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Musings derived from recent Lyceum Institute conversations concerning language.

It is an oft-stated distinction, and with good cause, that “freedom” may be said in two ways: either a kind of negative freedom, that is, a freedom belonging to self-determining agents in the absence of restraint (“freedom from”); or a kind of positive freedom, namely, the absence of prohibitions against freely engaging in pursuit of the good (“freedom for”). But I believe that, however related these two senses might be, we are not saying them analogically, but equivocally—and ought, therefore, to stop misusing the singular term “freedom” for both meanings. The negative sense, in other words, does not pertain to the agent who possesses freedom. Rather, it refers to a relational state which may be either imagined or real. It is real inasmuch as it refers to a societal pattern of relations whereby human agents are able to make certain decisions without state compulsion. The state, as a cognition-dependent entity, must itself be in conformity with the good of human nature in order that the state is just. The negative “freedom” is imagined, however, inasmuch as it is thought to obtain independently of any state of society; as though it is a given of nature, despite no resolution to natural realities.

Constraints of the Negative

In other words, you, your friends, your family, everyone you have ever known—and likewise for myself—are quite thoroughly constrained in terms of the decisions you can or cannot make, and most certainly by the consequences of them. The world resists our efforts much more than it accedes to them; it is we who must adapt to the world in order that we thrive, and not the other way around.

By contrast, the real negative “freedom” consists in nothing other than that pattern of relations through which the state abstains from compulsion being a just and righteous pattern: one that recognizes a kind of subsidiarity of governance. In other words, negative “freedom” consists in little more than recognizing that decisions ought to be made at the lowest possible level of prudential determination. This, of course, does not constitute an absolute principle. At times, local governing entities cannot be trusted to make the right decisions, and intervention of a higher authority is required. But the exercise of this authority ought to be temporary, and decision-making remanded as soon as possible.

But this non-intervention of higher authority does not mean constraint is wrong. Rather, it indicates that the flourishing of human beings requires good and right use of the individual faculty of the will. Such contributes not only to the flourishing of the individual, that is, but the community. Compel me to pick up trash and not only will I likely become resentful, but seek to do the bare minimum. On the other hand, if I care for the beauty of my community and begin to collect the trash myself, I may even help move others to act likewise. Yet if I demonstrate not only a lack of care for my environment, but an active hostility toward it, what is the government to do? Something, of course, that is compulsive, that does constrain my actions. The government has a responsibility not to determine what is good for me, but to support conditions in which the good can flourish. I cannot be “free” if I am a slave to laziness. The government cannot make me be industrious; but it can support structures—built and operated with the principle of subsidiarity in mind—which both encourage virtue and dissuade vice.

Order of the Positive

Positive “freedom”, on the other hand—which belongs to the agent—likewise exists only under a certain constraint. That I act freely requires that I act for something. Human freedom of choice follows understanding, always. The degree to which I am free, therefore, follows the depth of my understanding. Other attributes of my being—habits and particularly those inclining to vice—may intrude upon and hamper the relationship between my understanding and my will. I know well, for instance, that the yogurt and salad are the truly good option (given my weight, height, general health, etc.), but the bacon cheeseburger has a hold on me, somehow, and I choose poorly. Of course, this “freedom for” also requires that I be able to choose the unhealthy option because it does have a genuine good, and, at rare times, is in fact the better choice to make. That is, the correctness of the choice follows the purpose for which one eats. Yogurt and a salad make for a poor celebratory meal, and, if celebrating something worthy, one ought to celebrate well. Conversely, if we see someone whom we know regularly eating naught but the unhealthiest of foods, we ought to remonstrate that person.

These constraints follow one’s knowledge. If you see someone eating unhealthy food once, giving chastisement is unwarranted. If you see someone you do not know eating unhealthy food—even if you observe such frequently—you are unwise to say anything. The individual in question may be choosing poorly, but we lack the requisite knowledge of the person. But so, too, should there exist a society in which the knowledge and habits about eating well are common and well-supported by communities at every level. The ends that are fulfilling for human beings should be known, and the means to pursue them encouraged so that they may be freely and creatively pursued. (The relation between “free” and “creative” is a topic to be explored another time.) Correlatively, the ends that are not fulfilling should be discouraged, and societal practices which instead encourage vice should be prohibited.

These considerations include the “freedom of speech”, much discussed in recent years. It cannot rightly be an absolute “freedom from”. Whatever societal, governmental non-intervention surrounds our speech, it relies entirely upon a sense of purpose for speech. If speech becomes divorced from truth, the freedom of speech becomes, swiftly, a nightmare of contradictions. Yet, it must be asked: do we know the truth well enough to determine what ought to be said, and when, and how? We know the health values of food—a narrow subject—far better than we know many issues of moral and political discord. Nevertheless, just as we can tell someone we know well that he should not continue eating unhealthy foods if we observe him so doing, so too we may admonish against excesses in humor—and, more strongly, against those claims and statements which undermine the very good of human nature itself.

There are some important rhetorical considerations to develop, here. Perhaps a seminar on the “Ethics of Terminology” or “Communication Ethics” will be offered in the future.

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