views updated Jun 11 2018


The various meanings of the term "freedom" center around three main themes. The first is the possibility of the subject to act as he will to satisfy his tendencies, aspirations, and the like (freedom of action as opposed to constraint, servitude, etc.; civil and political liberties, etc.). The second is the power of self-determination without any necessitation in willing, if only from pressures of a nature slightly distinct from the ego (freedom of willing, free will, as opposed to necessity). The third is the fulfillment of the reasoning subject by the internal domination of reason, of superior motivations over feelings and over inferior motivations (rational freedom). This article sketches the historical development of the various notions of freedom and then presents a systematic analysis of topics relating to freedom that are of particular interest to Catholics.


The history of the concept of freedom may be conveniently divided into periods corresponding to those of ancient, patristic, medieval, modern, and contemporary thought.

Ancient period. Man's first awareness of things outside himself naturally led him to an early appreciation of the first type of freedom mentioned above. socrates and plato, impressed with the idea of servitude, presented its correlative as a liberation internal to man. The evildoer who thinks he is free because he can satisfy his desires is himself a slave. Only the wise and virtuous man in whom reason rules is truly free. Can man freely choose between true and false freedom? The Socratic theory, which identifies virtue and wisdom, is interwoven in the answer. Sin comes only from ignorance of the true good. This logically seems to exclude freedom of choice properly speaking. In any event, Plato conceived of freedom in the third sense already mentioned.

aristotle rejected the Socratic principle; for him, evil can knowingly be willed, although not as evil. However, there is no agreement among scholars as to whether or not Aristotle affirmed the existence of free will. He admits of choice (Gr. προαίρεσις) preceded by deliberation. Both concern means alone. Deliberation ends upon a person's accepting one means as the most appropriate. There is neither deliberation nor choice about the end. Again, Aristotle gives the practical syllogism as the application of a general rule to a particular case. Passion can impede the correct use of the principles of reason and substitute for them another rule (e.g., pleasure to be sought). Aristotle's notion of freedom is thus not clearly defined and is difficult to distinguish from spontaneity, just as the will is poorly distinguished from desire. Similarly, the idea of free will is not made precise; the word itself (αύτεξούσιον) appears only later in Greek philosophy with the problem of morality, and thenceforth occupies a prominent place in philosophical thought.

Paradoxically, the Stoics, holding for a strict causal determinism (a revival of the old notion of fate), assert most strongly that man has the power to be master of himself and to arrive at virtue; and they maintain an opposition between what depends on man and what does not. The wise man who has himself conquered virtue is superior to the gods. They strive to reconcile the two seemingly contradictory positions by showing that human acts, although conditioned by their antecedents, are man's very own and truly proceed from him, much like a cylinder that, once thrown on a plane, rolls by itself. In fact, the Stoics consider true freedom as an acceptance of necessity. It has its perfection in the wise man who is free from passions and emotions and is master of himself through submission to universal reason. No less paradoxically, epicurus and his followers, although materialists, admit of freedom of choice, freeing themselves from the fear of destiny. To ensure such freedom they posit an indeterminism in the physical world by acknowledging, in atoms undergoing falling motion, the power to deviate from the vertical.

In the Hellenistic period many treatises on destiny appeared, and the first meaning of freedom found energetic defenders (e.g., Alexander of Aphrodisias, second and third centuries a.d.). The problem of reconciling freedom with divine foreknowledge and providence had already arisen by this time.

Patristic era. Christianity, or more precisely Judeo-Christianity, emphasized the idea of freedom: freedom of God in creation, in calling men to salvation, and so on; freedom of man, without which precepts and sanctions would have no meaning. The fact that a free act involves an eternal destiny gave to the problem of freedom a tragic aspect completely overlooked by the Greeks, Aristotle in particular. The specifically Christian problem of the harmony between freedom and grace further complicated the problem of the harmony between divine knowledge and freedom. Moreover the Christian message, with St. Paul in particular, was presented as a liberation: the Christian is torn from servitude to sin, to the flesh, and to the letter of the law in order to enjoy freedom of spirit.

