The concept of freedom is an idea formed throughout history dealing with multiple ideas of how it ought to be described. Freedom is inherently a social trait considering human beings are social beings. The idea must come from some idea of what it means to be unfree which would make it a relational concept. This means it can only be known when comparing the relationships between people and their relative abilities to act in self-directed ways. Freedom is often described as one’s ability to be a self rationalized being, a rational being that acts in accordance with it’s higher self. Another conception of freedom is the absence of external constraints or barriers, which may prevent an individual from acting in a particular manner. The distinction between what has been described as positive and negative freedom has focused the freedom debate on whether or not men should be coerced or regulated in helping them live according to what their higher self would will, or whether they should be left alone to determining their own actions. While this distinction helps to broaden ones perspective on how freedom is to be defined, it leaves out the inseparable interplay between the two. Positive freedom cannot be had without negative freedom and vice versa. Instead the two should be taken as casually interacting and directly affecting the other. Since humans are social beings, it is of primary importance to consider freedom in social context.
To understand what is meant by freedom, it is important to understand what it means to be a human being. Humans have evolved throughout history from small hunter-gatherer society’s to what today are much larger societal networks. What is consistent over this period of time is the dependence of humans on other humans for survival. This is apparent from the beginning of a person’s life, a time where the infant depends on others for its survival. Not only are humans dependent on one another for survival, they are also instrumental in helping one another grow and develop. In that sense the individual is dependent on other individuals that often find themselves within a community or society. It is from this understanding that has led thinkers to conclude man depends on society. Such is the case with Hobbes who believed without rules and someone to enforce them life would revert to a state of nature where every person acts for him or herself (Hobbes). His solution to this problem was to take the power out of the individual’s hands and place it in the hands of a central power. Taken at face value this can seem to intrude on the individual’s freedom, but it at least emphasizes the importance of societal control. The control society wields over people is important because social restrictions and coercion are fundamental in shaping the individual due to the social nature of humans.
In contemplating the differences in culture around the world it becomes apparent how society helps to shape the individual. The idea of positive and negative freedom established by Isaiah Berlin in his essay on Two Concepts of Liberty proposes that freedom and democracy are distinct and that the goals of human beings cannot be harmoniously realized (Berlin 33). Negative freedom is described as the divide between the individual private life and the public’s ability to interfere. Coercion or any form of external barriers is what limits negative freedom, the freedom from being able to “pursue our own good in our own way” (Mill). Positive freedom is then defined as the freedom to be one’s own master (Berlin 43). This form of freedom is often equated to identifying the self with its higher nature, “the self which calculates and aims at what will satisfy it in the long run, with my ‘real’, or ‘ideal’, or ‘autonomous’ self. Or with my self ‘at its best’; which is then contrasted with irrational impulse, uncontrolled desires, my ‘lower’ nature, the pursuit of immediate pleasure, my ‘empirical’ or heteronomous’ self, swept away by every gust of desire and passion, needing to be rigidly disciplined if it is ever to rise to the full height of its ‘real’ nature” (Berlin 44).
This idea of freedom separates the self into two parts, the higher and lower self. The higher self being interested in reaching a rational state of being where the persons potential is fully realized and the lower self which attempts to merely satisfy sensual pleasures. Berlin’s depiction of freedom appears to separate the individual from the society and make it seem as though freedom is something only to be understood by the individual. This would explain why he doesn’t believe freedom and democracy can harmonize, however if the individual and society are taken as being intimately connected then the distinction between the two becomes less clear.