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.”

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