The Fathers of the Church, in fact, at first appeared concerned with defending free will against the fatalism of the Gnostics and the Manichaeans (St. irenaeus, origen, methodius of olympus, gregory of nyssa, etc.). Knowledge does not change the nature of its object; what is foreseen as free is free (St. augustine). boethius was more precise. He clarified the idea of eternity, that in God there is not foreknowledge but knowledge, so that what is future for man is present for God. The problem of freedom and grace came to the fore with the Pelagian controversy (see pelagius and pelagianism). In what sense and to what point is man, a fallen creature and enslaved to sin, free? How can God move man toward good without infringing upon his freedom, and so on? The Latin Middle Ages would remain under the influence of the Augustinian problematics.

Middle ages. In the early scholastic period, Saints anselm of canterbury and bernard of clairvaux are the two outstanding figures. Anselm considered freedom essentially as the power to retain rectitude of the will for love of this very rectitude. It is inseparable from the will and perdures even in the sinner who cannot recover his lost rectitude. St. Bernard distinguished three freedoms: a natural freedom that is contrary to necessity; another, the effect of grace, that frees from sin; and a third, an effect of glory, that frees from suffering. The will is essentially free, and in man this freedom effects a special resemblance to God.

The thinkers of the high scholastic period dealt more rigidly with the nature of the will's freedom, some relating it to reason, others to the will, still others to both. St. thomas aquinas saw it as an attribute of the will insofar as the latter is rational. He based his theory of the free act on the distinction between the order of specification, in which intelligence is primary, and that of exercise, in which the will has primacy. Only the good in general, the Absolute Good, can necessarily determine the will in the order of specification. But in the latter case, although this necessity does away with freedom of choice, it does permit a freedom of spontaneity. Man participates in such freedom here on earth to the degree that he is led by the Holy Spirit. It must be noted that, since divine motion respects natures, God can move the will with no detriment to its freedom. (see free will; causality, divine.)

John Duns Scotus gives freedom a particular emphasis as that which characterizes the will and differentiates it from "natural" powers. The will is the sole cause of its decision, the role of the intellect being merely that of proposing its object. Even when faced with the Absolute Good, the will strictly retains the possibility of refusing its assent. The theology of Scotus tries to avoid anything that would place in God a dependence of will on intellect.

The nominalist school further accented the voluntarist and indeterminist tendency. Physical and moral laws are completely subject to the divine mind, and a type of theological determinism begins to appear. This does not always deny free will but views it as necessarily determined by God and in reality as nonexistent. thomas bradwardine and John wyclif are representative of this tendency.

Modern period. Such theories found an echo among the reformers. For M. luther and J. calvin, among others, free will no longer exists in man, who is fallen and totally enslaved to his desires. It is basically incompatible with the foreknowledge and sovereign dominion of God.

The controversy raised by such opinions afforded Catholic theologians the opportunity to study the nature of freedom and of its compatibility with divine knowledge, providence, and action. As regards the first topic, Thomists maintained the nondetermining character of motives, whereas F. suÁrez and the Molinists held for the possibility of acting or not acting, all conditions required for action being present, and "all" being understood to include divine motion. On the other hand, Thomists and St. Robert bellarmine held that the will always follows the last practical judgment, a point on which Suárez disagreed. The second topic gave rise to the systems of D. Báñez and L. de molina and their variations. Báñez emphasized the primacy of divine action, which infallibly predetermines the will to determine itself freely. Suárez, on the other hand, was careful to safeguard the psychological reality of free will, but he faced serious problems also, particularly in his theory of the scientia media. These two systems have confronted each other throughout the history of Catholic theology (see concurrence, divine; predetermination; premotion, physical).

