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Libertas: On the unity of the concept of freedom

Katarzyna Eliasz and Wojciech Załuski


The paper distinguishes two accounts of the relationship between individual and political freedom: the Disunity View (according to which personal and political freedom are not only conceptually distinct but are also incompatible) and the Unity View (which assumes that personal and political freedom are conceptually inseparable, and that thereby freedom is a unitary concept – reminiscent of the Roman-republican libertas). The aim of this paper is to provide several arguments for the Unity View (psychological, conceptual, ‘republican’, and discourse-theoretic). We also argue that the Unity View entails what Ortega y Gasset labeled “life in freedom” (a condition whereby state coercion is not experienced as a limitation of freedom) and that it provides an additional (freedom-based) justification for liberal/constitutional democracy.

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1 Introduction

  • 1 The disunity view is commonly endorsed by prominent political thinkers like Constant (1997), Dworki (...)
  • 2 Following Ian Carter, we understand constitutive value as a value that forms an element of other in (...)

1Political freedom (the core of which is the right to vote, to be eligible to run for public offices, and to participate in the process of political decision-making through engaging in democratic institutions) and personal/individual freedom (the core of which is constituted by various rights to non-interference, and positive rights, e.g., to education and health protection) are usually thought of as significantly different freedoms, which additionally remain is some tension so that one has to be given priority over the other. We label this dominant standpoint on the relationship between political and personal freedom “the Disunity View”.1 In opposition, one may encounter an arguably less widespread “Unity View”, which holds that personal and political freedom are two aspects of a more general, unitary concept of freedom (which we shall call libertas). Though there are varying versions of this view, it is rarely formulated in the way we propose—viz., that freedom is to be regarded as a unitary concept, encompassing both personal and political freedom. This standpoint, which we call “the strong variant of the Unity View”, implies that personal and political freedom are conceptually inseparable: one cannot define personal freedom without reference to political freedom (and vice versa). It bears emphasizing, however, that the strong variant does not assume the identity of its constitutive elements, nor does it claim that they fuse into each other so that the one becomes indistinguishable from the other, and that one of these elements cannot be regarded as more important than the other. They can be regarded as conceptually related to each other, constituting libertas in a more general sense. For instance, within this concept, one of them can still be interpreted as an intrinsic or constitutive value and the other as an instrumental value.2 But, strictly speaking, if we assume this — strong — variant of the Unity View, we should not call its components “personal” and “political” freedom (since, within this view, they create an inseparable whole – libertas). Rather, we should dub them using their specific names (“the right to vote”, “the right to form associations”, etc.). So, if in our further discussion of the strong variant of the Unity View we nonetheless call those components “personal” and “political” freedom, we do so only for the sake of brevity. Having clarified this conceptual subtlety, we can now present the second (less controversial) ‘weaker’ variant of the Unity View, which asserts that personal and political freedom are two separate concepts that although distinct, complement and reinforce each other in the sense that the level of the realization of one type of freedom is dependent upon the level of realization of the other (or put alternatively: that the value of one type of freedom is greater if the other is also present).

2The aim of this paper is to provide arguments for the stronger, more controversial variant of the Unity View. This main task will be carried out in section 2. In section 3, drawing on Ortega y Gasset’s insights, we try to describe how “life in freedom” (which arises as a result of perceiving freedom as a unity) might look. In section 4, we present and refute some objections to the Unity View. Section 5 concludes with some remarks on the connection between the Unity View and liberal/constitutional democracy.

3Before we proceed, however, we must clarify three points. First, the Unity View that we endorse should be regarded as a normative proposal (a non-neutral, evaluative interpretation of the relevant concepts) rather than as a result of the simple reconstruction of the common meaning of the terms “political freedom” and “personal freedom”.

  • 3 Berlin 2000: 203-206.
  • 4 Berlin 2000: 204.

4Second, the word Libertas, which we introduce to describe the kind of freedom implied by the Unity View, should not be interpreted as encompassing all of the kinds of freedom distinguished in the relevant literature (in addition to political and personal freedom, also, for instance, freedom as power, inner freedom, national freedom, or freedom of will), but only the political and personal variants. It should be stressed that in this context our claim about the unity of political and personal freedom should not be understood as tantamount to the claim about the unity of positive and negative freedom. To do so would be to take up one specific understanding of positive freedom. Let us clarify. Whereas one can use the terms “negative” or “personal” freedom interchangeably, the same is not true for the terms “positive” and “political” freedom. The concept of positive freedom, as developed by Isaiah Berlin,3 is rather ambiguous. Even though its most general meaning is more or less clear (being ruled by “real self” or “rational self”), its proper application at an individual level and at a collective level arouses much controversy. To add to the confusion, the term “positive freedom”, when applied on a collective level, is often narrowed down to such forms of self-government where the society (or, rather, its political vanguard) is believed to incarnate “the real self”, or, in other words, where “real self” is “conceived as something wider than the individual (…), as a social ‘whole’ of which the individual is an element or aspect.”4 This last understanding of positive freedom, as famously characterized by Berlin, is likely to jeopardize negative/personal freedom; to make a recalcitrant individual comply with their “real self” (embodied by the society or the state), the use of coercion may be necessary. To further add to the confusion, the term “positive freedom” is also used in the literature with regard to two other types of “freedom”: to collective self-government (democracy) and to having the material means to realize one’s “formal” rights (the Marxist understanding). This short analysis of the four varieties of meanings of positive freedom clearly shows that it would be misleading to take our claim about the unity of political and personal freedom as equivalent to the claim about the unity of positive and personal freedom. The equivalence would hold only if we assume the third meaning of positive freedom (as collective self-government), making no reference to the problem of “real self” (and of its potential abuses).

