What is Freedom? (4): Increasingly Demanding Types of Freedom

Freedom can be defined in different ways. Depending on the definition, it’s something that is more or less demanding. Definitions of freedom differ in the things that are required to make us free. Here’s an overview of a number of different definitions that you can find in the literature, from the least demanding to the most:

1. Absence of voluntary goal frustration

A basic, minimalist definition postulates freedom as the absence of goal frustration. We are free if no one blocks our goals, if we can do what we want and what we have set out to do, without anyone – in particular the government – frustrating the realization of our will or our goals. In this basic form, the frustrating agent always acts in a deliberately frustrating manner.

For example, a wife in a patriarchal society – call her Mary – wants to work outside of the household, is formally allowed to do so (there’s no choice frustration) but achieving this goal is made very difficult for her; both her husband and the government put a lot of obstacles in her way.

2. Absence of involuntary goal frustration

A slightly more demanding vision of freedom includes among the frustrating agents those who frustrate goal realization, not because of voluntary obstruction but because of other reasons not inspired by the will to frustrate or obstruct.

For example, although Mary has successfully divorced her husband and migrated to a more liberal county, she finds that none of her skills are marketable in her host society. Hence, the people in her host society involuntarily frustrate her goals and make her less free than she could be.

3. Absence of resource-based goal frustration

A step further: the blocking factors are not only agents but also a lack of resources. The resources can be either inner our external resources:

  • Inner resources: if we lack discipline, a good work ethic or a good education, we may be unable to reach our goals. Our passions, emotions and other tendencies may overwhelm our other tendencies that we require for the realization of our goals. In this case, our goals and freedom are frustrated not by external agents but by aspects of ourselves.
  • External resources: if we lack food and shelter, we may also be unable to reach our goals.

For example, Mary’s goal of finding employment is blocked by her inability to work in a disciplined way and/or her lack of means of transportation.

We are free to achieve our goals if there is no obstruction

  • by agents voluntarily frustrating our achievement,
  • by other agents involuntarily frustrating our achievements,
  • caused by the absence of internal or external resources (or the presence of obstructing “resources”).

4. Absence of choice frustration

The first 3 definitions above take for granted that we want something and try to realize it, even though we’re faced with obstacles of different kinds. The focus is on our ability to get it or on the factors inhibiting our ability. A fourth, still more demanding definition of freedom stipulates that we are free only when there is no goal frustration and when we have an unfrustrated choice between different goals or objects of volition.

For example, Mary’s only objective is caring for her family and she didn’t choose this objective from a certain range of possible desirable goals, for example because certain goals are not allowed. In this case, we will not call her free, not even if she wants her objective and can achieve it without frustration. She’s not free because she didn’t choose her objective from a range of possible objectives of unequal value.

A lack of freedom in this 4th sense can be caused by agents voluntarily or involuntarily limiting the range of options, or by a lack of resources.

For example, Mary only has one possible goals, caring for a family. Other valuable and desirable goals, such as becoming an artist or traveling the world, have been blocked by the cultural or legal norms of her society or by a lack of internal or external resources: she does not have the income, education or discipline necessary to make an evaluative choice among a larger set of options. Mary is less free than she would have been had the other desirable goals been possible options – possible in the sense of not having been removed from the set by agents, or in the sense of being backed up by the necessary resources.

As in the case of goal frustration (types 1, 2 and 3), choice frustration can be caused by interference or by the absence of resources or capabilities.

5. Absence of distortions in option formation

An even more demanding notion of freedom: freedom requires that agents or the absence of resources do not block options, but also that there are no distortions in option formation (as opposed to option choice). People are free if they can freely establish a wide set of possible desirable goals, then freely choose from them without someone or something frustrating certain options (#4), and then freely pursue the chosen options without frustration (#1-2-3).

So freedom is not just goal achievement or goal choice but also the ability to set up a range of possible choices.

For example, some options do not even cross Mary’s mind. Her option formation may be inhibited by early childhood nurturing that has removed certain possible goals from the option set. Or she may erase options from her mind: her realistic assessment of possibilities makes her adapt her preferences and choose those options which are approved by her patriarchal circumstances.

Such distortions in option formation – settling for the options that are feasible or just choosing from those options that have been instilled in us from early childhood on – may make us more happy since we’ll stop agonizing about the impossible, but it won’t make us more free.

