Is freedom the absence of constraint?
John Stuart Mill in On Liberty and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract offer two distinct notions of freedom. Mill's liberty is negative - the individual's freedom from the constraints imposed by the state and public opinion. To Rousseau, freedom is positive. One is free if one is constrained by laws one makes for oneself. Seemingly, the absence of constraint is merely 'natural freedom', fit for uncivilized people, but with no place in civil society.
The purpose of this essay is to first explain Mill's and Rousseau's notions of freedom, and offer some criticism of them. I will then consider whether freedom is indeed the absence of constraint. I shall argue that freedom is the absence of constraint, and that both Mill's and Rousseau's conceptions can be used to defend this position, albeit from different perspectives. I shall attempt to demonstrate that even Rousseau's notion of freedom is compatible with the idea that freedom is the absence of constraint. I shall conclude by suggesting that because these two very different conceptions of freedom can both be seen as supporting the idea that freedom is the absence of constraint, this gives considerable weight to the notion.
1. Mill's notion of freedom
Mill's book on freedom begins with a definition of the type of liberty he is talking about:
The subject of this essay is not the so-called 'liberty of the will' ... but civil, or social liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. (Mill, 1974: 59)
If a discussion of liberty is a discussion about the extent to which society can exert control over the individual, then surely it follows that freedom is the absence of constraint. To Mill, liberty is not a certain way of behaving. The individual can do whatever he wants with his liberty and still remain free. One does not have to act rationally or in one's own interest or the interest of the community to be free; one can let oneself be guided by one's passions. The limitations to liberty are the actions of the state and the actions of other individuals. Thus, Mill's notion of freedom advocated in On Liberty is a classic example of negative liberty.
The most straightforward example of Mill's conception of liberty is to be found in his discussion of the freedom of thought and expression. The freedom of thought is not the freedom to think in a certain way. It is not, for instance, the freedom to have civilized and ethical thoughts while being free of uncivilized and amoral thoughts. It is the freedom to have any kind of thoughts. Mill clearly identifies the opponents of this freedom and asserts each individuals right to it.
... there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose ... its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them. (Mill, 1974: 63)
If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. (Mill, 1974: 76)
The obvious problem with this kind of negative liberty is that the liberties of different individuals will eventually clash. Mr. A's freedom to kill Mr. B clashes with Mr. B's right to live. Famously, Mill argues for one fundamental limitation of individual liberty to solve such problems. One must not act in such a way that it causes harm to others. This is his harm principle. In Mill's words:
... the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. ... The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. (Mill, 1974: 69)
As pointed out by Mendus, the obvious problem in this solution is the definition of 'harm'. Mill leaves unanswered questions such as is harm simply physical harm, or can it also be, for example, emotional distress. The line is exceedingly hard to draw (Mendus, 2004). This problem might only seem to affect the practical application of the harm principle, but actually it is a central problem to Mill's whole concept of freedom. If the limits to the clash of the liberties of individuals cannot be defined, then the whole idea of freedom as the absence of constraint on the individual is questionable. Even in a theoretical society of just two people it would not be possible to define the liberty of the individuals because of this.
Setting aside the philosophical problems of this formulation, it must be noted that the harm principle limits individual liberty. This might seem self-evident, but it is a great contrast to the definition of freedom that Rousseau offers. Mill is not saying that to be free one must act according to the harm principle, only that it is right to do so. Someone who breaks the principle is still free, indeed more free than if he didn't break it. However, according to Mill the state must interfere to stop one individual from harming another, in other words, from limiting another's freedom. This is an entirely different notion of the legitimate actions of the state than Rousseau's assertion that people must be forced to be free. In Mill's state, no one is forced to be free, they are simply forced not to harm others.
2. Rousseau's notion of freedom
The problem Rousseau poses in the beginning of The Social Contract is how to reconcile individual liberty with civil society. His solution is to offer two conceptions of liberty, 'natural liberty' and 'civil liberty', which is the superior of the two.
What a man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and the absolute right to anything that tempts him and that he can take; what he gains by the social contract is civil liberty ... we must clearly distinguish between natural liberty, which has no limit but the physical power of the individual concerned, and civil liberty, which is limited by the general will ... man acquires with civil society, moral freedom, which alone makes man the master of himself ... obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is freedom. (Rousseau, 1968: 65)
Thus, Rousseau advocates the notion of positive freedom in the philosophical sense - freedom to, not freedom from. Man should be free to act in the right way, i.e. as defined by the general will. If the individual defies the general will, he is free, but he has reverted to natural freedom. Since all individuals revoked their natural freedom in the social contract, society must force dissenters to conform to the general will, in other words force them to be free. Freedom to Rousseau therefore seems definitely not to be the absence of constraint - it is the existence of a specific type of constraint. The individual is free when he is constrained by the general will.
