Lon Fuller on Negative and Positive Liberty

Here’s an interesting series of passages from a piece by the eminent law professor Lon Fuller: “Freedom — A Suggested Analysis,” 68 Harvard Law Review 1305 (1955).

The deterioration of the meaning of freedom has been caused in part by a shift of interest away from the notion of “freedom to” in favor of “freedom from.”  Let us for a moment indulge in a somewhat abstract analysis of the meaning of the phrase “is free from.” X, we say, is free from Y. What is asserted? We are saying that a something, X, is not subject to the influence of, or does not contain within itself, something called Y. We are verbally setting Y off from X, asserting that Y does not touch upon or enter into X . . . .

[S]ince “freedom from” is essentially a negation, we can, by substituting different nouns for the Y of our formula, make “freedom from” assume contradictory or mutually exclusive meanings. The objectives of the welfare state and of Buddhism can with equal facility be stated in terms of “freedom from,” the one promising freedom from poverty, the other freedom from the desire for worldly goods. We can praise knowledge as giving us freedom from the handicaps of ignorance and extol ignorance as conferring freedom from the discomforts and responsibilities of knowledge. If one writer recently set up “freedom from the forces of nature” as an objective of governmental policy, others of a different bent have been trying for ages to free us from the artificial restraints of society. Finally, there is, of course — in a perfectly meaningful sense — freedom from freedom.

Thus the concept of “freedom from” represents a turn of thought ready to fit almost any context and capable of conveying almost any meaning. It is no accident that such awkward totalitarian advances as have been made in the direction of the word “freedom” have been in terms of “freedom from,” as where it is asserted that the masses must be “freed from capitalist exploitation” or “from colonialism.” So far as I am aware, there is little inclination by the enemies of freedom to embrace, or to tamper with, the notion of “freedom to.”

The Meaning of “Freedom To”

“Freedom to” has implications very different from those attaching to “freedom from.” When we say that “X is free to do Y,” then . . . it is clearly implied that X is a living creature capable of purposive action.No such implication is contained in the assertion that “X is free from Y.”  Second, the statement that “X is free to do Y” clearly implies an alternative or a range of alternatives. If X must do Y, we do not say that he is free to do Y. Saying that he is free to do Y implies, then, that he is also free to do Z, or at least to remain inactive, or perhaps to follow some other course or courses of action. No such implication is contained in the statement, “X is free from Y.” A man can be constitutionally incapable of feeling fear, yet we can still say that he is “free from fear,” just as we can say that aluminum is free from magnetic effects without implying that the aluminum has any choice in the matter.

“Freedom From,” Science, and Purpose

These essential differences give the clue, I think, to the decline of “freedom to” and the rise of “freedom from.” The religion of modern man is science, and he prefers whenever possible to couch his thoughts in the language of piety, that is, in words that sound scientific. I should like to take a moment to trace the connection that seems to me to exist between the increasing popularity of the notion of “freedom from” and the modern preoccupation with keeping our thoughts and our language within the limits of what is conceived to be scientific method.

The model of true science is taken to be the science of inanimate matter, and in that science it is a cardinal principle that no observed event shall be interpreted as though it were the expression of a purpose. Indeed, modern physics and astronomy can be said to have taken their origin when this principle first became clearly articulate.

From the beginning, of course, man had interpreted the actions of his fellows in terms of purpose. By this interpretation he was often able to discern the thread of connection that ran through apparently unrelated actions and to predict what his friends or enemies would do next. It was natural that he should attempt to apply the same interpretation to the events of nature generally. Through the centuries, however, gradually, and with accelerating insight, it became apparent that this interpretation did not work when applied to planets and stones and — what was much more important — that there was an alternative interpretation that would work, namely, one in terms of mathematical and mechanical relations. This interpretation, it was found, would yield the results man had been seeking vainly to obtain through an interpretation in terms of purpose, that is, it would bring into a coherent structure events that taken in isolation seemed to reveal no lawfulness or order.

In the social sciences no such transition from one principle of interpretation to another has been effected. Except on trivial levels, we have not discovered in human behavior mechanical or mathematical relationships that will enable us to predict invariant happenings. In so far as we are able to make sense out of human behavior in its larger aspects, it is still in terms of purpose; that is, we assume that men are acting clearly or vaguely in an effort to achieve something, even if it is only the preservation of accustomed ways.

Social theory of the self-consciously “scientific” variety has, however, extracted from the physical sciences a lesson that is not there, namely, the notion that, even though no workable alternative to purpose has been developed as a means of making sense of human behavior, still something is gained by reducing and obscuring the role of purpose. We must talk as much as possible as though purpose were not there, for nothing makes a man sound more unscientific than to imply that human affairs are directed by some kind of striving toward a goal. Trends, stages of history, constellations of power, dynamic tendencies, value-oriented behavior, functions — perhaps even conative processes — these may be talked about, but not purposes. 

If this is a correct description of the current state of intellectual fashion, then it is easy to see why “freedom to” should have become so unpopular — it savors too plainly of purpose. On the other hand, “freedom from” fits unobtrusively into the language of science. Although its essential meaning could easily be rendered by the phrase “absence of,” the use of the word “freedom” gives the comforting illusion of remaining in contact with a liberal tradition that is still found congenial while its philosophic presuppositions are being abandoned.


A “freedom from” certain kinds of interference must, then, be presupposed in every “freedom to.” This does not mean, however, that these freedoms are two sides of the same coin or that “freedom from” ranks as a social objective with “freedom to.” Indeed, taken in the abstract, “freedom from” cannot be talked about meaningfully as an object of social policy. It is so loose a frame of thought that almost any conceivable social objective can be brought within it, including, under the name of “freedom from freedom,” a denial to human beings of any choice in the management of their lives.

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