Freedom From…Freedom To

by Brett & Kate McKay on February 21, 2012 · 64 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood, Personal Development

There are two kinds of freedom. Freedom from (negative freedom) and freedom to (positive freedom). The splitting of freedom into this binary framework can be traced at least back to Kant, was articulated by Erich Fromm in his 1941 work, Escape from Freedom, made famous by Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” and explored more modernly by Charles Taylor.

These philosophers and thinkers generally used these two different categories of freedom to discuss and debate the role of government in citizens’ lives. But today we’d like to take a stab at exploring the way in which thinking about the difference between freedom from and freedom to can help us understand more about our personal development and the journey from boy to man.

Understanding the Difference Between Negative and Positive Freedom

Negative Freedom/Freedom From

Negative freedom is freedom from external interference that prevents you from doing what you want, when you want to do it. These restrictions are placed on you by other people. The more negative freedom you have, the less obstacles that exist between you and doing whatever it is you desire.

Charles Taylor calls negative freedom an “opportunity concept” of freedom because it gives you access to a range of desirable opportunities, regardless of whether you decide to take advantage of those opportunities or not.

The concept of negative freedom can be summed up as: “I am a slave to no man.”

Positive Freedom/Freedom To

Positive freedom is the freedom to control and direct one’s own life. Positive freedom allows a man to consciously make his own choices, create his own purpose, and shape his own life; he acts instead of being acted upon.

Taylor calls positive freedom an “exercise concept” of freedom because it involves discriminating between all possible opportunities, and exercising the options that are most in line with your real will and what you truly want in life.

The concept of positive freedom can be summed up as: “I am my own master.”

If the difference between negative and positive freedom still seems fuzzy in your head, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers an excellent analogy to explain the nature of the two concepts.

Imagine a man driving a car. He comes to a crossroads. There is no traffic light, no police roadblock, and no other cars; the driver is free to turn whichever way he wants to, and he decides to turn left. This is negative freedom; the driver is free from restrictions which force him to go one way or the other. But what if the driver turned left because he needed to stop at a convenience store to get cigarettes, and he stopped even though it would mean missing an important appointment? It was his addiction that was really steering the car. This shows a lack of positive freedom; the driver lacked the freedom to do what he really wanted—to get to the appointment on time.

As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

This story gives us two contrasting ways of thinking of liberty. On the one hand, one can think of liberty as the absence of obstacles external to the agent. You are free if no one is stopping you from doing whatever you might want to do. In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be free. On the other hand, one can think of liberty as the presence of control on the part of the agent. To be free, you must be self-determined, which is to say that you must be able to control your own destiny in your own interests. In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be unfree: you are not in control of your own destiny, as you are failing to control a passion that you yourself would rather be rid of and which is preventing you from realizing what you recognize to be your true interests. One might say that while on the first view liberty is simply about how many doors are open to the agent, on the second view it is more about going through the right doors for the right reasons.

Applying the Concepts of Negative and Positive Freedom to a Man’s Life

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Stage 1: Childhood. Low negative freedom. Low positive freedom.

When you are a child, you are deficient in both negative and positive freedom. Your parents impose your schedule and the rules you must live by. Your possible choices are constrained, and your beliefs and goals often come from your parents. You also lack self-mastery; you have poor impulse-control and are afraid of a good many things.

Stage 2: Young Adulthood. High negative freedom. Low positive freedom.

Then one day you turn 18, graduate from high school, and perhaps leave home and go off to college. For the first time in your life, there’s nobody looking over your shoulder telling you what to do. The external authority in your life is gone, and, especially in an Age of Anomie where there really aren’t any cultural rules anymore, you can do pretty much anything you’d like (short of violating the law). Party every night, sleep in to noon every day, skip class on a whim, bring whoever you’d like back to your place…

You’re awash in negative freedom—you have tons of opportunities, numerous doors to open. This is a pretty intoxicating feeling, and at first you revel in it, testing it out by pushing towards the old boundaries just to prove to yourself that they aren’t there. Strengthening your self-discipline and self-control is not a priority.

Note: Of course, freedom to do what you want doesn’t mean you’re free from the repercussions of those choices; you can still go broke and flunk out of school. You can choose your actions, but you can’t choose the consequences of those actions.

Stage 3: Emerging Adulthood. High negative freedom. Increasing positive freedom.

At a certain point, you begin to realize that while an infinite number of opportunities are open to you, not every opportunity is equal in importance. You go from thinking, “I can do whatever I want!” to “What do I really want out of life?” You begin to seek for greater meaning and to discover your life’s purpose. You find a higher level of desires for your life.

