What is this “positive” concept of freedom?

Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished a “negative” and a “positive” concept of freedom. The negative concept is straightforward, but what can be made of the positive concept? Too often, attempts to distinguish them rely on a superficial linguistic difference between the terms ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. For example, it might be said that negative freedom is freedom from external constraints, whereas positive freedom “represents freedom to do things on one’s own volition.” [Taken from here.]

But that simply won’t do. Agents only ever do things because they want to do them. In other words, any genuine act (rather than a mere twitch, or a frogmarch) is done as the result of the agent’s own volition, and it only can be done when the act is not hindered by external constraints. And that amounts to a “negative” re-formulation of what was intended to capture the essence of “positive” freedom.

Perhaps what’s meant is something like this. If a person is forced to do something under duress — at gunpoint, say — then although he does it because he (briefly) “wants” to do it while the gun is aimed at his head, he can hardly be said to do it on his own volition. A mugger threatens him with death, and he’d prefer to live despite handing over his money than die holding on to it. This is not a free act, surely?

Well, of course the mugging victim is not free. But his lack of freedom can be characterized in an entirely negative way. Although he wanted to hand over his money while held at gunpoint, and that narrowly-circumscribed act in isolation could be described as “free” (no policeman suddenly turned up to prevent him doing so), that is to consider events within far too narrow a context. He had a much stronger, longer-term want not to be mugged. That want — considered in the larger context — was thwarted by his actually being mugged. The mugger was an external constraint that prevented the victim from doing what he wanted to do. So the victim was not free to go about his business unmolested, and therefore he was not free — for entirely “negative” reasons.

Notice that the word ‘free’ applies both to agents and to acts, and furthermore, acts have to be considered within contexts of varying scope. This invites confusion, as the word’s meaning can slide almost imperceptibly between them. (I started the last paragraph with a subtle shift of my own by giving an answer about an agent to a question about an act.)

When the negative concept of freedom seems to suggest that a man being mugged is “free” to give money to his mugger, some are drawn to the idea that we need a more robust concept of freedom than this negative one. And here thoughts usually turn to autonomy — to the idea of self-rule, of being the author of one’s own acts. It sounds silly or sinister to say that the mugging victim was “free” to hand over his money, because he lacks autonomy. The next obvious step is to embrace a concept of freedom that links it with autonomy.

The concept of autonomy is quite similar to that of power, specifically inner strength. To achieve something, we don’t just need an absence of external obstacles, we also need the wherewithal to act — the “muscle”,  if you like, for movement to occur.

I think we need to proceed carefully here. To act at all, we need power — quite literally we need muscle to lift a finger, and in an extended sense we need various mental abilities. To act successfully — which goes beyond merely acting — we need an absence of obstacles that would prevent our acts achieving their goals. We should observe and respect this distinction. Greater power tends to bring with it greater freedom, but power and freedom remain distinct concepts, as one is a prerequisite of action, while the other is a prerequisite of success.

Hobbes memorably said that a man “fastened to his bed by sickness” did not lack freedom but power. In saying this, Hobbes exhibited a remarkable degree of political sensitivity. We have a legitimate prima facie claim against other agents who put limits on our freedom, but no such claim against mere circumstances (rather than agents) that make us internally weak. (Of course what one historical era counts as weakness can later be regarded as the effect of human agency.)

It seems to me that we need both a concept of power, and a distinct concept of freedom. But as far as freedom is concerned, the negative concept is all anyone needs. Most attempts to define the positive concept are in fact just alternative ways of defining the negative concept. “Freedom from” and “freedom to” are inter-definable, the two definitions in effect pointing to figure and ground that share lines of demarcation. Freedom to do X is just the same thing as an ability to do X thanks to the lack of external constraints that prevent one doing X. To be an autonomous agent is to have both the power to act, and the freedom to act, the latter understood negatively.

Yet, there is a positive concept of freedom. I know this because Rousseau used it, Marx used it, and it is presupposed in almost every ringing patriotic declaration of national freedom. This concept of freedom is expressed in rather mystical-sounding claims that to be free one must partake in the “general will”; that one can be “forced to be free”; that one must beware of “false consciousness”; that one’s “true self” must take control over one’s merely “empirical self”; that being free means embracing the “destiny of the nation”; or whatever.

