WHAT IS FREEDOM?

Freedom can be defined as the degree to which I am not interfered with by anyone else. There exists a minimum area in which individuals must not be interfered with, a minimum area of personal freedom that on no account should be violated. Some area of human existence must remain out of the control of others because to invade such privacy would be tyrannical. The freedom of, or from, religion, opinion, expression and the protection of property from arbitrary invasion are areas of freedom that if curtailed impede civilization, prevent truthfulness and the spontaneity of ideas. It appeals to cowardice and duplicity and would, in J.S. Mill’s words, crush society ‘with the collective weight of mediocrity’[1].

IS IT NECESSARY FOR HUMANS TO BE FREE?

Humans need a minimum area of freedom to develop their natural faculties. This is defined by a boundary between private life and public authority. This is difficult as humans are interdependent and no one’s total privacy is ever able to be so completely kept. The foundations of liberty can be said to be equality of liberty, treating others as one would wish to be treated, an obligation to those who keep my liberty or prosperity, and justice. To avoid the chaos that would come of unbounded liberty and result in great inequality and misery, one sacrifices a part of their freedom for the sake of justice and love of one’s fellow humans. Freedom is essential for agency, moral responsibility, rationality, autonomy, creativity and cooperation. It is the foundation of love and friendship.

HOW DO PEOPLE ORGANISE SOCIETY SO THAT THEY CAN BE FREE?

There are three elements that are essential to upholding the rights of the individual. The first of the elements is personal rights, such as the right to a trial, freedom of thought and movement, and freedom of worship and education. The second element is political liberty, the freedom to speak, freedom of the media, and of association and the right to participate in assemblies. The third element is the ability of the individual to change the party in power through elections, this includes the freedom to dissent from the status quo and form an opposition through publicly explaining the reasons for that dissent. It is this final freedom, that of dissent, through which all the other freedoms grow.

WHAT WOULD BE THE POTENTIAL THREATS TO FREE SOCIETY?

To defend liberty there must be a constant push against the encroachment of the state, upon this area of an individual’s life. Even under the threat of persecution it is necessary to establish this area as the meaning of what it is to be human. Whether the concept of free choice is a reality or determinism found to be true, humans need to be conscious as thinking, acting beings, making choices based upon their ideas and purposes. As a society we may coerce or impose upon others some collective goal, such as for justice or public health, which becomes necessary to alleviate harm, but we cannot assume to think for the individual who is coerced or imposed upon. Society, or those who administrate it, is not a collective mental will that knows best for an individual. We cannot suppose that we know what is better for someone than they do themselves. For if we do take this view we are in danger of ignoring the autonomy of individuals and seek to oppress, bully or torture them in the name of what we believe is ‘best’ for them. Autonomy is necessary for us to act as independent agents.  For the state to control society as one made up of non-autonomous creatures that can be threatened or cajoled by their leaders would be to subject society to the worst despotism imaginable.

IS IT POSSIBLE TO PROTECT SUCH A FREE SOCIETY WITHOUT A LOSS OF FREEDOM?

The ideals of justice and equality are measures with which we can resolve conflicts of will. Human societies subject themselves to such ideals so that the weak will not be prone to the strong. We can only demand of a recalcitrant human being that to which we subject ourselves also. For if we demanded others to subject themselves to that to which we would not agree we would oppress or enslave them and reserve freedom only for ourselves. By subjecting all to the ideals of justice and equality we leave room for all to make decisions in accordance with their will but also in accordance with the ideals of justice and equality. Each human has their own aspirations and abilities and they should be free to actualize their potential as long as they do not conflict with the aspirations and abilities of others. The necessity of choosing between competing claims is an inescapable element of human life. The extent of such claims must be weighed against many other claims of which equity, justice, happiness and peace are the most obvious. There is no clear or absolute answer or final solution. To demand the absolute at the expense of human life is offensive and not reconcilable with the principles of freedom. A plural system in which people are respected as ends and not means is the most humane and recognizes that freedom is part of what makes us human.

 

[1] ( J. S. Mill, On Liberty, chapter 3, p. 268 in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. M. Robson (Toronto/London, 1981- ), vol. 18.. .

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