The problems of philosophers during this period differed from those of the theologians. While T. hobbes professed determinism, R. descartes vigorously affirmed freedom in God and in man. In God freedom is absolute and operates with essences and truths as well as with existences. This indifference is one aspect of God's infinite perfection, of His supreme independence. Freedom is in some way infinite in man too; in this way it is in him the mark of the Creator. Man can oppose the clearly known good simply to assert his freedom. However, this indifference is not purely and simply a perfection in man, who does not create the true and the good. On the contrary, the infinity of freedom in man, insofar as it goes beyond the extent of understanding, is the cause of error and sin, for man can affirm and will something whose truth and worth he does not perceive clearly. Perfect freedom, for him, would be an irresistible and fully spontaneous adherence to the clearly perceived good. Descartes cites an example of this in consenting to the evidence of the Cogito. The Cartesian notion of freedom oscillates between the second and the third meanings cited at the beginning of this article.

For B. spinoza, something is free if it exists because of the sole necessity of its nature and if it alone determines itself to act. Only one being fits this definition, God or substance, whose freedom and necessity are identical. There is no freedom of choice in God, for this would place contingency in Him; things derive from Him as conclusions from a principle. Again, there is no freedom of choice in man, whose activity is determined not only by his own essence but by the action of other beings (modes). Human freedom in the third meaning, however, does exist; it consists in freedom from passions or affections and in determination by reason, and comes about because of "knowledge of the third kind," which grasps things through their highest reason, sub specie aeternitatis.

G. W. leibniz rejected this necessitarianism and attempted to restore the freedom of choice. In his view, the free act is characterized by (1) spontaneity, a characteristic common to every activity since the substance, or monad, is alone the cause of all its determinations; (2) intellectuality; and (3) contingency, in the sense that the opposite act does not imply any logical or metaphysical contradiction. Decision is always the result of judgments, affections, tendencies, "little perceptions," and the like, which converge in the soul at a moment coinciding with the autonomous development (with no external command) of the monad. A "freedom of indifference" would violate the principle of sufficient reason, whose discovery Leibniz attributed to himself. Thus he never went beyond psychological determinism and considered the free subject an immaterial automaton. In his opinion, God Himself is determined by His perfection to the choice of the better.

Eighteenth-century empiricism and materialism completely rejected free will. Freedom is an attribute of man, not of the will, and it consists in the power man has to determine his actions (including his internal acts) by his will when faced with possible alternatives. But the will is necessarily moved by the attraction of pleasure and especially, according to J. locke, by the desire to escape "uneasiness," although Locke acknowledged in man the power to suspend his decision to make the choice clearer. According to D. hume, internal facts appear to be as completely dependent upon their antecedents as are external facts. Yet these writers were deeply interested in freedom in the first meaning. In this period, the development of liberal ideas in politics and economics put an end to the old regime and created a new type of society.

I. kant stated the problem of freedom in original fashion. The pure reason, requiring that phenomena be linked among themselves according to causal determinism, excludes the freedom of the phenomenal world but allows the possibility of freedom in the noumenal world, of which it knows nothing (see phenomena; noumena). But the practical reason sees in the fact of obligation a determination by pure reason that implies freedom. In reality Kant has two ideas of freedom: one negative, the power to begin a series of phenomena, and the other positive, the autodetermination of practical reason (or will) in positing moral law. How is negative freedom reconciled with the determinism in this view? In his Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (Königsberg 1793), Kant acknowledges a timeless choice that determines the intelligible character governing the complete unfolding of empirical existence for every man. This idea was to appear many times in the future, for example, with F. W. J. schelling and A. schopenhauer.

Contemporary period. The notion of freedom is much used in contemporary philosophy but with very different meanings, a diversity already seen in post-Kantian idealism. J. G. fichte exalted the creative freedom by which the ego set up for itself a world where morality was to be practiced (The Vocation of Man), while G. W. F. hegel located true freedom in man's having within himself the reason for his own activity. Such a notion of freedom excludes contingency; it is an inclusive and internalized necessity. Concretely it is realized within a well-organized state. This notion of freedom as the perfect penetration of man by reason, as the realization of the true ego (i.e., the rational ego), is common to the rationalist-idealist tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as exemplified by F. H. bradley and B. Bosanquet.

