Care Ethics and Negative Liberty

Negative liberty theory remains one of the most important conceptions of liberty in the liberal tradition. Although Isaiah Berlin’s original definition of negative liberty has been widely challenged, the concept remains the starting point for many discussions of liberal freedom (Baum and Nichols 2013; Carter 2016; Hirschmann 2003). Moreover, newer, more sophisticated accounts of negative liberty have emerged to supplant Berlin’s original definition (e.g., Carter 1999; Kramer 2003; Steiner 1994), and in the popular discourse of many countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, negative liberty remains closely associated with freedom itself (Tully 2013).

Good care is not usually thought to have much to do with negative liberty. On the contrary, they are often thought to be antithetical. Care entails attentive and responsive engagement with others, whereas negative liberty rests on noninterference or leaving a person alone. My argument in this section challenges this assumed opposition between these concepts. By my account, good care is essential to negative liberty.

My point of departure is Matthew Kramer’s discussion of negative liberty in the Quality of Freedom (2003). Although Kramer’s theory is not a distillation of negative liberty theories, it overlaps in large part with other negative liberty theories and represents, at least according to some reviewers, one of the clearest and best philosophical discussions of this concept (Kramer 2003, 15-16; Carter 2005). I will therefore use it as my touchstone in this exploration of the relationship between negative liberty and care.

Kramer argues that the key consideration for determining whether or not a person is free or unfree from a negative liberty perspective is whether or not they are impeded by the actions of other human beings (2003,41-46). If a person is unable to do something as a result of at least one action by another person, then their inability represents an unfreedom. In determining whether another person has impeded our freedom, Kramer continues, some distinctions that are sometimes made should not apply. For example, the remoteness or smallness of a person’s causal contribution to a reduction in some other person’s liberty is never a reason per se for ignoring it (313-314). If a hiker A throws a rock at a squirrel, causing the squirrel to scramble over some rocks and start a landslide that traps another hiker В far down the mountain in a cave, then hiker В may be said to be unfree because of hiker A’s actions. At least as long as we can reasonably infer a but-for connection between actions and consequences, remoteness or meagerness in themselves should not matter. Similarly, the intention of the person who performs the actions is irrelevant for determining if they caused a loss of freedom, though we might (and probably should) take it into account when assigning blame or responsibility (133-135). Perhaps most importantly, Kramer argues that the often-made claim that negative liberty rests on a distinction between internal or external sources of unfreedom is also misguided (42-46). “If Tony’s conduct inflicts damage on Jack’s brain of such severity that Jack is unable to learn how to read,” Kramer writes, “then the incapacity is an instance of unfreedom” (43). The locus of Jack’s inability to read is, of course, his internal brain damage. If other human beings have caused this brain damage, however, Kramer seems right to say that it should count as a source of unfreedom under a negative liberty theory. The internal/ external distinction is not useful in this regard. What matters for identifying something as an infringement on freedom is that one person has done something that in some way limits the opportunities of another, specifically, opportunities that they otherwise would have had.

Based on Kramer’s definition of negative liberty, care can be seen as an important source of freedom and unfreedom. Kramer himself does not pursue this implication, but it would seem to follow logically from his theory. The clearest example of this claim follows from the consequences of poor care, especially the abuse and neglect of children. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and neglect of children not only inflicts immediate pain and suffering on them but also often contributes (particularly when untreated through therapy or other relational support) to a variety of long-term harms, including significant physical and mental health problems, cognitive difficulties, antisocial attitudes and behaviors, poor impulse control and emotional regulation, substance abuse, interpersonal difficulties, poor academic attainment and achievement, and low motivation and self-esteem (Child Welfare Gateway 2013; Hunter 2014). To quote a recent study, “exposure to adverse life events in childhood has not only been linked to an increased susceptibility for a number of psychiatric disorders, but also to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic lung disease, possibly via long-term influences on the immune system” (Mehta et al. 2013, 8302). Individuals who as adults cannot finish school, hold a job, maintain relationships, or stay sober due in part to mental or physical health problems, emotional difficulties, or low esteem caused in part by childhood abuse or neglect are quite similar to Jack in Kramer’s example, discussed earlier, who suffers brain damage as a result of some unspecified action by Tony. The violence and neglect done to children physically and mentally limit their ability to pursue various opportunities that they otherwise would have had.