As I see it, the essential difference between positive and negative freedom is this: having positive freedom means more than simply being able to get what you want — it means wanting the right things, usually understood in some implicitly moral sense. The various goods that are thought to empower those who have positive freedom — such as education, “strength of will”, etc. — are things that many people do not in fact strive for. But according to those who understand freedom positively, they ought to strive for them, for their own empowerment.

Implicit “oughts” are an essential ingredient in the positive concept. In Rousseau’s terms, being free means partaking in the “general will”, in other words not simply pursuing goals one already happens to have, but adopting larger goals as one’s own. Only with that essential extra ingredient can people be “forced to be free” or considered unfree if their “empirical selves” fall short of the “self-realisation” enjoyed by their “true selves” (in Berlin’s terminology). Ideas such as “false consciousness” only make sense against the background assumption that being free means wanting the right things as well as being able to achieve them.

These mystical-sounding appeals aren’t exactly to autonomy per se, but to something like the additional power that agents would acquire if they adopted goals — equality, justice, truth, whatever — shared by members of a group.

This is a deeply illiberal understanding of freedom, and I think a confusion of power and freedom lies at the root of the positive concept.

Have we had enough of experts?

Michael Gove’s remark that “the people of this country have had enough of experts” has become the most quoted incomplete quotation since “there’s no such thing as society”.

A more complete version goes like this: “the people of this country have had enough of experts saying that they know what is best.”

That extra bit is important, because it shows that Gove was not referring to people with knowhow, i.e. people with practical skills, but to people who claim to know that something or other is the case (or know that something should be pursued as a goal). That’s a vital difference.

We all accept that some of us have practical skills or abilities that others don’t have. Pilots are better at landing planes than non-pilots. By some miracle, I was able to put new tyres on my bike yesterday. And so on. No one means to disparage this strictly practical sort of “expertise”.

But when we move on from knowhow to claims to know that something is the case, things are quite different. The main difference between them is that a claim is true or false, but a practical skill is neither true nor false. It’s just “there” in an agent’s repertoire. Is isn’t tested in the same way as claims such as scientific hypotheses are tested, but it is “put to the test” in the sense that we can quite easily judge how well someone is driving a bus, playing a violin, fixing the plumbing, or whatever. We can see practical expertise with our own eyes, especially its results, and so we can fairly reliably check whether someone has it.

The difference is especially sharp with claims in areas that are highly specialised, speculative, tentative, exploratory, theoretical, unusual, technical, complicated, abstract, arcane, etc. (henceforth I’ll just say “specialised”). With specialised claims, unless we are specialists ourselves, the best most of us can do is take someone else’s word for it, usually that of a supposed authority. Typically, such an authority will be someone with similar qualifications to the person making the claim. To find out whether a theologian’s specialised theological claim can be trusted, it seems we have to ask another theologian.

I hope it’s obvious how problematic this “non-independent checking” of expertise is bound to be. I’ll leave it as an exercise whether “peer review” fits this pattern.

Taking the word of an authority as a guide to truth is so antithetical to the scientific enterprise that one of science’s most highly respected bodies — the Royal Society — adopted as its motto an explicit warning to not do it: nullius in verba.

But even if we are lucky and have enough specialised training of our own not to have to take anyone else’s word for it, specialised claims are still “long shots” in an epistemic sense. I’ll try to explain. We can’t have absolute certainty about any sort of factual claim, but we can have more confidence in our beliefs about everyday things than we can in our beliefs about non-everyday things. For example, we can tell whether it’s raining or not just by looking out of the window. There’s a direct link (via light and the eyes) between the rain falling from the sky and our mental state of believing it’s raining. So direct is this link that the beliefs it sustains are formed in a reliable way: usually, if it is raining, we believe it’s raining; and if it’s not raining, we believe it isn’t raining. Forming beliefs about everyday matters like these is as reliable as “pushing a thumbtack into a noticeboard right in front of us”. But then forming beliefs about specialised matters is as unreliable as “shooting an arrow at a distant target”: it’s riskier — we’re more likely to “miss”, i.e. to get it wrong.

Science is one of the most valuable of human enterprises because of its ability to reveal the hidden structures of reality. But in doing so the claims it makes are like arrows shot at distant targets. These shots at distant targets are often revelatory, but they’re less certain than the more obvious truths of more pedestrian pursuits. The history of science bears this out: every branch is a string of theories once accepted as true, but later shown to be false. We have to accept that much of what is currently accepted in science is also bound to be exposed as false in the future. And what applies to science, where testing is de rigueur, applies a fortiori to specialised disciplines where there is less testing, such as philosophy and economics.