  • 5 Von Hayek 1978: 19.

5Third, the Unity View does not assert that political freedom and personal freedom share some common element — are two species of the genus of (very hypothetical) “freedom as such” or “freedom without adjective” — that can be extracted from them. We agree with Friedrich August von Hayek (adherent of the Disunity View) that such an account would be untenable: it is hard to imagine what freedom “as such” (without adjective, so to say) would amount to. Indeed, a belief that there exists a common element in different kinds of freedom is “sheer obscurantism,” and “the crudest kind of philosophical realism.”5 But we disagree with von Hayek that this means that these two concepts should be kept quite distinct. He omits ways of reconciling them other than by positing to the existence of some common element. The Unity View (its stronger variant), as we understand it, implies that these political and personal freedoms are conceptually inseparable: when one carefully develops one of these concepts one reaches the other, so that they can both be regarded as constituents of a more general concept (Libertas).

6We can now move on to presenting arguments in favor of the Unity View. We begin with the argument that demonstrates that political and personal freedom reinforce each other, which seems to support only the weaker variant of the Unity View, but which arguably can also be viewed as a subsidiary argument for the stronger variant. The remaining arguments directly support the stronger variant of the Unity View.

2 Arguments for the Unity View

7As we noted above, the first, psychological, argument states that both varieties of freedom are mutually beneficial: to realize one variety of freedom in an active and meaningful manner, one also needs to exercise the other variety. The argument consists of two parts, depending on which direction of causality we consider - from political freedom to personal freedom or from personal freedom to political freedom.

  • 6 Mill 1905: 62-63.
  • 7 See Mill 1905: 57–58.
  • 8 Mill 1905: 62.

8In its first part, the argument ascertains that exercising political freedom fosters specific dispositions and attitudes necessary for the meaningful realization of personal freedom. For instance, John Stewart Mill in his Considerations on Representative Government argued that partaking in democratic government tends to yield an active and self-helping character, whereas in the government of the few, one develops passive attitudes and patterns of behavior.6 Certainly, participation in government is not a conditio sine qua non of an active and self-reliant character, but as Mill convincingly argued, it provides a strong additional stimulus for developing such traits. The citizen in a democratic polity is less propelled to curry favor with the rulers, since he knows that, ultimately, he can have a say in matters of his interest. Although Mill did not draw explicit conclusions regarding the impact of political participation on exercising personal freedom, it seems justified to maintain that passivity and submissiveness diminish the prospects of benefiting from one’s personal freedom to a considerable degree. Mill, just like von Hayek, saw the benefits of personal freedom in its capacity to stimulate individual and social progress.7 But unlike von Hayek, he acknowledged that personal freedom can only yield progress when accompanied by an active character inculcated through participation in government. As he wrote, “Inactivity, unaspiringness, absence of desire, is a more fatal hindrance to improvement than any misdirection of energy.”8

  • 9 See Rawls 2003: 477.
  • 10 Rawls 2003: 386.
  • 11 Fukuyama 2006: 200.

9 The positive psychological impact can be also be discerned in the opposite direction: personal freedom is one of the factors that stimulates the meaningful realization of political freedom. Arguably one of the most important benefits of personal freedom (especially in its modern scheme, which assumes that personal freedoms should be the same for all citizens) is that it brings about the feeling of self-respect for those who exercise it.9 John Rawls aptly characterized the action-animating capacity of self-respect (important for an active realization of political freedom) as a factor without which “all desire and activity becomes empty and vain,” and without which “we sink into apathy and cynicism.”10 In other words, self-respect, strengthened by the possession of various personal freedoms (e.g., the legal protection of life, property, and privacy, presumption of innocence, the right to due process of law, the right to choose and pursue one’s occupation, the right to safe conditions of work) encourages agency through inducing a belief that one’s views are worth realizing and plans worth pursuing. Personal freedoms strengthen the capacity for self-respect by providing a social recognition of one’s status as a person whose convictions, preferences, and actions are worthy of respect and protection. For Francis Fukuyama, the unquestioned advantage of liberal democracy over other regimes lies in its capacity to elicit this feeling of self-respect. As he wrote: “Life in a liberal democracy is potentially the road to great material abundance, but it also shows us the way to the completely nonmaterial end of recognition of our freedom. The liberal democratic state values us at our own sense of self-worth.”11 The feeling of self-worth, when translated from the private to the public realm, arguably enables a concerted and purposive political action.