Whereas the positivistic empiricism of J. S. mill recognized only freedom in the first meaningand scientific determinism spread this conceptionMarxism adopted and transposed certain Hegelian ideas into materialism. True freedom is what all of humanity will possess when men control the physical and social mechanisms that dominate them at present. Freedom is necessity that is understood and utilized. There is no free will. Because they make no distinction between theory and practice, the Marxists speak of liberation (i.e., from the mastery of a determinism imposed by science and technology) rather than of freedom. Man learns what freedom is by liberating himself. They insist on the dialectical connection between determinism and freedom; without determinism freedom is impossible, because man cannot act upon nature.

Among the defenders of free will, apart from traditional spiritualism, may be cited C. Renouvier. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, an antirationalist and antideterminist reaction appeared in the form of pragmatism, the philosophy of contingency developed by W. james. Unfortunately, the assertion of freedom has often been separated from a finalist metaphysics that alone renders it intelligible.

H. bergson stressed the freedom of spirit as opposed to the determinism of matter. The free act is the continuous expression of the underlying ego, which continually reconstitutes itself so that one state can never be reduced to a previous state. Determinism proceeds from an illusion that expresses pure spiritual duration in terms of space.

More recently some claim to have found a defense for freedom in the indeterminism of quantum mechanics.

Existential or existentialist thinkers since S. A. kierkegaard insist on the irrational side of freedom as the generator of anxiety. Choice plays an important role in the ontology of J. P. Sartre, for whom freedom is conscious awareness and existence. It precedes the entire order of reason and in this sense, but in this sense alone, it is "absurd." The radical choice is that by which being-for-itself puts itself, in an absolutely contingent fashion, into being-in-itself as its negation. Such a freedom has no limit but the impossibility of self-renunciation. No nature or order of values is before or above it; it itself creates values.

For N. hartmann and others, freedom encounters a world of values to be realized, but it can move toward realization only by choosing among them. This necessity is the radical evil. On the other hand, human freedom is interpreted by the theory of "levels of being," each of which is free with respect to the inferior levels.

Among contemporary Thomists, Jacques Maritain has studied the problem of freedom more profoundly than any other (see thomism). Freedom of choice presupposes freedom of spontaneity, common to everything that lives and acts, but it must lead to the freedom of "autonomy and exultation." This is the opening out of a personality whose aspirations nothing harms or contradicts, either as a human personality or as a personality in general. Moreover, Maritain draws attention to the ontological basis of freedom by relating it to the Thomistic doctrine of existence.


Among the topics associated with freedom that merit more detailed consideration are its ontological basis, its relationships to God, and its particular relation to the person.

Ontological basis. In its metaphysical essence, freedom implies autodetermination of the subject more than it does nonnecessity. Its various types stem from the various ways of considering the subject, which can be (1) man as determined from without; (2) more particularly, man as determining his internal or external acts by his will; (3) deeper still, in the willing subject, the ego as not completely determined by nature, circumstances, motives, and the like; or (4) the superego, as opposed to the ego and to the id. To understand the bond between freedom broadly associated with being in this way, one must consider being not only as an essence, as a determination to be this or that, but also as an existent actuality.

A purely essentialist notion of being tends to conceive the bond between various beings after the fashion of a logical connection; in its extreme form, this is found in the rationalist determinism of Spinoza and somewhat less in that of Leibniz. In reality, the act by which the subject exists and subsists in his incommunicable individuality, and this in accordance with the demands of his essence, is the root of his activity and spontaneity. His activity is his own inasmuch as it is the expression and realization of this radical actuality.

