J.S. Mill
Freedom and Liberty

Freedom and Liberty are concepts derived from philosophy and political philosophy. Both terms generally define the rights of an individual to be free from the oppression of others or a State, and to be able to act according to his/her will. Some phrase this concept as 'civil liberty' or 'personal liberty' (Macquarie Dictionary; 1982). The metaphysical nature of both terms have led to varying interpretations between different schools of thought. It is fitting now to assess some varying definitions on the matter.

1) Definition(s)

A significant definition to assess here is that proposed by John Stuart Mill. According to his works, liberty refers to the limitation of power of which the authorities or the ruling power should be allowed to exercise over the nation or community. From John Stuart Mill's work On Liberty (1859) , a key text in this discourse, we can interpret Liberty as manifested in three ways (Mill; 75).
1) The Inward Domain of Consciousness: i.e. liberty of thought and feeling, opinion and sentiment on all subjects.
2) In the Domain of Tastes and Pursuits: i.e. doing as we like, planning life as suits our character (without impediment, so long as it does not harm others).
3) In the Domain of Interaction: i.e. freedom to unite (without planning to do harm to others) without being forced or deceived.

However, for Mill, the 'sole' reason behind defining liberty stems from humanity's driving instinct to self-protect (p73). These three manifestations of liberty exist only to defend against the tendency of 'society' to grow increasingly authoritarian 'and diminish the power of the individual' (p77). The purpose of Mill's essay is to explore the meaning of liberty in order to establish the extent to which it is acceptable to limit.

Liberty, to be secure for any, must be secure for all--even the most miserable merchants of hatred and unpopular ideas. (Busha)

Freedom and Liberty, refer to the right of an individual to act and express themselves according to their own will. Classical conceptions relate liberty to protection against the tyranny of outside authority (e.g.the state).

Although the words freedom and liberty can generally be used interchangeably, there are some inherent differences between these two words.

Liberty is a social condition subject to external circumstances such as political and economic ones.

Freedom is a philosophical, psychological and even existential concept that refers to the ability of a person to make decisions and choices, and to express these without incurring prejudice. Particularly, individual freedom is of supreme importance. Freedom can be seen as an environment where an individual has the opportunity to express and act upon ideas and thoughts - regardless of their popularity - without restraint or punishment by those occupying that same environment, as long as they cause no harm to others in that environment. Some definitions have outlined a freedom from slavery, not only in a physical sense, but also in the sense of thought, word, deed and lifestyle (Macquarie Dictionary; 1982). It is through this condition that people are able to develop their skills and talents, express their individuality and fulfill their potentials.

Freedom and Liberty - Rights
Some thinkers believe that once an understanding of freedom and liberty has been established, certain rights and responsibilities are thus inherent. Holmes and Sunstein argue this by presenting the concepts of negative and positive rights which involve the rights of individuals/citizens, and thus responsibility of government/authorities to ensure these rights (Holmes and Sunstein; 1999). Holmes and Sunstein state that negative rights refer to those which ban or limit the power of government (e.g. rights to property, freedom from torture by police authority), whilst positive rights are defined as those which involve the government/authority handing out or giving to individuals/citizens (e.g. handouts, subsidised housing, welfare payments) (Holmes and Sunstein; 1999).

But at the same time, it could be said that not only governments and authorities feel responsible for ensuring that the rights of individuals are protected; there are also individuals/citizens that feel concerned and not only express their opinion but also demand that many rights stop being violated, such as in the case of human rights violations. Not every person feels responsible for the rest, but for those who do and express it, their freedom and liberty is taken away, and in many cases their life ended.

Within this argument of rights and responsibilities, some have discussed the concept of a Bill of Rights as a means to ensure that these rights and responsibilities are enacted properly and well protected - particularly in Australia. At present no such Australian Federal Bill exists, and indeed makes Australia the only 'developed' nation that does not have one. Yet the State of Victoria has employed the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic)(Williams; 2006). Even so, this Charter has been controversial and contested.