6. Absence of the wrong options

And finally, the most demanding form of freedom stipulates that people should have the ability, not to choose from an undistorted set of options or to pursue the chosen options without hindrance, but the ability to choose the right options, i.e. only those options that are moral or those that make one’s life better.

This is the kind of freedom that makes sense of the paradoxical phrase “forcing one to be free”: only by forcing people to make the right choices can people become free.

For example, if Mary was given the freedom to choose between educating herself and working in the sex industry, then Mary would only be free if she chose the first option. The second option, although possibly profitable, would not make her free because it would not allow her to make her life better.

That last sentence makes it obvious that the conception of freedom as the right choice depends on controversial assessments of the “good life”. People cannot be free to decide on their own view of the good life, because then this conception of freedom would collapse into the previous one (#5). Some authority must decide what is the good life and force people to choose the right options. Hence, it’s unclear whether this conception of freedom still deserves the name. The paternalism and perfectionism inherent in the conception are more at home in authoritarian forms of government.

Just a small remark to end: although these 6 types have names that use negative language (“absence”), this does not imply that they are all negative types of freedom in the traditional sense.

More on different types of freedom here.

What is Freedom? (1): Three Kinds of Freedom

People usually talk about two kinds of freedom, negative and positive freedom. This common framing of the discussion about freedom is a result of the pervasive influence of Isaiah Berlin. However, this influence can be inhibiting in the sense that it can discourage other ways of thinking about freedom. Let me propose one other way.

We can, for instance, argue that there are not two but three kinds of freedom. Take the case of a business man being unfaithful to his wife. He tells her he’s going on a business trip but he’s meeting his lover instead. On his way to her, he’s not hindered in any way on his trip. There are no impediments or obstacles to overcome. His wife doesn’t try to stop him since she’s not aware of the affair. He takes the plane to see his lover and the airline cooperates in an unusually efficient way, security checks are cleared without any problems etc.

So the business man is free in the first sense of the word: freedom from external impediments. Let’s call this FREEDOM 1. It’s, in the tradition of Berlin, a negative kind of freedom.

However, the business man, while on his trip, is torn by guilt. Part of him tells him to stop and go back home. He knows that’s the best thing to do. But another part of him is driven by sexual desire and passion. The rational part wants him to be free of sexual desires because it knows that they may destroy everything that is dear to him.

So the business man isn’t free in this second sense of the word: freedom from internal impediments. He’s not free, not because of the presence of outside control, but because of the absence of self-control. Let’s call this FREEDOM 2. It’s also, obviously, a negative form of freedom in the sense that it requires the absence of internal impediments to a preferred action. (Berlin would not call this a negative freedom, but this post isn’t about Berlin, so let’s skip that).

We can also define this freedom 2 by way of the concept of “second-order desires” (following Harry Frankfurt). You are free if you can exercise self-control or self-mastery, and you can if you are able to act on your second-order desires. In our example, the businessman is free to have sex with his lover – no one forces him to have sex with her or to not have sex with her (this is freedom 1) – but he’s not free in the sense that he succeeds in acting on his second-order desire to remain faithful to his wife.

Freedom 1 is essentially a political concept, and receives most attention in political discourse. It’s the basis of concepts such a limited government, rule of law etc. Freedom 2 is usually part of discussions about psychology, personal morality and some forms of religion (such as Buddhism, which teaches that we should rid ourselves from desires). It also features in criminal justice (to what extent is a person criminally responsible for his or her acts, and to what extent is that person driven by passions, desires etc.). For this reason, freedom 2 can be likened or perhaps even equated to the concept of free will.

Freedom 2, although not political, can be reinterpreted in a political sense. Personal self-control and self-government – with the rational part of the individual taking control over the irrational and self-destructive part – can be seen as the starting point of a certain form of political freedom. Self-government is then translated from an individual notion into a collective one. If an individual wants to exercise self-government, he or she may also want to do that together with others. A society takes the model of individual self-control and uses it to exercise collective control over common matters.

