“One Another’s Equals” by Jeremy Waldron, Lecture 2

In Lecture 2, titled “Prescriptivity and Redundancy,” Waldron argues that the principle of basic equality is prescriptive and non-redundant.

Waldron points out that the principle of basic equality is often stated in a descriptive manner (e.g. All persons are equal or All persons have equal dignity). Yet, these statements – despite their grammatical mood – express prescriptions. Specifically, they express the idea that people ought to be treated as equals. Waldron argues that this principle is applied in a second-level sort of way, guiding the application of an utilitarian or justice-related principles; in other words, the principle of basic equality demands that given any moral decision calculus, each person must count for the same. Waldron takes this to mean that basic equality functions both vertically and horizontally; horizontally by demanding equal consideration for people and their interests, and vertically by insisting on the seriousness of each person’s worth and interests – what Waldron calls “the dimension of human worth” (Waldron 17, 49).

Waldron explains that this second qualitative dimension is important since otherwise basic equality could be meant to recommend that all human lives are equally worthless. I do not see why the risk of such a recommendation is not just a necessary consequence of adopting the principle of basic equality. This is especially because Waldron stresses in the lecture that basic equality is simply one value among many – its second-level application means that it governs the ways in which values are applied to people. It does not prescribe values like utility, liberty, or well-being in the traditional sense; its prescription is that in treating persons a certain way, everyone must be counted as one. That could mean that people are treated with equal respect, but it also means that people could be treated with equal disrespect.

Waldron continues, writing that the worth of a person commands concern and respect. In that way, he writes, “human worth is a commanding value…humans demand our respect…According to the principle of basic equality, they demand it equally” (Waldron 17, 51). Indeed, basic equality means that human worth must be respected equally, if it should be respected at all. But that does not mean the value of human worth is built into the idea of basic equality; on the contrary, basic equality only governs the way in which worth is to be respected.

I can see, however, how a charitable reading of Waldron can resolve my concern. In describing equal respect of worth, Waldron writes that “we respect someone when…we take seriously his status as a thinking, reasoning moral being…” (Waldron 17, 51). The point is not made explicitly, but I take Waldron to mean that the our status as thinking, reasoning, and moral beings is the source of our human worth. It would also follow that given that we all share these traits – the traits which give us worth – we are also in a sense basically equal. If this is the point Waldron is making, I  can understand how basic equality is also equality of worth, and therefore equality of respect.

In the latter half of the lecture, Waldron responds to philosophers like Peter Westen who argue that the concept of equality is redundant. Someone like Westen argues that equal treatment is a trivial calculation – it is no more than saying that “we should consult all the interests that ought to be consulted and give them all the weight they ought to have” (Waldron 17, 68). I agree with Waldron that the principle of basic equality adds something further than this trivial statement. Basic equality tells us that everyone counts for one. Westen would respond and say, of course you should count correctly – counting one person as less or more than one is obviously logically incoherent. Yet, when racists or sexists count some as less than others, it does not seem appropriate to respond: What you did was wrong because you did not count correctly. To the Rashdall-racist, there was no counting error exactly because the lesser person does not count as one; there is some discontinuity that justifies counting them as less. It is, then, a substantial point that given the nature of persons, no person should count for more or less than another. To stress this further, I would ask you to consider the Equal Protection Clause in the American constitution which requires equal protection of the law. For someone like Westen, this too might seem redundant – of course a law should be applied consistently. And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that our society continues to require that the concept of basic equality is enshrined in law and rhetoric. So perhaps logically, the use of the word ‘equality’ is unnecessary – indeed, I hope that one day it becomes unnecessary. But as long as there remain some who do not accept the premise of basic equality, it is a worthwhile term to keep around.


Some thoughts on the grounds for basic equality.

In summarizing chapter 1 of Waldron’s new book, I mentioned that it was important to distinguish between differences between people that justify treating them differently in specific situations, and differences between people that justify applying totally separate moral apparatuses. In refuting Rashdall, Waldron’s point is that in accounting for the many differences between persons, we are not confronted with Rashdall-discontinuities. That is, there are no differences that demand the application of separate moral apparatuses. Waldron continues that in capturing what is important in the life of a person, we will always – regardless of who that person is – be concerned with familiar practices, languages, relationships (friendships, families, citizens, etc.), improvability, and other things that seem to define what it means to live a distinctly human life.