Spontaneity increases with the ontological level of being. Being is more unified and more itself, its activity more its own and more autonomous, the more it is being and the more it approaches the sufficiency and independence of Subsistent Being. But below the level of spirit, this spontaneity remains entirely determined by the nature of the agent and the concrete conditions of its exercise. With spirit there appears a new kind of spontaneity. Spirit, of course, acts according to its nature, or essence, but its nature is not to be simply a nature, not to be simply what it is, but to be somehow everything. Its essence is "open" and its aspirations can be satisfied by the Absolute alone. In this way it escapes from determinism. Other existents, being only what they are, can act only according to what they are at a given moment. But spirit is not imprisoned by any particular determination, by any end or value; it can transcend them all. This condition of the spirit can be referred to as ontological freedom. In spirit, in fact, there "freely" appears the positive indetermination of being as such, its eminence over its various determinations. Freedom of action is rooted in this ontological freedom.

Obviously, for a spirit incarnate in matter, the exercise of this power of surpassing is conditioned by what it has of the nonspiritual within itself. Human freedom is essentially impure and its field of immediate action is quite diminished.

Freedom in no way constitutes an irrational exception in being, as was believed under the influence of determinist thought. On the contrary, it is nonfreedom that marks a decadence in being. For St. Thomas, free action as action "by itself" has primacy over any action that is determined by a given nature, which is action "by another" (De pot. 3.15). The mystery of freedom is basically the mystery of being itself, of the existent. This is why, if every act clearly makes existence manifest, the free act does so to an eminent degree. The essence of the will does not explain such behavior in these circumstances; only the existent can remove such indetermination. Insofar as freedom implies the contingency of the act in the choice of a finite good, the mystery that it envelops is also that of finite being, of nonbeing in being itself. Finally, insofar as created freedom expresses the (at least radical) possibility of failure, it implies nonbeing not only on the part of the object but also on the part of the subject.

Freedom and God. Two points here merit consideration: freedom in God and man's freedom before God.

God's freedom. As pure act of being, dependent on nothing, not even on a nature that might differ so little as to be His act and for Him a given, God is freedom. Some thinkers, such as C. Secrétan (181595), even consider this freedom as the principle of divine being ("I am what I will"). This implies two impossibilities: self-causation, in the strict sense, and the contingency of the Absolute Being. Divine existence can be called a free act only if one understands by this the independence and unconditional character of Absolute Being. Such a freedom is also a necessity because Absolute Being cannot not exist (contingency is a defect of being). Only He exists by Himself alone; His existence is neither a pure fact nor the effect of necessity that is a priori with respect to Him. God simply is.

Neither is there freedom of choice in the love that God has for Himself, which is the internal aspect of His necessity, although He does have freedom of choice with regard to other beings. God is determined neither to create, nor to create a particular type of world, nor to impress a determined course on its history. To think otherwise would be to include this world among the conditions without which God would not be God. The Divine Being is sufficient unto Himself; His worth does not depend upon the beings He establishes, nor is He better for having created (better for man, indeed, but this is true only insofar as man exists). This poses a difficulty, which was accentuated by Spinoza, for indetermination and contingency seem thus to be attributed to God. Had God created another world, His act would have been different; and since His act and His being are inseparable, His being would have been other than it is. Here it is pointless to make, as some do, a distinction between God and His choice, to presume that such a distinction can be reconciled with the simplicity of god and that it does not introduce nonbeing or potency in Him. Even though it is claimed that the determination God gives Himself proceeds from His plenitude and presupposes no lack within Him, there is still the presence of this determination itself that must be explained, and this can proceed ad infinitum. In reality, here one encounters the mystery of free causality. It is proper to the thing that it cannot produce a different effect unless it is modified in its being. It is proper to spirit to be able to give rise to different effects without so changing. For the finite spirit, acts are specified by their objects, and the contingency of objects reflects back on the acts. On the other hand, God is not involved in a network of relationships, for He gives and receives nothing. Contingency, multiplicity, and the diversity of beings that He establishes cannot affect His unique, identical, and necessary act. Man's reason cannot very well grasp the "how" of this. The affirmation of divine freedom guarantees the contingency of the universe but transfigures it at the same time; such contingency is no longer absurd and distressing, as the existentialists hold, but rather it becomes the expression of a loving freedom. The world's entire value stems from its appearing to be the result of a free gift.

