Freedom is a term that is used quite frequently in public discourse. We see the word projected on political billboards or used in a companies latest advertising campaign. The modern world aims to convince us that we can do whatever we want. The future is boundless, limitless.
In this article I want to go beyond these conventional notions, and assess two different conceptions of freedom. That is, freedom from and freedom to. This binary view of freedom has been explored by various philosophers and social critics throughout history including Erich Fromm, Charles Taylor and Isiah Berlin.
- Freedom From: Also known as negative liberty, freedom from is when an individual is not limited or restricted from pursuing what they want. Moreover, there are no external obstacles or impediments imposed on them by others. Freedom from provides access to opportunities whether we decide to act on them or not. Put crudely, it embodies the ethos of ‘you can’t tell me what do to.’
- Freedom To: On the contrary freedom to , also known as positive liberty, is when one has the capacity and will to act in a manner that is consistent with their interests, intentions and values. It is focused on developing and cultivating one’s inner disposition, character and internal locus of control. That is to say, one is the master of their own lives.
Contrasting the Two Freedoms
An example that may further clarify this dichotomy is as follows. An individual may be of legal age and therefore free from the legal restrictions placed on them for consuming alcohol. However, they may develop a bad drinking habit which ultimately hinders their goals of completing their academic studies and pursuing their career.
In this case an individual has negative freedom in the sense that they are free to indulge in alcohol, and no one is coercing them to do so. However, they lack positive freedom as they do not have the willpower to restrain their impulses. They fail to act in their best interests.
Crippled by Choice
Of course, there are exceptions, but by in large modern society represents a fundamental shift away from abiding by the rules, norms, expectations and ways of life of the collective (i.e. tribe or tradition). We are now free to live in whichever way we like. This is particularly apparent in our consumer culture which promises the satisfaction of every desire with the click of a button. The possibilities are endless indeed.
However, as the great existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard astutely observed, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” The abundance of choice can be paralyzing. In addition, merely appeasing our every desire makes us prisoners of our passions and base instincts. As the Buddhist scholar D.T Suzuki explains this is the antithesis of freedom:
Freedom never means lawlessness, wantonness, or libertinism. Those who understand freedom in this latter sense and act accordingly are making themselves slaves to their egotistic passions. They are no longer masters of themselves but most despicable slavesD.T Suzuck, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist
For the phycologist and scholar Erich Fromm, a healthy and satisfying life requires one to work on cultivating their positive freedom, inner life and character. For Fromm, being freed from societal constraints and restrictions is not an end in itself, but rather a transitory step in the progress towards self-actualization and human flourishing.
When one has a strong sense of purpose and meaning they can more readily overcome external obstacles and work towards a life that aligns with their values and ambitions.
The tag line for this blog is ‘in search of inner freedom.’ One commonality that I have identified that connects different spiritual traditions and philosophies that I’ve researched over the years is the necessity of tending to one’s inner life. Yes, material things make us happy for a while perhaps, but life is often bumpy and unpredictable. Finding nourishment in one’s inner being can help us navigate the uncertain territory that lies ahead.
Lasting freedom can only be found within.
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2 thoughts on “The Different Forms of Freedom”
Interesting post from a philosophical perspective. I tend to believe that one person’s freedom is another person’s captivity… from a practical viewpoint of course. It’s difficult getting a feel for introspection with all the ongoing suffering continuing out there on a daily basis.
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“We are now free to live in whichever way we like.”
Are we? What if I decide to paint my car with a confederate flag? There are a few places one could get away with this and in other places, it could lead to social isolation, violence, loss of employment, or even legal action.
What if I decided to simply live naked 24/7? That would not go over well unless I were a hermit. Even if it IS perfectly legal and even if there ARE actual naked public events in my city, mowing my lawn or strolling down the sidewalk naked would result in the police finding some way to stop me. Disturbing the peace. Nonjudicial mental health check. Public nuisance. Creating a traffic hazard. Or just a bit of “street justice.” These are all ways police enforce social order even though the behavior in question is technically legal. Never mind my neighbors showing up with pitch forks and torches at my door one night.
One could say that one is free to do as one wants as long as the perceived benefit exceeds the perceived cost. It means that freedom is only limited by physical restraints and your will, a very Nietzschean point of view. It means I’m free to murder someone if I think I can get away with it. Or, more importantly, if I’m willing to pay the price should I get caught. This is probably closest to the truth but we don’t like to admit it.
So, if we don’t want to wander down that road, we can talk about political freedom, social freedom, legal freedom, moral freedom, and as many other dimensions as you want. Each kind of freedom is constrained by different types of enforcement.
Exceed legal freedom and you may be arrested, ticketed, or sued.
Exceed political freedom and you don’t get elected – maybe even canceled. (Google “Overton Window”)
Exceed moral freedom and you go to Hell. Or maybe you just feel really really really guilty.
Exceed social freedom and you become ostracised and possibly subject to extrajudicial punishment. Take it to an extreme and you have a lynching.
Exceed physical freedom? You can’t. Natural law cannot be avoided. You try and you automatically fail. If you succeed it is because you found something in natural law that allows it. I won’t bother getting into the argument if free will even exists.
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