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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Battle of the Books: Liberty as the Absence of Force

Thus the word {liberty} is either a misleading appeal to passion, or else it embodies or rather hints at an exceedingly complicated assertion, the truth of which can be proved only by elaborate historical investigations.  'The cause of liberty, for which Hampden died on the field and Sydney on the scaffold,' means either that Hampden and Sydney were right in resisting Charles I and Charles II, respectively, or else merely that they did as a fact die in resisting those kings.  The first assertion obviously requires, before it can be accepted, a full account by way of proof.  The second tells us nothing worth knowing except a bare matter of fact, and would be consistent with Hampden's having been shot when trying to rob on the highway and Sydney's being hanged for highway robbery(p121).  Yet this definition of liberty, which is in exact agreement with Mr. Mill's own views as expressed in his chapter on Liberty and Necessity, in the 2nd volume of his Logic,  is the very foundation of my book.  Liberty is a eulogistic word;  substitute for it a neutral word--'leave', for instance, or 'permission'--and it becomes obvious that nothing whatever can be predicated of it, unless you know who is permitted by whom to do what.  I would ask Mr. Morley whether he attaches any absolute sense whatever to the word liberty, and if so, what it is?  If he attaches to it only the relative sense of 'permission' or 'leave,' I ask how he can make any affirmation at all about it unless he specifies the sort of liberty to which he refers?  Of course, liberty may have positive effects.  Give all men leave to steal, and no doubt some men will steal, but this does not show that liberty itself is a definite thing, with properties of its own, like coal or water(p233, James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Liberty Fund ed.) 

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