Waldron’s point leaves me thirsty for a clearer grounds for basic equality. It seems to me that there are two possible strategies for grounding basic equality. One is to argue that there are no differences between people that warrant discontinuity – that is, treating some people as a different kind than others in a morally relevant sense. This strategy has the seemingly insurmountable task of showing that there does not exist a single characteristic that some humans may possess and others do not that warrants this difference in moral treatment. Given the negative nature of this claim, it is unclear to me how this could be proven logically.

Another strategy is to identify one or more characteristics which every human possesses as morally relevant for sortal status. Perhaps this is what Waldron means when he lists things like familiar personal relationships, human improvability, and language. This is the strategy which philosophers often use to argue for distinctive equality – that is, the point that humans are equal in a way that makes them distinct from non-human animals. This strategy tries to demonstrate that humans are basically equal by virtue of possessing a common trait. In doing so, the strategy faces the same objections that philosophers who defend the human-animal difference must face; defenders of these uniquely human traits must account for outliers who do not fit the mold – those humans who lack rationality, or linguistic abilities, or whatever trait is deemed distinctive. After all, the entire point of basic equality is that no one is left out.

My guess is that Waldron will address this point in Lecture 3 (since it is titled “Looking for a Range Property”), but I will be on the look out.

“One Another’s Equals” by Jeremy Waldron, Lecture 1

For the next few posts, I will be commenting on Jeremy Waldron’s new book, One Another’s Equal, which explores the idea of basic equality. The book compiles the six Gifford Lectures Waldron delivered in 2015. In each post I will look at one of the six lectures presented in the book. You may be wondering – why is basic equality a topic that requires attention or, what does basic equality have to do with social or political equality? These are actually questions that Waldron preempts and seeks to consider throughout his lectures as well, so I will comment on those issues at relevant points in the lectures.

Waldron, Jeremy. “One Another’s Equals: The Basis of Human Equality,” Harvard University Press, Cambridge: 2017.

Lecture 1 Summary

Lecture 1 is devoted to clarifying the idea of basic equality – that is, what does it mean to say that all persons are fundamentally equal? After all, we’re all aware of the countless differences between persons – some of us (like myself) are shorter than others, some are richer, some have cars and others do not. The important question, then, is in what sense are we equal.

For Waldron, the principle of basic equality denies that there are differences in “sortal status” among humans – in other words, we are all of the same sort. The sortal status we share is that of being a human being. This shared status is something reflected in our positive laws and ideas of human rights – that by virtue of our status as humans, we are entitled to certain protections of our human worth and dignity. In Lecture 2, Waldron will explore the principle of basic equality as a normative idea.

To further illuminate this concept, Waldron compares basic equality with the views of Reverend Hastings Rashdall. Rashdall shared with John Stuart Mills an idea of lower and higher forms of happiness; but unlike Mills, Rashdall did not believe that higher forms of happiness were accessible to all humans. He wrote that “the lower Well-being…of countless Chinamen or negroes must be sacrificed that a higher life may be possible for a much smaller number of white men” (Waldron, 22).

Waldron points out that this should not be read as a simple utilitarian calculation. It is not that in some cases, sacrificing the wellbeing of “countless Chinamen or negroes” will maximize the overall wellbeing of some white men, and this is a desirable utilitarian result. Utilitarianism adheres to the principle of basic equality, treating each person’s well-being as equal – that is, counting each person as one. Here, Rashdall counts the well-being of minorities less than the well-being of white men. This is because, for moral purposes, Rashdall treats these people as having a different sortal status with different capabilities and characteristics which he views as morally relevant in a sortal sense.

Waldron (and critics of speciesism) compare Rashdall’s views with the commonly held beliefs about humans’ relationship to non-human animals. Much the same way racists or sexists regard certain groups of people as being of a different kind, humans commonly regard animals as possessing a distinct sortal status – that animals possess different capacities and habits which are morally relevant for our purposes. In criticizing our treatment of animals, critics of speciesism make this exact claim – that we are locating morally relevant differences where there are none, that there actually is no difference of sort.

For Waldron, these comparisons reveal the central principle of basic equality, what Waldron calls “continuous equality”; continuous equality opposes “any claim that there are moral distinctions and differentiations to be made among humans like unto or analogous in scale and content to the moral distinctions commonly made between humans and other animals” (Waldron, 30). In other words, there are no morally relevant discontinuities of kind between human and human.

