Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Quantifying Liberty


If I wanted to know how free I was, who could I ask? I don't know of anyone. How can I work it out for myself? What does it mean to assign a quantity to freedom anyway?

Clearly, there are examples where one is clearly denied a choice that would otherwise be open to you - it is possible to have all of your choices taken from you - it is possible to have no freedom. Prisoners have little to no freedom.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people are clearly relatively un-encumbered by denials of choice. However, they are often constrained by the relative benefit of their choices - perhaps they are constrained by a mortgage, perhaps they are very rich but constrained by their social role. Freedom, it would seem, is open-ended. There is nobody immediately identifiable who is perfectly free. Where does this leave any potential scale of freedom? How might we judge the relative freedom of two people who are not currently being imprisoned? It's hard to say.

It might be possible equate freedom with the number of available options that a person has. This number, of course, depends on being able to count their possible actions. Freedom consists in having many possible actions, and in being permitted to take them. At the most abstract level, freedom can even be a function of imagination. This may sound far-fetched, but I think it is quite obvious when you consider the example of someone who is labouring under some false sense of duty, or who lacks the confidence to do a particular thing, or is embarassed. These people are not in the fullest sense of the word free.

Is it possible, from these principles, to establish how much freedom a person has? Is there any sense in which freedom could be quantized, in an exchangable way? Is the freedom, for example, brought about by wealth, as valuable as the freedom brought about through a good imagination? Is the unfreedom of being imprisoned worse than the unfreedom of poverty?

In the past I have argued for a separation of kind between having options available versus having the permission to take them. I still believe there is a clear distintinction, however I don't believe the word freedom can be used to accurately refer to only one of them. I tend now to think of liberty as referring to the permissive aspect of freedom, and have not yet come up with a good word for referring to the possibilty aspect of freedom.

This post is a thought in progress...



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi MP,

I stumbled upon this blog via other Philosophy blogs, but your thinking stirs me to comment. Does the essence of "freedom" lie in a "state of mind" where even if physically imprisoned, a prisoner is still free in the sense that his mind and thinking cannot be imprisoned? Does this sense of freedom transcend what we in "normal life" consider free?

One can be free in a society, yet totally manacled by religious doctrine or media indoctrination. So following this line could you not ask of yourself whether you are free?

Then we have the reality of a suicide claiming the ultimate freedom in the act of suicide, yet within that reality is the depressed mind which does not seem to be free. What spark of ultimate freedom raised the gun and pulled the trigger?


6/08/2005 07:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

You said: "Prisoners have little to no freedom." I agree with the Stoics who say that all of us have complete freedom over only three things, whether we are a prisoner or not. These are (1)our opinions, (2)our desires and (3)our impulses to act. Everything else is not in our power, and we can only move to influence them. The mistaken belief that anything else is in our power is the root cause of a lot of human misery. For example, I will go to work today, but something may prevent me from getting there (flat tyre etc). I will exercise to keep healthy, but I may come down with the flu.

The prisoner has power over his opinions, desires and impulses. He has exactly the same real freedom that we all have, only he is more keenly aware of the limits than we are. Some make use of imprisonment to change their opinions, desires and impulses for the better, but some only degenerate.

6/09/2005 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...


I think you are saying something true - but I also think there are wider senses of the word freedom which include other concepts. Why your view should be the "real" freedom and the wider view be a "false" freedom is just a matter of perspective.

That said, any philosophical position should make sure it captures those ideas, whatever it may call them.

Tearsinarrears, I think that your position is a prime example of an absolutist position. If one can only be "free" or "unfree", then one is forced to the view that we have no freedom at all, or that we are always free. I don't see that anyone is "totally manacled" by indoctrination. I think there is a continuum, and being able to talk about that continuum is the goal of this thought... I don't like talking of "ultimate" freedom - ultimate rarely has any comprehensible meaning in itself.

Or do you think that suicide really is the most freedom that anyone can ever have? Don't you think that suicide reduces ones options? One can commit suicide in many situations where one is otherwise unfree - such as in prison for example.

A prisoner is free in the sense of maintaining free will, but I don't know if we should priviledge that kind of freedom. Perhaps we should, but I don't think we have any prima facie case to do so.

6/09/2005 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

modified quote .. "everyone has power over his opinions, desires and impulses. "
Rubbish . who is this self ..other than the opinions, desires and impulses ?
We chose? Yes, a mind always selects and choses, but it does so as we are made and informed.
We are players on a stage indeed.

Moral responsibility? .. that's how it appears and feels as the mind/heart 'chooses' but it will happen as it will happen.
we will blame also , because that will happen.
We will believe in our judgement because that will happen.

It is written, and all your tears will alter not one jot.

pre- ordained ? only to the mind who thinks in those terms. It happens by 'choice' to the thing we call 'us'.
Outside that self .. lies otherness.

This is what you get when you are in a zen like mood!
but there is truth there.
cheers .

6/10/2005 09:01:00 AM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Well, not to belittle the poetry of your position, but a response can be made... :)

Clearly people are capable of overcoming impulses for later goals - they can choose to get up and go to work rather than lie in bed, they can choose not to engage in violence even though their instincts might push them to do do, they can invest money for the future, they place virtue above life in some cases, beauty above riches (and vice versa!). Clearly people are capable of sacrifice and of applying choice to their instinctive desires.

Do we really do everything as we are made an informed? Hell no! While most of the time people just do their everyday things, in times of crises we see time and again people overcoming those attitudes for a greater purpose. It seems to me to be belittling those actions if we say that there is no difference between that and someone who is unable to control their base instincts.

Truly humans are the rational animal, and therein lies the essence of free will and of humanity.

If you see all human action as being pre-ordained, you are failing to capture the distinction between those base instincts and our overcoming of them. If you can only call human action the inevitable result of the past, you won't be able to describe the difference between instincts and the will.


6/10/2005 11:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was most struck by the idea that freedom can be a "function of the imagination". Or vice versa: lack of freedom could be due to a deficient imagination. For example, a person may not be able to realise that he has a certain option or options - he fails to imagine the possibilities.

I think this could be due to fear. I think if we were to face up to reality and realise that our freedom is limitless, that our choices are limitless, we would be terrified. If we did face up to it, we would realise that if we had the boldness to imagine the possibilities, we could be successful beyond our wildest dreams. Samuel L. Jackson said in one movie: "our biggest fear is not that we are limited, but that we are powerful beyond imagination".

Most people are afraid to really grab life by the collar and live it to the full. So without considering the huge number of options available, we carry on living our lives narrowly, with tunnel vision, either labouring for a particular goal, money, status whatever. If we stopped and realised how many options we have, and had the boldness to carry them out, we could change our lives for the better.

10/17/2007 02:22:00 AM  

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