As your mindset changes, you start to discriminate between all the options open to you, deciding that some are more significant than others—those that lead to the fulfillment of your higher desires. As you examine the different doors before you, you notice that those that front your lower desires all swing open freely, and lead into a single room, while the doors that lead to your higher desires open to a staircase that takes you up a level to another hallway with a new set of doors. You also realize that some of the doors to your higher desires are locked.  These locks represent internal obstacles keeping you from attaining what you really want in life. For example:

  • You want to get married, but your shyness prevents you from talking to women.
  • You want to graduate college, but your lack of discipline keeps you from studying and making passing grades.
  • You want to complete an Ironman, but you’re fat and out of shape.
  • You want to be financially independent, but you can’t control your spending.
  • You want to live the tenets of your new faith, but you keep backsliding into old habits.
  • You want to keep a job, but you can’t stop drinking and showing up hungover.
  • You want to become a Congressman, but you have a fear of public speaking.
  • You want to become a man, but you don’t know what that means.

You realize you have plenty of negative freedom–you’re free from external restrictions–but you don’t have much positive freedom, the ability to overcome fear, ignorance, and bad habits and traits in order to become the man you want to be.

Stage 4: Manhood. High negative freedom. High positive freedom.

While people are no longer imposing external restrictions on you, you decide that in order to become the man you want to be, you will have to come up with your own rules for yourself and set your own limits. You willingly work on developing your self-control, self-discipline, and willpower. In so doing, you gain the ability to control your lower desires in order to fulfill your higher desires. For example, the driver in the story above quits smoking, so that his addiction no longer controls his decisions.

Philosophers like Kant would say that these self-imposed restrictions do not decrease your overall negative freedom, because you have created the laws yourself, of your own free will and choice, and no man can enslave himself. Your negative freedom can only be constrained by others, who coerce you to do things contrary to your will. By learning to control and harness your desires, you actually become more autonomous. You’re not only free from external restrictions, but you are no longer a slave to your passions. You not only have the freedom of standing in a hallway of an infinite number of doors, you also have the freedom to step through any of them. Self-mastery is the master key that opens all doors.

The Pursuit of Positive Freedom and the Path to Manhood

Unfortunately, a lot of guys get stuck in Stage 2. They grow up in a culture that emphasizes negative freedom as the end all, be all of life; happiness=being able to do whatever you’d like. So they never make the transition from thinking about freedom from, to thinking about freedom to. But that transition is a big part of going from boy to man.

Men who shift from thinking exclusively about negative freedom to thinking about positive freedom as well discover that the restrictions they place on themselves do not limit their negative freedom–while their self-discipline does close off some possibilities, it opens new ones only available to those who have the positive freedom to grasp them. Almost any man can get a job; only a man with positive freedom can get his dream job. Almost any man can become a husband and a father; only a man with positive freedom can become a good husband and a good father.

On the other hand, men who do not mature past a singular focus on freedom from, see all restrictions, whether imposed by others or imposed by self, as limits on their negative freedom. If they discover that something they want is behind a locked door, instead of working on overcoming that inner obstacle, they shrug their shoulders and decide that they didn’t really want it anyway. For this reason, men who get stuck in Stage 2 make less progress in life and never reach the highest levels of “self-actualization,” superhuman-ness if you will.

Freedom from-dwellers also end up being restless and dissatisfied with their lives. Feeling in control of your life creates happiness and satisfaction, and feeling in control comes from gaining positive freedom from self-mastery. A man with positive freedom makes a strong connection between his purpose, what he has to give up to obtain that purpose, and the fact that he does so willingly. He understands the law of sacrifice, and takes ownership of and responsibility for his choices.

Finally, the advantage of cultivating a rich wellspring of positive freedom is that while a man’s negative freedom can be taken away by others, his reserve of positive freedom is an untouchable power source that can sustain him no matter how his external conditions change or what dire circumstances befall him.

This is precisely what psychiatrist Viktor Emil Frankl observed when he lived among his fellow prisoners–men who had been stripped of every vestige of their negative freedom–at the Nazis’ Theresienstadt concentration camp. As Frankl recounts in his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy makeup often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature…

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

We who lived, in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Illustrations by Ted Slampyak

{ 64 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John February 21, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Wow, excellent article, one of the best posted in awhile. As a graduate student contemplating future job opportunities and post graduate work at the same time, it really elucidates some of the transitions I’ve felt myself going through right now, and gives some perspective to who I was as an undergraduate. Thanks for maintaining one of the best blogs on the web!