Continuous equality raises a separate question – namely, what would count as a morally relevant difference? Here, it is important to distinguish between morally relevant differences that lead us to treat people differently in specific situations, and morally relevant differences that lead us to treat people as different kinds all together. The former case of differences allow us to – and in fact obligate us to – treat people differently – they are the reasons we prescribe medication to some people and not everyone, why we arrest some people and not others. These differences, however, never give us reason to treat people differently when it really counts – that is, differences in life style, choices, and preferences never warrant treating a person with an entirely different moral apparatus as a different kind of person. The principle of continuous equality “holds that basically the same apparatus of moral sensitivity is required for dealing with all kinds of humans” (Waldron, 34).

Three other kinds of equality

There are a few points Waldron makes in Lecture 1 that I did not include in the summary, but I will refer to them here. Specifically, I will review three other kinds of equality that Waldron identifies which will likely reemerge in his subsequent lectures.

Waldron distinguishes between basic equality and relational equality. Relational equality refers to relating to others in interpersonal contexts like society, family, or friendship as equals. I will be interested to consider further the relationship between basic and relational equality. At first look, it would seem that relational equality assume basic equality – that given people’s equal worth or status, we should recognize them as equals. Waldron will likely address this distinction further in Lecture 2 when he speaks about the normativity of basic equality.

Waldron also introduces the idea of distinctive equality. Distinctive equality adds something further to his idea of basic equality. While basic or continuous equality establishes the fact that there are no discontinuities within the human species, it does not speak to our relationship to other species like animals. The idea of basic equality has no bearing on the discontinuity or lack thereof between humans and animals. The concept of distinctive equality speaks to this question, holding that humans are equal in an additional sense; they are equal in their distinctive status from non-human animals. Not all who accept basic equality would accept distinctive equality (e.g. Singer), but Waldron suggests that he is sympathetic to distinctive equality as well.

Finally, Waldron refers to what he calls “surface-level” issues like distribution of wealth and income – what I will also refer to as distributive equality. These issues can also be categorized as concerning social and economic equality. Waldron holds the intuition that social and economic inequality must be held accountable to his idea of basic equality, and equal human dignity. Waldron also introduces the possibility that these forms of inequality (e.g. economic deprivation)  “may look not only as thought they are not being treated as equals but as though they are not equals of other prosperous members of society” – so much so that the extremely poor and the extremely wealthy begin to appear like two different kinds of people (Waldron, 38). The relationship between basic and social equality will be my central interest in my reading of Waldron’s lectures.



“Marx On Equality” by Allen Wood

In a chapter of Allen Wood’s book The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy, titled “Marx on Equality,” Wood aims to understand why Marx did not share the egalitarian intuitions we may be tempted to attribute to him.

For Marx, equality as an exclusively political idea was a distinctively bourgeois value, used as a vehicle of class oppression and entirely separate from communist ideals of class abolition. The proletarian demand for equality could only be truly realized as the demand for class abolition; class abolition should be understood as the more precise articulation of proletarian aspirations.

Wood explains that the Marxian idea of equality as political can be understood as a form of political equality, or, equality before the law. Mere procedural equality, Wood points out (citing Rawls), is weak; conceivably, equality before the law could deem permissible such unequal relations like slavery. For Marx, these procedural conceptions of equality are tied to the bourgeois political and legal institutions that prop up class oppression.

To understand why Marx holds these views about political equality, it is helpful to review why Marx does not regard capitalist exploitation as unjust. Underlying such an explanation is the relationship between concepts of right and economic labor. Marx’s historical materialism posits that rather than economic relations being regulated by concepts of right, concepts of right arise from economic relations. Thus, right, for Marx, is contingently tied to the particular existing mode of production. To claim that class exploitation is unjust, then, ignores the lexical priority of modes of production; standards of right are set by the capitalist mode of production. The same problem is tied to the claim that class exploitation results in an unjust distribution of wealth. This cannot be; wealth distribution in a capitalist mode of production can only be considered just given capitalist standards of distribution.

This is, of course, not the view of distribution commonly held. After all, when philosophers speak of the correct standards of distribution, they do not usually mean the capitalist standards of distribution; such a standard makes for the trivial conclusions above. Rather, it is standards of justice that require that some things should be equal for everyone. This common intuitions, Wood observes, raises a plethora of questions including what exactly should be equal for everyone, or how do we go about getting to this state of equality, among others. But, there does seem to be a commonly held belief that given the right equal standard, justice requires equality of something.