10 How strong is the above psychological argument? In our view, it establishes that the two kinds of freedom may be mutually beneficial, yet it is not entirely clear whether it is sufficient to justify the weak version of the Unity View, though it undoubtedly strongly supports it. It is also clear that it is insufficient to justify the more interesting—strong—version of the Unity View. It can therefore be viewed only as a subsidiary argument for the stronger variant of the Unity View.

11 The second argument for the stronger variant points at the fact that the dividing line between some of the political and many of the personal (individual) liberties cannot be clearly established. It becomes obvious when one realizes, for instance, that political freedom can be considered a means of realizing some personal freedoms. Political freedom is not merely a means of securing personal liberties through the process of common decision-making, but certain personal liberties are manifested through exercising political freedom, or simply form part of the very concept of political freedom (which, besides its core—the participation in collective/political decision-making—encompasses some additional “Janus-faced” liberties, both personal and political). To illustrate, the freedom of assembly, which is considered a political freedom in article 57 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland, can be used to realize one’s freedom of conscience or/and expression (personal freedoms as established by the Polish Constitution in articles 53 and 54). One could even strengthen this argument by noting that certain political liberties are in fact personal liberties (or vice versa). Freedom of assembly is not merely a means of exercising one’s freedom of expression but is a part of freedom of expression (it is the freedom of expression exercised collectively). This difficulty of clearly differentiating between the two varieties of freedom is also visible at the level of various legal acts: the fact that the same freedom is sometimes categorized as political, and sometimes as personal, seems to testify to the legislator’s confusion as to its theoretical status. For instance, as was already mentioned, the Constitution of the Republic of Poland considers freedom of assembly as a political freedom, whereas in the Constitution of the Portuguese Republic (article 45) the right to meet and demonstrate is considered a personal right/freedom. One could certainly find convincing arguments supporting both classifications: freedom of assembly can be considered a political right insofar as it is a means of indirect control and influence on the government (a means of pressuring it to take certain course in establishing policies), but it can also, however, be just as aptly characterized as personal freedom since it can be interpreted as a specific (collectively exercised) instance of freedom of conscience or/and expression. One could encounter a similar difficulty while trying to provide a clear-cut classification of freedom of speech. It may be considered a personal freedom, since it enables expressing personal autonomy; one can, however, just as well argue that free speech at a political rally or during a public gathering is an instance of the political use of free speech (which is a means of imposing indirect leverage on the government and thereby a means of exercising political freedom). One may speculate that it is precisely because of the difficulty in making an unambiguous distinction between political and personal freedoms that lawmakers tend to refrain from introducing it in legal acts (it does not appear, for example, in the European Convention on Human Rights or the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany). The difficulty of providing a clear personal/political distinction with regard to certain freedoms is not sufficient to prove our thesis about the unity of the concept of freedom when it is not supported by further arguments developed in this section, but it does provide an illustration of the challenges that the supporters of disunity view are likely to face, and it gives the unity view additional support.

12 According to the third—let us call it “neo-republican”—argument for the strong variant of the Unity View, not only does political freedom support personal freedom, but both freedoms are conceptually related (political freedom is part of the concept of specifically understood individual freedom, that is to say, as non-domination). The basic requirement of the (strong) Unity View—the conceptual connection between personal and political freedom—is therefore fulfilled. The differentia specifica of the (strong) Unity View implied by the neo-republican approach is that both kinds of freedom are neither co-original nor equally fundamental, since personal freedom is a constitutive value and a political regulative idea that is prioritized over political freedom treated as a merely instrumental value.

  • 12 Pettit 1996: 578.
  • 13 It also deviates from the traditional concept of negative freedom in that it assumes that one can b (...)

13 Contemporary republicans define freedom as the absence of domination, i.e., actual and potential arbitrary interference exercised at will and with impunity.12 Unlike the Berlinean negative freedom, which requires absence of actual interference, non-domination assumes that the mere fact of living at the mercy of others (being the state’s institutions, and fellow citizens) constitutes an instance of unfreedom.13 It seems clear that freedom as non-domination is a specific variety of personal freedom, the realization of which is facilitated when citizens exercise their political freedom. What is not entirely clear is the role of political freedom here, viz., whether it is necessary for the attainment of non-domination. We shall argue that a careful analysis of the concept of “arbitrary interference” allows us to answer this question in the affirmative and therefore defend (on neo-republican grounds) the strong variant of the Unity View.

  • 14 Lovett 2012: 139. Republicans emphasize the paramount importance of controls of state power in dimi (...)
  • 15 Lovett 2012: 140; Pettit 1997: 55–56.
  • 16 See Pettit 1997: Ch. 6-7.
  • 17 Lovett 2012: 142–146.
  • 18 Lovett 2012: 142–143.
  • 19 Lovett 2012: 144–145.
  • 20 Pettit 2001: 156.
  • 21 Lovett 2012: 145.
  • 22 Van Der Rujt 2009: 466.
  • 23 Van Der Rujt 2009: 475.
  • 24 Pettit indicates that non-domination allows one to be: “treated properly as a person,” “to be treat (...)