Another aspect of Rousseau's notion of liberty is the idea that civil liberty is freedom from one's passions. He writes: "to be governed by appetite alone is slavery" (Rousseau, 1968: 65) Surely the heroin addict does not want to be addicted; surely the obese person would like to have the self constraint needed to lose weight. Rousseau would argue that these people are not free.
There are complications with this position. Perhaps the heroin addict would like to get rid of his addiction in the long run, but in the short term avoiding withdrawal symptoms is in his interest. Why should the long term aspiration be of greater value than the short term enjoyment? Who is to say that it is not in the interest of the overweight person to enjoy a tasty but unhealthy meal? One could easily adopt a rational choice perspective and argue that the obese person has calculated the enjoyment of unhealthy food as more valuable than longer-term benefits to his health and appearance. Rousseau would retort by saying that the addict does not know what his interest is, since he is driven by his passions. However, this can be countered by pointing out that maybe it is the other way round. The overweight person usually thinks he should lose weight, but perhaps it is actually in his interest to enjoy food rather than suffer to lose weight. The actual interest of someone may seem self-evident, but is actually dependent on our own moral and aesthetic standards. Perhaps not being addicted to drugs or certain types of food is civilized, but this is a culturally relative conception if there ever was one, as Mill would be keen to point out.
Is freedom the absence of constraint?
I think it is possible to argue that even though Mill seemingly advocates the idea that freedom is the absence of constraint and Rousseau does not, both actually think of freedom in this way. Mill's case is more straightforward - freedom is the absence of constraint imposed by the state and society. In Rousseau's model, liberty is divided into natural and civil freedom. The first of these is clearly the absence of constraint - in the state of nature every individual is free to do whatever he wishes. He is only constrained by his physical strength. But this is an important constraint. In the civil society created by the social contract, the individual is constrained by the general will. But he is no longer constrained by the physical power of others as he is in the state of nature. It therefore seems that in moving from the state of nature to the civil society the individual trades one type of freedom for another, or in other words, one type of constraint for another. According to Rousseau, he is more free in the civil society. Thus, at least one aspect of freedom for Rousseau must be the absence of constraint, since he thinks being free from the constraints that the natural freedom of others imposes on the individual increases his freedom.
In Rousseau's state, supposedly, individuals enact laws which they want to obey. In a sense, this, too, is the absence of constraint. It would be incorrect according to Rousseau to say that individuals in the civil society are not free since they are compelled to obey its laws, for the laws were created by those individuals themselves. I think it is therefore possible to think that they are not constrained in the proper sense of the word - they are constrained by the laws they have created, but they have chosen this constraint freely. They are also free from the passions which without laws might control them.
Noone presents a more elaborate version of this type of argument. He uses the laws of nature as an example. The laws of physics limit the actions a person can take, but arguably this is not a limitation on his freedom. Rather, the laws of physics define the context within which a person can have freedom. He argues that Rousseau's natural freedom is therefore the freedom to act in whatever way the individual wants within the laws of nature. In the same way, the laws of society can be seen to define the limits of the actions of individuals without limiting their freedom per se. Freedom is the possibility to act in the way one wants to within the limits of the law (Noone, 1980). Thus, in a sense, the individual is not constrained by the law. Mason puts forward a similar argument, summing it up with Goethe's remarks on art: "And law alone can give us freedom" (Mason, 1995: 135). I do not agree with these arguments as such, but I do think they illustrate a possible perspective on freedom, and give weight to my argument on Rousseau's notion of liberty.
To Mill, freedom is simply the absence of constraints on the individual. These constraints are either imposed by the state, or perhaps even more dangerously, by society at large through public opinion. To Rousseau, freedom is several things. It is firstly the freedom from the natural liberty of others. It is also the freedom to make laws which one obeys oneself and the freedom from one's passions. I have attempted to demonstrate that actually both of these aspects of freedom can be seen as the absence of constraint.
I have argued that there are several problems with both Mill's and Rousseau's ideas on freedom, and perhaps neither is acceptable as such. However, if these very different conceptions of liberty can both be seen to support the notion that freedom is the absence of constraint, this gives considerable weight to the argument. I do not believe that there is a Platonic idea of freedom, or freedom as a Kantian thing-in-itself. But if there were such an idea, its essence would surely be the absence of constraint.
Mason, John Hope 'Forced to be free' in Wokler, Robert (ed.) (1995) Rousseau and Liberty (Manchester, Manchester University Press), pp. 121-138.
Mendus, Susan (2004) lecture on John Stuart Mill's Simple Principle, Department of Politics, University of York
Mill, John Stuart (1974) On Liberty (London, Penguin Books)
Noone, John B., JR. (1980) Rousseau's Social Contract: A Conceptual Analysis (Athens, The University of Georgia Press)
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1968) The Social Contract (London, Penguin Books)
I wrote this essay for a course on political philosophy
at the University of York.