Theses on Freedom

Friday, 1st May 2020

Armed protesters in Michigan storm the legislature. All in the name of freedom, no doubt. What a misunderstanding of what freedom is.

This is something we talk about in my classes. I sometimes give the students “Theses on …”. I did one on freedom. I actually don’t think this necessarily reflects one side of the political spectrum or the other, in the sense that it’s possible for people from across the spectrum to agree to much of this. And yet, this is not the common understanding of freedom that drives protests like this.


Theses on Freedom

1. Everyone wants freedom.

2. Everyone believes they are striving for their own maximal freedom. Even those who accept a situation or act in a manner that seems to undermine or deny freedom, is still calculating longer odds, living in complex and emergent space which requires that we act in a situation of uncertainty.

3. The consequences and implications of actions of those striving for freedom might produce a lack of freedom, for others or even for the person striving for freedom. Example: I might make a choice that makes my life better, but imposes burdens on others. I might choose to take drugs, which seems like a free choice but which might make me less free in the future. It might also make those around me less free, because they are obligated to care for me.

4. Freedom is dependent on representation and narrative. Example: When I grew up, everyone I knew believed that a car was a sign of freedom, and we all got our driver’s licenses as soon as possible. But is a car always freeing? There are New Yorkers who believe that not having a car is more freeing. Why? Because they have great public transportation, because a car would impose costs such as parking or moving the vehicle on the street every few days. We might tentatively generalize: any act understood as free could, in sufficiently different contextualizing narratives, be understood as unfree.

5. Every freedom also comes with responsibilities, costs, and limitations. Some of those costs are externalized, so that what seems like personal freedom might have social costs. Example: I might want the freedom to pollute, but there is a cost borne by everyone else, to either clean up what I dumped or to live with it. It is possible to externalize costs fairly, given that it is inevitable. Some of this can be accomplished by groups managing common-pool resources, and some has to be done by governments or something equivalent. Why? Because some externalized costs are not immediate, but long-term. Some are slowly incremental but with huge implications later. Some are incurred by those who do not have access to the space of exchange.

6. It is possible to believe you are free and yet not be. It is possible to not believe you are free, but nevertheless be free. Example: I once had a friend who claimed he was free in relation to his smoking habit, and would now demonstrate it – he would choose to have a cigarette. Every time, he would choose to have a cigarette, and he’d claim every time that he freely made that choice. Was he free, or had he just told himself a story about how he was free, while the whole time being chained to an addiction? Likewise, one might believe that they are part of a social group that is uniquely oppressed (i.e., unfree), while that group at the same time holds almost all the levers of political, religious, media and cultural power. The meta-narrative of freedom is different from the narrative in which freedom is perceived as free.

7. Freedom only makes sense in the context of meaningful action. Example: Let’s suppose Elon Musk and I decide to send you off into space. We go far enough away from earth that it is only a small dot among others. We put you in a space suit, install devices so that you can have nutrition delivered intravenously, deal with your waste. We put you out of the airlock, and the last thing we tell you before we fly away is, “Now you’re truly free. Please go ahead and do free things now.” Is one free if there is nothing standing in the way of one’s actions? Freedom in a “meaningless” space isn’t freedom, it’s at best randomness. What we usually mean by freedom is the ability to act meaningfully, within a meaningful space. And that means acting within cultural space. Freedom as a lack of constraint is sometimes called “negative freedom”, and as we can see, having that and nothing else gives us very little.

8. Freedom does not exist in itself, but is the product of other actions. We create freedom, we do not find it. Let’s contrast a phenomenon such as handedness (being left or right handed) to something like race/gender/class/etc. Being left handed has a biological basis, it affects a minority of the population, and the world is clearly designed for right-handers, since they make up 90% of the population. But we don’t have institutes of handedness, or debate about language connected to it (even though “sinister” is Latin for left, and “dexter” is Latin for right, clearly morally loaded terms in English). We have not culturally invested in handedness, and so we have neither freedom nor its curtailment. We could have invested (that is, created concepts, constructed scaffolding around it, included it in policy, etc.), and we still could, but we didn’t.

9. The greater the potential for freedom, the greater the potential for curtailing, denying, or abusing freedom. Race and gender have had a huge investment in them. They are spaces of freedom, in the sense that there are many kinds of significant expression that come out of them. They are also spaces of the lack of freedom – oppression and marginalization means something when there is an investment in these things. Handedness, on the other hand (!) brings with it neither the potential for new ways of being or the potential for oppression.

10. We often describe our own lack of freedom as the result of external constraints or conditions. Example: “It’s unfairness in the system!” “Group X gets preferential treatment!” Our own lack of freedom might be real, or it might be a perception of a lack of freedom. Wittgenstein’s comment on the aim of philosophy is relevant: “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” What’s the fly’s problem? Not that there’s no way out of the fly-bottle, but that there are many ways that seem to work but don’t, and only one that actually works.

11. On the other hand, we often describe a lack of freedom in others as due to their own internal conditions or identity. Example: Pathologizing people – members of another group are “crazy”, incapable of reason, or self-interested (these, BTW, are all ad hominem arguments).

12. Freedom, therefore, is something earned, not in the sense of being fought for, but in the sense of being part of a meaningful world, and having the potential for differing interpretations. Every free act is at the same moment potentially an unfree one; every expression of freedom is at the same time potentially the expression of the curtailment or assault on freedom.

13. Those who claim freedom as a “right”, therefore, exhibit a deep and tragic limitation in their understanding of freedom. A right is a property term – if we have a right, we have control over something. But in an already meaningful world, freedom is not just the right to act. What those who claim the right of freedom actually want is the effect of their freedom on others. Freedom of speech is nothing if no one listens or no one cares. Freedom to possess firearms means nothing if no one is threatened by them, and behaviour doesn’t change. Freedom of movement means nothing if there is nowhere significant to move to. This is not freedom, it is the desire for power over meaningful space, the desire not just to act but to also determine what those actions mean, and what the actions of others mean.

14. This control over the results of action labeled as free is a futile hope. Meaningful space is complex space. There are no guarantees. Perturbations can disrupt the complex space of human action producing unexpected results. And, these results proliferate and mutate. Cultural and state limitations on free action almost invariably come in the face of these mutations, as an attempt to control change for the sake of existing vested (corporate, political, cultural) interests.

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