2 JP Richardson February 21, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Fantastic article! This is great for those of us contemplating what extra we might do for Lent and how our individual sacrifices can help us to better our lives.

Although, I don’t like the nomenclature used to describe the dichotomy of freedoms. I prefer ‘extrinsic freedom’ vs ‘intrinsic freedom’.

3 J. W. Hawley February 21, 2012 at 2:34 pm

This is a fascinating use of a pair of concepts normally used only for political discussions (and even then too rarely). Reading it, I couldn’t help but come back to that political arena, speculating about what effect a man’s personal level of positive freedom would have on his views of political freedoms.

I’m glad you wrote this, and I hope many, many people read it. We, as a country, need it: the more men (and women) who come to realize that only by self-control can they truly gain positive freedom, the fewer calls we should see for governments to provide (an oxymoron surely!) positive freedoms (healthcare, education, wealth, even opportunities). A man who knows, and understands, what you’ve written here will know implicitly that positive freedoms cannot be provided, that what you really get is the mother in your first picture denying your negative freedoms for your own well being. A situation appropriate for children, but anathema to free men and women.

4 Brett McKay February 21, 2012 at 2:44 pm


The “negative” in negative freedom simply refers to the absence of restrictions, but negative does have, well, negative connotations. But “negative freedom”/”positive freedom” are the terms used by those scholars who first really fleshed out the concept–Fromm and Berlin–so we wanted to stick with the traditional nomenclature used when discussing these ideas.

5 Jon February 21, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Outstanding article. Couples very well with the article on developing your own manifesto. I have been thinking about this a lot lately and feel like it might be time. I believe the key to manhood and freedom is self control, something that I see the majority of men lacking these days.

6 Phil February 21, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Nice article. It’s a good antidote to the mindless form of Libertarianism so many young men get sucked in to. Bookmarked for such use.

7 Kenneth Allison February 21, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Great Article. As a young man at the age of 27 I can see a lot of my own experiences in this dichotomy of freedoms. Each stage seems to nicely coincide with a major accomplishment in my life. At 19 I went off to college, making the transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2, Around 21 I started to focus on going to law school, I probably crossed the threshold from stage 2 to stage 3 somewhere around the age of 22 but I definitely started that process when I was 21. I don’t think I have fully crossed into stage 4 yet (i would like to think I have but empirical evidence may show that I have not) but in being a professional, running my own law firm, getting engaged, moving out of my parents home (where I moved back into while in law school), I have definitely started into stage 4.

I should probably get back to work now that I think about it.

8 Ben R February 21, 2012 at 3:27 pm

As someone in college who is trying to get sober, and analyzed a lot of my own negative habits and things I actually want to do, this article hits home.

9 Andrew Toering February 21, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Dear Brett,

I have recently finished reading your book “manvotionals” and it has changed my life. I have adapted my own philosophies from it and would like to share something I have written.

As well I was curious if you have an all inclusive copy of the articles you cover on this website as I was hoping to print many many of them off. If not I will simply begin writing them as I had originally endeavored!

Here is what I wish to share with you. If there is a better place for me to contact you please feel free to inform me although I did not come across such information while searching your site.

Being a man is about being genuine, courteous and courageous. It is about persevering, and about putting your comrades ahead of you. It is about being frozen to the bone, in pain and completely destroyed on the inside but maintaining your composure. It is about feeling all of these ways and still having the heart to offer one of your crunched crippled and tired shoulders to a friend or comrade who may or may not be more tired or beat up than you.

Being a man is about striving to be regardless of what people think. It is about having a soft exterior as to not damage that which needs to be handled delicately. It is having an iron core that has been folded 1000 times to improve its strength. It is about using that soft exterior to comfort your comrades when things look bad and it is about exposing that hard ruthless side of yourself when things are bad.

Being a man is about virtue. It is about truth. Those who cannot be trusted in small matters cannot be trusted in large matters either, and a man who can’t be trusted, isn’t much of a man at all.

Most of all being a man is about taking responsibility. It is about self reliance and knowing that we pave our own road to our inevitable end and it is up to us whether we take the superhighway straight to the cemetery or if we take the back roads, make all right stops and enjoy every moment. It is about taking responsibility for someone else’s mistake simply because your mistake contributed, and so that you learn not to make that mistake again. It is about knowing that your family can not always be there and that your friends will not always be able to hold their own. It is about maintaining a mental and physical condition that allows you to deal with anything that might arise in life. It is about taking responsibility for your own actions, and the actions of those who are around you. Dishonest people grind on me like the worst of anything, and when I get caught in someone else’s lie, I might as well have told it myself. For I feel just as much a child as when I used to lie to my mother about sneaking out.