Marx rejects this intuition, denying the idea that there exists an equal standard required of an ideal of justice. Yet, he also concede that as long as bourgeois conceptions of right exist, so too will these ‘equal standards’ be applied. In the first phase of post-capitalist society, Marx expects these standards to endure, as producers are given back the amount they contribute to society. Such an equal standard, for Marx, is unsatisfactory. He writes:

Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable by an equal standard only insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing else is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will receive more than another. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal. But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society (CW 24:86).

In other words, right must be unequal to remedy the defects of equal justice. The slogan is: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs! People are equal neither in their abilities nor in their needs; given such inequalities in what people require of society, and in what people may contribute to society, the application of an equal standard is defective. It is important, for Wood, that we understand the use of the word ‘each’ not as referring to some substantive egalitarian principle, but rather referring to the fact that some predicate applies equally to all. (Consider for instance the statement: One might as well say that the Grim Reaper is an egalitarian on the ground that once we die, we are all equally dead).

There is another sense in which the egalitarianism which Marx rejects is a political idea. Implicit in the intuition that justice requires equality of something is the idea that justice places egalitarian demands on the actions of political institutions – that distributive policies like taxation or land reform are exactly that – policies implemented through laws by political institutions. The treatment of people as equals must be the treatment of citizens as equal members of a political association.

Yet, for Marx, political emancipation cannot be true human emancipation; human emancipation can only occur in the sphere of civil society which stands in opposition to the state. In political community, people are seen as communal beings entitled to certain rights or powers over other humans. When the social nature of persons is thought of as political, then the true social life in civil society becomes self-interested, egoistic, and private. For Marx, the political life is not the true social life, and therefore political concepts of right, equality, and justice are unsatisfactory expressions of human emancipation.

Genuine human emancipation requires the abolition of classes; it is the proletariat demand for class abolition that better encapsulates the true meaning of “equality” for Marx.

Central to Woods’s argument is that to frame Marx’s notion of classless society in egalitarian terms is a serious mistake. To understand why this is the case, Woods tries his best to describe what Marx means by classless society. This proves a challenge, for even Marx was not interested in “writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future” (Capital 1:99) and insisted that communism “is not an ideal to which reality has to adjust itself” (CW 5:49).

Marx does, however, offer more insight into his conception of class. Classes emerge out of production relations which prompt the creation of common mass interests; these masses with shared interests become classes upon engaging in some common action with historical force. In other words, it is only when these masses act upon these shared interests and defend them, that they become class interests. These class interests are necessarily incompatible and in conflict with other class interests, as classes are constantly engaged in class conflict. This is why Marx regards  normative universals like justice, right, or law as illusions which mask predominantly bourgeois interests.

We may be tempted to think that Marx’s position is that the bourgeois interests in the guise of normative universals attempt to usurp the place of true universals. This too would be a mistake. Marx thinks that any claim to a universal normative force will always be an illusion for bourgeois interests claiming authority. In other words, claims to universal validity are a product of class struggle in which a class attempts to claim universality and authority for their own interests.

It is only through understanding social life and history materialistically that communists achieve a kind of freedom – freedom from historically conditioned illusions made possible by class society.

We may also be tempted to view communist society as requiring a rightful distribution. But for Marx, communist society involves total abolition of right.
Marx adopted Max Stirner’s view of the free individual as one who rejected all interests, ideals and laws that claimed universal authority as illusions. In a communist society, people have a free claim to the imposition of class interests claiming to hold transcendent authority. These class interests – feigning as false universals – disappear in a classless society. Instead, individuals are radically free to cultivate themselves in a genuine community.

For truly social individuals, what actualizes individual needs also actualizes the needs of others. Here, Marx’s point mirrors Rousseau’s – that the source of human conflict is not as Hobbes thought – natural, but rather a social product. The abolition of class society creates the possibility of beginning human history, and retaining social cooperation without class conflict. This is because the proletarian movement is a self-conscious movement in the interest of the immense majority, and for the immense majority.

The chapter ends with Woods’s own reflection on Marx’s views on equality. Woods is attracted to the metaethical antirealism of all universal values that Marx defends; he finds the position thoroughly honest. Where Woods departs the most from Marx is in Marx’s view of capitalism as a transitional, and therefore temporary, economic form “whose historic mission was to elevate the productive powers of humanity…to the point where they would offer abundance to all in a higher and freer society.” Woods sees the age of extreme inequality, climate disruption, and continued exploitation among other things as evidence of the long enduring character of capitalism. And yet, Woods still accepts that there is reason to hope for the eventual abolition of exploitative relations – that given humans’ rational nature, we humans will eventually guide ourselves away from such an evil state of living.

