On Freedom – perspectives of Kant, Mill, and Berlin

Posted: September 22, 2010 in Philosophy


People typically believe in the importance of freedom of thought, the freedom to think and believe without coercion from outside forces.

–          To what extent do people actually make use of this freedom, however?

–          How many people really think and believe independently of peer pressures and social coercion?


Compare: ‘You may swim to the island’, and ‘You can swim to the island’.

The first is permissive declaration, to be valid, it is only necessary that I should have the authority to say it, and say it. The second is a statement about your abilities. For such a statement to be true it is necessary that you should be able to swim well enough to reach the island.

Apparently, there is little point in ‘being free to’ unless we ‘have power to’ or ‘are able to’, but it certainly does not follow from this that the one is identical with the other. Cranston (1954, p. 21) then differentiates between descriptive and the emotive meaning of the word ‘freedom’. Descriptively, freedom is understood as a freedom from and a freedom for. However, the emotive meaning tends to be constant.

This duality is the very fundamental aspect of our understanding of the freedom. Therefore, ‘not being free to’ would be understood as external constraints and ‘not having a power or not being able to’ would be understood as internal constraints.

According to Gray (1995, p.56) ‘the conception of freedom employed by classical liberal writers is wholly or predominantly a negative one’.

  1. I. Mill – Freedom of Speech

‘We say that the nature of men is to seek freedom, even though only very few men […] in fact pursued it’ Mill

Gray (1996, p. 130) presumes that freedom of speech is always potentially under threat. Berlin (1959, p. 185) adds that some people want to curtail the liberties of others and refers to three reasons:

–          To impose authority

–          To achieve conformity

–          To establish the one and only way of realising a good life for all

Mill concentrates with the third reason, hence tries to show that freedom of speech is necessary for the progression of humanity towards better life.

‘Free Thinking’

Freedom of speech, discussion and expression relate to the free thinking – to control freedom of speech is to control freedom of thought.

Mill says ‘The liberty of expressing […] may seem to fall under a different principle, […]; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it.’ (Mill, 1859)

Finally, he identifies four arguments for allowing freedom of speech to flourish: (Gray, 1996, p. 104) Mill appeals to the fact that:

–          Humans are fallible = what people believe to be true is not so

–          The value of truth

–          The value of rationality, asserting that, even if an opinion contains the whole truth, it will be held as a prejudice, without understanding of its grounds in reason, if it is not challenged in open debate.

–          The value of vital belief, claiming that without the collision of adverse opinions, men’s convictions lack the force of heartfelt feelings.

Mill’s concept of Liberty

Mill’s negative liberty approach suggests that there is a theoretical limit to human freedom in the satisfaction of a fixed number of wants. As a result, our freedom could be increased by diminishing our desires. For Mill, the values of human freedom could derive from the individual’s capacity to increase and develop his wants in an infinite variety of ways.  The human potential of self-expression is inexhaustible. Any limitation of it is hence a restriction of human freedom. (Mill, Autobiography in Robson and Schillinger, 1969, p. 139)

  1. II. Berlin – Two Concepts of Liberty

Berlin identifies different ways in which freedom is expressed – two concepts of liberty. Berlin notes that those in favour of positive freedom ‘want it place in their own hands’ and proponents of negative freedom ‘want to curb authority’. (Berlin, pp. 166-168) Moreover, positive freedom and negative freedom are possibly explained in terms of internal and external constraints (Bellamy, 2000, p. 23), as Berlin describes both liberties respectively as ‘[t]he freedom which consists in being one’s own master and the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men’. (Berlin in Bellamy, 2000, p. 23)

Negative Freedom

Negative freedom is equated with freedom from external constraints, therefore deals with the absence of gratuitous interventions into the lives of individuals against their will.  Berlin says that ‘there ought to exist a certain minimum area of personal freedom which must on no account be violated’. (Berlin, 2002, pp. 170-174) What Berlin is trying to say is that we ought to preserve some minimum level of personal freedom. This notion relates to Mill’s argument to the vitality of human reasoning.

Positive Freedom

Positive freedom is concerned with internal constraints. Positive freedom has often been thought of as necessarily achieved through collectivism. Presumption builds upon Rousseau’s theory of freedom, where community exercises collective control in accordance with the ‘general will’. However, individualist implications of this concept of positive freedom may result in active aim of government to create conditions for individuals to be self-sufficient.

