4.3.7 Freedom and truth

Back to 4.3.6

Unit 4 Contents


To begin, re-read the initial, brief discussion of the relation of freedom and truth in Unit 1.


Re-reading (2pp)

VPlater, Module B, 1.3.5, ‘Protection of human freedom’


By way of the example of whether we are more free if we have 2000 rather than 1000 oranges to choose from, that screen made the point that some freedoms are trivial in relation to real human fulfilment, whereas others are highly valuable.  It therefore matters very much that governments safeguard for people, not any freedoms however trivial, but freedoms “to do things that really are important for human beings – such as to worship, to speak our minds, to bear children, to join with others in working for justice, to make art, and to dissent from what a government is doing”.  But to form a judgment about “what is really important for human beings, we need to know what is true about human beings” (quoting from 1.3.5).  Therefore, there really does seem to be an inherent connection between freedom and truth.

On this screen we explore this point more fully.  We do so in a way that enables a response to the argument outlined on the last screen against Pope John Paul’s claims about relativism, freedom and truth in CA and EV.

Earlier in this unit, I introduced the philosopher Charles Taylor, a Catholic, who, although very different from Jacques Maritain, can be seen as figure of similar intellectual stature (4.3.1).  To examine the relation between freedom and truth, we shall draw from an article by Taylor called ‘What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty’.1. In the field of (secular) political philosophy, this article is something of a classic and has been widely read since its publication in 1985.  In order to understand Taylor’s argument, we shall first look at the distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom.

Please note, even before that, the following basic point.  ‘Freedom’ and ‘liberty’ are synonyms – there is no difference of meaning between these two words.  (‘Liberty’ derives from Latin and ‘freedom’ from the Germanic languages.)  Therefore they are used interchangeably in what follows.

Two kinds or aspects of freedom: ‘negative’ and ‘positive’2

1.       Freedom from interference by others or by the state

You have become familiar with ‘liberalism’ from earlier units (2.4.4–2.4.6; 3.4.2). Liberalism has always advocated protection of each person’s freedom from interference by others, whether individuals, corporations, other social bodies, or the state. Liberals of all varieties hold that the area in which each individual should be free from interference should encompass certain ‘basic liberties’, including:

  • freedom of belief/conscience
  • freedom of speech
  • freedom of worship
  • freedom of association
  • freedom to own and to buy and sell property
  • freedom from arbitrary arrest.

Liberty in this sense is often referred to as negative liberty – because it is defined negatively, by the absence of interference or obstacles.  It can be represented by a line that marks a boundary around each individual over which no-one else may step.  Here is a student, Will, within his space of negative liberty:

free Will jpeg 001

Will has negative liberty in the whole area inside the box – no-one may interfere with or put up obstacles to whatever he might do within this area.

However, if Will has a large area of negative liberty, including the ‘basic liberties’ listed above, is this enough for him really to be free? Or is there another aspect of freedom that he lacks, another condition of him actually being free?

2.           Positive exercise of freedom

The second aspect of freedom can be understood by asking:

  • Can Will move at his own initiative within the space?  Can he actually make use of the negative freedom he has?
  • Beyond that, can he help to draw the line around the space? Can he help to set the bounds around his negative liberty?

Taylor points out that freedom cannot make sense only as a matter of possibilities for acting without interference or obstacles, i.e. only as negative liberty.  If that were all that ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ is, it would be “as though action were just movement”,3. like that of a rolling ball, rather than movement at a person’s own initiative. Although Taylor doesn’t say this, if that were all that ‘freedom’ means, even a corpse could be said to be free, as long as no-one was preventing it from doing A, B or C – which is of course absurd. Rather, freedom is also what Taylor calls an “exercise concept”.  This is a helpful label.  What he means is that freedom is not just a matter of empty space around us, but is something we actually exercise, a power or capacity of the human person to act.  Freedom is a matter of being able deliberately to move from place X to Y within the space of our negative liberty.  If we have no such capacity, we cannot be said to be free.

Beyond this, we can think of exercising freedom to change the boundaries around the area of our negative freedom.  Basically, those boundaries are set by the law of the land.  The law says to us: your negative freedom ends here – you may not shoplift, or assault people, or drive on the right, or invest more than £15,000 per year in tax-free savings accounts, and so on.  Therefore it is democracy that gives people a possibility of participating in changing the boundaries around their negative freedom.