14Non-domination, as its advocates argue, requires the absence of two varieties of arbitrariness: the procedural variety, which occurs when the decisions of a state’s institutions are not effectively constrained by rules and procedures known to each party affected by the decision,14 and a substantive variety, which occurs when a state’s potentially interfering acts fail to take into consideration the relevant interests and opinions of the people affected.15 The concept of procedural non-arbitrariness is clear and does not require further elaboration: it entails introducing the rule of law and control mechanisms holding political power in check.16 The substantive account is somewhat vague and should be clarified by indicating what kind of interests ought to be taken into account and how to recognize them. Contemporary republicans adhere to either of the two varieties of substantive non-arbitrariness, which Frank Lovett calls deliberative-democratic and deliberative-communitarian, respectively.17 Now, it seems that espousing the former view on arbitrariness would lead to accepting the Unity View, for it requires that said interests be expressed via deliberative and democratic institutions.18 On the latter account, the interconnection between democracy and non-arbitrariness is less obvious: the relevant interests are those that could be justified by reference to the fund of reasons shared within a given society.19 Those are the reasons that emerged over time as the result of social practices and which “anyone in a discourse with others about what they should jointly or collectively provide can adduce without embarrassment as relevant matters to take into account.”20 It seems that, on this account, social power could identify relevant interests without recourse to democratic procedures provided that its decisions regarding those interests are justified by the said shared reasons.21 Allowing citizens to democratically express their interests would arguably be beneficial, but not necessary for making non-arbitrary decisions regarding those interests. We believe that the deliberative-communitarian account of non-arbitrariness not only undermines the Unity View, but also does disservice to the theory of non-domination. As Jan-Willem Van Der Rujt rightly claims, non-domination entails a specific account of dignity understood as “person’s ability to resist intrusions into his own affairs.”22 According to Van Der Rujt, a factor that can undermine dignity thus understood (and thereby undermine freedom as non-domination) is paternalistic interference, for “[f]ew things are as demeaning as someone else getting to decide unilaterally what is good for you and interfere with you accordingly.”23 The deliberative-communitarian variant of non-arbitrariness seems to allow for precisely this kind of paternalistic interference, whereas the democratic-deliberative account avoids this objection and accommodates the above-mentioned account of dignity inherent in the theory of non-domination. It assumes that personal freedom of non-domination requires some degree of participation in the common conduct of public affairs, and therefore entails the Unity View. It should be emphasized, however, that republicans do not espouse the Unity View explicitly. They tend to oppose freedom as non-domination to political freedom, as well as to favor the former over the latter. However, their assumption that non-domination requires the absence of substantive non-arbitrariness seems to entail (given the conceptual relation between democracy and political freedom) considering political freedom as part of the concept of non-domination, which as we already indicated, can be viewed as a specific variant of personal/negative freedom. It should be stressed that although political freedom is a part of the concept of non-domination, the latter variety of freedom is a more important value. For the adherents of republicanism, non-domination is a sui generis political regulative idea and it seems justified to argue that they perceive it as constitutive value.24 Political freedom—although it constitutes the part of the concept of non-domination (and thereby justifies our claim that republicans adhere to a strong variant of the unitary account of freedom)—is considered an instrumental value necessary for obtaining non-domination (through providing its condition, i.e., absence of substantive arbitrariness). But the strong variant of the Unity View implies only that the two varieties of freedom must be conceptually related; it does not imply that they must be co-original and equally fundamental. It therefore admits that one variety of freedom is merely instrumental for the achievement of the other.

  • 25 Gaus 2003: 128.

15There exists, however, a subvariant of the strong variant of the Unity View that exhibits all these features (not only a conceptual connection with both types of freedom, but also their co-originality and equal importance). Such a view is defended by Jürgen Habermas within his discourse theory, who, as Gerald F. Gaus aptly put it, “seeks to mediate between, or to integrate, the liberties of the moderns and ancients”,25 that is, personal and political freedom. Habermas clearly expresses his view in the following fragment:

  • 26 Habermas 2001: 780.

Practical reason is realized in the form of private autonomy no less than it is in that of political autonomy. That is, both are as much means for the other as they are ends in themselves. The demand to orient oneself to the common good, which is connected with political autonomy, is also a rational expectation insofar as only the democratic process guarantees that private individuals will achieve an equal enjoyment of their equal individual liberties. Conversely, only when the private autonomy of individuals is secure are citizens in a position to make correct use of their political autonomy. The interdependence of constitutionalism and democracy comes to light in this complementary relationship between private and civic autonomy: each side is fed by resources it has from the other.26

16Let us look closely at the argument that led Habermas to endorse this claim.

  • 27 Habermas 2001: 777.
  • 28 Habermas 2001: 777.
  • 29 Habermas 1995: 17.
  • 30 Habermas 2001: 771.
  • 31 Habermas 1995: 18.
  • 32 Habermas 1995: 15.