Recent brain scan technologies have, in fact, demonstrated that abuse and neglect cause permanent changes in children’s brain structure and chemical composition not so different from brain damage. Three-year- old children who have suffered extreme neglect, for example, have brains roughly half the size of average, healthy children who have not suffered neglect (Heckman 2013, 23). Physical abuse, early neglect, and material deprivation have likewise been associated with decreased amygdala and hippocampus development - the regions of the brain responsible for socio-emotional functioning - smaller cerebral and cerebellar volumes, decreased levels of serotonin and oxytocin, and numerous other neurobi- ological effects (De Beilis and Zisk 2014; Hanson et al. 2015). Common effects of these physical changes include increased behavior problems, lower cognitive performance, increased anxiety and depression, and personality disorders and other mental health problems.7

Behaviorally, victims of childhood abuse and neglect may suffer depression and anxiety or other behavioral or mental health issues to such a degree that they are unable to attend classes or hold a job or stay out of trouble. While causation is complex, making it difficult to draw a direct line from childhood trauma to the impaired capabilities and limited opportunities of adults, if we follow Kramer, even small and remote sources of later life problems should still count as obstacles to negative freedom as long as “we can judge with confidence that some particular consequences are highly likely to ensue” from some actions (Kramer 2003, 416). A large body of research demonstrates the connections between abuse and neglect and brain and biochemical changes and adverse life outcomes that limit individuals’ choices. Childhood abuse and neglect should therefore count as obstacles to negative freedom under a consistent negative liberty theory.

Childhood poverty and deprivation generate similar obstacles to children’s long-term liberty. Children who grow up in poverty are at greater risk for chronic illnesses and poor health, behavioral and conduct disorders, poor impulse control and emotional regulation, poor sociability, learned helplessness, low motivation and perseverance, impaired physical growth, cognitive difficulties, and lower academic achievement (Brooks-Gunn and Duncan 1997; Emerson 2009; Evans and Cassells 2014; Hanson et al. 2015). Again, it seems not implausible in this respect to compare sustained childhood poverty to a brain injury. Although there is some debate about why exactly childhood poverty contributes to long-term disabilities - poor nutrition, stressful environments, learned behaviors from parents, poor schools - all these factors stem from human actions and therefore represent sources of unfreedom under negative liberty theories. Who should be morally responsible for these obstacles - parents, society - is not at issue here, but merely that children who grow up in poverty are likely to experience more limited opportunities than they otherwise would likely have had (based on the opportunities available to children who do not grow up in poverty) due to human actions - and conditions that are rectifiable through human actions.8

Although abuse, neglect, and poverty provide the clearest examples of how substandard care can create impediments to people’s negative liberty, they are far from the only instances of liberty-blocking-care. A child may grow up in relatively advantaged conditions without overt abuse and neglect but still suffer impaired capabilities and lost opportunities due to cold and distant parents, narrow-minded and intolerant parents, cruel teachers and peers, and so forth. Any blight that can be traced back to the actions of another human being - no matter how remote or small - can be counted as an obstacle to freedom under this theory. Even so, it is important to note that not all adult obstacles are due to poor care. Limitations caused by one’s choices or natural limits do not count as obstacles to liberty under this theory but only those due to the actions (in this case, deficient care) of others (Kramer 2003, 6, 12). Our choices may limit our future opportunities, but they do not create other-imposed obstacles to our freedom, and natural limits may restrict what we can do, but as long as they were not caused by others, they do not represent obstacles to social and political freedom under negative liberty theory.

If abuse, neglect, and indifference can create obstacles to freedom under a negative liberty theory, then it follows that good-enough care should be seen as necessary to it. Unless children receive at least good-enough care, they will predictably face (preventable) obstacles in the way of their choices. Indeed, at least up to a certain point, the more love and care that children receive and the less abuse, neglect, and indifference they experience, the fewer obstacles they can be expected to have in their lives and more opportunities they are likely to enjoy. This is not to argue for a perfectionist account of human development; care can come in many forms. A highly ordered, deeply religious, traditional family can be very loving and caring but so also can be a communal, atheistic, unconventional one. The children of loving, caring, empathic parents may further grow up to do and be any number of things. The main claim here is simply that, below a certain level of care (which might vary somewhat for different children based on their temperaments, circumstances, and other factors), children will begin to show signs of distress that over time will predictably form into obstacles to their choices and opportunities. A free society cannot tolerate in this regard poor care any more than it can roving bands of coercive thugs.

The argument so far has focused on the importance of love and care for enabling children to develop into relatively free adults, but care is also relevant to the liberty of adults. Most obviously, professional or personal therapeutic care can function to remove humanly caused obstacles from a person’s opportunity range - much as the police might remove a thug who is blocking a person’s exit from a building. Through therapy or a close personal relation, a survivor of abuse might develop greater trust in others and higher self-esteem, which opens to them choices that they otherwise would have had had they never been abused. Remedial education programs can likewise open up opportunities for individuals whose development was neglected during their childhoods, and medical care can restore opportunities to individuals who have suffered illness or injuries particularly due to human actions.

A pure negative liberty theorist might contend that these arguments stretch the theory too thin and that only immediate acts of external coercion or interference should count as impediments to freedom. This argument is, however, untenable. According to this logic, clubbing a skater’s knee would represent an impediment to her next few steps but not to her competing in the next day’s skating competition. Involuntary lobotomies would represent only temporary restrictions on a person’s liberty - lasting only during the period of the procedure - while the long-term loss of opportunities would not matter for their liberty. Kramer (2003, 42-46) persuasively makes the case for understanding coercion in the extended manner discussed here.

