Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers’ questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don’t quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Mailbag Monday’ in the subject line.
Bro,What is freedom? Or to be more specific, what do the philosophers have to say about freedom?
Politicians love to rant about freedom ad nauseum, but have the great thinkers ever weighed in on the subject?
Holy shit, Swits, (D'ya mind if I call you Swits?) have they ever weighed in on the subject. And the consensus is… well, I mean, there isn’t one, which is exactly what you’d expect from philosophy.
But there are two broad ideas of freedom (or liberty), two camps into which most philosophers fall. Those camps are negative freedom and positive freedom. It’s not that philosophers disagree over which one is real so much as they disagree over which one is more important.
So let’s start with negative liberty. John Stuart Mill offers the most explicit account of negative liberty, and the gist of it is this: To be free means to be left the fuck alone. As long as we’re not hurting anyone else or infringing on anyone else’s freedom, what reason could anyone possibly have for stopping me from doing something? Who gives a shit if I want to be a Scientologist or chew tobacco until my face just is cancer, as long as I don’t try to force anyone else to pay my medical bills when I’m inevitably hospitalized? If a bunch of bros want to get together and stare at the sun for no reason at all, except to prove that they’rereal men and whatnot, and they all agree to do it, you know, let 'em.
Should stoners have the right to smoke marijuana if they want? Why not? Even the KKK - I mean, I think we can all agree they’re raging dickheads, but do people have a right to believe racist shit? Do Evangelical Christians have a right to believe that I’m going to Hell? As long as they don’t hurt anyone else! Robert Nozick argued that liberty should include the right to enter into any agreement whatsoever, no matter how ludicrous, as long as one is fully informed about what he’s entering into, and shit like taxes interferes with that. Taxes infringe on one’s right to trade labor for dollars or sex or whatever. So we should only limit our actions if they infringe on the freedoms of others or harm them; otherwise, have at it. Yay for personal freedoms!
Of course, it’s not always easy to determine what the rights of others are, or where the infringement is. It’s Monday, so obviously I spent most of this afternoon getting hammered and raging. But the asshole next door wants to take a nap or some shit, because he has work tonight and was up all night writing a paper. So he calls the cops. We’re all of legal age and we’re not over the area noise limit (yet), but someone else wants to nap. Are we infringing on his rights? Are we doing him a legitimate harm by interfering with his ability to work, or is it his own fault for putting off the paper for so long? You can modify the experiment any way you like to test various aspects of the question - maybe he’s still writing the paper. Maybe he has a date tonight. Maybe he’s allergic to how awesome I am. Am I infringing on his right to not swell up and choke, or is he infringing on my right to party like the world just ended?
The second conception, positive liberty, is a little something more like this: to be free means to have self-determination. After all, how free are we really if we don’t have the means to execute our desires? You might say I’m free to turn lead into gold, no one is stopping me, but, you know, I can’t transmute. Not even I have that power. So if a man on the street is free to live in a house, except he doesn’t have one, is he really free? So to free that man on a positive conception, someone would have to provide him with a house and some food while he looks for a job, and maybe someone would have to teach him a skill or something. Who? Well, most people look to a robust government for that. And on this conception, taxes are freeing. They allow everyone to eat and to work and to not worry about being homeless. Hooray for homefulness, a word I just made up that’s the opposite of homelessness!
But here also we have the problem of deciding where lines belong - does everyone really have the right to eat as well as they’d like? Or do we only have to provide enough food, say, to maintain weight? Plenty of people in America think food stamps, which can be exchanged for food like cash, are dehumanizing because they embarrass and ostracize the people using them. Do those people have a right to not be embarrassed? And does that mean “They have the right to choose not to be embarrassed” or does it mean “They have the right to not be subjected to what they consider embarrassing situations”? It’s very easy, on a positive liberty conception, to let an authoritarian state get too big. Stalin’s five-year plans, which killed tens of millions of people, were backed with distorted rhetoric about ensuring self-mastery for everyone through the overthrow of capitalism’s evil exploitation.
<broad, sweeping generalizations>Historically, Europeans have favored positive liberty, and Americanslove negative liberty. You can get a sense of the extreme consequences of each conception by starting, asRousseau and Locke did, from a state of nature. No government, just bros doing what they wanted. Now once you’ve got this complete state of freedom, bros who believe in positive liberty tend to beanarchists: they believe that we ought to work together to allow each person to self-actualize, without anyone having authority over anyone else. Those who believe in negative liberty tend to be anarcho-capitalists: they believe that we should be able to enter into whatever agreements we want, with whomever we want, without anyone telling us what is and isn’t okay to bargain for. Locke thinks the second one is awesome, and is exactly how government came to be; Rousseau wishes the first one had come to pass, and the second one is pure exploitation. </broad, sweeping generalizations>
So that’s freedom in a nutshell. Some people think it’s about having as many options as possible; others think it’s about having the ability to take the right options. In a perfect world, we’d have ample amounts of both. In this one, we’re often asked to choose. Often by loud, uninformed politicians. How much does that suck?
John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is the negative liberty manifesto, basically.
Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia argues for a minimal government on the basis that any government more comprehensive will infringe on the rights of it’s citizens.
Isaiah Berlin’s paper Two Concepts of Liberty lays out where the two concepts agree and where they depart, and how we might decide between them; Berlin himself favored positive liberty, though he didn’t completely write off negative liberty.