So in the end I suppose manliness is about choosing and upholding a certain way of living, a certain pattern of actions which lends itself to the community as well as to the individuals and yourself. It is about living your life for others for yourself. It is about always being yourself, for to falsify your personality would be the biggest lie of all, and none can take true pride in being respected for a lie.

At least that is what manliness is to me.

If you took the time to read this I would like you to know I am only 21 years old. I feel that I am a man. I am a man who must constantly better himself to stop from sinking back into the child I had always been but a man nonetheless.

I would love it if you could get back to me with your opinions or if we could discuss how I could go about acquiring a hard copy of what you have on your website.

10 Mark February 21, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Great read. It reminded me of the advice in the book “no more mr nice guy” and the lyric from “sitting on the dock of the bay”; “I can’t do what ten people tell me to do.” do what you want and try not to hurt anyone and then you will be surrounded by people who are okay with your commitments and priorities. I’m a young 48 and separated from my wife for 2 years now. I have had two unsuccessful relationships in thy time. The reason the thir is working is because I’ve stopped trying and failing to please everyone. You can’t. I now do what I want to and what I think I should do and let other people in my life stress about it aha it’s their own perceived priorities for me. M

11 Matt February 21, 2012 at 3:37 pm

This is a really great article. I like how detailed and thought provoking it is. It gives me a mental framework to help understand my own maturation from child to adolescent to adult! I’ve been thinking about it on my own but now that it’s laid out it makes much more sense.

12 Daniel February 21, 2012 at 4:41 pm

This is an incredible article! Thank you so much for posting. Loving the illustrations as well–the four-step range of freedoms was a great way of explaining it. I hadn’t even considered the concept of negative vs. positive freedom. Once again, thanks again for sharing, Brett.

13 tyler February 21, 2012 at 5:02 pm

another great interpretation of this quotation comes from margaret atwood’s dystopic novel “the handmaid’s tale.” this specific concept freedom from/freedom to is used in the novel by the theocratic gov’t to indoctrinate the few remaining fertile women left in a largely infertile and declining society. for those interested in exploring this topic, atwood’s novel makes it frighteningly clear just how easy it can be to fall into line with “freedoms from.”

14 Anonimity Preferred February 21, 2012 at 6:26 pm

As a 20 year old student who was considering dropping out not even an hour before reading this article, this hit me.
This hit me hard.
Thank you, Brett and Kate, I think I have what I need to finally start living.

15 Dave February 21, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Great article Brett. Men and aspiring men need to hear this message clearly and repeatedly — recognising and applying this is essential to becoming a man!

Worded another way, negative/positive freedom is the relationship between constraints (imposed by others) and boundaries (self-imposed). Even though boundaries aren’t sexy or exciting, we can’t achieve anything meaningful without purposefully limiting ourselves with boundaries that exclude activities divergent from our values & goals.

The best analogy I’ve heard is that of a locomotive. It could, technically, drive on the interstate and go anywhere it pleased (assuming you found a way to steer the thing), but it would be slow and unwieldy at best. It gets nowhere near its potential until it’s put on rails which limit it to movement in a set direction. The rails (ie boundaries) release the train to move at its highest potential speed and pull its greatest load.

Without boundaries, we’re slaves to ourselves.

16 Nik Rice February 21, 2012 at 6:52 pm

“Freedom From” feels like a liberation from a present state of being while “Freedom To” feels like a possibility to move into a future state of being.
The main difference is the emphasis on time.

Yay or nay?

17 Lediane Souza February 21, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Astonishing article!
One of the numerous wonderful texts here.
I truly think all the lessons here could be applied to all humankind.
Being a human with character and values, standing for its own purposes and more, changing the World that have been given us by our own changes should not be so out-of-date these days.
By reading this, my faith in humanity is restored.
Even though as a woman, I could not find better expressions for my wishes in my own life.
Time to applaud all of you! Once again.

18 Josh February 21, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Spectacular article! This is the type of clear, concise, and profound writing that will change a person forever. And I know that I will be mediating on this topic for the next few weeks.
I’d also like add to your point. With a lack of entertainment scarcity, it’s very easy to be stuck in stage two, even without going to wild parties. Stage two could be something that you love, like working on a hobby or reading forums on topics that interest you. In my life I found these particularly dangerous since they lull you into the belief that you are being productive. They’re great to have, but when you manage your life around your hobbies and entertainment, and don’t aim higher, it’s easy to be stuck and depressed.