17The point of departure for the discourse-theoretic argument is the common-sense observation that exercising political freedom requires communication between the members of any society. Communication in turn requires enabling rules in the form of basic rights (to use Habermas’s term), and among them a basic right for “the greatest possible measure of equal individual freedom of action for each person.”27 Such basic rights “are the necessary basis for an association of citizens that has definite social boundaries and whose members mutually recognize one another as bearers of actionable individual rights.”28 They constitute a preliminary legal framework or “legal code”29 for future actions, and constitute the necessary condition of any attempt to exercise popular sovereignty (political freedom). Habermas’s crucial claim is that these liberal rights are in essence not constraining rules, which limit the scope of democratic decision-making, but constitutive rules—they (together with the rights of political participation) are constitutive of the very concept of democracy, of self-legislation. Accordingly, neither principle (of human rights nor democracy) sets limits on the other, nor is it more basic than the other. Both liberal and political rights are, according to Habermas, “basic rights,” i.e., “answers that meet the demands of a political communication among strangers and ground the presumption that outcomes are rationally acceptable. (…) Because this ensemble of enabling conditions [enabling communication] must be realized in the medium of law, these rights encompass both liberal freedoms and rights of political participation.”30 The relationship between private and public autonomy (personal and political freedom) can be stated even more emphatically: citizens can exercise their public autonomy insofar as they obtain a publicly recognized status, which includes sufficient scope of independence guaranteed by the basic rights (including a right to personal liberty). On the other hand, they can participate in determining the precise content of these personal rights and freedoms insofar as they, as citizens, exercise their public autonomy (political freedom).31 Being autonomous in the Habermasian sense amounts therefore not merely to being addressees of rights (even the most protective and allowing for the broad scope of personal freedom), but also requires that citizens see themselves as authors of rights they have to obey.32 This assertion is in line with the point we want to support in this paper, namely, that full freedom requires individuals to perceive themselves as both addressees and authors of rights.

18Among the four arguments formulated above, the first seems to merely indicate that the two freedoms are mutually beneficial. We mentioned that this argument shall be treated as merely subsidiary in our defense of the strong variant of the Unity View (on its own, the argument can at best justify the weak variant). The second argument, which indicates that depending on the context, certain personal freedoms can be considered instances of political freedoms, directly supports the strong variant of the Unity View. We are aware, however, that it has an important disadvantage: it is casuistic, and so it fails to provide a deeper philosophical justification for accepting the unitary concept of freedom. It merely points to certain instances of when it is not possible to clearly and unequivocally discriminate between the two varieties of freedom. The third and fourth arguments complete this gap by providing the searched-for philosophical justification of the unitary account of freedom. They both indicate that personal and political freedom are conceptually related, thereby constituting two aspects of one concept (Libertas). They give rise to two somewhat different subvariants of the strong variant of the Unity View. The discourse-theoretic argument supports the subvariant according to which the two kinds of freedom are not only conceptually related, but also co-original and equally fundamental, whereas the subvariant supported by the neo-republican argument implies only that they are conceptually related.

3 Life in freedom

  • 33 Ortega y Gasset 1963: 27.

19Arguably, the experience of unified freedom may appear foreign to the modern imagination, since our shared perception is that freedom consists of plural freedoms experienced independently in the private and in the public realms. Yet, considering freedom as a unified experience is not without precedence in the history of human thought. In his perceptive essay “Concord and Liberty,” Ortega y Gasset outlined the Roman-republican sense of libertas as a unified account of freedom. He argued that the Romans perceived freedom as “an indivisible whole, existing in the singular, as it were, whereas in liberalism liberty appears broken up into a plurality of liberties.”33 Ortega’s aim in this essay was not merely to analyze the historical account of freedom, but above all to present it as a normative ideal worth pursuing in modern societies. His proposition is therefore an alternative to liberalism, which sees freedom as split into a plurality of liberties. According to him, experiencing freedom as libertas entails what he calls “life in freedom”: i.e., a state whereby coercion is not experienced as discomfort. In life in freedom, coercion and the resulting limitations on personal freedom, which are unavoidable in every form of social organization, are not experienced as a threat to freedom insofar as it is the people who determine the scope, mode, and domains in which coercion is exercised. Now, Ortega’s (metaphorical) description of life in Roman freedom seems to us to also be an apt description of how life in freedom—freedom implied by the Unity View—might look. He wrote that:

  • 34 Ortega y Gasset 1963: 34.

Man is not free to elude the permanent pressure of the collective body upon his person. But certain nations in certain epochs succeeded in giving that coercion institutional forms of which they fully approved; they shaped the state after their vital preferences. This is what we call “life in freedom”.34

  • 35 Ortega y Gasset 1963: 35.

20Life in freedom thus understood is opposed to “life as adaptation”35 in which the state’s coercion is imposed on the citizens. Notably, it seems that life in freedom does not occur when a benevolent ruler imposes a variety and extent of coercion that does not contradict the peoples wishes; it requires that the people themselves should have a say whenever limiting their personal freedom is concerned. Therefore, life in freedom requires political freedom. Ortega y Gasset invokes a suggestive metaphor when describing the experience of coercion in the regime of freedom. He indicates that in life in freedom, one experiences the state and its imminent pressure as the feeling of living in one’s own skin:

  • 36 Ortega y Gasset 1963: 40-41.

