And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
- Exodus 20:1-17
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
- John 13:34-35
“What does it mean to be free? This is the question explored by the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay Two Concepts of Liberty, written in 1958. Here he makes a distinction between what he calls ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ freedom. Although he is not the ﬁrst to draw this distinction, he does so with great originality, and uses it to expose apparent inconsistencies in our everyday notion of freedom.
“For Berlin, ‘negative’ freedom is what he calls our ‘fundamental sense’ of freedom. This kind of freedom is freedom from external obstacles: l am free because I am not chained to a rock, because I am not in prison, and so on. This is freedom from something else. But Berlin points out that when we talk about freedom, we usually mean something more subtle than this. Freedom is also a matter of self-determination, of being a person with hopes, and intentions, and purposes that are one’s own. This ’positive’ freedom is about being in control of one’s own destiny. After all, l am not free just because all the doors of my house are unlocked. And this positive freedom is not exclusively personal, because self-determination can also be desired at the level of the group or of the state.
“For Berlin, the problem is that these two forms of freedom are often in conﬂict. Think, for example, of the freedom that comes from the discipline of learning how to play the tuba. As a beginner, l can do little more than struggle with my own inability to play-but eventually l can play with a kind of liberated gusto. Or think of the fact that people frequently exercise their ‘positive’ freedom by voting for a particular government, knowing that their ‘negative’ freedom will be restricted when that government comes to power.
“Berlin points to another problem. Who is to say what a suitable goal of ‘positive’ freedom should be? Authoritarian or totalitarian regimes often have an inﬂexible view of the purpose of human life, and so restrict ‘negative’ freedoms to maximize their idea of human happiness. Indeed, political oppression frequently arises from an abstract idea of what the good life is, followed by state intervention to make that idea a reality.
“Berlin’s response to this is twofold. First, it is important to recognize that the various freedoms we may desire will always be in conflict, for there is no such thing as ‘the goal of life’—only the goals of particular individuals. This fact, he claims, is obscured by philosophers who look for a universal basis for morality, but confuse ‘right action’ with the purpose of life itself. Second, we need to keep alive the fundamental sense of freedom as an absence of ‘bullying and domination’, so that we do not ﬁnd our ideals turning into chains for ourselves and for others.”
- Sam Atkinson (senior editor), The Philosophy Book, Big Ideas Simply Explained
Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was born in Riga, Latvia, moving to Russia at an early age. He experienced the Russian Empire and the birth of the Socialist government in Russia. The antisemitism and general oppression of the soviet government prompted Berlin’s parents to seek asylum in Great Britain, where Isaiah became an excellent student.
Berlin’s background gave him a unique perspective into positive and negative freedoms. If it were all positive freedoms that were possible – for a select few – they would dominate those without those positive freedoms. After all, a positive freedom might be that we could kill people who disagree with us. Oppress those that might rise up in power to deny us our positive freedom. Or simply bullying people because we can.
Yet, when we look at the oppressed person, they have their lives threatened. They are oppressed and bullied. So, their focus in freedom is the negative freedom: freedom from the fear of death, freedom from oppression or bullying. Thus, to have a fundamental sense of freedom, the positive freedoms that we have must be within a framework so that the oppressed and bullied are free from their chains.
His systematic, logical approach eliminates the thoughts of philosophers who insist that there is some type of fundamental morality, namely a God-given morality. Immanuel Kant analyzed issues regarding our freedoms by taking an opposite approach. If you want to show whether murdering is okay, imagine a situation where everyone is required to murder. It would become a situation of “last man standing.” But in making these arguments, Kant eventually drew the conclusions that he had been taught in his Lutheran upbringing. But Berlin sticks to his philosophy of positive and negative freedoms that do not conflict to create his logical moral code. But is that logical moral code any different to that which God breathed into mankind during creation and that is passed on to each subsequent generation?
Our problem is several fold, but we can use the bullying argument. To those natural born bullies out there, they will bully because that is all they know, and they feel that they need to oppress in order to survive. Berlin’s concept works on the rational level, even though accepting God’s commandments, and Jesus’ summarization command to love one another, would be so much easier. But with Berlin’s “proof” we have volumes of paperwork proving that if we love one another, we are not placing chains on anyone else. Hmmm. Maybe not that much paperwork after all.
Socialism (a government that oppresses the people) or simple totalitarianism (one evil tyrant or a family of tyrants that oppress the people) work just like the bully, but on a larger scale. It requires more people to pull it off and the techniques are different. To achieve what Berlin suggests of having the people feel like they have a good life, propaganda is required and a suppression of communication outside the community of those being oppressed.
But we could take God’s Law and apply each couplet, for example the positive freedom to murder people and the negative freedom from being murdered and use Berlin’s argument to discover God’s Law rings true. God’s Law creates a good system that does not create chains. We are restricted within the boundaries of God’s Law, but we will not oppress anyone, thus never placing chains upon them.
If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.