19 Matt L February 21, 2012 at 9:19 pm

I think when speaking of freedom to and sacrifice, we see this freedom at its most virtuous when the sacrifice is not for self benefit, but for the benefit of the other. This is really where freedom finds its home: that I may relinquish my freedom willingly and serve my neighbor.

20 Michael February 21, 2012 at 10:50 pm

I’ve been following for several months now and this is the best post I’ve read so far. Love it.

21 John Biberman February 21, 2012 at 11:19 pm

In a way, the lack of negative freedom we have as a child is the result of our parents wanting us to develop positive freedom later in life. That’s what makes the “letting loose” that happens so often when you finally move out and live on your own so self-defeating and destructive. I wonder what parents could do to encourage the development of positive freedom, without the restrictive negative freedom that can lead to that backlash?

22 Aaron February 21, 2012 at 11:30 pm

This article really struck a cord for me, particularly the ending quote from Viktor Emil Frankl. I’m one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Witnesses were unique in concentration camps of Nazi Germany in that they could leave any time they wanted. All they need do is sign a document renouncing their religion. Suffice to say, few did. So arguably in their case concentration camps were a result of positive freedom.

23 B.Walsh February 22, 2012 at 6:58 am

@J. W. Hawley

“Anathema to free men and women”

Indeed. However it’s important to note how few people are not in fact the self-actualised ‘free men’ you are alluding to. Plenty of people are over 18. Not all of them (I’d say most) are adults. Not yet.

And hey, what if the state initiative (like free health care) is the concious enactment of aggregate positive freedom, as it’s supposed to be in a Democracy?

24 spillmaster February 22, 2012 at 7:49 am

“Freedom is the will to be responsible to ourselves” Nietzsche

As someone who has a Master in Philosophy, I enjoyed reading this article, summerising what I once wrote a paper on. In order to shed more (or a different light) on the subject, I can only recommend reading a bit more on Nietzsche’s take on the subject.

“How is freedom measured, in individuals as in nations? By the resistance which has to be overcome, by the effort it costs to stay aloft. One would have to seek the highest type of free man where the greatest resistance is constantly being overcome: five steps from tyranny, near the threshold of the danger of servitude.”

again Nietzsche

25 Dane February 22, 2012 at 7:52 am

Wow, what a great article! Thanks for the outstanding contributions you make to helping men live fuller lives. Just as @Josh said – “This is the type of clear, concise, and profound writing that will change a person forever.”

26 prateek modi February 22, 2012 at 8:41 am

Hi guys,

In a crowded space of personal development blogs, I think AOM infuses new spirit and a fresh voice. Frankly, I have grown quite tired of reading through entry after entry on personal development and overcoming this and defeating that and doing this and doing that. But your articles are so fresh and I just love the awesome perspective. You dig up material and case studies and qoutes and interviews from excellent sources to make your point.

Keep the good work going. I hope I can come up with some nice piece to contribute to this amazing blog!!

27 Dave D February 22, 2012 at 9:08 am

I agree with so many of the comments already written, I’m not going to try to reinvent the wheel. Suffice it to say this is a concise treatise on what it is to be a truly free man. Excellent piece of work.

28 Andrew February 22, 2012 at 9:27 am

I’ve heard these two types of freedoms expressed differently. The negative freedom could be considered a “freedom of indifference”, that is I reserve the right to make the choice on whether something is good or bad. The other could be described as a “freedom of excellence” where the choices are made in a context of adhering to a system towards a goal, like the freedom to be a sufficient pianist after many years of training.

29 Stephen February 22, 2012 at 9:34 am

Good article. Freedom is best defined as “the ability to act without permission.”

30 Brian N February 22, 2012 at 9:44 am

@ John Biberman

I completely agree with you; one, of the if not the greatest, responsibility as a father is to help my children learn the self-control, discipline, and determination they need in order to develop positive freedom later in life. As someone who has always had a very good bit of determination and discipline that has helped me developed a healthy sense of positive freedom, it is hard to instill that in my 13-year old son without controlling him with too much negative freedom, and it is a task that I must admit I have not always been the best at. I think to encourage the development of positive freedom you have to slowly reduce the negative freedoms while your children are at home so they have more opportunities to make their own choices and their own mistakes, but still have consequences/penalties for the mistakes (and praise for the correct choices). But you have to be careful that the consequences fit the mistake; the punishment must not be more severe than the crime or else backlash occurs. I think that parents who either are too controlling or too lax in the negative freedoms set their children up for getting stuck in stage 2 for far too long.
As a university professor, I am in a position to lead by example to the young men I meet in my classes (and to turn them on to AOM!), and I try to show them how positive freedom can lead to self-actualization. I think I will print this article out and give it to the young men in one of my classes tomorrow. Brett and Kate, thank you as always for another excellent article on manhood!