Man's freedom before God. There is no need to examine here the particular problems encountered in reconciling human freedom of choice with divine knowledge and providence (see predestination; providence of god). The more general difficulty is the following. If man can begin a chain of events, he seems to be a creator and to possess within himself something that does not depend upon God. Human freedom thus seems to limit the universality of divine action. In fact, some thinkers, for example, H. Höffding (18431931), have asserted that to admit free will is to admit a kind of polytheism. Without entering into an examination of theories that have tried to clarify the problem of divine concurrence, one may note that a correct understanding of the relation between freedom and being can shed much light on the problem. The relation of created freedom to God is then seen as an aspect of the relation of participated being to Absolute Being (see participation). God is this very relationship at its maximum intensity. Human freedom participates in divine freedom, but it no more limits divine freedom than finite being limits Infinite Being. On the contrary, divine freedom and omnipotence are manifested by the ability of beings to determine themselves, to be in some way "causes of themselves"a capacity that itself comes from their "openness" to the Absolute. The free act reveals the infinite depth of the Spirit who makes its originator be an "image of God." Thus in every way human freedom bespeaks dependence upon God; it does not limit God. The participated character of human freedom is here the fundamental truth. To specify the "how" of this must be left to various systems of explanation, though none offers complete satisfaction.

The real problem lies in the matter of choosing evil, for one would not wish to place responsibility for this on God. But the possibility of sinning, far from perfecting freedom, limits it. Man sins to the extent that he participates only imperfectly in divine freedom. Sin is the expression of the nothingness in the creature. It is the negation or "rupture" of the divine movement toward good; and as such, it is the work exclusively of the creature. Although contrary to the divine will, sin is permitted by this will, which wishes beings to be what they are and to act according to their nature. Divine action (grace) and human freedom must not be considered as contradictories, as though man is freer when less "moved" by God; it is the opposite, rather, that is true.

Human freedom, participating in God's freedom, perfects itself as freedom only to the extent that it allows itself to be completely enveloped by God.

Freedom and person. Freedom appears as the act proper to the person. Metaphysically speaking, the person is radically composed of two elements: (1) subsistence, that is, individual existence proper to a unit that is relatively autonomous and incommunicable, fully "in itself"; (2) spirituality or an intellectual nature, together with all this implies for openness to being, values, and so on, and for the ability to enter into communication with other persons. This latter aspect is particularly stressed in contemporary thought. But freedom exhibits the person in this twofold characterization: (1) Not only does the free act show the existent as existent, but eminently as this existent. My free act is mine; I alone am responsible (whereas a truth is true for all). Moreover, freedom completes individuality, adding to natural differences or those owed to circumstances that stem from various choices.(2) The free act is expressive of a spiritual nature insofar as this act involves going beyond particular values. The awareness of freedom is nothing more than the awareness of this power of surpassing and of the opening out toward the Absolute. In this way the person is rendered present to himself, in possession of himself, as opposed to the dispersion and the alienation of the thing. This enables the person truly to give himself in a selfless love.

Authentic or spiritual love and freedom are thus closely related; both express the superabundance of the spiritual existent. True love implies freedom, and it is itself a liberator. It is obvious from this that freedom is a condition for the establishment of a true society of persons. personality and freedom progress on an equal footing. This implies that the person must be placed in conditions conducive to the full operation of his power of self-determination, and this normally implies a certain amount of freedom in the first meaning mentioned at the beginning of this article. Only a really strong personality can find in servitude the opportunity to affirm his proper freedom. The education of the person will thus leave some play for freedom, even though this involves some risk; one need not attempt to prevent every deviation by external restraints. The virtuous act must proceed from within, and this presumes the subject's recognition and acceptance of moral values as his own. When the Good, with whom the subject identifies himself through love, completely determines him and conditions and envelops the very good of his subjectivity and freedom, it is then that he is fully self-determined, fully free, and fully a person.

