What Is Freedom?

What Is Freedom?

We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word, we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name – liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names – liberty and tyranny.

- Abraham Lincoln, Address at Sanitary Fair (Apr. 18, 1864)

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg considers what it is to be free and how freedom became such a powerful value. Freedom has been a subject of enquiry for philosophers, theologians and politicians who have attempted to define the conditions required for humans to be free, not just in their minds but in the wider world. Some have argued that man is naturally free and no laws should confine his liberty. Others have countered that laws are the only way to preserve freedom; they protect us from the slavery of the abyss. The very idea of freedom is riddled with constraints, limitations and qualifications, yet it is seen by many as the most basic of human rights and for some as a principle worth fighting and dying for.

Listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Freedom on the In Our Time podcast

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

...For Pettit, this is the unavoidable tendency of a model of freedom which sees non-interference as the core concept: the idea that you are best left to your own devices with minimum intervention from others, including from the state.

This, of course, is the classical model of liberty that John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, among other giants of modern political philosophy, gave their intellectual support to. But they could have just as easily rescued an older form of freedom according to Pettit, a freedom based on the ancient Roman Republic....

So, what’s so different about this ancient model of freedom?  In a compound word—non domination.

The idea goes beyond just not being interfered with. It takes on a stronger notion, whereby the individual is empowered to look others straight in the eye without fear or deference; what Pettit calls the eyeball test.

Continue reading Joe Gelonesi's short article: Philosopher Philip Petit argues we should change our definition of freedom.

Further Reading

Imagine you are driving a car through town, and you come to a fork in the road. You turn left, but no one was forcing you to go one way or the other. Next you come to a crossroads. You turn right, but no one was preventing you from going left or straight on. There is no traffic to speak of and there are no diversions or police roadblocks. So you seem, as a driver, to be completely free. But this picture of your situation might change quite dramatically if we consider that the reason you went left and then right is that you're addicted to cigarettes and you're desperate to get to the tobacconists before it closes. Rather than driving, you feel you are being driven, as your urge to smoke leads you uncontrollably to turn the wheel first to the left and then to the right. Moreover, you're perfectly aware that your turning right at the crossroads means you'll probably miss a train that was to take you to an appointment you care about very much. You long to be free of this irrational desire that is not only threatening your longevity but is also stopping you right now from doing what you think you ought to be doing.

This story gives us two contrasting ways of thinking of liberty. On the one hand, one can think of liberty as the absence of obstacles external to the agent. You are free if no one is stopping you from doing whatever you might want to do. In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be free. On the other hand, one can think of liberty as the presence of control on the part of the agent. To be free, you must be self-determined, which is to say that you must be able to control your own destiny in your own interests.

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Positive and Negative Liberty by Ian Carter.

Related Topics

Equality | Free Speech | Justice

Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.

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