31 jeff February 22, 2012 at 9:46 am

There is a similar theme in the book “Program or Be Programmed” by Douglas Ruckhoff who contends that in both the application of and use of current technology and how we live or own lives, which is terrifyingly overlapping, that you can be the creator or creation, the person driving or the person as passenger who doesn’t know his destination.

For me personal freedom is either assertive or passive, a matter of the demand of social justice or docile acceptance. However you end up you can stand and struggle or sit in the road and hope not to be run over.

32 Tom King February 22, 2012 at 10:19 am

Would that every school in the nation would teach a course called Freedom 101 and cover this subject. What a nation our next generation would become!

33 Chad February 22, 2012 at 10:26 am

Thank you! This article was a breath of fresh air and exactly what I needed this morning. Thank you for the thoughtful research.

34 robster February 22, 2012 at 12:56 pm

I would say that there is a final chapter to be added: old age, wherein one has lowering negative freedom because of one’s decaying physical faculties, despite high positive freedom (mastery of what one thinks and believes).

It may be objected that, since the body is part of oneself, this is not low of negative freedom. But I can tell you young fellas that the loss of physical capability DOES feel like an external limitation to my true interior self that wills and chooses.

having been through the previous stages, i agree that this is a good article..

35 Ross February 22, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Wow, this is me all over – struggling through number 3.

one of the Best AoM articles in a while, thanks brett.

36 Grant February 22, 2012 at 2:09 pm

I enjoyed this stimulating content of this article; However, I’m a Christian and my philosophy on liberty is based on biblical theology which differs some from the conclusions and presuppositions based on this article (I’m sure the post, being physco-philosophical is intended to be religion/theologically- neutral).

The biblical perspective of liberty is that liberty is limited and that man’s purpose is to do God’s will. The very fact that God gave mankind the ten commandments testifies that man only has the ” free-will ” to do what pleases God and does not have the right to break his commandments.

For the Christian, the statements ” …because you have created the laws yourself, of your own free will and choice, and no man can enslave himself…Your negative freedom can only be constrained by others, who coerce you to do things contrary to your will. By learning to control and harness your desires, you actually become more autonomous. You’re not only free from external restrictions, but you are no longer a slave to your passions. You not only have the freedom of standing in a hallway of an infinite number of doors, you also have the freedom to step through any of them. Self-mastery is the master key that opens all doors.”……conflict with biblical teaching that man is inherently (by consequence of the exercise of his (Adam’s) own free-will in Eden) unable to and does not truly desire to please God or others and is naturally bent to serve self (without the regenerate grace of God).

Man’s “free-will”, from the biblical perspective, are acts outside of God’s will and can only lead to acts of self-service. This is because man is not God and man, being finite and non-omnipotent( all powerful), is unable to perform anything freely, because all men are subject to God’s law and will( whether they believe in Him or not). An act of the will can only be man’s or God’s; evil or good; If an act of good, God gets the credit.

Of course the natural reaction from some are that they do not believe in God or his law and the natural conclusion then is that they have no obligations to adopt the biblical view. Ones belief can not alleviate him from the biblical reality that God, being Holy, is the only being truly able to be totally self-reliant and exercise true free-will for the betterment of others.

If this concept were true and applied equally, then man could alleviate himself from all restraints merely by his own personal persuasions and then could never be convicted by any civil court for any crime or wrong doing. For the Christian, Man, being fallen, can not exercise freewill for the betterment of himself or others, nor relieve himself of that reality by an alternate persuasion.

Those things which man does that are truly good are out workings of God in man and are therefore acts of God’s-will and not free-will.

These conclusions are based from a Christian perspective and I don’t expect others to believe what I’m saying necessarily. I do believe that what I’m writing is very pertinent to the discussion on liberty to and liberty from.