The argument might also be challenged on the grounds that it counts omissions, such as neglect and indifference, as sources of unfreedom. For his part, Kramer (2003, 324-357) suggests that only acts but not omissions (not doing something that one has the ability to do) should be considered sources of unfreedom. Without this distinction between actions and omissions, he argues, everything that anyone could have done to prevent any limitation on freedom, even self-inflicted limitations, would count as a source of unfreedom (Kramer 2003, 350-351). Based on this argument, it might be suggested that, even if obstacles to freedom rooted in abuse should be counted as a source of unfreedom (since abuse is an action), obstacles rooted in mere omissions of care (the failure to feed or shelter or protect) should not.

This distinction between acts and omissions is complex, and some philosophers deny its force when considering the effects one person might have on another’s liberty (e.g., Miller 1985). Even accepting it, Kramer (2003, 341) provides reasons to think many forms of substandard care, such as neglect, should still count as a source of unfreedom. If a person pledges to do something for someone else, and then does not do it, Kramer argues that the omission should count as an action since others were counting on the person to do the action. In a similar vein, it can be said that when parents agree to raise a child, they effectively pledge to the child and others that they will do their best to provide adequate care for them. Parents who are not willing to make this pledge are generally given the opportunity to give up their child for adoption and forced to do so if they do not provide adequate care for them. Parents are allowed to raise children in most societies only under the assumption that they will fulfill certain responsibilities such as feeding, protecting, nurturing, and otherwise caring decently for the child (Goodin 1985, 109-144, 1995, 280-287). As such, not feeding a hungry child in one’s care or reasonably protecting them from harm may be considered an action - a failure of an assigned responsibility - rather than a mere omission. Failing to do these things is different from omitting to, say, make a donation to the community food bank or volunteer at an orphanage.

By casting abuse, neglect, and indifference as possible obstacles to freedom and care as a potentially liberating force, it might finally be objected that this argument supports an absurdly expansive definition of how humans might obstruct others’ freedom. Any deficiency of care that limits others’ opportunities might be seen as an obstacle to liberty. I might claim that my parents’ failure to enroll me in piano lessons at age three obstructed my opportunity to become a world-class pianist. Their failure to push me harder at math limited my opportunity to become a physics professor. Everything that I cannot do as an adult that can be traced in some way to the manner in which my parents, teachers, or others raised me might be labeled an unfreedom.

A couple of points might be made in reply. First, there is nothing inherent in the nature of care that requires parents, teachers, or others to push children toward excellence in any particular field. Indeed, some parents might regard such behavior as uncaring or excessively paternalistic. My parents’ omissions in the cases outlined earlier cannot in this respect be reasonably labeled as substandard care. They simply did not do something that they did not have a responsibility to do (at least given existing parenting norms). These sorts of omissions really are omissions and should not count as sources of unfreedom.

One might plausibly argue that parents nonetheless do have some responsibility to provide a basic music and mathematics education to their children in order to facilitate the development of their capabilities. If my parents intentionally deprived me of all music and mathematics education - knowing full well that some basic knowledge of these activities is considered valuable in most societies and possibly necessary for some basic tasks - then my inabilities could be counted as obstructions. But this was not the case for me. I did receive a basic music and mathematical education in public schools and even had the opportunity to take accelerated classes in these topics. Moreover, even though small children cannot be held responsible for most of their choices, older children do become increasingly responsible for the decisions they make and the capabilities they choose to develop or not develop. When I was 12, 15, 19, or 23, I might have chosen to take piano lessons or learn advanced mathematics. I had at least the basic knowledge of these subjects necessary to understand what they were and to develop them further. That I chose to spend my time on other pursuits means my limitations are my own responsibility. They were not obstructions imposed on me by others. This argument about care and liberty therefore does not open up the speculative floodgates in a way that would allow individuals to identify any deficit they currently have in opportunities or choices as an unfreedom based in deficient care. Only deficits that result from substandard care based on widely accepted social standards of childrearing responsibilities should count as such.

The argument of this section has accepted Berlin’s claim that liberty can be meaningfully distinguished from the conditions of its exercise (Berlin 1969, liii). If, as Kramer (2003, 73-75) argues, this distinction does not hold up to critical scrutiny, then the case for including care in a theory of negative liberty becomes even stronger. Without good care, individuals will lack many of the conditions necessary to exercise their freedom, including health and basic capabilities. Even maintaining the controversial distinction between liberty and its exercise, and thus holding to a starker definition of negative liberty, however, it is clear that care is important to this concept. Deficient care is the source of many physical and mental blocks that prevent individuals from having opportunities or choices they would otherwise have. The main implication of this argument is that, in addition to protecting traditional negative rights, a society committed to negative liberty should support a variety of caregiving programs, including those protecting children against abuse and neglect, ensuring their material well-being, and broadly promoting their capability development. They should also support remedial mental health and other programs for individuals whose capabilities have been blighted due to deficient care or other causes. Although care ethics and negative liberty theories might seem on the surface opposed, they are actually quite complementary. Negative liberty requires at least a threshold of adequate care for all.

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