Freedom understood like this, as an “exercise concept”, is what is meant by positive liberty.  Ideas of positive freedom “are concerned … essentially [with] the exercising of control over one’s life”.4

Taylor’s argument: liberty cannot be seen only as ‘negative’

While it might seem very clear to you already that, if we are going to speak meaningfully about freedom, both the negative and positive aspects are necessary, the main point in Taylor’s argument goes beyond this.  Examining it will take us back to the issue of the connection between freedom and truth.  He takes to task those defenders of liberalism who have tried to rely on a purely negative definition of freedom – and does so not least because the very liberties of the person they are keen to protect cannot coherently be defended in that way.  This is a really important point to understand.  Typically, liberals say they are protecting individual freedoms so that people may do whatever they want within the area of their negative liberty.  But precisely because they aim to protect such freedom for people to do whatever they want, liberals tend to try to avoid saying anything about which uses of freedom are valuable and which are not – because this is up to each individual to decide.5

While Taylor himself is no doubt fully committed to protecting the full range of basic liberties – just as CST is, as we have seen – his argument is that that issue cannot be avoided.

The square marked out around Will that represents his negative liberty can be divided up into really important or valuable actions for Will to take, others that are of minimal value or just trivial, and others that would be positively harmful (for instance, swimming in a polluted, disease-ridden canal or heavy smoking).  Taylor compares restrictions on freedom of worship with those that traffic lights in a city impose on free movement.  He points out that introducing a pedestrian crossing controlled by a traffic light reduces our negative liberty, but in an insignificant way relative to removing freedom to practise religion.  In terms of how much they are likely to contribute to Will’s fulfilment as a human person, possible uses of his negative liberty extend across a spectrum from the really important to the completely counter-productive.

This brings out more fully the point I made earlier using the example of the oranges: some negative liberties are far more worth having than others.  To talk of an area of negative liberty is meaningless unless we already know which kinds of positive exercise of freedom are worth having negative freedom for.  But for this we need to have a view about which sorts of actions are relatively important for human beings and which are not.  As Taylor puts it,

Freedom is [not] just the absence of external obstacle tout court, but the absence of external obstacle to significant action, to what is important to [human persons]. There are discriminations to be made; some restrictions are more serious than others, some are utterly trivial. About many, there is of course controversy. But what the judgement turns on is… what is significant for human life.6

Hence attempts to defend basic human liberties by defending negative freedom alone cannot work.  They lead us to absurdity, to having to say that freedom of speech matters no more than freedom to choose one out of 2000 oranges.

The space around Will can be distinguished into different areas, depending on how important for Will’s life as a human being the different freedoms they represent really are.  This isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be for Will to judge such things for himself – there is nothing in Taylor’s argument that suggests this or that his basic liberties should not be protected.

Yet Taylor does take the argument further: Will might, in his own judgments about how to exercise freedom within the square, get things wrong – he might make mistakes.  This is a highly controversial point in a liberal society because of the strength of the (usually) unspoken assumption that everyone’s decisions about what they freely do are equally worthwhile.   But it follows necessarily from recognizing that, in fact, some ways of exercising freedom matter more for humans than others: any of us could waste our opportunities for acting freely on things that are trivial or even destructive and will fail to lead us to real human fulfilment. We might later come to recognise exactly this.  While this is not at all a reason for removing the basic liberties that liberalism aims to protect, it demonstrates that exercising freedom is inseparable from thinking about what kinds of free action really are valuable for human beings.

Moreover, if we are together going to use law to set the boundaries around the space of negative liberty we each have, there is no option other than that we deliberate together about which freedoms actually are worth protecting for human beings and which are not.  It is Will’s own judgment, and yours and mine, to determine what to do with the negative liberty we each have. In a democracy it is our collective judgment to decide where the boundaries around this should be.