This discussion of rights has in the past led to a discussion of negative and positive rights, which we shall now assess.

Negative and Positive Liberty


A common misinterpretation of Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty is to understand negative liberty as ‘freedom from’ and positive liberty as ‘freedom to’. This interpretation draws instant criticism as it is easy enough to realise that every liberty an individual may enjoy is both a freedom from something and a freedom to do something. (Swift, p. 53) When using the triadic relation to understand freedom, it is clear that when considering any issue in which freedom is in question, there will be three main aspects to it: (1)an agent who is the subject of freedom(2) a constraint, interference or obstacle to that freedom (3)a goal or end being pursued by the agent. (MacCallum, p. 176) When reduced to its simplest form, Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty can be understood as viewing liberty either as non-interference or as self-determination. (Verma, p. 3053)

Negative liberty is liberty as non-interference. Berlin holds the belief that negative liberty allows individuals to be free in the truest sense, without the possibility for violating the meaning of freedom, as positive liberty can allow. (Kocis, p. 179) Negative liberty is centered on the belief that there is a portion of human existence which must always remain free of any form of interference or outside control; to be the domain of the individual alone. (Berlin, p. 126) Alluding to Kant’s theory of autonomy, Berlin stresses that this sphere of freedom must be protected because without this personal freedom, the very nature of humans is being denied or degraded. Thus negative liberty is the absence of interference. Berlin regards negative freedom to be higher than positive freedom, for without it, human dignity cannot be guaranteed. (Frisch, p. 424) Drawing also from his predecessors who concerned themselves with the meaning of liberty, Berlin cites John Stuart Mill to emphasise the importance of liberty for the advancement of humanity. If human beings are forced to act in a certain way against their will and not left to make their own decisions, they will become victims of collective mediocrity.

Positive liberty is viewed as self-determination; that is, the freedom to lead a particular way of life. The rationale behind positive liberty is that it views freedom as originating from the decisions made by a rational, higher self which is dominant over the lower self. The lower self is the domain of passions, obsessions and compulsions. These are things which enslave the individual because they cannot be regulated by rational decision-making through which autonomy is realised. (Berlin, p. 132) Berlin finds a cause for worry in this concept of liberty by noting that when an individual is not considered autonomous because they are human but for some other, volatile reason, then this gives way for the manipulation of individuals by outside forces. By asserting that an individual or a group is not acting according to its rational choices, an external force, such as a tyrannical dictator in a worst case scenario, is capable of ignoring their wishes by proclaiming something else to be the true rational path to a good life. Berlin finds this particularly concerning because he agrees with Kant that there is no higher value than the individual. Whilst some people may place great importance on patriotism or religion or something else, he believes that personal autonomy must be placed first and foremost so that human dignity can be preserved. Hence, there are two problems Berlin identifies with positive liberty. The most important is the aforementioned ability of some individuals to assert their own concept of the good as the dominant force in society by convincing other individuals that they are not capable of realising what is the right way of life for them. The second is the possibility for the confusion of liberty with other values. Positive liberty is concerned with the shift away from the formalistic negative concept of liberty to a more proactive approach which works to ensure that liberty can be enjoyed materialistically. For proponents of positive liberty, it is not enough to simply feel as though one is free; there must also be the opportunity to enjoy this liberty. (Swift, p. 55)

2) Historical Manifestation

The English word for liberty, Fischer argues, derives from the latin word liberatas and its adjective liber means to release from restraint. Similarly the Greek eleutheros was the condition of being independent, separate or distinct. Originally used to describe autonomous cities, independent tribes and individuals unbounded by anothers' rule(2005:5-6).
Freedom, however, descended from Indo-European priya or riya for dear or beloved. Fischer argued its original meaning meant one who was joined to a tribe of free people connected through lines of kinship or rights of belonging (Fischer, 2005:6).