[T]he state envelops the social body as smoothly and elastically as the skin covers a living body. The skin also presses tightly to the body, but it adjusts itself to every bend and swelling of the muscles so that we feel perfectly free in it. Indeed, there is no better expression for the feeling of freedom than to say that we are as much at ease as in our own skin. Let us note the paradox herein contained; a pressure exercised against me is felt as mine, as forming a part of myself.36

  • 37 According to Chaim Wirszubski, the Romans perceived Athenian eleutheria (freedom) – the essence of (...)

21We have written above that Ortega’s description of life in Roman freedom serves equally well as a description of life in freedom as understood within the Unity View. But one can perhaps say more: it suits the latter account of freedom better, since, as may be plausibly argued, life in freedom requires political freedom as its necessary component. At this point, an explanatory remark regarding Ortega’s interpretation of libertas is in order. The Romans did not perceive unified freedom as a right to co-determine the scope of coercion. In the republican-Roman tradition, being free amounted to not having one’s rights arbitrarily curtailed and living under the institutions of republican Rome; libertas was associated with civitas—the Roman citizenship—not with political freedom qua right to participate in government.37 Therefore, the metaphor of a unified freedom as libertas requires extending the republican (Roman) meaning thereof so that it encompasses personal and political freedom.

4 Objections and their refutation

22Let us now consider some possible objections to the Unity View (and thereby arguments for the Disunity View).

  • 38 See Constant 1997: 599–600.
  • 39 Constant 1997: 616–617.

23The first objection, which can be called “historical-sociological”, implies that even a quick glance at human history shows that the two freedoms could exist separately from each other. People could enjoy political freedom without having individual freedom (or the other way around). The same objection could be formulated by pointing at the fact that, in some epochs, people prioritized individual over political freedom, whereas in others their hierarchy of these values was reversed. This objection could be supported by Benjamin Constant’s considerations from his famous essay “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns” in which he analyzed various social-economic conditions that could have induced people to prioritize one type of freedom over the other. He argued, for instance, that among the crucial factors that led to giving priority to individual freedom in modern times were the development of vast states, the abolition of slavery, and above all, the development of commerce, which triggered important psychological and axiological shifts in the modern mind; it gave rise to the passion for personal independence and common conviction that one can fulfill one’s interests and needs independently from the state, which became commonly perceived as an obstacle to, rather than a condition of personal independence.38 If one wanted to develop this objection further, one could argue that it is not weakened by the very fact that Constant held political freedom in high regard and underlined the necessity of reconciling both kinds of freedom in political practice,39 since the postulate of reconciling them in practice seems to imply that they can exist separately. But this objection, which we have tried to present in its best form, does not undermine our thesis about the unity of the concept of freedom. The objection could be valid only if one perceived political freedom in a very specific sense, namely, as “the freedom of the ancients”, i.e., direct participation in determining almost every political issue. Constant’s argument about the incompatibility of political freedom with modern circumstances does not apply to more moderate accounts thereof that do not require constant civic activism. And it is precisely this kind of account that is implied by the Unity View. To put it more generally, the concepts of personal and political freedom that Constant used in his analyses are not identical (though are similar) to the ones implied by the Unity View, which as was mentioned, is in the first place a certain normative ideal and not a reconstruction of the common meaning of these terms, even though it can also be construed as providing an attractive normative interpretation of this meaning.

  • 40 Von Hayek 1978: 29.

24The second objection provides normative reasons for deeming personal and political freedom incompatible. It indicates that the two varieties of freedom constitute two different and incompatible goods. As was argued by Friedrich August von Hayek, a firm advocate of the Disunity View, there are different reasons for why people desire them, so that when one is forced to choose between them, one needs to decide which variety one values more highly. In von Hayek’s opinion it is personal freedom that, due to its capacity to animate social development and progress, should be given priority.40 With regard to this first element in this two-element objection (that the two types of freedom are different and incompatible), it should be noted that accepting the common-sense observation about the different character of personal and political freedom does not compromise the Unity View as we understand it. For this view does not assume the identity of its constitutive elements. What it assumes is that the two kinds of freedom together constitute a new quality, i.e., libertas - they are two different sides of the same coin. Regarding the second element of this objection (incompatibility), it should be stressed that it does not apply to the concepts of political and personal freedom as they are understood within the Unity View, which, let us recall, seems to be more plausible as a normative proposal than as a reconstruction of the common usage of these terms. The view implies that political freedom encompasses the principle of rule of law, which guards against any potential infringements of personal liberty. Consequently, in contrast to the “freedom of the ancients”, it does not allow citizens to determine every aspect of socio-political reality.

5 Epilogue: the Unity view and liberal democracy

  • 41 Some conceptual clarification is necessary. The concepts of constitutional democracy and liberal de (...)
  • 42 See Mounk 2018: 27.
  • 43 Habermas 2001: 778.
  • 44 See Dahl 1991: 176–192.
  • 45 According to Mouffe: “No doubt there is an opposition between the liberal ‘grammar’ of equality, wh (...)