Nonetheless, there is a concern into whether it is possible for individuals (societies likewise) to be controlled through reason. Emphasis here is that equating morality with rationality assumes that the rational choice of an individual can lead to the ‘best way of life’, however if this choice is truly rationale.

In the first case liberty seems to be a mere absence of something (i.e. of obstacles, barriers, constraints or interference from others), whereas in the second case it seems to require the presence of something (i.e. of control, self-mastery, self-determination or self-realisation).

  1. III. Kant – Morality and Autonomy

Central tenets of Kant’s Philosophy:

–          Without freedom, morality is not possible

–          The capacity to reason is at the basis of human freedom, and of morality

–          Actions should be judged by intention, not outcome

–          One individual ought not to be sacrificed for another

Kant’s Groundwork defends morality against those who reduce it to self-interest, feelings, or empirical fact. Instead, the supreme moral principle is based on pure reason.

Moral Principle:

The supreme moral principle is the formula of universal law: ‘Act only on a maxim that you can will to be a universal law.’ Videlicet,

‘Treat humanity, whether yourself or another, as an end in itself and not only as a means’

Kant connects morality with freedom. To be free is to follow our own rational principles instead of just our desires to act on maxims that we will to be universal laws. Hence, to be free is to be moral.

Freedom for Kant involves ‘having courage to use your own reason’. The exercise of freedom must not contradict with the exercise of freedom of the others.

‘Every man is to be respected as an absolute end in himself; and it is a crime against the dignity which belongs to him as a human being to use him as a mere means for some external purpose.’ (Kant, 1998, p. 37)

Freedom is therefore constrained through ‘Categorical Imperative’:

1) ‘Act only on the basis of that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’

2) ‘Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.’

3) ‘So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, never solely as a means but always also as an end.’

4) ‘So act as if you were by your maxims in every case a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.’

(Kant, 1998, p. 41)

Human wills are autonomous. Kant saw this as the key to understanding and justifying the authority moral requirements have over us. An autonomous state is thus one in which the authority of its laws is in the will of the people in that state

We may think of a person as free when bound only by her own will and not by the will of another. Her actions then express her own will and not the will of someone or something else. It comes from the fact that she willed them. So autonomy, when applied to an individual, ensures that the source of the authority of the principles that bind her is in her own will. (Stanford, 2010)

Freedom as Autonomy – criticised by Berlin

The idea of autonomous individual is central in Kant’s philosophy – the individual who is not ruled by others, and who rules himself. (Gray, 1995, p. 58)

Kant deployed a positive view of freedom as autonomy or self-determination in defence of toleration and limited government. (Gray, 1995, p. 57)

  1. IV. Conclusion

Moral requirements are based on standards of rationality – Locke, Hobbes, Kant

What is the relationship between personal and political liberty: antagonism, end and – means or do they have equal values?

By freedom, classical liberals meant non-interference, independence from the state, the personal and proprietary liberty of the governed. It is negative freedom as the antithesis both to absolutism and anarchy. In the republican interpretations, the freedom of a free political community is made possible and guaranteed by the institutionalization of the liberty of the political community. Political liberty is the medium, stage and precondition for the freedom of its members.

(Denes, 2008, p. 81)


Bellamy, R. (2000) Rethinking Liberalism, London: Pinter

Berlin, I. (2002) Liberty: Four Essays on Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cranston, M. (1954) Freedom: A New Analysis, 2nd ed., London: Longmans

Gray, J. (1995) Liberalism, 2nd ed., Buckingham: Open University Press

Gray, J. (1996) Mill on Liberty: A Defence, 2nd ed., London: Routledge

Denes, I. Z. (2008) ‘Personal Liberty and Political Freedom: Four Interpretations’, European Journal of Political Theory, 7, 81 [Online] Available at: http://ept.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/7/1/81 (Accessed: 26 April 2010)

Kant, I. (1998) Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Mill, J. S. (1859) On Liberty [Online] Available At: http://www.utilitarianism.com/ol/one.html (Accessed: 22 April 2010)

Robson and Schillinger (1969) Autobiography and Literary Essays, Collected Works I, Toronto: University of Toronto

Stanford (2010) Kant’s Moral Philosophy [Online] Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/#AimMetMor (Accessed: 23 April 2010)


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