Lockdown restricts our freedom. We like freedom, and want it back.
But what for? The governments most strongly committed to economic ‘liberalism’, like the USA and the UK, have been the most reluctant to impose lockdowns and have most people suffering and dying from Covid-19. This doesn’t increase their freedom. Meanwhile surveys show that huge numbers of people really don’t want to go back to the ‘old normal’. So what is freedom for? Can we use it better?
Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 lecture ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ remains the classic defence of what is now the dominant Western view. Written in defence of Western governments against Fascist and Communist totalitarianism, it defended the principle of negative liberty against positive liberty.
Negative liberty is freedom from. It says people should be free to do whatever they want provided it does not interfere with other people’s freedom. Positive liberty is freedom to: people should have enough resources to live well. Typically, taxation to provide schools and hospitals offends against negative freedom in the interests of positive freedom. Berlin associated it with Communist and Fascist governments who thought they knew how people should use their freedom – and thereby took it away.
These two liberalisms are both celebrated as children of the Enlightenment. But the reasons for them – the rational arguments for treating freedom as something to value – had been worked out earlier, by medieval philosopher-theologians.
The following quotations are from the American academic George Weigel who wrote a critique of Berlin in March 2002, six months after 9/11. The article summarises the views of two of the medieval thinkers, Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. To Aquinas,
Freedom is the means by which, exercising both our reason and our will, we act on the natural longing for truth, for goodness, and for happiness that is built into us as human beings.
Good laws facilitate this process.
Ockham, on the other hand, was a leading proponent of ‘nominalism’, the philosophy that denied universal concepts and principles. It argued that ‘human nature’ doesn’t exist in itself; it’s just a name we give to features we share with other people. It follows that
there are no universal moral principles that can be “read” from human nature. Morality, on a nominalist view, is simply law and obligation, and that law is always external to the human person. Law, in other words, is always coercion.
On this account freedom is no longer for anything:
Freedom is simply a neutral faculty of choice and choice is everything, for choice is a matter of self-assertion, of power.
In the same way nominalism also denied the existence of ‘the common good’. Instead, it said, there are only particular goods of particular people acting according to whatever they will. Because different people’s goods conflict, human relationships are bound to be power struggles.
Ockham scholars may debate the details, but for present purposes what matters is that this nominalist account of freedom has become the dominant one. Berlin simply took it for granted. Weigel comments:
“Negative liberty” is simply that which allows me to avoid too many collisions with the wills of others. But this concept of “negative liberty” doesn’t tell us much about how we resolve the inevitable conflicts between wills without raw coercion, or even why we should do so… Berlin’s “negative liberty” cannot provide an account of why that freedom has any moral worth beyond its being an expression of my will.
This ‘negative liberty’ has become the main policy objective of western governments: to provide as much as possible of whatever individuals want, and to perform an endless juggling act to minimise the inevitable conflicts. In the absence of an underlying moral principle to justify this procedure, the bedrock starting-point has become whatever each individual wants. The thought that people might reflect on what they ought to want has been written out of the script.
Hence our uncertainty about the kind of ‘new normal’ we might hope for. We often wish other people didn’t want what they want, even when we want it too. We all want a good fast road to reduce travelling time, but we hate the noisy smelly traffic constantly zooming past our road. As shoppers we want low prices: as workers we hate them. When we are ill we expect other people to give us some slack; when we pay someone to do a job, we expect it done on time. The constant juggling of conflicting interests in the name of individual freedom sets us against each other. To live like this is to treat selfishness as a virtue. And it takes away our freedom to live more co-operatively.
We would have been better advised by Aquinas. To avoid being in constant conflict with each other we need a shared sense of the common good. To share a sense of the common good that actually works, we need a realistic account of what we are like – human nature as it really is.
When we treat ourselves as selfish individuals, we can easily – often without noticing it – use our freedom to take freedom away from others.
But we are also capable of co-operating with others for the common good. Maybe the experience of lockdown, and all the changes it imposed on us, can help us reflect on how to use our freedom well.