37 Andrew February 22, 2012 at 2:46 pm

@ Grant
As a fellow Christian I would actually tend to disagree with your conclusion. You might look at the works of Augustine or Aquinas on this topic, because Augustine in particular deals with the theological implications of negative/positive freedoms. Man always has negative freedom re: free will, but doesn’t always have positive freedom because we are enslaved by our sinful natures. It is the work of God that sets us FREE FROM the power of sin and enables us to rightly honor God as the highest good. We alsways maintain the negative freedom (sometimes called freedom of choice), but we do not all have the positive freedom (freedom of person) to choose rightly. God’s work gives us that positive freedom, but the negative freedom is still ours as free agents.

38 jared February 23, 2012 at 12:08 am

As I have said for a while now…I would rather be responsible for my freedom than free from my responsibilities.

Yet we can never be to careful of those who would like to free us from our burden of choice. It is a comfortable trap to allow someone else ie communism make our choices for us. You should be individually responsible to pay the consequences a la the american dream

39 Sam February 23, 2012 at 3:54 am

This was an excellent article. I’m currently a pre-med in college right now and I can definitely relate to this. I remember coming to college and really wasn’t interested in doing anything that I would now deem satisfactory. I wanted to do things that would be “fun” and wanted to find a career that would basically allow me to make money and party a lot.

Of course I wasn’t satisfied, even though it seemed like I would be living the good life. I did lots of thinking and decided to make this drastic change in my life, and it has been very drastic. I’m only at the very beginning and have a very long way to go and will obviously don’t party as much as I did, but I’m happier with my life. I’m excited for the challenges and experiences to come, and know that it will be a very rewarding lifestyle because it will directly benefit others.

40 Aaron February 23, 2012 at 9:07 am

Beautifully written. I’ll probably come back to read this one again several times.

41 Joe February 23, 2012 at 10:13 am

This is such an important distinction to understand and begin living. “Freedom to” is the foundation for all of the moral life and growth in virtue.
People who are spiritually immature view morality as a restriction of freedom. But people who embrace positive freedom accept the external restrictions of laws/rules and make them an internal reality for themselves, thus opening the door to growth in virtue.

42 Joe February 23, 2012 at 10:16 am

Music and sports analogies are good to use to help understand…
You can be “free” to do whatever you want with a piano and end up making a terrible ruckus and breaking the instrument. Or you can embrace the “rules” of the instrument, discipline yourself, practice, and then you are “free to” make beautiful music.

43 matt (2) February 23, 2012 at 10:17 am

Once again, you’ve managed to capture one of the conflicts faced by today’s man. And once again, I find myself having to reflect more upon the content I’ve read on this site – so perfectly attuned to those challenges we all face in this post-industrialized time we’re living in. How pertinent is this information – again, well done, and keep them coming.

@Andrew Toernig –
You captured something I’ve been trying to get a handle on for a minute now. Good job, I hope that mission statement serves you well.

44 Joseph February 23, 2012 at 3:34 pm

This all sounds like a book I have called Choice Theory by Dr. William Glasser. I started learning about it after when I was a child and did some foolish things and was sent to a boot-camp style jail. It was part of their program and I am so grateful to have gotten that information at a young age. It has truly changed my life. I am now a father of 3 wonderful children and have the most beautiful wife. I still strive to become a better man everyday, but I give credit to this theory for making the change in my life.

45 Rob February 23, 2012 at 3:53 pm

The differences between these freedoms are arbitrary. What you describe as “Freedom To” is easily described in terms of “Freedom From”. For instance, after gaining better self-control and goal setting you may have the freedom to make sacrifices for a longer term goal. This is also the freedom from short-sightedness. You have lost the burden of an undisciplined, impulse driven mind.

This is all semantics.

46 Brett McKay February 23, 2012 at 4:15 pm


That is not true, at least if you’re talking about freedom from/freedom to in the context of the way the concepts have been explored in philosophical and scholarly circles (see links in the introduction). Freedom from, can only be limited by external factors–by other people. And it can only be increased the removal of these external barriers.

47 Matt Petty February 23, 2012 at 4:31 pm

What happens when your “freedom to” impacts on another’s “freedom from”? E.g. driving fast, smoking, practicing religion and so on.

48 Jared February 23, 2012 at 7:07 pm

That’s what we call a crime some more felonious than others

49 Rob February 23, 2012 at 7:48 pm


I see. I just read through the article too quickly this afternoon and confused some of the ideas while doing further pondering. Should have reread before posting. I still have some problems, but they’re mostly with the definitions used by the philosophers.

Thank you for the crash course!

50 Adam Bruski February 24, 2012 at 4:07 am

Thank you.

