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The Concept of Freedom

I just finished reading Freedom: An Unruly History by Annelien De Dijn. In this book De Dijn gives the history of the concept of freedom. What does freedom mean? What is freedom exactly? What is our concept of freedom? These are some of the questions she tackles in this book, with great expertise.

The first concept of freedom is the one of self-government. Ever since Ancient Greece freedom was seen as self-government. If one had to obey a tyrant like the Persians had to, one could not be free, even if that person had the greatest luxury of the world, we could never say that he was free. The Greeks governed themselves (with themselves we mean the above 30 men who were citizens of the city state; Aristotle for example wasn’t allowed to participate in Athenian government). Freedom was something worth dying for.

A second concept is that of a minimal interference in people’s lives. Freedom is being left alone. This concept of freedom could be achieved in an authoritarian regime with one ruler. Indeed, it is necessary to have a ruler so the majority cannot impose a tyranny on the minority. We can think of Plato and his philosopher-kings. These rulers would so divine that anyone living under the government of these philosopher-kings would live the best possible life (it is not certain that Plato believed that philosopher-kings could actually exist).

This made me think on what I perceive as freedom. Freedom is a difficult subject to grasp and I believe it is also one of the most central concepts in politics. When can someone be free? It’s a question we need to answer in order to structure our society in certain ways. Thus, here is a small brainstorm.

The thing that both concepts have in common is that for a person to be free she has to able to whatever she believes is the right thing to do. In the first concept self-government implies that she can and has to govern herself and that the laws of society reflect her desires. In the second concept the ruler (whatever form this has) has to give her the freedom to pursue what she desires. Where both differ is in the way to achieve this. The first concept wants to pursue this ideal by placing rules upon people. While the other wants to achieve this by taking rules away. And I agree with both.

We need rules in order to be free. This might seem contradictory, but I’ll explain. Imagine there are no rules. Everything is permitted. This would include murder, rape, theft and petting random dogs you come across in the street. In this situation everyone would fear for their lives and be in constant conflict with one another. Philosopher’s call this hypothetical situation ‘the state of nature’ and it is crucial for the Social Contract Theory. Thomas Hobbes is a philosopher who is famous for this particular ethical and political theory. My point is that we need rules and laws and rights in order to live in a free society. In a society where we are continuously afraid of being shot, raped, stolen from or being petted (wouldn’t mind the last thing maybe), we cannot be fully free. There is no way we could pursue meaningful things like art or philosophy in such a society. If someone didn’t like me, he could just stab me and be done with it. Rules are necessary.

The other side of that coin is that we should ask: ‘Which rules give us freedom and what rules take it away?’ Sometimes the government should just leave us be in order to be free. We should ask the question if the rule makes us free. Certainly, banning murder makes us freer, but can we say the same for banning gay marriage? Certainly, prohibiting rape is the right thing to do to make people freer, but is this also the case for prohibiting freedom of speech? Sometimes rules aren’t the answer in order to create a good society. Sometimes as Nietzsche says: “Freedom is the will to be responsible for ourselves.”[1]

True freedom then, would be a certain middle ground between the two concepts of freedom. To be able to do the things we believe to be right we need rules that protect us from others, but not too much so we still have enough space to act the way we see fit. This is an ideal that we’ll never achieve. Particularly because different times will ask for different rules and measures. But ideals are not there to be reached, they are there to strive towards.

Your freedom ends where the other person’s freedom begins. The rules that should be implemented should focus on this distinction and should safeguard this. Rules should be put in place where at some place someone could impede on your freedom. We are not allowed to steal someone’s car keys and go drive with their car, because that would impede someone’s freedom. But you can go for a walk. But if the law wouldn’t protect a freedom but instead would limit it with no intention of safeguarding freedom in general, then it should not be a rule at all. An example is gay marriage. The fact that two men or two women would have the ability to marry would impede anyone’s freedom, not in the slightest. So, prohibiting this practice would be limiting freedom without good cause and hence, shouldn’t be made into a rule if the goal is to reach true freedom.

Obviously there a lot of specific dilemma’s we can think of when this wouldn’t suffice. Is performing euthanasia on someone a form of freedom? Does it impede freedom if we prohibit it? Or does it maximalize it? These are subjects for other times, but I believe we have stepped our first tiny step into the concept of freedom and how we should define it. It’ll take bright minds far better than mine to solve these problems, but they are solvable. That is, if we have the freedom to actually ask those dilemmas. That would be valuable.


[1]Twilight of the Idols.” Friedrich Nietzsche. Sect. 38

By elenchusphilosophy

I'm a Philosophy student in Belgium, trying to talk and write about ideas of all kinds of sorts.

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