Tracing the origins of the terms freedom and liberty, David Hackett Fischer uncovered that despite the use of the two terms interchangeably in the modern age, not only were they different but paradoxical where “Liberty meant separation. Freedom implied connection” (Fischer, 2005:6). “It is interesting (and urgently important for us to understand in the modern world) that these ancient traditions of liberty and freedom both entailed obligations and responsibilities. But they did so differently. The gift of libertas and eleutheria brought with it an obligation to act in a wise and responsible way-not as a libertine. A person with liberty was responsible for his own acts” (Fischer, 2005:8). This is critical to his argument that to think of liberty as ”license without responsibility, and freedom as entitlement without obligation” is to neglect the distinctly (Western??) origins and traditions with which both ideas emerged.

In many countries around the world, we are able to note fights for or against freedom and/or liberty, some of which still continue today. These cases, which demonstrate both the constriction of, as well as the struggle for, liberty, allow the concept of liberty to be demonstrated beyond the theoretical and into its real life implications. These fights for or against freedom and/or liberty spring from a philosophical perspective - this focus on freedom and liberty has been described as being a significant feature of post-modernist thought. Mansfield states: "...the self...has become the key way in which we now understand our lives, in Western societies at least" (Mansfield; 2000). Mansfield's meaning here is that these struggles reflect how individuals define and maintain their identities - with a focus on themselves and what they should have in any given situation (Mansfield; 2000).

The French Revolution

The French Revolution was one of the most notable historical events that ascribed human aspirations for liberty.
The onset of Liberty in the political arena refers to an authority that is instituted through the consent of the governed whose interests are represented in the community, subjected to a certain committed set of limitations to the power which the authority that is allowed to control over the society.
The meaning of Liberty has evolved, which embodied a request for a state to be operated by its civilian( instead of noble class, or those who gained power through inheritance or conquest) to the constitution of parliament, thus the powers of government would not be misused to their disadvantage. The intention to limit the power of rulers eventually collapsed through the struggle for ruling power.
The contemporary government rulers are elected by the people , and the interest of the rulers is consistent with that of the nation. The struggle for power remained the essence of the political world. The will of people is generally represented by the interest of the majority who is accepted by the people. Nevertheless, the main power of government goes to the strongest party that often behaves accountably to the community.

United States Bill of Rights

US Bill of Rights First Amendment explicit legal manifestation of Mill's freedom of expression

Indonesia's "New Order" Government

Suharto, president of Indonesia (1967-1998)
Suharto, president of Indonesia (1967-1998)

Under President Suharto's "New Order" of Indonesia (1967-98), we see that freedom and liberty of the population was suppressed. During his presidency, Suharto brought in a new regime of an authoritarian government dominated by the military. He compared this to the 'old order' of the 1950's liberal government. During this 23 year reign of presidency, Suharto attempted to suppress all opposition, and create a society to be moulded to his views. The media became increasingly State run or influenced. Thus an important platform for criticising the government, which is essential if liberty is to be achieved, was neutralised (Hatley, 1994). Rival political opponents, whom were generally aligned to religious sects, were also neutralised by creating a law that forced them to adopt Suharto's panca sila (five principles) as their guiding philosophy (Ismail, 2007:146)). Women, who had traditionally been very important members of Indonesian society and politics, were also deprived of liberty in that they were strongly encouraged to take on the (then) traditional roles of Western housewives (Guinness, 1994). Women who defied this were deliberately excluded and given figurehead positions with no real power.

