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August 23, 2011


Adam Bell

This is extremely good. I would also recommend Samuel Fleischacker's 'A Third Concept of Liberty' on the inadequacies of Berlin's position: http://www.amazon.com/Third-Concept-Liberty-Samuel-Fleischacker/dp/0691004463

Tom Freeman

My family’s cat Zoe used to meow until somebody let her out the front door; often, she’d then look around at the garden briefly, before running round the back of the house and then in through the catflap. She knew perfectly well that it was there, and how to use it, but on these occasions she preferred the more costly option (in terms of effort and time) for leaving the house.

In this case, the personalised front-door-opening service was an entirely unnecessary purchase for her: a piece of conspicuous consumption to serve the purpose of reminding the rest of us of her high social status.

Niklas Smith

I think Tom Freeman has a good point. Remember the saying that dogs have owners but cats have staff - a cat may well insist on the labour-intensive option simply to prove that it is important.

Animal psychology aside, you make a very interesting point about freedom of choice. Lack of awareness of options does certainly restrict someone's practical freedom.

But the thing with positive liberty or "welfare rights" is that they usually aim to give people more or better options than they have initially. In practice this means imposing an obligation on person A to provide something to person B, whereas "negative" rights require person A *not to interfere* with person B. The imposition of an obligation can itself be coercive, as I have argued here: http://niklassmith.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/locke-hobbes-and-two-smoking-barrels/

The difference is the difference between providing better education and careers advice in school (to take your example) and quotas on the basis of social class, gender or (in India) caste requiring universities to set aside a certain number of places for currently underrepresented people.

Churm Rincewind

I didn't actually base my argument "on the grounds that (you) could have worked in famine relief instead." That was just an example. I might equally well have mentioned any of the dozens - hundreds - of careers available to Oxbridge graduates.

In response you say that "you didn't realise that (you) had a range of career opportunities". Yet for over a hundred years the Oxford University Careers Service has been providing undergraduates with a huge range of career information and advice by way of printed literature, talks, briefings, one-to-one advice, events and fairs, all energetically promoted to final year students at University, College and Department levels. It's hard to know what more the Oxford Careers Service could have done to inform you of your options, and even harder to imagine how all this could have somehow passed you by.

Of course all our lives are bounded by the limits of our knowledge, but "I had no choice in the matter" is generally trotted out as a justification when really it's only an excuse - cf George Osborne and the present Government.


@ Churm - you're right that, in some/many cases, "there is no alternative" is self-serving rubbish. But I wasn't justifying my going into the City - I was simply explaining it. The point is that if no-one like you does something, then it's possible that you won't regard it as an option. This is true of the choice of career and of crime; I' like many people, didn't riot because my friends and neighbours didn't.
As for OUCS, in my day it seemed to operate only as a dictionary: accountant, actuary, banker.
@ Tom, Niklas - yes, cats do prefer human service to the catflap, as Lucius has just reminded me for the seventh time today. My point is that he didn't use the catflap even when his humans were missing.


A very good looking chap that Lucius.
How about teach him? I have had some cats and it is not easy but indeed possible.
Or maybe you are constructivist at heart and against teaching? Beware. One of these days, he may end up looting the neighbors' cat ipad.

Hazel Edmunds

Chris, you may like to sign and publicise the e-petition on careers advice. The situation is now DIRE.

Hazel Edmunds

Forgot the URL http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/6985


These arguments by Berlin etc do really hinge on the idea that equality and Liberty are some how in a state of opposition. Most of the time that is not really true. There is a considerable element of a false dichotomy between supposedly liberal policies and socialist or social democratic policies. There is more overlap than opposition in the bulk of specific cases and making very general distinctions between Liberty and equality is not very useful.

Niklas Smith

@Keith: I don't think Berlin's argument is that liberty and equality are *always* in opposition. (Indeed, you can't have liberty without equality before the law.) He simply points out that there are some situations where different values will collide. Can anyone really argue that liberty and equality *always* go hand in hand?

For example, would Cuba have such a level of income equality (admittedly in the sense of most people being equally poor) if their form of government was liberal democracy rather than authoritarian communism?

There is a perfectly valid argument that democracy (i.e. political liberty) in poor countries may lead to less equal provision of education and healthcare as well as more income inequality (just compare Chile with Cuba) as voters may not put such a high priority on equal access to healthcare as Raul Castro does. In other words, a liberal political system can reject socialist/social democratic policies.

Of course you are right in many cases that liberals and social democrats will more or less agree on policies despite being driven by different values - a case in point is the cooperation between mainstream liberals and (then borderline revolutionary) social democrats in campaigns to introduce universal suffrage in many European countries.

Geoff Baldwin

Positive liberty for Berlin is not simply awareness of options, it is liberty defined by acting acording to a particular notion of free action - one that according to say, kant, does not partake of normal subjective motivation.
I think the cat is more republican in needing some stronger notion of political participation (awareness of, and involvement in, choices)to be fully free. It doesn't need to behave acording to an ideal of 'catness' which may entail always chasing mice etc.

Torquil Macneil

"But I wasn't justifying my going into the City - I was simply explaining it. The point is that if no-one like you does something, then it's possible that you won't regard it as an option. "

It's not a VERY good explanation, Chris, that a leftwing, anti-capitalist activist Oxford undergraduate simply did not know that there were alternative careers to going into the City. Had you genuinely never heard of teachers, for example? I have nothing against people benfitting from their privileges but it is a bit ugly to be mealy mouthed about it.


A fascinating post, as usual. I too am trying to get my cat to use a catflap; he too will stand outside the catflap, miaowing to be let in. He knows how to use the flap.

But I can't help thinking that if I had to head-butt a door every time I wanted to go in or out, I might wait until someone let me in, too!

Paul Sagar

Nice cat.

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