What is Freedom? (19): Social Freedom

If you ask people what freedom is, then they tend to go with the “ability to do what you want” definition. And it’s equally likely that they immediately add a qualifier: this ability should not be absolute but instead limited by the same freedom of others and by the things that can harm others.

Sounds very reasonable, until you dig a little deeper. Freedom understood like this only pretends to give our fellow human beings their due. Other people in fact become the border of my freedom and are therefore something negative. I can only protect my freedom or my ability to do as I like by avoiding other people as much as possible, by withdrawing from society and by becoming self-sufficient. Freedom is isolation. As long as there are other people around, my freedom is restricted by others; it’s restricted both by the rule that I should not harm other people’s freedom, and by other people’s lack of respect for the same rule with regard to me (since rules are never fully respected).

The more I avoid other people, the less restricted are my actions, and my freedom increases. If I avoid people, then no one stands in my way, no one interferes with my life, no one obstructs my actions or prevents me from doing something, and no one’s freedom limits my own freedom. It seems I can only do this when I leave the community because then my actions are no longer limited by other people’s actions or by other people’s freedom.

I’m not being original here. Marx already formulated this problem in On the Jewish Question 170 years ago:

The limits within which each individual can act without harming others are determined by law, just as the boundary between two fields is marked by a stake. It is a question of the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself. … [This kind of freedom] is not founded upon the relations between man and man, but rather upon the separation of man from man. It is the right of such separation. The right of the circumscribed individual, withdrawn into himself.

Fellow man is merely a limitation or a restriction – the only legitimate restriction of my freedom – and not harming him is the only thing I do for him. This kind of freedom is not incompatible with positive relationships and cooperation, but it doesn’t help either. It’s extremely individualistic even if legitimate interests of others are taken into account. It’s difficult to see how it can be compatible with another understanding of freedom in which freedom requires the company of others and in which other people are the realization instead of the limitation of freedom.

What would such a conception of freedom look like? It would see other people as necessary conditions rather than restrictions, as the beginning rather than the end of freedom. Freedom would not retreat into a space – and inner space or a physical space away from others – in which we can escape the coercion and the rules of the outside world. I think it’s necessary to accept the reality that the world of appearances and of other people is of the utmost importance to freedom. Freedom is more than a withdrawal from the world, from the threatening world of other people who do not allow us to be free and whose freedom limits our actions, either voluntary as a consequence of their own actions, or involuntary as a consequence of our respect for their freedom.

But why is interaction with other people important for freedom? I need the company of other people in a formalized and structured public space protected by rights if I want to take my life in my hands, if I want to examine my opinions and preferences in order to be sure that what I want to do – with respect for other people’s freedom – is really what I want. “Really” means that what I want is something more than unreflective preference. I wish to be able to choose from a wide range of objectives, as many as possible, without discrimination, obstruction and punishment (with the exception of those objectives that impede the objectives of others), but that implies more than freedom from interference. I need to hear others defend certain objectives with the best arguments they can present in an inclusive and accessible place of debate protected by human rights. Without this public place, my ability to do what I want – with respect for the same ability of others – is an empty phrase. If I can do what I want without interference, but what I want is impossible for me to determine in a rational way on the basis of good arguments – or is perhaps even decided for me in some conscious or unconscious way – then I can’t do what I want.

More posts in this series are here.

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