Positive & Negative Liberty: External vs. Intrinsic Restrictions

In this article, I will analyze Isaiah Berlin’s treatise, “Two Concepts of Liberty” and Charles Taylor’s essay, “What’s Wrong With Negative Liberty.”

(1) I will look at the distinctions Berlin makes between positive and negative liberty and why Taylor holds that positive liberty is more beneficial to liberalism.

(2) Then I will discuss my view that Taylor falsely concluded that negative freedom is inadequate due to how it does not take into account intrinsic desires and self-understanding.

(3) And finally, I will argue for the reductive Hobbesian view that he argues against and then raise an objection that Taylor could respond with to these views.

A Brief Summary of Berlin’s View

Isaiah Berlin writes that ‘Positive Freedom’ is when individuals can freely make deliberate choices to actions. Freedom is real only to the extent that it can be felt by the individual. If you are restricted and unable to act on your desires as you wish, your desires are being coerced by some external or totalitarian force. ‘Negative Freedom,’ paradoxically, is restricting other individuals in order to guarantee freedom to the collective.

Personal liberty, notably, always infringes on the rights of others. Whenever we speak publically, we will inevitably infringe on those around us. Freedom, according to Berlin, is thus self-defeating in essence.

You cannot experience freedom without imposing on others rights.

Berlin thus believes that positive liberty will not suffice for a liberal democracy. We have to primarily rely on negative liberty.

A Brief Summary of Taylor’s View

Taylor writes that Berlin misrepresents positive liberty and says that external restrictions are not enough to guarantee freedom. He claims that this view does not take into account personal motivations which he expands on by distinguishing between what he calls an ‘exercise-concept’ and ‘opportunity-concept.’

If you have the freedom to shape yourself as much to your liking, you are exercising control and fall under his definition of an exercise-concept. Taylor writes that this form of freedom is essential to democracies. An opportunity to realize your potential is not enough because if a desire has never arisen due to restrictions on your personhood you were never free (99).

Taylor argues that external restrictions are crucial and that by noticing the differences between good and bad external restrictions we can also notice the difference between inner constraints. An insignificant restriction, such as ticketing citizens when not stopping at traffic lights, is not a difficult trade-off for safety. Whereas, imposing on the right to Religious Freedom, is.

There are different types of restrictions that we consider more restrictive in a democracy. We subconsciously classify restrictions on our freedom into different categories and prioritize some over others. Taylor calls this method of distinguishing between actions and desire, the ‘fact of strong evaluation’ and claims that categorization does not only extend between choosing different actions but also in choosing between different desires.

If we go to the pub on a Saturday night, to use his example, we are fighting between what philosophers of mind call our first-order and second-order desire. Our first-order desire is to have a drink and our second-order desire is being conscious of our impulse and possibly abstaining from it. These desires are central to who we are even if we experience them randomly or by mistake.

My Objection

I would like to argue that neither first-order or second-order desires are taking away from our freedom. You can not choose what you desire, you are subject to your desires even when you are under the illusion of choosing them.

This can clearly be seen in computational mechanics. In a computer, you have reactive qualities because you have overrides. In the human brain, however, reactions to emotions happen automatically. A thought arises in consciousness, you have an emotional reaction to it, and then you will act on it. The grey zone isn’t the desire, as Taylor makes it out to be. The grey zone is the concept of the self, the ‘I’ that is thinking. Regardless of your second-order desire, you will act on the desire. If you feel the desire to go to the pub, and do not act on that desire because of a feeling of guilt, you are still responding to intrinsic desire, namely guilt. Taylor claims that succumbing to first-order desires takes away from freedom but I do not see why that is the case as the distinction between first and second-order desires is not what we should be focusing on.

Freedom in my view can only be that which is imposed externally as self-understanding is too lucid a concept.

A Thought Experiment: Your Mind on MDMA

Let us picture this with a thought experiment. Imagine you are in a room and happen to be sedated with serotonin around a group of peers. The serotonin makes you more attached to every person that enters the room at random.

Are the feelings of attachment that arise in the brain real? Arguably, yes. The emotional attachment you feel towards people despite being induced by chemicals are not separate from the mind. They are indistinguishable.

Most of thought that arises spontaneously in the brain is a chemical response. Those that are controlled only by first-order desires are only acting in response to the chemical reactions that happen in the brain at random, similar to how the people in our thought experiment enter the room. This Hobbesian “reductive-materialist metaphysics,” is not taking away from our desires as Taylor says it does (105). There really is nothing other than the reductive state of mind that Hobbes spoke of.

Taylor insists that he has disposed of the Hobbesian view by clarifying that there are many internal obstacles and not just external ones.

He claims that freedom could be re-defined as both an absence to internal and external obstacles (105). The negative theorist needs to defend the view that we can never be wrong about our desires, a view that I defended with my thought experiment. It is unlikely to know when we are wrong, even if we were sedated with serotonin. We are still responding to intrinsic desires that are indistinguishable from our regular state of mind.

There is nothing other than the reductive state of mind that Hobbes spoke of.

An Objection to My View

A possible objection that Taylor can raise against my view is that this still does not dispose of the essence of distinguishing between action and reaction. Even if a second-order desire is a conscious response to impulsive action, we still are able to distinguish between them. With the brain, this is more difficult to exemplify which makes me doubt the premise. But with computer mechanics, it could be much more clear, as a piece of programming has built-in responses to actions.

Even with my thought experiment, that attempts to show that decisions made in chemically-induced states of mind are still decisions made freely, we would have to be able to analyze the mind as if it were a computer program in order to show that intrinsic obstacles are not primarily what infringes on our freedom.

Needless to say, internal obstacles are always dependant on external obstacles. As a society, we value not going to the pub because we value external decisions, such as being with your partner, having a good night rest, or working, more than we value leisure.

Freedom — in my view — can only be that which is imposed externally since self-understanding is too abstract & lucid.


I have analyzed Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty and together with him concluded that self-understanding is not essential to liberalism. Then we have discussed the opportunity and exercise concepts and how both are essential to liberalism. We have, however, seen that internal obstacles are difficult to define as self-understanding is only possible in computational mechanics. Taylor, in my view, does not prove that internal obstacles impose on our freedom. I agree with Berlin that the only understanding that is necessary for providing freedom is the degree to which I can choose my ideas and purposes (94).

Works Cited

Stewart, Robert M. Readings in Social and Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 1996.

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Jakub Ferencik

Author of “Up in the Air” & “Beyond Reason” available on AMAZON | MA McGill Uni | Research assistant for EUROPEUM Prague | 550+ blog posts with 1+ mil. views