3) Evaluation and Influence

Dialectical View on "On Liberty"

In Mill's article "On Liberty", he writes "If the teachers of mankind are to be cognisant of all that they ought to know, everything must be free to be written and published without restraint."
As far as I am concerned, there is the rub. It seems to be great. Nevertheless when problems come, who will be responsible? Can free writing without restraints be feasible? When there are radicals who want to overturn the government, who want to stir up violence, who want to blasphemy others' faith and religious deities, who want to incite libel, who want to exert child abuse and pornography, etc., who will suppress the troublemakers? Nowadays, the web and Internet provide more space for the troublemakers, so we should weigh carefully on Mill's words and take a dialectical perspective on its feasibility.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph. (Paine, 1894)

"The tyranny of majority" does not necessarily represent the interest of the majority, but who expresses and develops its interest as what serves majority the best."The tyranny of majority" is usually supported by the strongest party to serve the interest of a particular group. The strongest party may seek to exert oppression on a part of their members by using the rhetoric of democracy and public interest. Historically, the social inclinations are often driven by the legitimate or illegitimate self-interest of the dominant class. Although the limitation to the power of the holders requires them to be accountable to the community. The mutual support between the power holders and dominant class are so strong and even constructed by lobbing practices.
What is more dangerous than political oppression is when the interest of majority dominates the instruction of society through prevailing opinions and feelings, and its idea and practices may transform into social trend. This gives rise to a thread against an individual's independence if his sense of autonomy is violated , he may become enslaved by his own "passions, obsessions and compulsion", in which unable to be regulated by his rational thinking and decision-making. He may need to sustain his personal autonomy and seek to be protected against collective opinions and encroachment and political authority by ensuring his voice is been heard. This explains why freedom of expression so important in a liberal democratic society. Free expression has no value in, or of itself, but its meaning derived from the conflicts that inflicted upon. Those critical perspectives against the prevailing opinions are essential to pursuit truth and promote virtue through sustaining a diversity of opinions to flourish in a society. Advance through reasoning and its influence on others' opinions with opinions are the essence of a dynamic society.
There is no recognised principle to identify which government interference is appropriate or not, although it can be usually tested. The government interference includes the ones which aims to bypass government interference. Before laws on individual conducts can be completely removed, such remains merely an ideal. Questions in regards which and to what extend government interference should be invoked or condemn, or what should be the limit of legitimate power should be controlled over individuals is precisely the question of human affair in civilised society. Liking, and disliking of the society is personal preference supported by opinion not reasons, but when reasons are given and felt by others, it creates an impact on the influence of more others. The dealing of society is revolved around issues between the conflict of compulsion and control, rationality and persuasion, opinion and law, self-regarding and other-regarding.
In sum, Mills is rather ambivalent towards political democracy that stems from democratic participation for elite reasons and his distrust of the masses which amplifies the fear for "tyranny of the majority" and socialism. Modern liberalism boils down the conflict between capitalism and personal struggles for identity. Industrial society is evolved and give rise to the corporate state in which seek to counter-balance liberal democrat and socialism. Such remains an ideal in the current liberal society. Pluralist Liberalism is about the protection of diversity, and to greater extend to which the society tends to be singled value in the competitive force. The critical issue of democracy lies in 1)the capitalist system; 2)a legitimate system that of a fully administered society beneath the facade of parliament democracy.

What is the nature of liberty that Mill wanted to defend, and what are the sources of danger to it?

First, Mill is very clear that the real danger to liberty comes from "a social tyranny," which is greater than any kind of political oppression because "it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself". He sees this tyranny as encroaching on both opinions and conduct, and thereby preventing the development of genuine individuality. The liberty he values therefore includes liberty of thought and discussion and liberty of conduct. Both are required for the flourishing of individuality. As he notes, "there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by means other than civil penalties, its own idea and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them". (Ten;1,2) .

If we focus on point 1) 'The Inward Domain of Consciousness', Mill's definition of liberty has proven to be of prolific influence.
In the domain of 'the Media', take the press as a specific example, this 'liberty of thought and feeling' in newspaper culture provides a domain for the 'underpinning of democracy' (Economou & Tanner; 7) in that it protects the individual's 'right to know'.
On the other hand, as with the Australian 1992 overturn of the federal government's law, individuals should recognise the importance of protecting the individual's 'right to privacy'.
Mill opens up in his work the debate about the "struggle between authority and liberty" (Mill, 65) describing the tyranny of government, which needs to be controlled by the liberty of the citizens. He divides this control of authority into two mechanisms:
1. necessary rights belonging to citizens.
2. the "establishment of constitutional checks by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power". (Mill, 66)
In the arena of the press, questions arise as to what should be reported? What should be respected as irrelevant information? Who determines this?