25In this Epilogue, instead of providing a schematic summary, we would like to point at a potentially fruitful avenue of further research, which we cannot develop here but which we think at least deserves mentioning. The avenue concerns the implications of the Unity View for a theory of democracy, or more precisely for the discussion about the form that democracy should take. We believe that the Unity View (regardless of whether it assumes its weak or strong form) entails an important normative conclusion, viz. that the only political system capable of accommodating libertas (and thereby enabling life in freedom) is liberal/constitutional democracy41 (the only political system expressive of libertas). Any deviation from liberal democracy, regardless of whether it assumes the form of what Yasha Mounk called “undemocratic liberalism” (personal liberties without democracy, or with a significantly limited scope of popular influence on governmental policy) or “illiberal democracy” (democracy with limited personal rights and liberties, or with distorted mechanisms of securing them against infringements)42 dismisses the chance of achieving libertas (and thereby life in freedom). This point was clearly stated by Habermas: “basic rights as a whole, and not merely political rights, are constitutive for the process of self-legislation.”43 Therefore, our account of libertas provides what may be called a freedom-based justification of liberal democracy. If one considers libertas a value worth pursuing, one must ultimately acknowledge that democracy must assume the form of liberal democracy. We find our way of justifying this ideal as an alternative or supplement to other justifications of liberal democracy, for instance, equality-, equilibrium-, or precommitment-based. According to the equality-based justification (e.g., Robert A. Dahl’s), the anthropological theory of the equal value of each person supports liberal democracy (not merely, as is oft claimed, democracy as such); for the assumption of equal value requires not only that each person eligible for active suffrage be given a chance to participate in the collective decision-making, but also that the outcomes of collective decision-making not infringe upon basic rights (e.g., freedom of speech).44 It seems, however, that the catalogue of basic rights is somehow limited on Dahl’s account, for his relevant basic rights encompass primarily the rights necessary for the validity of democratic procedure. Therefore, on Dahl’s theory, the democratic element seems to take precedence over the liberal one (whereas on our liberty-based account such imbalance does not occur). On the equilibrium-based justification, liberal and democratic elements limit each other, thereby countervailing the potentially negative side effects of unrestricted democracy and unlimited liberalism. A particularly interesting version of this justification was developed in Chantal Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox, where she addressed Carl Schmitt’s challenging argument against liberal democracy. According to Schmitt, democracy and liberalism rely on irreconcilable principles, which ultimately dooms liberal democracy to failure. The logic of democratic equality requires introducing criteria that enable distinguishing members of the demos from those who shall be excluded thereof, and this assumption is in a stark contrast to the logic of liberal equality, which rests on belief in equal worth of any human being. Mouffe readily admitted that the tension between the liberal and democratic logic poses a challenge to liberal democracy. 45Yet she found this tension surmountable, and indeed a testament to liberal democracy’s originality. As she wrote:

  • 46 Mouffe 2000: 44-45.

The democratic logic of constituting the people, and inscribing rights and equality into practices, is necessary to subvert the tendency towards abstract universalism inherent in liberal discourse. But the articulation which the liberal logic allows us constantly to challenge—through reference to “humanity” and the polemical use of “human rights”—the forms of exclusion that are necessarily inscribed in the political practice of installing those rights and defining ‘the people’ which is going to rule.46

  • 47 cf. Elster 2005, Holmes 1995, and critically Waldron 1998.

26The precommitment-based justification, in turn, is based on a putative analogy between individual and collective decision-making: just as an individual, by accepting certain self-limitations, can increase his power and effectiveness in realizing his preferences so that the collective (political) decision-making bodies can strengthen their power by assuming certain procedural and substantive limitations.47 Let us repeat: our justification of liberal democracy, based on the analysis of the relationship between values standing behind both its components (liberalism and democracy) does not exclude the other justifications, but is certainly different from them and, as we believe, not unoriginal.

The following article was prepared under the auspices of the research grant “The Place of Political Freedom in the Hierarchy of Democratic Values”, which was founded by the National Science Centre, Poland, on the basis of decision DEC-2016/23/D/HS5/01814.

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Van Der Rujt, J-W. (2009). Republican Dignity: The Importance of Taking Offence. Law and Philosophy, 28(5), 465–492.

Von Hayek, A. F. (1978). The Constitution of Liberty. University of Chicago Press.

Waldron, J. (1998). Precommitment and Disagreement. In L. Alexander (Ed.), Constitutionalism: Philosophical foundations (pp. 271–274). Cambridge University Press.

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1 The disunity view is commonly endorsed by prominent political thinkers like Constant (1997), Dworkin (2006), Macpherson (1973), Dahl (1991), Rawls (2003), and von Hayek (1978) among many others. The unitary account of freedom appears to be rarely represented (the notable exception being Habermas [1995, 2001] and Ortega y Gasset [1963]).

2 Following Ian Carter, we understand constitutive value as a value that forms an element of other intrinsically valuable phenomenon (i.e. irreducible to other values, being an end in itself), and instrumental value as a means to other valuable phenomenon. See Carter 1999: 41-60.