51 Cory February 24, 2012 at 10:53 am

I, for one, irrevocably believe that-unlike Kant-one can indeed enslave himself; This happens when one knows right and wrong and knowingly makes desicions with negative consequences. Selfish desires, and-at least in western societies-debt can lead to this self-enslaved state. One might argue that you aren’t a slave to yourself, but your choices and actions did get you were you find yourself; You enslaved yourself by your negative actions. You are in bondage for 60 months at 13% interest when you buy that new car that you had to have but knew (really knew) that you couldn’t afford it. You will find yourself imprisoned if you commit murder. Just my take. Great article, great site, I love this place.

52 AndrewT February 24, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Great article. Thank you so much, Brett and Kate.

53 Garret February 24, 2012 at 11:35 pm

While I believe I understand what you’re getting at with this article, I think that the term “personal freedom” is an incorrect one for what you’re actually talking about. This puts it on the same spectrum as the very legitimate “negative freedom” that you’re talking about, which leads to the implication that they are related and have similar properties. This is, I believe, false.

If a person is deprived of “negative freedom”, he is being coerced by somebody, and this is an example of injustice. But if a person is deprived of “positive freedom” (i.e. he lacks self-control) there is no injustice here. No other actor can be prosecuted for this save the man himself.
Similarly, it is entirely appropriate for a man to fight and pass laws to extend “negative freedom”. In fact, the entire development of western civilization, and perhaps in some aspects civilization in general, has been based on the fight for negative freedom. But no man can, or ought, to try to give a man “positive freedom.” Such a thing is impossible; only the individual can do this. Perhaps the only true relation between positive and negative freedoms is that, if I were to try to give positive freedom to one man, succeed or fail I definitely deprive him of negative freedom. This is a true injustice, and yet it’s been championed for decades by certain schools of thought, both political and philosophical.

It is for these reasons that I’m rather uncomfortable with your characterization of this concept as “positive freedom”. Perhaps the term simply carries too much baggage. I agree with the concept, but I’m certainly not going to call it by that name.

54 Alex February 25, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Suprised you didn’t illustrate this with Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” paintings.

55 jared February 26, 2012 at 2:12 am

So is there a follow up? Such as are some men exempt from the neative freedom by birtue of their positive freedoms and dominance of will ie the dostoyevsky crime and punishment question.

56 Joe February 27, 2012 at 8:12 pm

This distinction is certainly made by St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance in article 7 , question 8, of the third part of his Summa Theologica. Also I’m pretty sure you could find it in Aristotle’s Ethics.

57 Sergey March 2, 2012 at 2:43 pm

This is one of those articles that makes you recline into your chair and reflect deeply upon your life. After reading, I felt like I just had a heartfelt talk with my mentor, who upon hearing my woes, gave me a much needed but unexpected wake-up call. Great job Brett and Kate!

58 rob mccluskey March 6, 2012 at 1:08 am

Excellent article until you enter the family court system. Everything male is outlawed & criminalized. Thanx to the N.O.W.they have achieved their goal of having the pernicious Sexual Harassment laws replace the Constitution. Very scary.

59 rob mccluskey March 6, 2012 at 1:11 am

Excellent article until you enter the family court system. Everything male is outlawed & criminalized. Now they have achieved their goal of having the pernicious Sexual Harassment laws replace the Constitution. Very scary.

60 Shawn March 6, 2012 at 1:13 pm

I really enjoyed this article. I would like to talk to you about getting permission to use this as a foundation for a lesson/fireside/devotional?
It would be for a group of 12-18 year old young men and young women in my church?

61 Ali Opecancope March 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm

I got assigned to give a presentation on Isaiah Berlin’s work this week in my political philosophy class. Brett has made the work far easier for me ;)

62 Daryl J. Yearwood March 15, 2012 at 12:38 pm

This is my all-time favorite “Freedom From/Freedom To” quote: “I am not the first man who wanted to make changes in his life at 60 and I won`t be the last. It is just that others can do it with anonymity. I was interested in changing my life. I have always had the ability to change and become other people through my acting. I took a good look at myself and decided I wanted something different from the way I was living. That`s not such a bad thing, is it? But, because of my past, I think it took a lot of people by surprise. They wondered what was happening to me. I was very much aware of what was happening. I`m living the way I want to live.” -Harrison Ford

63 steve January 2, 2013 at 9:05 am

Good stuff. I would also think protecting the negative freedoms of everyone would part of a man’s duty so that everyone has a clear path to live to their potential.

64 Lance Howell February 21, 2014 at 2:34 pm

“Liberty is not the freedom to do as we please. Liberty is the ability to do as we ought.” – Montesquieu

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