Mill argued for the need for various forms of restraints to enable freedom, but at the same time this needed to be kept in check. Because for Mill, democracy leads to tyranny, but in the absence of democracy, ignorance and brutality will prevail. Mill also refers to this as the "Tyranny of the Majority" ( Mill, p68). In Mill's view, tyranny of the majority is worse than tyranny of government because it is not limited to a political function. It is harder to be protected "against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling" (Mill, 68). The prevailing opinions within society will be the basis of all rules of conduct within society, therefore there can be no safeguard in law against the tyranny of the majority. One may justifiably assume then that Mill was not the biggest advocate of Democracy.
However for Mill, the central value of democracy is that it promotes the "highest and most harmonious " development of human capacities. Thus perhaps Mill, like many others, saw democracy as the 'lesser of two evils', or as Sir Winston Churchill put it "The least worst form of government".

However, I don't agree that individuals have absolute entitlements to freedom. Because if freedom is unlimited it can become a 'license' to abuse others. For this I accept minimal restrictions on individual freedom in order to prevent harm to others. Although the individual may be sovereign over his body and mind, each person must still respect the fact that every other individual is entitled to and enjoys an equal right to freedom. This is exactly the point of 'The Harm Principle', which Mill reiterates time and time again: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community,against his will is to prevent harm to others"(Mill p72-73) and "The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others" (Mill, 73).

The Harm Principle

This liberty limiting principle that Mill explores, the Harm Principle, refers to a limitation that is necessary over absolute freedom, whether it be 'physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion', so long as harm is not placed upon 'any member of a civilized community, against his will' (Mill, p73). However, it is important to be clear with the variation, that there are actions that may harm the agent himself/herself or may affect others. This brings into question, what can be considered as harm? If a person is harmed, then his or her sovereignty over self is impaired because sovereignty is exercised either through action or judgment.

Mill also suggests that for this principle to apply, there are particular exceptions, including children, those underage, as they may well harm themselves unintentionally; they do not and cannot, have sovereignty over self. Other exceptions include those living in 'backward states of society' (Mill, p73), furthermore, Mill states that one may accept despotism over "barbarians" if the end result change for better, this implies that barbarians are of "non age" and cannot be sovereign over self. As soon as people are capable of deciding for themselves, they should then be given liberty from authority. To illustrate his point, Mill uses Charlemagne and Akbar the Great as examples of compassionate dictators who controlled and supposedly helped "barbarians".

This raises concerns over whether these groups should be protected from things such as pornography, alcohol, tobacco, drugs or perhaps, any form of self-inflicted harm. However, it is concluded that the individual holds responsibility and power 'over his own body and mind' (Mill, p73).

"I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom" - In context, this quote from Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex) follows from the feminist discourse of how a human becomes a being (a subject) that is either a man or a woman. De Beauvoir states that identity is not a personally constructed freedom but is constantly influenced by other subjects and their gendered actions. The Harm Principle may be used to question de Beauvoir's utopian notion of 'pure transparent freedom', making us question firstly: what is it? secondly: is it possible?
In this case, de Beauvoir views the removal of gendered identity as a means to freedom from the constrictions of what one 'should do' and an emphasis on the liberating thought of what they 'can do'. This removes any limitation on absolute freedom in theory. However we must then ask how can/should absolute freedom be enforced? In following the Harm Principle, we would answer this with no, as Samuel Hendel suggests "freedom, to be meaningful in an organised society must consist of an amalgam of heirarchy of freedoms and restraints". The individual can never truely be a liberated individual.

