Positive Freedom versus Negative Freedom

Positive freedom is “freedom for.” It is the possibility of living out your fundamental purpose. It means freedom for the Good.

Negative freedom is “freedom from.” It is the absence of barriers to do whatever you want. It means freedom from any restraints.

Positive freedom is the traditional understanding of liberty for Christians, Greeks, and Muslims. Practically every premodern religion, from the Buddhists to the Aztecs, had the idea that human desires had to be constrained, so that man could be free. Freedom meant participating in a virtuous community. In the words of Patrick Deneen, “Liberty had long been believed to be a condition of self-rule that forestalled tyranny, within both the polity and the individual soul. Liberty was thus thought to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires, and corresponding social and political arrangements that sought to inculcate corresponding virtues that fostered the arts of self-government.” (Why Liberalism Failed, 2018, pg 23)

But in modernity, “liberty was fundamentally reconceived, even if the word was retained.”  Modern philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke helped slowly redefine the words “freedom” and “liberty” to refer to negative freedom.

Pater Edmund Waldstein, in his essay “Contrasting Concepts of Freedom,” analyzes these different definitions on three different levels:

Christian/Classical Definition Modern/Liberal Definition
External Freedom “Not being subordinated to another’s good, not being a slave. Politically such freedom is realized by a political rule that orders people to their own true common good—a good that is truly good for them. It is realized by the participation of all citizens in political rule—so that everyone can claim to be ‘self-ruled.’” “Not being commanded by another to act in one way rather than another. This kind of freedom is realized by limiting the scope of government to the preservation of external peace, leaving each citizen free to seek whatever he thinks is the good.”
Interior/Natural Freedom “The ability of man to understand what is good, deliberate about how it is to be attained, and choose means suitable to attaining it. Unlike the animals, man is not determined by instinct, but is able to deliberate about his actions.” “A completely undetermined self-movement of will. Man is free not only to deliberate about how to attain the good, but to decide for himself what the good is.
Moral Freedom “Being liberated from bad habits and disordered passions that lead us away from what we know is the good. To be morally free is to live in accordance with the nature that God has given us—it is to be virtuous and wise.” “Not being determined by cultural pressures, rejecting conformity for the sake of ‘authenticity’ and ‘originality’ deciding on one’s own peculiar way of living human life, based on one’s own ‘freely chosen’ (i.e. arbitrarily chosen) ‘values.’”

These distinctions must be remembered when we talk about ideas such as free love, freedom of religion, or the free market. These phrases, like many others, take the liberal definition of liberty for granted.