Liberty and Its Conceptions


A. Introduction

Liberty is usually defined as the obscene of coercion or constraint in the full existence of choice and activity. According to Mainland, Liberty is the absence of external restraints of human action which are themselves result of human action.

Liberty is a value in itself. It is a primary attribute of human life because it is only through provision of liberty that human personality can growth develop, self-direction becomes possible.

It is however, necessary to remember that liberty is a social conception. We don’t talk about the liberty of animal. Also no one can enjoy liberty without society. But, liberty of human actors cannot be absolute because it has to be enjoyed in the context of society.

Liberty of some depends on the restraint of others. Therefore, some sort of regulation and restriction of freedom are arranged in all society. Usually, it is the Government of the society who imposes the restriction. To avoid a misuse of their authority, it can be arranged by making the Government democratic.

John Stuart Mill, in his great work, “On Liberty”, was the first to recognize the different between Liberty as the freedom of action and liberty as the absence of coercion.

Similarly, in his book, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, Isiah Berlin formally formed the different between these two perspective as a distinguish between two conception of liberty, namely “Positive Liberty” and “Negative Liberty”.

B. Two Concepts of Liberty

1. Negative Liberty

The negative sense is involved to answers the question, “What is the area within the subject or a group person is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be without interfere by others?”.

Isiah Berlin called it as “the area within which man can act unobstructed by others”. According to F.A. Hayek, Liberty implies that “the individual has assured private sphere that there are some set circumstance in his environment within which alters cannot interfere”.

John Stuart Mill saw it as “a circle around every individual human being” or “reserved territory”. In this tradition, the negative liberty is upheld against the two minds of interference, namely: (a) Interference by State; and (b) Interference by Individual.

The notion of negative liberty being associated most strongly with the classical “British Political Philosopher”, like Locke, Hobbes and Smith.


It is said that negative liberty is a counterpart ideological of market society. The market is sphere in Capitalist society where goods and services are exchanged by agents who are in unequal possession of it.

To consider negative liberty as substantial of a liberty today, it would serve only for a small fraction of dominant class worldwide. It has become a clock for corporate and empire free enterprise.

2. Positive Liberty

The positive sense of Liberty involves to answer the question, “What and who is the source of control or interference that can determined someone to do or be one thing rather than another?”

It refers to the opportunity and ability to act and to fulfill one own’s potential, as opposed from negative liberty which refers to freedom of coercion. It is also often described as a freedom to achieve certain ends, while negative liberty describes as from external coercion.

T.H. Green who identified Liberty as positive liberty says, “It is a positive power of capacity of doing or enjoying.” More recently, C.B. Macpherson has identified as “the capacity to maximize human power”. In the words of Isiah Berlin, “the positive sense on the word liberty is to whish on part of individual to be his own master”.

The notion of positive liberty being associated mostly with Continental European thinker, such as Hegel, Herder, Rousseau and Marx.


The difficulty in this argument that it implies that someone else, i.e. government, knows what is good for you. Therefore he or it should have a right to impose you on your own interest. This can easily lead to dictatorship.

There will be conflict between ends or value in one hand and means in others. Positive liberty might involve isolating a value or imposing it on all, through specified means.

C. Indian Context

Fundamental Right Chapter of Indian Constitution is an attempt to guarantee and protect the liberties of citizens as well as of aliens too, so that they can exercise their choices and activity freely.

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution provides, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” The right to life is one of the most prominent right and essential for the development of human personality.

Indian Constitution not only guarantees personal or political liberties, it also provides social liberty which was very necessary at the time of framing of our Constitution to develop into a nation.

Article 14 and its extension is the form of Article 15 and 16 along with Article 17 and 18 were incorporated to wash away the restraint and untouchability. These articles were very essential to bring social changes in India.

1. Cases

a. In Maneka Gandhi’s case: the fundamental rights represent the basic values cherished by the people of India since the Vedic times.
b. In Francis COralie v. Union Territory of Delhi: The right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it (Justice Bhagwati).

2. Restriction

Part III of Indian Constitution imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of fundamental rights which obliges persons conduct or exercise their choices in a reasonable manner. Through reasonable restriction, i.e. Article 19 and 21, State tries to secure a social order in which social, economic and political justice can be maintained.


1. Mathew K.K., Democracy, Equality and Freedom, pages 127-145 (1978).
2. Kent Greenwalt, “Free Speech Justification” in M.P. Singh (ed) on Comparative Constitutional Law (1989).
3. Hayek, F.A., The Constitution of Liberty, pages 11-21 (1960).
4. Freeman, M.D.A., Introduction to Jurisprudence, sixth edition, Sweet & Maxwell Ltd., 1994.


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