Isaiah Berlin’s Questions

At the beginning of Chapter 1: What is Freedoms?, I quote philosopher Isaiah Berlin as follows:

β€œThe central question of politics (is) the question of obedience and coercion. Why should I (or anyone) obey anyone else? Why should I not live as I like? Must I obey? If I disobey, may I be coerced? By whom, and to what degree, and in the name of what, and for the sake of what?’”
– Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty 1958

The first discussion topic is this. Does Isaiah ask all the right questions? Should there be additional questions? If so, what are they?

To me, freedom is freedom from coercion. To the extent we are not compelled to obey others, we are free. A libertarian would answer the questions as follows:

Why should I (or anyone) obey anyone else? – you shouldn’t unless you have agreed to do so in advance – for example, when you take a job, you have more or less agreed to follow your employer’s instructions. But such obedience is not absolute. If your employer asks you to do something that is illegal or immoral, you should, of course, refuse.

Why should I not live as I like? – you should as long as you respect other people’s rights to live as they like. You should be free to do as you like as long as you don’t infringe on others equal rights.

Must I obey? – no. Your own sovereign conscience as an individual must always govern your actions. You should obey only when it is moral and responsible to do so and you are agreeable to doing so.

If I disobey, may I be coerced? – in some cases yes – if you disobey the moral laws of society by stealing or murdering or committing other acts that infringe on the rights of others, you may be detained and tried in a court of justice. But note, I said moral laws. Not all laws passed by governments are moral. The ultimate moral law from a libertarian view is to not initiate the use of force but to use force only in self-defense. There are many laws passed by governments that go way beyond those limitations, and from a libertarian point of view, one is justified in disobeying them, recognizing that doing so may lead to undesirable consequences. Civil disobedience is an honorable tradition.

Now what are your views on these questions of Mr. Berlin? Are there additional questions that need answering? Please identify your political persuasion so your answers are in a context. For example, if you are a socialist, identify yourself as such and indicate how you would answer the questions from that perspective. Or if you are a conservative, the same. I am keen to see how people of different political persuasions would answer Mr. Berlin’s questions differently.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>