What Freedom Means

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, there has been the inevitable agonising over issues of freedom, free speech, tolerance and respect for others’ faiths and sensitivities. These are complex issues; if it were otherwise there would be a rapid consensus – in the West at least – on what the optimal solutions were. It seems timely, therefore, for a reconsideration of the idea of freedom, of what is meant by freedom and of questions around the nature of freedom, such as what its limits are – if, indeed, there are any limits.

Evidence from recent neurological research suggests that ideas of freedom and free will are a myth and that even complex life such as human life is simply a response to a set of impulses. While such research is interesting and adds to our understanding of our own nature – and may even be true in some sense – it ignores the fact that human societies and cultures are narratively constructed, and the narrative of freedom is one of their most fundamental constructs. Within this narrative the reductive idea of determinism is contradictory, for a cluster of interdependent deontologies around freedom – willed action, responsibility, consequences, moral choice, truth and justice – are the foundation of what we choose to call civilisation. That being the case, the assertion of freedom is the act of a being whose essential nature is spiritual: freedom is what defines us as spiritual and demarks us from the animal kingdom. What I have to say is therefore not limited to Western culture.

In discussions about freedom a distinction is frequently made between two types of freedom. One is characterised as freedom from various forms of suffering, such as pain, poverty, hunger, incarceration and other forms of social control, and sometimes referred to as ‘liberation’ or ‘negative freedom’. But clearly, while this freedom plays an important ongoing role in social and cultural development, as it has throughout history, it begs the question, which frequently raises acute real-world dilemmas, of what the resultant freedom is for. The answer given is typically that this freedom is the freedom to make choices, and it is an axiom of this sort that underlies the liberal ideal in Western democracies.

Nevertheless, this pairing of negative and positive concepts of freedom is wrong. There is in fact only a single undivided freedom and its basis is the experience of being empowered. Making choices on the basis of political suffrage, a liberal social environment or wealth is an experience of empowerment. The historical struggles for emancipation are about redressing the balance of power and sharing it more equitably in society. This has been a step-wise process, with the creation of space for small freedoms creating an appetite for greater freedoms and allowing the evolution of the idea of liberty itself. It follows then that the proper exercise of freedom is maximising empowerment at both the social and individual level.

Empowerment is not monolithic, though, and not necessarily political. The social dimensions of the distribution of power include, for example, access to education, to health services and to culture. That means at the social level creating the opportunities for individuals to empower themselves (which also includes countering internal and external threats to that ability), and at the individual level taking advantage of those opportunities. At one end of the scale that means striving not to be a burden on society; at the other it means being a real contributor to humanity in terms of one’s abilities, ideas and accomplishments in the realm of economy, society, culture and spirituality.

People often talk about balancing freedom and responsibility, as if it were clear what they meant by this. If the meaning is not clear, the message is: do as I will. Responsibility becomes a synonym for obedience or submission. But responsibility is freedom. Freedom and responsibility are like light and shadow. There is no bi-conditional. It simply means that choices have consequences. What else could it mean? Much talk about responsibility is the cant of the nascent oppressor or the bleat of the timid. Obedience and submission are an abnegation of freedom and a return to an animalistic and immature state: freedom from freedom. To will that for oneself, under duress, is, at best, pragmatism; to will it to others is to engender enslavement; to impose it on a people is tyranny.

There are limits to freedom, but they are implicit in the logic of freedom. Freedom cannot be self-undermining. To freely will is to will that willing – not that which is willed – to all those who share our society. To do so creates the empathetic ground of freedom and free association. Anything else is to will to disempower and is an act on the pathway to terror.

In a free society should we respect individuals merely for being or belonging? Being and belonging are the attributes of inert nature and animals, respectively. The attribute of humans as spiritual beings is their freedom and what we respect are people’s accomplishments on the basis of that freedom. There was one crime in Paris, and that was murder. If there was one failure in the aftermath of this atrocity, it was the failure to explain and to uphold the true nature of freedom.



3 thoughts on “What Freedom Means

  1. I agree Don. The argument (for freedom) is more nuanced than is often appreciated. I was dismayed (in the aftermath of the Charlie Abdo affair) to hear colleagues say things like ‘…but some of those cartoons were pretty offenisive…’ the utterance of which concedes ground to authoritarians (such as IS). The truth, as you hint at when you say ‘freedom from freedom’, is that many of us are actually deeply threatened by freedom, which is why < I guess, the march towards it is long and slow. Keep up the good work!


  2. Isn’t it ironic how the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were labelled “Islamophobe,” viz. irrationally fearful. Based on what happened to them, any fear they might have had must be considered to have been well-founded. But given that they published the cartoons anyway their behaviour would have to be characterised as bravery (or at least bravado) rather than fear. Such is the Newspeak world in which we now live where so many of the pejorative labels applied have lost any real meaning other than capturing the disapprobation of the person applying them…


  3. Extending that idea Don, and maybe because I’ve been travelling, I think societies denote different levels of freedom, and gender comes into it. Different cultures enable you to feel more or less free, and freedom has a gendered aspect too. In certain societies there are vast chasms of difference between the freedom afforded to one gender but not the other.


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