It should be clear that here John Paul’s point about the inseparability of freedom and truth comes back in.  To address what kinds of exercise of freedom are valuable for us as human beings is nothing other than to think about what is true about human beings.  Taylor’s argument shows that imagining that we can rely entirely on a negative definition of freedom, in which nothing is specified about what free actions matter for human beings, is incoherent.  But John Paul takes the logic of this argument one stage further: if we are going to have good reasons for saying that, for example, banning religious worship matters more than traffic restrictions, we have no option but to be willing to address what is true about human beings.

In fact, affirmation of the main basic negative liberties – of conscience, speech, association, etc. – no doubt does rest on accepting a range of claims about what is really important for human beings, and thereby true about them.  Even if only implicitly, liberalism’s defence of certain negative liberties depends on affirming that it is very important for human beings that they have these freedoms, rather than some others.  In summary, Taylor’s point is that liberalism is self-deceptive when its representatives think that a generalized defence of negative liberty alone can give a coherent basis for protecting those freedoms.

On the contrary, as Pope John Paul in effect insists, only a robust conception of what is true about the human person can do that.

From this, you should be able to see why the line of argument presented at the end of the last screen does not form a convincing objection to the point that freedom is inherently connected with truth.  To remind you of that, after accepting that relativism is incoherent, it continued as follows:

But we do believe in individual freedom: it’s up to each person to make their own judgments about right and wrong.  All the law can do is to protect this individual freedom – and it’s only the wrongs that threaten this freedom, such as assault, rape and discrimination based on race… that we need to make illegal.  Therefore we can have a democratic politics that is completely committed to protecting freedom but doesn’t need to get into questions about what is ultimately true about the human condition.  (Quotation from 4.3.6)

This line of argument contends that we can say which individual freedoms are worth protecting without getting into questions about what is true.  But, in light of what we have just looked at, it is clear that that is impossible.  Trying to defend negative liberty without engaging with what is true about human beings amounts to relativism by default, because it refuses to make any distinctions between liberties that are really important and others that are trivial or dangerous.

If we wish governments to protect people’s freedom, we have no option but to make such arguments as this: X is true about human beings and important for their fulfilment as persons, so freedom Y must protected by law.  There really is an inherent connection between freedom and truth.  One way in which Pope John Paul put the point is this: “Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery”.7



Possibly this argument about the nature of freedom seems very abstract, just a matter of philosophical debate.

But can you think of one or two vital, practical implications it has for democratic societies?

This question is a cue for the next screen.




End of 4.3.7

Go to 4.3.8 Democracy in CST texts (vi): Benedict XVI

Module B outline

Copyright © Newman University. If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you are a student and make use of material on this page in an assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.

  1. Charles Taylor, ‘What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty’, in Taylor, Philosophical Papers, Volume 2: Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 211-229, reprinted in a number of anthologies including David Miller (ed.), The Liberty Reader, (2nd edition, Edinburgh University Press, 2006)  

  2. In discussion in recent decades, this distinction derives from an influential article by Isaiah Berlin, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958), reprinted in Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969). 

  3. Taylor, ‘What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty’, p. 222 

  4. Taylor, ‘What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty’, p. 213 

  5. The most influential purely negative definition of freedom was given by Thomas Hobbes, who was mentioned in the historical outline in Unit 2 because he was one central figure in the great shift in the seventeenth century to a mechanistic way of seeing the world (2.4.1).  He said, “Liberty, or freedom, signifies the absence of opposition; by opposition I mean external impediments of motion” (Hobbes, Leviathan [1651], Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968, p. 261 [Part I, Chap. xxi]; spelling has been modernized).  For Hobbes, human beings are basically mechanisms within the overall mechanism that the world is, and in fact lack any genuine capacity to exercise freedom.  Although Hobbes’s own position was far from politically liberal (he favoured a highly authoritarian state), many defenders of liberalism have tried to insist on essentially a similar, purely negative, definition of freedom.  One contemporary writer who does so is D.D. Raphael: “‘Freedom’ means the absence of restraint” (Problems of Political Philosophy, 2nd ed., Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990, p. 56).  That is especially true of those who strongly favour economic or laissez-faire liberalism, who hold that people should be maximally free from restraints to engage – or not to engage – in market transactions. 

  6. Taylor, ‘What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty’, p. 218 

  7. John Paul II, Fides et ratio (1999), #90