Is There a Single Concept of Liberty Unpinning the Many Ways in Which the Term is Used by Political Thinkers?

Categories: LibertyPolitics

In this essay, I argue that there is a single concept of liberty underpinning the many ways in which the term is used by political thinkers, and that it is best understood through MacCallum’s framework of the triadic relation. In section I, I present Berlin’s dichotomy of positive and negative freedom. In section II, I present MacCallum’s single concept of freedom, incorporating positive and negative interpretations within it. In section III, I defend this argument against criticism and use it as a tool to better understand how we decide what constitutes freedom in section IV.

Berlin’s Dichotomy

Berlin (2002) famously distinguishes between two types of liberty: positive and negative liberty. Negative liberty, under his definition, is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints caused by persons, while positive liberty is the ability to act or the fact of acting in a certain manner, such as rationally or with self-control. Berlin suggests that these are two distinct types of liberty which are at odds with each other.

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He sees much of political philosophy as an assertion of the superiority of one of these two incompatible interpretations. A prominent example of an advocate of positive liberty is Rousseau and his concept of moral freedom (Rousseau, 1762), while Mill’s harm principle is a well known advancement of the preservation of negative liberty (Mill, 1859). The difference between the two interpretations is best understood through the use of an example case. Carter (2003) uses the example of a man driving his car in the absence of roadworks and diversions, being able to choose to turn left at one junction and then right at another without being coerced into another action by anyone or anything.

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However, the reason that he first turns left and then right is that that is the route to a tobacconist, which his compulsion to smoke forces him to drive to, even though he knows that taking this route will make him late for an important appointment. Proponents of negative liberty would say that the man is free, since no persons present obstacles in preventing him from choosing where to drive. However, those proposing positive liberty would say that the man is unfree, since he is bound by compulsion and irrationality in needing to satisfy his addiction at the cost of missing his commitment.

MacCallum’s Freedom as a Triadic Relation

MacCallum (1967) challenges Berlin’s dichotomy by attempting to show that there is a single basic concept of liberty, and that disagreements are merely about how that concept should be interpreted. MacCallum suggests that all claims of liberty are a relation between three factors and can be reduced to the form “x is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z.” In the example used in section one, the driver is free from constraints by any person to drive wherever he wants. He is, however, not free from compulsion and addiction to meet his commitment. Both claims are of the same structure and can therefore be considered to be a part of the same single concept of liberty. The difference between the two is in the extension that they grant the variables. For example, proponents of negative liberty tend to assert that the y variable may only be made up by persons, whereas proponents of positive liberty do not. Nevertheless, since both claims can be made within MacCallum’s framework, it seems to support a single underlying concept of liberty.

Defending MacCallum’s triadic relation against criticism

One criticism of MacCallum’s triadic relation is that it only works in terms of possibilities and that this doesn’t fit with certain positive interpretations of liberty. For example, the relation might attempt to reformulate the positive idea of freedom as self-direction as “an agent is free from other influences to direct his own life.” However, critics argue that this doesn’t capture the essence of the positive claim, since freedom to direct his own life is not sufficient to constitute liberty under the interpretation. Instead, it is necessary that an agent actually does direct his own life. Therefore, they argue that such conceptions of liberty cannot be incorporated into MacCallum’s framework. However, Carter (2003) notes that we can think of this claim as “an agent is free from any kind of constraint whatsoever to direct his own life” and, that the lack of any possible constraint whatsoever is equivalent to the actual realisation of the direction of one’s own life. It is clear from this that positive conceptions of freedom can be incorporated successfully into a single concept of freedom.

Reformulating the Questions We Ask about Liberty

In the traditional clash between positive and negative conceptions of liberty, the fundamental question has been which one is the correct one. However, recognising that both are merely interpretations of a single concept of liberty allows us to instead ask questions which can be more readily debated about the range of the variables concerned in the triadic relation. By asking which agents can be considered free or unfree, what counts as an obstacle to the freedom of those agents, and what agents could be free to do or become, we can be more precise in our reasoning for favouring a particular interpretation of the single concept.

First concentrating on the agent, negative interpretations consider the agent a person or persons, whereas positive interpretations often think of the agent in a more abstract way, as a rational person or a moral person separate from the human being to which it is attached. Negative interpretations also see the obstacles as results of arrangements made by humans, while positive interpretations may consider broader sources of constraint such as impulse or irrationality. It is therefore possible to break down the overwhelming topic of liberty into questions about personal identity and ranges of possible obstacles. The process of breaking down liberty claims also shows us that there are more than two possible interpretations of freedom, suggesting that Berlin’s dichotomy would be overly simplistic even if there were distinct types of freedom. For example, some might believe that agents can only be persons but that they can be presented by non-human obstacles which inhibit their liberty. Such an opinion would neither fall neatly in the positive nor negative branch of Berlin’s dichotomy.


I have argued that there a single concept of liberty underpinning the many ways in which the term is used by political thinkers, and that it is best thought of within the framework of MacCallum’s triadic relation. I have considered cases which may appear not to fit into this framework but have concluded that both positive and negative freedoms can be included as interpretations of this single concept. I have further analysed how we can use this framework to examine what are the appropriate ranges of the three variables, thus best being able to decide what really constitutes freedom.


  1. Carter, Ian, “Positive and Negative Liberty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2003), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  2. Isaiah Berlin, Two concepts of liberty, in Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002
  3. Gerald MacCallum, Negative and positive freedom, The Philosophical Review, vol. 76, no. 3 (July, 1967), pp. 312-334.
  4. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, London, 1859 • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762
  5. Wolff, Jonathan, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996

Cite this page

Is There a Single Concept of Liberty Unpinning the Many Ways in Which the Term is Used by Political Thinkers?. (2021, Sep 21). Retrieved from

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