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Freedom’s Two-Sided Coin

December 5th, 2012 4 comments

In our understanding of liberty, it is important to revisit an important debate dating all the way back to the Middle Ages. Freedom, according to the ancient argument, can be defined in two different, yet equally important, ways.

To use the analogy of a common coin, whether you call heads or tails, it’s still the same coin. The coin of freedom can be defined positively or negatively. Negative freedom is freedom FROM. This side of freedom’s coin emphasizes the freedom from restraint, constraint or interference.

Positive freedom, on the other hand, is freedom FOR. We must have freedom to pursue whatever ideals, goals or visions we have before us.

While our founders understood the inherent tension between these two sides of the coin, they realized that both are necessary if freedom is to be preserved. Neither is complete without the other. A freedom from, without a freedom for, is a freedom without a point of reference. In other words, what is the whole point of freedom if we have no overarching vision? We may be free, but free for WHAT?

When we overemphasize negative freedom, we end up with a very individualistic, private hybrid which exalts personal expression (freedom from) to the neglect of public responsibility. We see this imbalance in our American republic today. Freedom often means, “Stay out of my business” or “Leave me alone.”

The problem with this imbalance, as Guinness points out, is that “unconstrained negative freedom can easily degenerate into apathy and moral callousness, for what begins as freedom from interference easily slides into the freedom of indifference.” My plea to stay out of my business often leads to an attitude where I could care less about your business. The result is a callous indifference for others ending in the death of true community.