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What do we mean when we talk about freedom?

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Freedom’s what you get when you exercise your agency

Freedom is perhaps our greatest aspiration and one of our greatest motivations.  People talk of being trapped in unsatisfying relationships; paralysed by negative thoughts; stuck on the deadly-dull treadmill of everyday life; oppressed by prejudice against their gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, disability (or any number of things that make them ‘different’ from the ‘norm’); and, perhaps at worst, deprived of liberty when living under a dictatorship or tyranny.  In these kinds of situations, you’ll most likely be longing for some kind of freedom – not more of the same.  But the idea of freedom is one of those knotty ideas that, at first sight, seems completely obvious and simple but begins to blur around the edges when you take a closer look at it.

So what do we mean we talk about freedom?

For more than two millennia, western ideas about freedom have been grounded in two contrasting perspectives:

1.  Metaphysical claims about what it is to be human – can we exercise free will, or are all our actions ultimately determined by a long chain of prior casual influences?  These debates remain unresolved, although the terrain of debate has recently shifted to the arena of neuroscience, with our growing understanding of how the brain works.

2.  Political arguments about the state’s relationship to the individual – to what extent should the state constrain my freedom to do, say, and think what I please, in order to ensure social stability?  At what point does state intervention become tyranny?  Criminal law sets out what the state can do to constrain our behaviour (and punish misdemeanours) in order to preserve order; human rights, however imperfect, are an example of how individual freedoms are protected from state violation.

Positive and negative freedom?

In more recent times, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin suggested two forms of freedom:  negative freedom, which means freedom from things that will cause me harm, like torture, persecution, and discrimination; and positive freedom, which means freedom to do whatever I want to do.  In a way, these two freedoms intertwine like two pieces of cotton, as my freedom from discrimination may provide me with the freedom to go somewhere where I’d have previously been forbidden.  You’ve probably noticed that Berlin’s argument is a political one.

Radical Freedom

Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existential philosopher and novelist, went one step further, declaring we’re all radically free to do and be whatever we choose to be, if only we take responsibility for our life-choices.  Again you’ve probably guessed that Sartre’s argument is a metaphysical one, because it’s about what people are fundamentally like.  By the way, don’t be put off by the terminology – metaphysics simply means ‘After Physics’ and refers to the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s bookshelf.  Metaphysics, often called ontology, is interested in the general, basic nature of what the world and people are like, and it gets its name from being placed after (‘meta’) physics on Aristotle’s bookshelf.  Who’d have guessed it.

Another kind freedom?

All of these ideas of freedom have some appeal.  We’d all like to believe we have free will, that our choices and behaviour are our own rather than the result of programming or prior causes.  And we’d all, presumably, like to be free from restraint and free to do what we want to do.

But it’s not quite that simple…

(More to follow)

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