See Also: contingency; freedom, intellectual; freedom, spiritual; freedom of religion; free will.

Bibliography: m. j. adler, ed. The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, 2 v. (Chicago 1952) 1:9911013. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 3:571597. j. baucher, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 15 v. (Paris 190350) 9.1:660703. a. guzzo and v. mathieu, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:1837. k. rahner et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 10 v. (Freiburg 195765) 4:325337. m. j. adler, The Idea of Freedom, 2 v. (Garden City, N.Y. 195861). j. maritain, Freedom in the Modern World, tr. r. o'sullivan (New York 1935); Existence and the Existent, tr. l. galantiÈre and g. b. phelan (New York 1948). r. p. mckeon, Freedom and History (New York 1952). r. n. anshen, ed., Freedom: Its Meaning (New York 1940).

[j. de finance]


views updated May 29 2018






Freedom, the capacity for self-directed thought and action, and the choice of ones own goals, is one of the central values of western thought. Often closely tied to questions of free will, freedom is also seen as central to questions of moral responsibility, personality, and identity, and to democratic political life. Rule by others, such as political domination as well as social oppression, through established forms of authority or psychological restrictions, are all opposed by forms of freedom. The idea of liberation from the limits of nature of entrenched authorities or despotic rulers is a central theme of both literature and politics.

Freedom does not have a simple or single essence. It has developed sometimes haltingly in the history of thought. For the ancients, freedom was not equated with worldly accomplishment or goal-directed action; it was primarily an inner state of being. The free person was one who rules his desires (freedom applied mostly to males) rather than being ruled by them. For Plato, freedom meant to be liberated from base desires. Rather than a life of self-chosen ends, however, the ancients saw the highest form of life as contemplation of the order of the universe. The free man was released from desires that impeded this goal.

The Greeks originated the political idea of self-rule (koinonia ), but generally applied it only to a limited group of male, property-owning citizens. In Aristotles political philosophy, freedom requires active participation by citizens in the life of the polis. This, too, is not a form of goal-directed action, but of acting in concert: The citizen alternates with others in holding office and engages in deliberation about laws and public affairs. Although there were examples of wider democracy in ancient Greece, political theorists such as Aristotle supported a limited republican form. Only propertied male heads of household had the requisite self-control over their own desires to be capable of self-rule, they believed; the rest were only fit to be ruled by others. The Stoics living under the Roman imperium reemphasized a purely inner freedom based on deliberate self-mastery. Still, the Stoics also had early notions of a cosmopolitan humanity in which all were naturally equal.

The roots of the modern notion of freedom can be traced back to the late Middle Ages. The rise of independent city-states in Italy and other parts of Europe was accompanied by a revival of ancient republicanism. These newer forms of republicanism were more disposed to give a role to the people and inclined to stress liberty. The later Middle Ages also provided some sources of the modern notion of individuation. The Renaissance that followed developed a modern idea of the self as a work of art, and the development of individuality was the essence of freedom. In the seventeenth century there was a further elaboration of republican thought that stressed the relation of a free people to the new ideals of liberty.


Modern philosophy rejected the idea that knowledge of the structure of the world could and must be achieved through individual human reason alone. Revealed religion or other idols had to be rejected. Although this philosophical ideal first justified only free scientific inquiry, it proved useful for politics as well. But the most influential notions of freedom in modernity are those associated with liberalism. Whereas the Aristotelian tradition saw humans as naturally political animals who realized their aims in community, the modern liberal view saw individuals as possessing natural liberty, prior to social relationships or attachments. Although this is certainly a fiction, it reflects the idea that the individualnot the social environment, the church, the state, or the familyis the source of social and political freedom. These forms of social and political freedom are now seen as a form of self-determination: the capacity to choose to decide upon and pursue ones own goals or plans of life. The individual is an active agent whose freedom is seen in accomplishments. Freedom is also the ability to act freely to achieve these goals. The republican emphasis on deliberating with others was replaced in the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke by notions of self-interest. This conception was often linked to the new scientific consciousness, in which the individual was like all other things: a mechanism driven by material pursuit of interest, not by spiritual causality or teleology.

