Is Liberty an Inherently Social Concept?

Palmer says that no matter what happens to a man on a desert island, the man is neither free nor unfree, because liberty is an inherently social concept. Palmer might want to limit his talk of ‘liberty’ this way. Ordinary people do not, and they are not obviously mistaken in having a range of concerns that are not so limited. Stipulating that they are mistaken will not do.

Before ever reading any philosophy, I would have found it obvious that if Robinson Crusoe were pinned under a log, he would thereby be unfree, and would want to be liberated from the burden of being thus pinned. I likewise would have considered it obvious that when a log pins Crusoe down, this is morally different than when a mugger pins him down, or when a policeman pins him down after Crusoe has robbed a bank. Some philosophers say that because these three cases are morally different, we shouldn’t use the same word. But the question of whether to use the same word is a question about how to be clear. In using the same word, we can obscure differences while emphasizing similarities. Using different terms can obscure similarities while emphasizing differences.

We can just as easily say that in all three cases, Crusoe becomes less free (in the same sense of ’free’), but that the moral significance of these cases is different. In the first case, the situation is regrettable, but no one has done anything wrong. In the second case, the mugging is wrong, not merely regrettable. In the third case, the policeman limits Crusoe’s freedom, but with justification.

Palmer asserts ‘liberty’ can only refer to a certain kind of relationship among people. He thinks other uses of the term are confused. Or, perhaps, when hears the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Free Bird”, he thinks Collins and Van Zant are speaking metaphorically. Palmer does not show us why we must confine our use of the term ‘liberty’ to social situations. Like the average English-speaker, I feel comfortable saying that birds are free to fly in a way people are not. If somebody objects that the bird’s freedom to fly is different from the freedom in question when we discuss free speech, I agree. So, ordinary English uses of the term ‘liberty’ refer to many different things, and we philosophers should be more precise by saying what particular kind of freedom or liberty we have in mind.

Palmer asks: Were wealthier, more technologically advanced Germans living under Nazi rule freer than their less advanced, poorer counterparts living in the more liberal Germany of 1878? It’s a great question. Here’s my answer: Assuming we’re going to use term ‘liberty’ the way Palmer does, then no, Nazi Germans were not freer. Yet, if we then note that the term can be and often is used in other ways, this is not a way of tacitly praising Nazi Germany. Yes, building the Autobahn makes it so that people have increased capacity to get around, and in that respect, Nazi Germans were free to do things that their predecessors were not free to do. (Similarly, a child born to Soviet Russia in 1970 lacked many political and economic freedoms, but we can still say, and be glad, that modern medicine would make her free from the risk of polio.) Admitting that there were ways in which wealthier, more technologically advanced Germans under Nazi rule had options that their predecessors lacked (and were in that respect freer) is compatible with saying that the Nazi regime truly was evil and oppressive, that Nazi Germany was not a free country[1], and that the Nazis took away important freedoms.

There are three possible responses to the problem of multiple conceptions of liberty: nihilism, monism, and pluralism. The nihilist holds that the concept of liberty is ineradicably confused and thus no coherent account of liberty can be given. The monist holds that it is possible to identify a single, unitary, coherent notion of liberty. There are two types of monists. A unifying monist might look at our list of conceptions of liberty, and claim to be able to find a definition that unites all of these competing conceptions. (This is a strategy associated with Ian Carter and Gerald MacCullum.)[1] An eliminativist monist, on the other hand, looks at our list, and rejects all items on the list except one. (Perhaps this is Palmer’s strategy.) Finally, the pluralist holds the concept of liberty legitimately refers to a number of related but distinct things, much like the word ‘game’ does. In our essay and our book, we take a pluralist stance toward liberty, though we do not rule out the possibility that a unifying form of monism might be developed.


[1] See Ian Carter, “Liberty,” in Political Concepts, eds. R. P. Bellamy and A. Mason (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 9.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan, drawing on their new book A Brief History of Liberty, expose an alleged myth about liberty: that “negative liberty” is the special concern of classical liberals and libertarians, while “positive liberty” is the special concern of Marxists, socialists, and modern liberals. “The myth is perpetuated,” they argue, “because both sides to this debate make a common assumption: Liberty — whatever that is — is to be promoted by government in a direct way.” Schmidtz and Brennan challenge this assumption, arguing that whether or not government ought to promote liberty of any stripe depends on evidence about how well suited government is to the job. Arguing that disputes over the role of government cannot be settled by an analysis of the meaning of the concept of liberty, Schmidtz and Brennan maintain that “both negative and positive liberty matter. Negative liberty matters in part because it is a highly effective, if imperfect, way of promoting positive liberty.”

Response Essays

  • In his bracing retort to the lead essay, Cato Senior Fellow Tom G. Palmer says he finds Schmidtz and Brennan’s discussion of liberty “provocative, but not enlightening.” Palmer contends that they misconstrue Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between positive and negative liberty, and that to use ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ as synonyms for ‘wealth’ or ‘ability’ “generates confusion, rather than clarity.” Freedom, Palmer argues, “is an inherently social concept,” but the having of assets or abilities is not. Wealth is valuable, Palmer says, “but the interesting issue is how wealth is related to liberty, not as species to genus, but as effect to cause.” According to Palmer, Schmidtz and Brennan’s endorsement of a notion of positive liberty “confuses … the relationship between government and freedom” and invites “[t]he elimination of liberalism as a coherent intellectual and political force.”

  • Princeton philosopher Philip Pettit agrees with Schmidtz and Brennan that “policy-making and institution-building … ought to be informed by empirical research and modeling.” However, Pettit “cannot see why they think this undermines philosophical argument about the merits of adopting one or another conception of freedom as a primary concern of government.” Empirical research can tell us what is feasible, Pettit points out, but it cannot tell us what is desirable. Public political deliberation, Pettit urges, requires a “basis of evaluation that will make sense” to our fellow citizens. A proliferation of different considerations applying in different kinds of cases cuts against “the formation of a society as a community of deliberation,” which Pettit argues depends on their being values of universal concern. Pettit goes on to defend his conception of freedom as “non-domination,” which is “the sort of freedom you enjoy when you are not subject to the will of another agent or agency,” which he contrasts from freedom from interference.

  • Penn State philosopher John Christman agrees with Schmidtz and Brennan’s claim that disputes over the nature of liberty cannot be settled by conceptual analysis alone, and he applauds their call for historical and empirical work to reveal the likely results of government’s attempts to promote this or that kind of liberty. But Christman warns that “in order to formulate this research project coherently, we will not be able to escape the armchair,” and raises two challenging questions for Schmidtz and Brennan’s approach. First, he asks “how can a determination be made whether a government policy succeeds in increasing liberty without a prior and independent evaluation of the justification of that policy? Second, … why and how is the focus to be solely on the actions of the ‘government’ rather than, say, on other powerful social actors such as economic firms and corporate agents,” which government policy helps define? Christman concludes by suggesting that investigation beyond the armchair will reveal the track record of competitive markets in “in effectively improving the lives of citizens in an equitable and morally acceptable manner” to be one of “obvious and dismal failure.”