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In my continuing trawl through various bits of political philosophy, to discover whether we have misunderstood freedom by focusing too much on external constraints at the expense of internal constraints, I have now read Charles Taylor’s 1979 essay What is Wrong with Negative Liberty? Taylor’s argument is primarily philosophical but, it seems to me, it has wider resonances which make it worthy of closer consideration today.

In my continuing trawl through various bits of political philosophy, to discover whether we have misunderstood freedom by focusing too much on external constraints at the expense of internal constraints, I have now read Charles Taylor’s 1979 essay What is Wrong with Negative Liberty? Taylor’s argument is primarily philosophical but, it seems to me, it has wider resonances which make it worthy of closer consideration today.

 The starting point for Taylor’s argument is similar to mine that too many liberal philosophers fail to recognise that we face internal obstacles to our freedom such as self-deception, irrational fear or lack of self-control. As such, while the removal of external obstacles may improve our chance of securing freedom, it cannot guarantee freedom. 

 However, the interesting part of his analysis is his reaction to those who say that an individual should be allowed to act foolishly and against his or her best interests as that is the nature of freedom.  Any attempt to stop people being daft usually ends up restricting liberty.  Taylor is also reacting to those who make the argument, as Hayek does after Hobbes, that wanting to be able to be a better or more successful person despite our character flaws is a question of having the power to do it – it is not really a question of freedom at all.

 Taylor’s response is to say that contrary to these views, humans regularly regard themselves as unfree when they act on their own desires.  This is because of the human capacity to recognise that some of their desires are more worthy and beneficial than others. 

 Taylor gives the example of a person whose spiteful emotions and words deny him the freedom to develop a full relationship with a loved one.  This person knows perfectly well they are being spiteful and wishes they could stop but something deep in their nature compels them to continue.  This person experiences an internal desire (to be spiteful) in direct conflict with another (to love) and thus as a constraint on freedom.  This is only one example and Taylor gives more but we all know the troubling sense that if only we could ameliorate our worst habits or traits we would be able to do more with our lives and take greater advantage of the choices available to us.

 Put simply, Taylor is asserting that we often feel internal constraints on our freedom in a similar fashion to the way we feel external constraints.

 Taylor is making a purely philosophical argument which shows why a focus on negative liberty as the final word on freedom is incomplete.  But it does also have implications for the current debates about ‘broken Britain’ as well as that on well-being and happiness. 

 Taylor’s broader point about the way internal constraints have been dismissed by liberal theorists does reinforce the suspicions I raised in previous posts that there has been a focus largely on external constraints with little recognition of the risk that this might lead to the assumption that true freedom can be found in pursuing one’s own desires without reflection or reflexivity.  Taylor also deepens this perspective because, as he points out, this is a version of liberalism that gained traction in the Cold War, when the great enemy was totalitarianism, but actually marks a departure from earlier forms of liberalism that saw the limitation on the power of the state and church as a pre-requisite for the really important work of rational ‘self-realisation’ not simply pursuit of desire.

 Taylor’s more specific point about the importance of the ordering of desire does suggest a different angle on the widespread observation of a stubborn lack of fulfilment and well-being in some of the richest countries in the world.  This is regularly put down to our failure to focus on the achievement of happiness rather than wealth and status by figures such as Richard Layard.  Taylor possibly suggests a shift in this perspective.  That sense of a lack of fulfilment comes not from the fact that we haven’t attended directly enough to our well-being but because by ignoring our own internal debates about which of our desires we should most follow we become prisoners of ourselves unable to act as truly free individuals. Under this perspective, freedom resulting from a deep and very personal self-questioning and self-control is the starting point for a greater sense of well-being rather than the somewhat bland and generalised prescriptions of those urging a focus on happiness and well-being.

 In my ongoing travels through various bits of literature on human freedom, Taylor’s is the first thing I have read that seems to deal with the tension between the external and the internal seriously.  However, I have a long way to go and I’m sure I will find other insights as useful as his.

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