier placed by coercive interference is a barrier against being able *to do* something. So negative freedom must involve ‘freedom to’ as well as ‘freedom from’, and so positive freedom isn’t simply ‘freedom to’. But nor is it generally seen as synonymous with ability. It doesn’t look as though I lack any kind of freedom in not being able to teleport myself round the world at will, but I do lack an ability. Also, of course, we don’t need a new term if we are just going to say that postive freedom = ability - we can just stick with the word ‘ability’. So what is positive freedom? There are different accounts. Berlin, who introduced the negative/positive distinction - talks about ‘self-mastery’, by which at times he may mean rational self-mastery. If what you are aiming to do is driven by appetite rather than reason, then maybe you lack freedom. If we feel that an addict who gets what they crave is nonetheless not entirely free as they do so, then it seems we are using a conception of freedom that goes beyond negative freedom.

This is way too long. But just for reference - there’s a great discussion of all this stuff in Adam Swift - Political Philosophy: A Beginners Guide.

By Ed, on 26 August 2010 - 23:14 |

p.s. just to note that i use the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ synonymously in my comment above

By Andyg123, on 29 August 2010 - 15:11 |

wink  Honestly, I feel more confused about the two types of freedom Berlin discusses….  The freedom from/freedom to dichotomy seems pretty standard (but, perhaps, imprecise), but I think I need to research more.  Thanks for your thoughts on that issue.

I’m particularly interested in one of the conclusions you mentioned: “Consequently, we have a freedom-freedom tradeoff, not a freedom-equality tradeoff - if we implement either of the policies mentioned, the passenger’s freedom goes up, and the owner’s goes down.”  

So, it sounds like we’d be willing to take away freedom from one person.  That—“take away freedom from someone”—just sounds like a very strong action to take, and kind of makes me squirm.

Have you seen the trailer for 2081 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vi6TTNKdgSk)?  The movie (and Vonnegut’s short story) seems to be taking this very conclusion to an absurd, scary level; I’m worried that this in effect what we’re suggesting.  In the story, if one person has more ability than another, they are handicapped to create a world where everyone has equal freedoms.  The strong wear weights, the beautiful wear masks, etc.  

One more question—if we implement a policy where the train owner is forced to give a ticket (either directly, or by taxation) and she—the owner—loses money such that the owner is forced to quit or decides to pursue less-taxed activities and the train is shut down, aren’t hundreds of people then hurt by losing the freedom to get the service of that train?  Are there second-order consequences that could limit freedoms of others as we try and optimize for one individual? [Of course, the money lost on one ticket wouldn’t shut down a train—I’m assuming many individuals would be given the opportunity to ride the train despite being to poor to do so.]

By Ed, on 29 August 2010 - 17:58 |

On positive and negative freedom - I again refer you to that book by Swift. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Political-Philosophy-Beginners-Students-Politicians/dp/0745635326 But t.o respond to your point - it may be that ‘positive freedom = “freedom to”’ is something that can be found in Berlin’s essay , Two Concepts of Liberty - I haven’t read all of it - but even if it is, it seems to be a bit of a useless rendering of the concept, for the reasons I gave. But there are also other things in Berlin’s essay, such as linking positive freedom to the mastering of oneself by one’s rational part. This seems to have more going for it.  In fact, Swift thinks that there are three different types of positive freedom can be found in Berlin’s essay, all of them workable concepts. But none are simply ‘freedom to’.

On the sinister sound of ‘taking away someone’s freedom’. If we’re clear about what kind of freedom we’re talking about, then I think this worry should dissolve. The point is that Cohen is saying that, basically, the more money you have, the more (negative) freedom you have - the more things you can do without being coercively interfered with by others. So, yes, redistributive taxation takes this kind of freedom away from some and gives it to others. But there’s only so much of it to go around anyway, so long as we are in a state which enforces property rights and monetary contracts - so if the current distribution is unjust, then we shouldn’t we change it?

As for your worry about the imposition of dull conformity in the name of equality - you need to show that this follows from any of the positions that we’re considering, in order for it be legitimate. I don’t think it does follow from anything that Stuart or Jerry Cohen, say, advocate. Let’s say we wanted equal negative freedom - which Stuart doesn’t, as comes out clearly in the interview: would this lead to the kind of dystopia you describe? No. Remember the difference between freedom and ability. On the view of negative freedom under discussion, if you are blind and I am not, you’re no less free than me. This serves as a reminder that negative freedom - freedom as the lack of coercive interference - is by no means the only relevant value.

This last point brings out something else - I assume that there are different values which must be weighed against each other. Let’s say that the value of equality pointed in the direction of Vonnegut’s dystopia. Well, for the sake of, say,  personal autonomy, aggregate happiness and diversity, we might say that equality would then need to be tempered. A different example is more instructive - research has shown that the amount and nature of conversation that children have with their parents/carers, plus things like bedtime stories, has an effect on the educational prospects of those children. Well, the children who benefit from more conversation and stories are, on a luck egalitarian perspective, benefiting unjustly. But how can this injustice be rectified? I’d say that you can’t do it by having the state intervene in family life - this would be an unacceptable violation of freedom or autonomy. So this might indeed be a case of a freedom-equality tradeoff. That’s nothing to be worried about, if you have a pluralistic conception of the values that should govern social life.

I will comment on your last point a bit later - I’ve gone on long enough!

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