Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* A Plea for Understanding--Beyond False Dilemmas on the Net, by Charles Ess

Negative Freedom

Philosophers in the modern era distinguish between two elements of freedom: negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative freedom stresses freedom as freedom from constraints--the constraints of external coercion (whether brute force, laws, or their enforcement mechanisms), the more subtle forces of social pressures to conform, etc. This conception of freedom is stressed precisely in the modern era, beginning with philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes.

[[]Cooper discusses Hobbesian thought]

There is general agreement, however, that by itself, this conception of freedom is inadequate. Most simply: it tells us to be free from constraints--but it tells us nothing about what we are free to undertake. As philosophers from Locke and Jefferson, Rousseau and Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche have pointed out--without positive foundations and guidelines for "what to do" with our freedom, we are likely to fall into several undesirable traps. One is to be left simply to the promptings of desire: such arationality, however, is not usually regarded as a prescription for individual fulfillment or social progress.

A second problem is the trap of falling back into unfreedom: if all I know is that I must be free from the constraints of the larger community--the tendency is to "choose" not to do what "they" would have me do, while "choosing" to do what "they" would have me not do.

The paradox of negative freedom is that precisely at the moment when I believe I am most free--because I am free from the constraints of the larger community--without some further positive guideline to shape my acts, the community still controls my "freedom": if all I have is negative freedom, then all I can do is react negatively to whatever guidelines and directions the larger community may take.

The alternative is -- positive freedom.

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