Arguments for the harm principle

There have been several arguments that Mill has focused on, concerning liberty being a great value that should not be limited except in the face of serious harm to others. But the harm principle too must be justified: Why should society interfere only with harm to others and not some self-regarding actions? Mill's arguments are broadly neutral.
1) Mill tells us that "the strongest of all arguments" against allowing public interference with purely self-regarding "conduct, is that when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly and in the wrong place" (CW xviii,283). "On question of social morality, of duty to others, the opinion of the public, that is, of an overruling majority, though often wrong, is still likely to be right more often; because on such questions, they are only required to judge of their own interests; of the manner in which some mode of conduct, if allowed to be practised, would affect themselves" (CW xviii 283). But when interfering with a self-regarding action of others, people tend to follow their own preferences (which is the worry of the heart of On Liberty). Mill takes pains to warn us against assuming an ideal state that makes only justified interventions: real states governed by real public's will tend to make systematic and persistent errors. This is a general government failure argument that does not depend on an appeal to individuality and is consistent with a variety of values.
2) Mill explicitly appeals to an ideal of reciprocity as a basis for the harm principle. Mill tells us that "everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit and that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest. And this conduct is not to harm the essential interests of others." (This includes what might be called "the public harm principle," which concerns provision of public goods). Mill holds that this is so basic to social life that anyone who refuses to observe this line of conduct is to be treated "like an enemy of society" or less extremely, he is a "nuisance to other people". (Ten, p.103)
When arguing against unjustified interferences such as those based on intolerance, Mill points out the absence of reciprocity: people demand of others what they do not demand of themselves. That principles of political right are founded on reciprocity is fundamental to political liberalism.

Taken together these two arguments are a compelling, very broadly neutral, consensus justification of the harm principle. In Rawlsian terms, by argument 2), all reasonable people (those who seek to live social life on reciprocal terms) must accept that coercive legislation is justified by the harm principle. (Ten, p.104) And by argument 1), recognition of the basic facts of government failure provides a case that only harm to others (not self-regarding harms) can justify public intervention in the lives of citizens.

Problem of Free Will

The problem of free will is reconciling an aspect of freedom with a world determined by cause and effect. The Information Philosopher from a deterministic point of view, we are only free if our own will is part of a causal chain of events that leads to our actions. In other words, any action we perform without our will or desire to do so renders our actions devoid of freedom. One such example may be a set of circumstances that prevent us from doing what we want and hence doing something we have not willed to do. Therefore, anything that prevents us from doing what we want is the absence of freedom. What this also means is we are free if we are doing something we have willed ourselves. This form of determinism is known as compatibilism.
Indeterminism avoids the problems that determinism creates by largely denying the principles of causality. By denying that any event or action is determined by a chain of causes they claim that actions can be random and undetermined. This entails that we have free will however, it leaves open the idea that we can avoid all responsibility for our actions.
Both these ideas relate back to liberty because they question; what it is to be free if freedom plays such a unique role in liberty? What does it mean to be free? If we are free, should we not be able to do whatever our prime instincts urge us to do? If we suddenly feel the urge to reach forward and drink from a bottle of wine, does that mean we should have the right to drink it if it is going to make us unhappier, unhealthier, behave worse as citizens, and when we really know that we do not want to drink any more? Should we be given all the rights to drink from the bottle, or are people justified in implementing some small measures to restrict you from drinking from the bottle, or further more, confiscating it from you? This brings about the question about 'how far does free will go in justifying some form of liberty?' Just how far does liberty go? It almost seems that if liberty is taken too far to one extreme, it can lead itself into being the complete opposite. (Honderich; 1995)

4) Summary

The theme of "On Liberty" can be summarized as the following two basic principles:
- First, as long as the individual does not interfere with the interests of others, individuals have complete freedom of action; individuals do not have to be responsible for society, simply for themselves; others must not interfere with the conduct of the individual; they at most have the right to advise, admonish, and ignore the person concerned.
- Second, only when an individual's behaviour endangers the interests of others should the individual accept social or legal punishment. Only at this time does the society have the power to verdict the individual and exert coercive power on individuals.

Works Cited:

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