“The freedom of the subjective person to do as he pleases is overruled by the freedom of the responsible person to do as he must.” – Michael Polanyi (1891-1976)

This quote, from physical chemist turned philosopher, Michael Polanyi, highlights the tension between two aspects of freedom that often conflict in society: a negative aspect and a positive aspect.

Philosopher Os Guinness defines this negative aspect as “freedom from” (A Free People’s Suicide, 2012). When a people are oppressed politically by their rulers through onerous laws and regulations, and through revolution or the normal political process cast off these rules, they are achieving a negative freedom. Negative freedom is experienced by a prisoner being released from jail, and a student going off to college for the first time. Negative does not necessarily mean bad in a moral sense; it is called negative because it involves removing or subtracting something that is interfering or constraining instead of gaining something.

Guinness distinguishes the positive aspect as “freedom for.” Positive freedom is what you are freed to do. This relates to the idea in my previous post on the relation between freedom and final causes. Positive freedom is being freed to fulfill our created purpose: to pursue and achieve excellence in character and in work. Full fledged freedom requires both of these to be held in balance.  To achieve positive freedom, one must cast off certain constraints, but if constraints are cast off without a good goal or purpose in mind, negative freedom degenerates into disorder, and new, even tighter constraints will be imposed (by authorities).  In a free society, Guinness writes, “free citizens are neither prevented from doing what they should [preserving positive freedom], nor forced to do what they shouldn’t [preserving negative freedom]. Our First Amendment seeks to strike such a balance: on one hand the government cannot establish religion (and thus limit their negative freedom), but on the other hand it cannot prohibit people from expressing their religion (and thus their positive freedom).

These aspects of freedom are imbalanced in American society currently. The emphasis today is on negative freedom: in the form of freedom of imposition from others’ moral values (more of a liberal concern) or from government encroachment (more of a conservative concern). The idea of freedom being the ability to do whatever one wants focuses on the negative aspect of freedom: we are most free when no one else is interfering with our efforts to satisfy our desires. This is what Polanyi calls “the freedom of the subjective person to do as he pleases.” A subjective person is someone who believes that his wishes or selfish interests determines right or wrong, rejecting the idea of received moral duty. It is the spontaneous person acting by impulse in the name of being “authentic.”

Such negative freedom often conflicts with others’ positive freedom to fulfill their moral obligations. The “responsible person” is someone who believes that his moral duty is received and objective, and wants to fulfill it without having to be coerced into doing so. I see this conflict in the classroom between more rebellious students and more responsible, conscientious ones. Some students want to do whatever they please, so they socialize during assignments, horseplay during lab experiments, talk during lectures, etc.. Other students (the minority, unfortunately, in many settings) are willing to do what it takes to learn. I have to tell the former: “you may choose not to do your work, and I am not going to make you, but you may not interfere with others who are trying to learn.” In such a situation, the negative freedom of those doing whatever they want becomes a threat to the positive freedom of those working to fulfill their purpose (which in this case is acquiring knowledge so that they can more and more have influence over creation). As the authority in the classroom, my duty is to make sure the positive freedom overrules the negative.

Harmonizing these aspects of freedom is ideal. But when they are in conflict, as frequently happens when people want to remove all hindrances to desire, the freedom for doing what is good should take precedence over the freedom from constraints on another person’s desires.

How have you seen these aspects of freedom in conflict?