A few miscellaneous thoughts:

First, much of the argument against universal normative values which Woods describes reminds me of the pragmatist position Richard Rorty ascribes to Dewey – specifically, his rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. It is not the position that universal values are illusions of the interests of the powerful – rather simply the claim that we have no reason to believe in universal ideals like morality or justice or that reality should reflect our ideals. We have as much reason to believe in these as we do sacred religious values – and indeed, we often treat them the same way. This parallel is reinforced when Woods writes that Marx is not interested in what exactly classless society will look like since communism “is not an ideal to which reality has to adjust itself” (CW 5:49). Similarly, the Deweyian pragmatist does not have an image of the better democracy in mind – it is only through practice and experimentation that the more democratic society emerges.

This raises a question for Marx, I think, which Rorty and Dewey face – namely, how can someone who rejects universal standards make claims about societal progress. It seems necessary to have standards like morality or justice to claim that today’s society is better than before, or the present state of affairs is an improved one. It seems as though Marx should be able to claim that a classless society is improved because there are fewer exploitative relations, and that exploitative relations are bad. Perhaps Marx would answer that classless society is better under the proletarian interests standard. But surely, the communist would want to make a more robust claim about the universal progress of a classless society – that it is not just better for the proletariat. Even if the Marxian does not care to make such a claim, it seems a deficit for a movement to be unable to measure its own progress – changing standards of justice or morality measures no progress at all since there is no universally applicable standard with which to weigh progress.

Second, the Marxian view of universal ideas of authority strikes me as similar to Thrasymachus’s claim that justice is simply the advantage of the stronger.

Third, Marx describes the freedom from historically conditioned illusions made possible by class society. Indeed, he argues that once we understand that there universals are historically contingent, then there is a sense in which we are free. This, I take it, is a kind of speculative freedom – a freedom that arises merely in our understanding some fact or arrangement of the world. Aristotle viewed philosophical speculation as the highest form of freedom. Hegel argued that once we understood how we were home in a fundamentally rational world – a world that initially appears as radically other – we could attain a kind of free relation to it. Perhaps even more similar to this Marxian idea of freedom, Heidegger wrote of achieving a free relation to technology. There, Heidegger was referring to technology as a mode of being. For Heidegger, once we understood that technology as a mode of being was exactly that – a mode of being, and a severely limited one, we could achieve a kind of freedom. I think the same can be said of Marx’s conception of freedom from universals. Once we understand universals not as universals, but as historically situated and limited class interests, we stand in a free relation to them.

I also have a few thoughts about Marx’s views on equality – specifically, I think that Marx appears to conflate moral and social equality, and takes for granted the importance of protecting standards of moral equality. I will address these concerns in a later post.





“Two Concepts of Liberty” by Isaiah Berlin

I thought it would be appropriate to start with a foundational piece of writing in political philosophy so I have chosen Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty.”


Berlin examines two forms of freedom: negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom is related to the question: “What is the area within which the subject is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be?” whereas positive freedom is related to the question: “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”

I. The Notion of Negative Freedom 

Negative freedom is freedom as non-interference – acting in a manner unobstructed. Coercion is not mere obstruction (e.g. a high wall I cannot climb or the text my blindness prevents me from reading), but deliberate inference in an area in which I could otherwise act. “The nature of things does not madden us, only ill will does,” Rousseau said.

Negative freedom is limited in the interest of other values or even freedom itself (e.g. limits set by law). But it is also presumed that there must be a minimal sphere of person freedom that is inviolable. Otherwise, a person could not develop “his natural faculties” necessary to pursue basic ends. Thus, the limits of negative freedom must be drawn between private life and public authority. “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.” Liberty depends on the restraint of others.

There are circumstances, moreover, when liberty is not the primary value. Those who live in conditions of destitute poverty require medical assistance and food before their freedom means anything. The value of freedom, then, depends on the fulfillment of certain other needs.

There is consensus that we must preserve some minimal degree of freedom from interference; to sacrifice all freedom would be “to ‘degrade or deny our nature.” But, authors disagree about exactly how much, and exactly which forms of freedom must be preserved as inviolable. Regardless of the precise answer, the freedom these authors regard as essential to preserve is always a freedom from something – namely, interference. This is the sacred individualistic liberty conceived by modern liberals: “The defense of liberty consists in the ‘negative’ goal of warding off interference.”