3 Berlin 2000: 203-206.

4 Berlin 2000: 204.

5 Von Hayek 1978: 19.

6 Mill 1905: 62-63.

7 See Mill 1905: 57–58.

8 Mill 1905: 62.

9 See Rawls 2003: 477.

10 Rawls 2003: 386.

11 Fukuyama 2006: 200.

12 Pettit 1996: 578.

13 It also deviates from the traditional concept of negative freedom in that it assumes that one can be free even when interfered with (when one’s sphere of choices is limited by the actions of others) insofar as the interference is non-arbitrary. But, admittedly, the matter is contentious. Some scholars (e.g., Carter 1999: 237–245; Kramer 2003: 125–148) argue that what the neo-republican thinkers demonstrated is not that the so called republican freedom (freedom as non-domination, anti-power) is conceptually different from negative freedom, but only that negative freedom is best promoted if the risk of arbitrary interference has been maximally reduced. We shall not take sides in this controversy, which is not directly relevant to our argument for the strong variant of the Unity View. Though, the claim that republican freedom is simply negative freedom (as Carter and Kramer argue) may better fit with this view. Nonetheless, even if we agree with neo-republicans that non-domination is different from negative freedom, there are still a sufficient number of similarities between these two concepts (above all: they both protect in the first place a sphere of an agent’s individual choices/autonomy) to defend the claim that the neo-republican conceptual framework can be used to support the strong variant of the Unity View.

14 Lovett 2012: 139. Republicans emphasize the paramount importance of controls of state power in diminishing domination (i.e. checks and balances, and variety of legal rules allowing to scrutinize and limit potentially dominating action of power holders). In absence of such measures, the prospect of achieving non-domination could be significantly diminished even if political freedoms are preserved. At the same time, limitations of state power are not sufficient to provide non-domination (see our remarks below). Therefore, republican freedom requires two equally important elements: controls of state power and political freedom.

15 Lovett 2012: 140; Pettit 1997: 55–56.

16 See Pettit 1997: Ch. 6-7.

17 Lovett 2012: 142–146.

18 Lovett 2012: 142–143.

19 Lovett 2012: 144–145.

20 Pettit 2001: 156.

21 Lovett 2012: 145.

22 Van Der Rujt 2009: 466.

23 Van Der Rujt 2009: 475.

24 Pettit indicates that non-domination allows one to be: “treated properly as a person,” “to be treated as a voice that cannot be dismissed without independent reason” (Pettit 1997: 91). It therefore seems reasonable to assume that living under a state of non-domination is a part of leading a fully human life. In other words, non-domination is a constitutive value of a fully human life.

25 Gaus 2003: 128.

26 Habermas 2001: 780.

27 Habermas 2001: 777.

28 Habermas 2001: 777.

29 Habermas 1995: 17.

30 Habermas 2001: 771.

31 Habermas 1995: 18.

32 Habermas 1995: 15.

33 Ortega y Gasset 1963: 27.

34 Ortega y Gasset 1963: 34.

35 Ortega y Gasset 1963: 35.

36 Ortega y Gasset 1963: 40-41.

37 According to Chaim Wirszubski, the Romans perceived Athenian eleutheria (freedom) – the essence of which was the right to participate in the democratic intuitions of polis – to be an instance of licentia (unrestrained and unmoderated liberty which ultimately entails arbitrariness) not libertas. See Wirszubski 1968: 5, 13.

38 See Constant 1997: 599–600.

39 Constant 1997: 616–617.

40 Von Hayek 1978: 29.

41 Some conceptual clarification is necessary. The concepts of constitutional democracy and liberal democracy are not identical. Democracy is constitutional if it involves some self-binding precommitments (self-limiting “devices”), which are expressed in a constitution (written and unwritten). If the pre-commitments are only procedural or structural (such counter-majoritarian devices as supermajorities, separation of powers, bicameralism, judicial review, or executive veto, etc.), then constitutional democracy is not yet liberal. It becomes liberal if it also contains some substantive precommitments (entrenched liberal rights). But since the overwhelming majority of constitutional democracies contain both types of commitments, the terms “constitutional democracy” and “liberal democracy” can be regarded as equivalent (even though not identical). For an analysis of democracy from the perspective of constraint (precommitment) theory, see especially Elster 2005.

42 See Mounk 2018: 27.

43 Habermas 2001: 778.

44 See Dahl 1991: 176–192.

45 According to Mouffe: “No doubt there is an opposition between the liberal ‘grammar’ of equality, which postulates universality and reference to ‘humanity’, and the practice of democratic equality, which requires the political moment of discrimination between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (Mouffe 2000: 44).

46 Mouffe 2000: 44-45.

47 cf. Elster 2005, Holmes 1995, and critically Waldron 1998.

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Electronic reference

Katarzyna Eliasz and Wojciech Załuski, Libertas: On the unity of the concept of freedom”Revus [Online], 42 | 2020, Online since 18 October 2020, connection on 25 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Katarzyna Eliasz

Doctor of law at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow (Poland)

E-mail: katarzyna.eliasz [at]

Wojciech Załuski

Professor of law at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow (Poland)

Address: Department for the Philosophy of Law and Legal Ethics - Jagiellonian University - Bracka Street 12 - 31-005 Krakow - Poland
E-mail: wojciech.zaluski [at]

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