What is Freedom?
SERIES ON HUMAN FREEDOM: PART THREE
The third installment in our series looks at what we mean when we use the word ‘freedom’, and is based on a presentation given by a guest discussant at the first session of the Thomas More Institute’s reading group entitled ‘What’s So Good About Freedom?’. The presentation, and this article, comment upon a paper given by Professor Tom Pink at the Institute in 2007 on ‘How to Think about Freedom’, which can be read here. The second session of the reading group will be held on Tuesday 22nd February. Those who are interested in attending will find details on the Institute’s website, here.
What is freedom? A deceptively simple question, for there is not only one intuitive way of understanding freedom. Rather, the notion of freedom refers to a family of concepts which are related to each other and also to concepts of moral and political philosophy in various ways.
The most basic notion of freedom is the subject-matter of what philosophers call the ‘free will problem’. One way of understanding this problem is by asking the question: ‘Is there is a faculty by which we control or determine our own behaviour?’ We answer ‘yes’, but this presents a difficulty inasmuch as the physical world is deterministic. In other words, the present state of the universe comes about as a result of interaction between its state in the past, and certain fixed laws to which it is subject. This poses a problem, for by asserting that this power of free choice exists we assert that our actions can be determined by this power even in opposition to external forces.
Tom Pink suggests, as a proof that we do possess such a power, the universal experience we have of this faculty of free decision being assaulted. Religious or non-religious, we all understand what it means to undergo the battle with ‘temptation’ so famously described by St. Paul: ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’. Who has not experienced, at some time, an inner conflict produced by a strong pull to do something which they do not in fact want to do? Such conflict highlights our power of freedom for, as the saying goes, ‘it takes two to tango’. The fact of conflict demonstrates that there must be two or more conflicting things, two opposed powers. If we did not have the power to determine our own actions, there would be no opposed power for our desires to conflict with. The fact that we experience such a power of self-determination in operation, without being able to point to its biological or physical basis, is also a powerful argument against the kind of determinism described above which suggests that free-will is incompatible with modern science. It is true that the physical world operates by immutable laws, yet it is equally true that humans have this non-physical power of free choice, suggesting that, whilst humans are a part of the physical universe, they are not merely physical beings, but rather have material and non-material aspects to their being. The question of free-will simply does not come within the remit of science, which is concerned only with the material universe.
Secondly, freedom can also be understood as a political right, as a value which arises in the interaction between an individual and the community. This is often called liberty. In a nutshell, the right not to be coerced – within just limits – in the use of our power of free decision outlined above. The link between political liberty and free-will is therefore intrinsic, and as such it is odd that many of those who exalt the ideal of liberty in the political sphere also adopt deterministic viewpoints which deny the power of freedom that grounds genuine political liberty.
Thus far we have free-will – the ability to determine our own behaviour through a power of choice or decision; and liberty – the freedom from external restraint necessary to use our freedom in a manner that befits the dignity of humans as rational beings. Yet, these two concepts only make sense in the service of a third form of freedom. It is possible that a man has free-will and in spite of this – even because of it – become enslaved. As the Emperor Claudius noted, ‘no one is free who does not lord over himself’. The alcoholic who chooses to have one more drink certainly exercises his power of decision, his personal autonomy so celebrated in the modern age, but he is not free. Similarly, people can have all sorts of civil liberties without being truly free. In fact, if people do not know how to exercise their freedom in a responsible manner then expanding liberty is likely to lead to a diminution of genuine freedom. The third form of freedom, the most important form which we might call freedom in this genuine sense, and to which free choice and liberty are but handmaids, can be identified with what Tom Pink calls liberation. This can be understood not simply as the ability to choose or the absence of external restraint, but rather as a state of being opposed to its antithesis: enslavement. Such liberation must, above all, be an internal quality, insofar as we are free from enslavement to our own desires. This requires a humble recognition that freedom per se is not an ultimate value, but must be subordinated to what is good. Those who exalt autonomy or choice as absolute values are, paradoxically, leading themselves and others into slavery. It is only when freedom is placed in its proper place in a hierarchy of values, in the service of the true, the good, and the beautiful, that we can actually become free in the sense described by Ennius, the father of Roman verse: ‘He hath freedom whoso beareth clean and constant heart within.’