Let’s call this FREEDOM 3: you’re free if, as a member of a community, you participate equally in the government of common affairs. This freedom is autonomy and democracy. One could call it a negative freedom as well, in the sense that a community, in order to govern itself, should be free from the rule of external forces (a dictator, a ruling class etc.). But even when those external forces are absent a community still needs to act together in order to govern itself. In that way, freedom 3 is not similar to freedom 2, and therefore it makes much more sense to call it a positive freedom: not merely a freedom from something, but a freedom to control a common destiny, a freedom to make your own rules and laws. (You could argue that freedom 2 is also positive in this sense, but it is much more negative than freedom 3 in other ways. And anyway I want to go beyond the positive-negative distinction here, so let’s drop that).

Freedom 3 is autonomy and democracy because it allows a community to take control of its common life. The problem with freedom 3, as already argued by Berlin, is that it can easily spill over in paternalism and become unfreedom. Rather than a collective acting together in a democratic spirit in order to govern their common affairs, we have a split in the collective: some use the split inside an individual between the rational part that tries to govern the irrational part and achieve freedom in this way (i.e. freedom 2), as a metaphor justifying a social distinction between more and less rational individuals. The former know best what is in the rational interest of the latter, and start to force the latter to act “rationally”, whatever that means (e.g. avoid adultery or compulsive gambling, live according to the communist worldview etc.). By forcing the irrational to act rationally, the paternalists make the irrational free, just like an individual who forces her irrational part to act rationally thereby makes herself free (freedom 2).

Coercively forcing an adulterer to mend his ways makes him free because mending his ways is presumed to be what he really wants (his second-order desire). So people are coerced for their own good, a good that they themselves are perhaps too blind to see.

This criticism was forcefully described by Berlin, and it remains very useful. However, I don’t think it necessarily discredits freedom 3. On the contrary, paternalism is a deviation from freedom 3, not its logical conclusion. Freedom 3 can avoid the pitfall of paternalism as long as it focuses on the mode of formation of desires rather than on their content. (See John Christman for a more elaborate version of this argument).

Freedom 3 remains important, like the other two types.

  • Freedom 1 is important because people want to be able to do what they want with a minimum of external impediments.
  • Freedom 2 is important because people often want to be able to decide rationally what they want, rather than instinctively. And rationally here means a thinking and reasonable assessment of the available options, which in turn means that you’re not forced into an option by your passions (or by your government, tradition, family etc. in which case we’re back in freedom 1).
  • And freedom 3 is important because people want to be autonomous and want to shape their common life. They don’t want their common lives dominated by a ruler or a ruling class.

If all three types of freedom are important, then none of them is sufficient by itself. Freedom 1 leaves the individual at the mercy of internal impediments and assumes – incorrectly – that the prior fixation of the individual’s volition is unproblematic. Freedom 2 shows that it is problematic. But it’s not only problematic because of the possible effect of passions; see here and here for some other reasons why the fixation of volition requires more than simply the absence of overbearing passions.

People do not simply want unimpeded action. They also want to reflect on what it is that they want. Freedom 1 is also insufficient for another reason. External impediments are often defined in a very limited way: to some who adopt freedom 1, only impediments intentionally produced by fellow human beings count, which means that unintentional impediments such as economic forces or non-human or natural impediments such as a handicap do not make people unfree (they merely make them “unable” to do something). That seems to me very restrictive. What difference does it make that my freedom of movement is impeded by an authoritarian government rather than by my poverty or disability?

Freedom 1 is insufficient because it can’t produce freedom 2, but also because it can’t produce freedom 3. It can’t be, by itself, the basis of democratic government. It’s perfectly compatible with some forms of limited dictatorship, on the condition that this dictatorship is relatively non-interfering. However, one could argue that a democracy – freedom 3 – is the best way to protect freedom 1 since a democracy protects human rights, and human rights limit external impediments.

Freedom 1 is insufficient, but so is freedom 2. Freedom 2 – the absence of internal impediments – can’t possibly produce freedom 1. On the contrary, it’s often a reaction to the absence of freedom 1. When faced with numerous external impediments, it can be reasonable to retreat into yourself and cut back your desires (like a Buddhist). The other option, going against the external impediments that block your desires, can be very costly, especially when the impediments are caused by your dictatorial government.

Freedom 3 as well is insufficient, even though it promotes freedom 1. After all, it doesn’t necessarily promote freedom 1, especially not for democratic minorities. And it’s completely unable to promote freedom 2.