Go Boldly Into the Gray

My first two words as a child were this and that.  My folks tell the story as an example of how even at age one I knew what I wanted.  That’s true, but I also suspect it was merely a natural hegemonic expression for a child born in a culture that worships at the altar of duality.  Evidence my husband’s first word: magnet.  I’m supposed to be the wordsmith in our family, but here I’ve gotta give him props — by artfully referencing the laws of attraction and repulsion he managed to express duality in a single word!

spiral.jpgThe human use of duality does seem to be a natural flow.  After all, the opposites books my kids now read are but extensions of our ancestors’ observations of the world around them.  Dark and light.  Wet and dry.  Hot and cold.  Empty and full.  Alive and dead.

In this respect, duality has been quite useful.  It is the container that allowed human language to flourish.  Duality offers us the power of anchoring the abstract, such that it becomes something with which we can grapple in consensual reality.  Like some kind of enormous tent stakes, words like day and night, for example, establish polar boundaries that allow us to communally discuss the experience of the concept Time.

It isn’t surprising that our attempts to observe the idea called Liberty have employed the same method, with political theorists bedding down amidst the dichotomous stakes of negative and positive liberty.

Negative liberty can be thought of as the absence of obstacles or constraint and is generally correlated with an external agent.  The shackled slave is an image of a person who does not have negative liberty.  The promotion of negative liberty centers on the creation of spheres of individual sovereignty in which we can each act according to our desires and subject only to the caveat that our actions not tread on others’ spheres.

Positive liberty can be thought of as the autonomy to self-realize: the capability of a person to achieve the ends they seek.  As a United States citizen, I am free in the negative sense, but not necessarily in the positive sense.  In this case, our -isms become the shackles.  Racism, classism, sexism, hell, even consumerism or alcoholism, can constrain my ability to fulfill my life’s purpose.  The promotion of positive liberty often involves a paternalistic approach by the State which negative liberty proponents perceive as a dangerous move into authoritarianism; a treading on individual sovereign rights.

A kick ass article penned by Ian Carter in the The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and titled “Positive and Negative Liberty,” does a great job of parsing out these two terms and then asks: “Is there not some third way between the extremes of totalitarianism and the minimal state of the classical liberals — some non-paternalist, non-authoritarian means by which positive liberty in the above sense can be actively promoted?” (1).

redclover.jpgAnd there is where it gets interesting.  I could spend hours exploring the forays of the philosophers and political theorists into the paradox created by these two conceptions of liberty.  And I do expect to return to study them, most notably the work of a dear high school friend, Frank Lovett, whose 2010 book, A General Theory of Domination and Justice, has peaked my interest along the lines of Starhawk’s work Dreaming the Dark.

But that is fodder for another day.  What’s got me to the page today isn’t the parsing of dichotomous hairs, but the relating of a very cool approach that seeks to understand liberty beyond the constraints of duality.  Citing the 1967 work of American legal philosopher Gerald MacCallum, Carter suggests that there is only one concept called Liberty and that it is open to “a great many different possible interpretations of freedom” and that it is only the artificial human dichotomy of negative and positive that has created the current tug of war stale mate.  Here’s how his reasoning goes:

“MacCallum defines the basic concept of freedom — the concept on which everyone agrees — as follows: a subject, or agent, is free from certain constraints, or preventing conditions, to do or become certain things.  Freedom is therefore a triadic relation — that is, a relation between three things: an agent, certain preventing conditions, and certain doings or becomings of the agent.  Any statement about freedom or unfreedom can be translated into a statement of the above form by specifying what is free or unfree, from what it is free or unfree, and what it is free or unfree to do or become.  Any claim about the presence or absence of freedom in a given situation will therefore make certain assumptions about what counts as an agent, what counts as a constraint or limitation on freedom, and what counts as a purpose that the agent can be described as either free or unfree to carry out.”

sage.jpgSimply put — it’s all relative.  It’s like the David Roth folk song, Five Blind Men, which I heard him sing when I was a young girl.  In the song the men encounter an elephant, and each touching a different part of the creature, describes him differently.  So it is as we seek to describe liberty: “Whatever you might think you see/ Depends on where you stand/ And how you feel” (2).

So, great.  How are we going to manage that?  How can we create a political and social environment that promotes liberty when it’s all relative?  I can’t see that the one-size fits all utopian approach could ever be expansive enough to contain all nuance.  Neither can I see that decentralized particularism could ever bifurcate enough to capture all nuance.

I don’t have an answer, but then I don’t think I’m supposed to.  A journey into the gray shouldn’t seek a return to black or white.  In other words, we’re asking the wrong question.  We’re seeking a human definition and attendant political action for a concept, an energy, that flourishes through us and yet independent of us.  A more useful approach might be that of physics, asking not “What is liberty?” but rather, “How does liberty work and what are its rules?”

© Jennifer S. and harvestliberty.net, 2012.


(1) Carter, Ian, “Positive and Negative Liberty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/liberty-positive-negative/>

(2) FIVE BLIND MEN © 1987 David Roth


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