Negative liberty is concerned with the area of control, not the source of control; because of this, it is compatible with autocratic government. It is conceivable that a benevolent despot guarantees a sphere of liberty greater than one preserved in an oppressive democracy. It may be the case that democratic self-government is overall more conducive to negative liberty, but that is not necessarily the case. Recall that the questions related to negative and positive liberty are distinct. Indeed, the question “how far can we interfere with what one can do,” is entirely separate from “who governs me?” The latter question has to do with positive liberty.

II. The Notion of Positive Freedom

Positive freedom is freedom as self-mastery. To be a self-master is to be a subject, rather than an object – one whose actions are self-directed and self-authored. “I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by references to my own ideas and purposes,” Berlin writes.

It is easy at the outset to question the difference between positive and negative liberty. It appears, after all, that freedom as self-mastery would similarly condemn external interference of my will. To illustrate the difference, Berlin has us consider the case of someone is who unaware of what her rational self would want – that is, what is best for her. This dominant self, identified with reason, is contrasted with the empirical self. Given the positive conception of liberty, Berlin explains, this true self “may be conceived as something wider than the individual…as a social ‘whole’ of which the individual is an element or aspect: a tribe, a race, a church, a state…” And given such a metaphor, the true self may warrant coercion of some for the sake of their true interests and latent rational will.

Berlin sees this positive conception as dangerous: “Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man…must be identical with his freedom – the free choice of his ‘true’, albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self.” He continues that “this monstrous impersonation” is “at the heart of all political theories of self-realization.”

Berlin concedes that the negative conception of liberty is conceivably just as susceptible to this danger. After all, if we take seriously the interests of the rational self, then coercion is no longer interference in the relevant sense – that is, coercion is simply acting in accordance with the wishes of the true self. However, Berlin claims that it is a matter of historical fact that the positive conception of liberty, “with its suggestion of a man divided against himself,” is more conducive to this coercive danger. Here, Berlin’s insight is that conceptions of freedom are attached to certain conceptions of the self.

III. Liberty and Sovereignty

In part three of his essay, Berlin details the potential conflict between positive and negative liberty. He begins by describing Rousseau as a paradigm case of positive liberty – one that defends the possession of public power for all in the form of a general will. In contrast, Berlin cites Mill, who observed that “the sovereignty of the people could easily destroy that of the individuals.” The central point Berlin seeks to make is that self-governance is simply a different form of tyranny from monarchy or autocracy, wrapped in the trappings of democracy.

He goes on to cite Constant, who shares this worry about the transference of absolute sovereignty, whether to a monarch or a popular government. The threat of liberty, for Constant, was located in the concentration of authority, not the specific wielder of that authority; the source of oppression was not the tyrant, but rather the absolute authority he possessed. Given such a view, democracy is as dangerous as any monarch. The equal right to oppress nor the consent of the oppressed makes no difference in preserving individual liberties. “Popular government is a spasmodic tyranny, monarchy a more efficiently centralized despotism.”

Nineteenth century liberal thinkers, then, argued that there must instead be some minimal frontier of freedom across which nobody could cross. This frontier would be grounded in the nature of man. Only such a frontier, accepted and protected absolutely, can stand against the tyrannical potential of majoritarian democracy. ‘Positive’ rights for liberals, then, are instrumentally valuable to preserve the negative liberty of individuals. (These, I take it, are what we now commonly refer to as ‘civil rights’).

Liberals like Mill, Constant, and Tocqueville hold two principles to be fundamentally to any free society. First, no power, only rights, can be considered absolute. Second, there must be a frontier drawn of inviolable liberties or rights – liberties that cannot be procedurally overturned by legislation, judicial decision, or popular support. These are liberties required of the nature of persons like the right to trial, or protections against torture. For Berlin, the freedom of a given society is measured by the guarantee of these protections.

IV. The One And The Many 

In the final part of his essay, Berlin offers an argument for the value of negative freedom – specifically, the freedom to choose. Berlin begins with the observation that pluralism is an inescapable and permanent part of the human condition. By pluralism he means the existence of incompatible absolute claims and ends which people pursue. The value of the freedom to choose emerges from this permanent condition as an end in itself exactly because there is no way to harmonize conflicting ends. Despite being an end in itself, the freedom to choose is not unlimited; it must be weighed constantly against other values like equality, justice, or happiness to mention a few examples.


This blog will record my notes and thoughts as I spend my summer reading about problems in political philosophy, with special interest in social and political equality. Feel free to leave reading suggestions and comments!