Wednesday, October 13, 2004



I'm going to talk about freedom, and I'm not going to mention free will at all, except to disclaim it.

What's freedom anyway? There's a fairly obvious progression from being held hostage, to being in prison, to being under house arrest, through various kinds of oppressive regimes until you land where most of us are today - some kind of nominally liberal society with rights and responsibilities, but with more or less self-directed lives. But that's no kind of answer to a philosopher. What is it that you don't have when you're in prison but do have now, is it a good thing to have, and could we have more of it?

When you're being held hostage, your choices are the closest to nil that anyone really experiences these days. You will experience some degree of physical restraint, and certainly your freedom of speech and personal rights will be curtailed. When you're in prison you may not be literally in shackles, but nonetheless you are not free to leave. But you can more or less say what you want, to a certain audience. Out in society, we still have responsibilities to the law and to our fellow man, but we actually have the choice to honour them or not.

It seems that constraints to freedom come primarily in the form of physical restraint, at least at the lower end of the scale. However, there are other kinds of things which we experience in our relatively free lives which might more accurately be called constraints. It is useful to make the distinction between a restraint and a constraint because it is the same question as the difference between an impositon on freedom versus the nature of choice. You might think of a restraint as a prisoner's shackle, and a constraint as being like the walls on a corridor. One can't walk through walls, but they are there to hold up the roof, break up the rooms, give privacy etc. A functionalist might say that a restraint is anything design to inhibit freedom, while a constraint affects our freedom but has a different function. This buys us nothing other than a framework for discussion, however, because it gives us no way to discern the difference between a wall designed for restraint and a wall designed for constraint.

Someone subscribing to a causal theory of meaning would analyse the factors affecting the decision of the person who erected the wall - what they had in mind, and what their purpose was. However, the function of an object can change over time - a prison may be converted to a tourist attraction, for example. It would seem that there is nothing intrinsic to the restraining object that makes it a restraint rather than a constraint - only the purpose of the designer can give us insight. It would seem that it is the intent rather than the effect which determines the difference.

If you buy into this, there are interesting implications for how we live our lives in the face of adversity, how we deal with low incomes, or bills, or demands on our time etc. It is tempting to think that economic constraint is a restriction on our freedom - clearly we don't have the option to quit our jobs, have expensive houses etc, and it is tempting to fall into thinking that the rich people who can do these things have more freedom than ourselves. In reality, they merely have more options - fewer constraints. A few miscarraiges of justice aside, they face more or less the same restraints to their freedom as poorer people do. This doesn't necessarily make us feel any better, but it does force us to accept that the terminology by which we must talk about our struggle with adversity must be different. It's not correct to say that we have less freedom by virtue of having less money. To appease the people I have just angered - it is certainly true that this rather at odds with some conceptions of the right to equal opportunity and other social justice systems etc. Additionally, the rich may impose genuine restraints on others by using their money to manipulate the options available to others, which is another form which restraint may take. But taken lassaiz-faire, monetary power itself does not correlate with any inequity of freedom.

Unfortunately, disentangling the concepts can be difficult, and often results in some heated debates. I believe there is still a lot to be asked about whether freedom can be imposed upon in the absence of a designer making that imposition, however that will have to wait for another day.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting read, however, we can never truly or idiologically be free as our conditions of existence are always imposed implicitly and/or explicitly.

Function of life has always and will always continue to be bound by 'rules of existence'.

Rules aren't neccesarily the conditions in which you must abide. Rules are merely the imposition implied through our known existence. Thus, 'choice' basically comes down to the lower meaning of our own existence in reality. Our environment dictates our choices, our reality defines our choices. So there can be a questionable level of discussion about fate and the meaning in choice.

Our understanding of freedom, therefore must lye in our comfort of choice.

Freedom in itself is just a sociatal word that implies intrinsic meaning to be 'bound' by your own unique existence. To exist is to be bound by the expectations of freedom.

To exist and determine purpose in our lives -- is to be bound by our own diluted views of freedom. This dilution occurs through religion, culture and continued programming and re-programming of our own psyche. Our own ideals give us a level of personal freedom that is expected from us, and from what we expect of others.

Therfore imposition of freedom is explicitly implied because of our existence and imposition of our very existence untowards others.

Freedom merely comforts our own understanding of choice. We are all bound by an undefineable purpose in existence. It's your happiness and comfort in choice that defines your level of freedom. In your reality. Your existence.


10/14/2004 12:49:00 AM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Conditions of existence as something that I would refer to as a constraint rather than a restraint, and thus do not make impositions to our freedom.

You claim that freedom is a societal word meaning to be bound by your own existence - discussions of free will often come down to these kinds of discussions. In programming terms, freedom is an overloaded word. There is clearly one sense in which it means not having your choices un-necessarily curtailed by someone else's decisions - i.e. an interlocutor with free will preventing you from taking action. Suggesting that freedom does not have this meaning is wrong.

However, it's also the responsibility of our ontology of freedom to give some kind of description to what you describe - the way that our choices are affected by things like religion, society, culture etc. I don't call these things impositions on our freedom, because they affect our options, but don't attack our ability to choose. In my way of thinking, "freedom" ceases to be a descriptive word if it is given the meaning that you are giving to it. I think it's more useful to give freedom a meaning that brings in the distinction between a restraint and a constraint.

I would simply say that our freedom in society is constrained by many things, but restrained by few. (relatively speaking, of course).

10/14/2004 10:30:00 AM  

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