Bill Berg's Reviews > Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty

Liberty by Isaiah Berlin
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I rate the book a 3 because it is going to be hard for many to get through it. The book spends a good deal of time on the philosophical issue of determinism. Science (at least up to Quantum Mechanics) assumed that "everything just happened" and that WHEN science discovered all the laws of nature including biology, we would discover that everything was fully determined at the point of the Big Bang, including me writing this blog.

I'm not going to go into the arguments for determinism ... only to agree with Berlin that nobody actually lives as if determinism is a fact. As he says on p17; "Unless men as held to posess some attribute over and above those which they have in common with other natural objects -- animals, plants, things (wether the difference is itself called natural or not), the moral command not to treat men as animals or things has to rational foundation."

Much discussion is about positive vs negative liberty. Negative liberty is essentially "freedom from" ... being the right to be left alone. Positive liberty is about "how am I governed", with demcracy being one of the main proposals. Clearly there is a conflict here -- if you leave the wolves alone, they will eat the sheep. OTOH, if you fully protect and care for the sheep, they become essentially slaves to the system that "gives" them their "freedoms" ... from want, from danger, from responsibility, etc.

I found the discussion of the youth and young adulthood of John Stuart Mill to be quite interesting -- I was vaguely aware of it, but Berlin covers it well. Mill's father raised him in strict atheism, materialism, reason, and very little of even poetry ... nothing that Jeremy Bentham, the father of Utilitarianism considered improper.

In his early adulthood he felt life was purposeless, his will was paralyzed and he fell into deep despair wishing for death. Apparently living in a choiceless, loveless, deterministic universe was not really all that much fun!

On 338 and 339 Berlin captures the true horror of Marxism, Utilitarianism and the like. He starts with the example of the Dostoevsky character Ivan Karamazov rejects the potential to consign one child to torture and death for the happiness of many -- an "easy decision" for a true utilitarian. As he puts the sense that utterly horrifes us as we think about Facism and Communism is the following ... "what turns us inside out, and what is indescribeable, is the spectacle of one set of persons that so tamper and "get at" others so that the others do their will without knowing what they are doing; and in this lose their status as free human beings, indeed as human beings at all".

Thoughts of the conversion of "citizens" into "consumers", social media anti-tribes, and the modern knee jerk dictates of Political Correctness come to mind.

It's not a page turner, however it is justifiably a work that is often referenced, and worth the effort to make a bit of a slog.
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February 22, 2019 – Shelved
February 22, 2019 – Finished Reading

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