Home Ethics Text

Liberty as a lack of unchosen positive obligations

by BrainPolice

And a lack of a guarantee of survival and flourishing

There are two fundamental ways in which liberty and rights can be defined. One definition of liberty is the freedom to use one's faculties in order to pursue one's rational self-interest without infringement by others. This is a negativistic definition: You are free from the coercive, imposed, or initiatory violent actions of others. This principle of liberty bestows no positive obligations on others to do certain things for you, only an obligation to abstain from doing anything to infringe on you. Consequentially, no one can legitimately murder, steal, extort, rape, or enslave you. The positivistic definition of liberty is that you are entitled to certain positive benefits, such as food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, daycare, and so on. This bestows positive obligations on to others. You have an abstract right to be provided with such material things and services by them. Consequentially, everyone must take certain positive actions with regard to the other. Based on this view of rights, it is easy to see why one would demand things such as universal healthcare, welfare, minimum wages, and public housing.

In the negative view of rights, you have the right to pursue such things in a voluntary manner without infringing on others or any others infringing on you, but no one else has a positive obligation to yield them to you without their explicit consent. You do not have a right to be served by others against their will. Unless there is some kind of voluntary contractual agreement previously made or some debt incurred, they have the right to refuse to yield such things. People may freely exclude others from their time, energy, labour, and possessions. To use food as an example, no one may force you to buy food against your will and no one may force you to yield food against your will, but you are perfectly free to exercise your faculties in order to voluntarily trade for food or work for food or give your food away. You cannot just pop up at someone's doorstep and force them to empty out their refrigerator to feed you. In principle, even if you are starving to death, you still cannot steal from a store or rob someone at gunpoint in order to feed yourself.

These two views of liberty clash with each other on a fundamental level. They are hopelessly irreconcilable. One must violate the other. If you have unchosen positive obligations to others, then your negative rights are being violated. If you do not enforce any unchosen positive obligations to others, then your positive rights are being violated. Positive rights, if consistently and universally applied, imply that everyone is effectively enslaved to each other in the name of providing anything from the necessities of survival to mere material wants. According to the philosophy of positive rights, survival, security, comfort and a potentially huge laundry list of non-essential special benefits are things that must be guaranteed by others. First and foremost, it puts survival above everything else. But in the philosophy of negative rights, you cannot rationally or sensibly achieve any of those others things (survival, security, health, knowledge, etc.) without first being free. By definition, you must be free to exercise your faculties in order to obtain such things in a manner that is in accordance with reason, morality and your fundamental nature. However, they are not an absolute guarantee in life that you will survive or flourish by the provision of others.

The incentives of these two views of liberty are very different as well. In an atmosphere of negative rights, the individual has an incentive to exercise their faculties in order to find a way to provide for their survival, safety and happiness in part precisely because there is no way for them to legitimately expect others to provide such things for them for free and without any effort on the recipient's part. On the other hand, pure acts of giving are not necessarily disincentivised, but they must come about by a sheer act of will on the part of the gift giver. Negative rights is neutral to charitable acts. In an atmosphere of positive rights, self-motivation and self-reliance is disincentivised and one is given an incentive to sacrifice for the sake of everyone else. The individual's actions done to benefit themselves are viewed with distain while they are expected to simultaneously feed, clothe, shelter and associate with other people.

In the absence of unchosen positive obligations, the individual has an incentive to associate with others for the purpose of obtaining survival, security and happiness precisely because no one else is just going to deliver it to them for free on a silver platter. So such an atmosphere encourages social cooperation. In an environment of unchosen positive obligations, the incentive is not towards genuine participatory social cooperation so much as grudgingly made acts of sacrifice and social uniformity. Since such obligations were not explicitly consented to, it could not be said that the individual is necessarily willingly associating with and providing for others. They are in fact completely incapable of genuinely choosing to be "good" and benefit other people in such an environment. In contrast, in an environment in which one is simply free from others and has no unchosen positive obligations, the only way to be "good" and benefit other people is through a free act of will. By definition, you cannot be forced to be moral through coerced obligations, you are only capable of being moral as a consequence of the free choices that you make.

It is interesting to note where these different views relate to inclusion and exclusion among people. If you have no unchosen positive obligations, then you may freely include or exclude others from your property and not associate with them as you please. You have no obligation to hire someone, allow them onto your property, or be their friend against your explicit consent. On the other hand, there are natural incentives for you to consensually do such things to some degree, since you cannot survive or flourish while living as a completely isolated hermit. So while in theory you may be as exclusive towards other people as you like, you are going to have self-interested reasons for associating with others in a whole plethora of ways ranging from trade to labour to reproduction to common friendship. There is an extent to which exclusion of others may be harmful to your well-being, particularly as it relates to economic relations. On the other hand, if you do have unchosen positive obligations, then you will be forced to be inclusive even when it does not benefit you and you have no desire to act as such. As an act of servitude rather then consent born out of necessity and desire, you are obligated to associate with and hire and work for people whom you may dislike and distrust. Or, on the other side of the coin, you may be obligated to disassociate with, fire or not work with people whom you do like and trust, or at least see no compelling reason not to engage.

When it comes to universal application of principles, a world in which all unchosen positive obligations are met is a pipe dream of monstrous proportions. The resources, labour, knowledge, and willpower necessary to accomplish such a feat simply does not exist. The unavoidable fact of scarcity makes this especially true. And of course it is simply physically impossible for every single person in the world to serve the other, especially not in an equal manner. A world in which the individual is free to exercise their faculties to the best of their ability without infringement by others, in contrast, does not require any positive actions and therefore is much more realistic in that it only requires a sheer act of abstaining from infringing on others and it does not make utopian demands of human perfection. Such a view is quite sober. It readily acknowledges that there will always be some degree of natural inadequacy in the world. Prosperity and security and happiness cannot rain down like mana from the sky. A free world is not a perfect one, it is only optimal. Some people may not succeed or flourish in a free world, but only as a consequence of their own actions, a lack of initiative or a lack of luck.

You might be interested in . . .

Have questions? Get answers!



You can make use of the following text and video to expand your knowledge and understanding of the topic covered in this unit.

Altruism Doesn’t Exist

Ethics Redux!

Ethics Reloaded!

Forget The Argument From Efficiency

Is Evil Necessary?

Liberty As A Lack Of Unchosen Positive Obligations

Morality: Good Without Gods

Morality: Not-So-Good Books

Objective Morality

Objects Are Morally Neutral

Pragmatic Utilitarianism: A Road To Tyranny

Positive “Rights”

Review Of Universally Preferable Behaviour

Right, Wrong, And The Difference

The Argument From Morality

The Conversation

The Decline Of Morality In The West

The End Of The Ends/Means Dichotomy

The Ethics Of Voluntaryism

The True History Of Ethics

Did you know that the creator of freeblr is on Minds?