Language often plays tricks on us, especially when a single word refers to more than one thing. Words like ‘expertise’ and ‘expert’ are ambiguous in just that way. They can apply to practical skills in the hands of evidently capable agents, or to claims made by specialists using distinctly unreliable opinion-forming methods, which always includes soaking up the current orthodoxy of their peers. Let us cherish and respect the former, but treat the latter with due scepticism.

It’s especially important to be on our guard against this ambiguity when a single person seems to be in possession of both sorts of “expertise”. For example, a good doctor can exhibit the first sort of expertise by routinely diagnosing and curing illnesses. But one and the same doctor is also likely to have specialised opinions about (say) preventative medicine. The first is admirable. The second may sound impressive, but it’s really very much less trustworthy than it sounds coming from someone we already recognise as a “good doctor”. Yet we refer to both as “expertise”, and I think are inclined to trust both despite their very different epistemic status. We admire the person for the first sort of expertise, but then exaggerate his skill in the second.

Modern medicine has recently come to realise that its own advice on saturated fats — so confidently drummed into the ignorant masses for decades — is probably mistaken. This is absolutely typical of specialised opinion. There are abundant examples of specialised opinions coming to grief in much the same way in other disciplines.

The confusion of the two senses of the word ‘expert’ is so insidious that many people can’t resist the lure of expert opinion. They think it’s laughable or ridiculous to be more sceptical about it than about everyday opinion. When you point out to them that the opinion of an expert on almost any matter conflicts with the opinion of some other expert on exactly the same matter, they typically appeal to the majority: if most of the experts agree, they say, then the rest of us should take that as authoritative. But that hardly settles things, as any such opinion currently held by the majority of experts was at a previous time the opinion of a minority of experts, and going back still further, before the idea occurred to anyone, it was the opinion of no experts at all.

A show of hands is not a reliable way of serving truth — the question of God’s existence is not to be settled by calling for a vote in a roomful of theologians. Nor is the question of whether to stay in the EU settled by a vote among economists.

On a given topic in a given area of specialisation, most ordinary people simply won’t have any opinion at all. For example, I don’t have an opinion about quantitative easing. We might admire the diligence of anyone who does have an opinion about it, but we mustn’t allow ourselves to assume that his opinion is true. Very often specialised opinion is simply the less common alternative to having no opinion at all.

The revelatory power of science doesn’t depend on how confident we can be in the claims it makes, but when we make rational political decisions, confidence really does matter. That’s why cautious conservatives (small C) tend to be uneasy about specialist opinion in politics. Edmund Burke, “father of modern conservatism”, singled out philosophers and economists as being exactly the wrong sort of people to entrust with critical political decisions. Better decisions are more likely to be made by ordinary people from various walks of life, who have picked up practical skills though everyday living and working. It may not sound as impressive as mighty romantic schemes for future utopias, but a nation can suffer worse fates than becoming “a nation of shopkeepers”.

So far, I’ve taken “knowledge of what is best” to mean knowledge of factual matters, so that the experts Gove thinks we’ve “had enough of” presume to tell others about “is”s rather than “ought”s. A more obvious alternative is to take it to mean “knowledge of what is valuable”.

Here I follow Hume in taking a very simple approach. What is valuable is just what agents regard as valuable, what they treat as having value, what they choose, what they strive for in action, and so on. In a word, what is best for anyone is simply what they prefer. But over their own preferences, each individual is “sovereign”, as JS Mill put it. No individual’s preference can be gainsaid by any other individual. To do so would be a sort of usurpation. For example, homosexuals prefer to have sex with people of the same sex. No expert could conceivably overrule that preference, because homosexual desires, being desires, are neither true nor false. This is a humane liberal insight as well as a Humean point of logic: you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. “The heart wants what the heart wants”, in other words, and no expert can do anything about that, however big-headed an expert he may be.

In a liberal democracy, voting has to be understood as an expression of preference rather than the utterance of an opinion. What a voter says he prefers when he casts his vote can’t be gainsaid by an expert telling him that he doesn’t want “the right thing” enough.

Ah well… it’s all academic now. On the most superficial level, Gove was evidently right: the referendum result confirmed that UK voters had indeed had enough of experts telling them to vote Remain, and the majority voted Leave instead. I would have voted Remain had I lived in the UK, but as the result was becoming clear, I changed my mind because I’m a democrat. I recommend other Remain voters do so too.