The liberal notion of freedom made a strong distinction between the public and the private that was quite different from what the ancients had conceived. Whereas Aristotle thought that freedom required public participation, liberals saw freedom first of all as applying to the private individual, who is free to act. Here freedom is the absence of constraint, or freedom from something. The idea of the social contract expressed the fact that legitimate political order is based on the freely given consent of the governed. This premise, emphasizing the equality and freedom of all, is the foundation of most modern democracies, where individuals are natural bearers of rights and freedoms that cannot be taken away by governments. In some respects, the liberal model of freedom as self-determination is restricted when combined with an economic model of human action, where the individual is a consumer rather than a creator, one who chooses between products on the market. As a maximizer of goods, the individual is primarily a possessive individual.


The theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau was important in the development of a second conception of modern freedom. Rousseau held that the social contract (rejected by republican theories) was more than a contractual agreementit created a general will that was the expression of a common moral will. In the romantic period this conception became what has been called a developmental view of freedom. The Romantics rejected the Enlightenment view of man, which was overly rationalist and mechanistic, and sought a broader notion of human freedom that stressed aesthetic and relational qualities of freedom. In the developmental view, humans express their freedom through the development of all their human powers. Freedom is self-realization, or positive freedom. Karl Marxs notion of freedom embodied this view when he invoked the all-around development of capacities. Human action is not simply goal-directed, but includes many forms of human expression: artistic, expressive relations to others, and play, to name a few. Although this view draws on the Aristotelian tradition, it differs from it in its stress on individuality and its adoption of the modern view of the open-ended nature of capacities.

Developmental theories reject the atomism of liberal theory. They stress the interdependency of human activity. The development of freedom and capacities is not the result of individual initiative alone, but rather relies on a backdrop of prior social conditions: We are vulnerable, depending on a wide variety of conditions to develop and employ our human capacities.

Developmental theories have been central to radical democratic and socialist and social democratic conceptions of politics. Stressing the role of active citizen participation in politics, they agree with Aristotle that the fully realized individual has to be a participant in his or her own governance. Socialists extend this equal participation to models of economic production and reject liberal emphasis on private property. Socialized production, accordingly, is central to the development of selfhood and individuality.

For socialists and social democrats, political freedom rests on prior social freedoms, including a minimum of economic equality, retirement and unemployment benefits, health and safety, and other measures of human welfare. Conditions of complex human freedoms have become important not only for socialist states, but also for modern social democratic welfare states.

Critics of developmental views often have held that Rousseaus ideal of the general will have inherently totalitarian elements that are contrary to the liberal ideas of individual freedom. They also criticize the idea of inner powers unfolding in a natural manner. Others see expressive freedom as a socially pathological emphasis on pleasure or aesthetics for its own sake. The exclusive stress on aesthetic freedom reduces the influence of the work ethic and moral responsibility on human conduct.


A third notion of freedom responds to recent concerns with cultural integrity, identity politics, and recent social movements, and new conflicts over the ability of participants to form their own unique relations to themselves and to social worlds. Influenced by the growing emphasis of language as central to philosophy and social science, ideas of communicative freedom have become an important element in contemporary debates. Communicative models stressing individual self-realization take place in a context of intersubjective community. Extending the liberal idea of free speech and expression, freedom involves the very capacity to communicate in language to formulate and express ideas in discussion, but it also is an element in the formation of the identity of individuals and groups. This capacity can be impeded by forms of authority and power that exclude us from discussion and deliberation, or distort our relations to ourselves and others. Deliberative models of democracy attempt to remedy some of the deficiencies of liberal and republican notions by stressing the centrality of discursive rationality.

In the mid-nineteenth century Alexis de Tocqueville raised an objection that has persisted to the present. Although de Tocqueville generally approved of new democracies, as represented by the young American state, he raised questions about the quality of democratic citizens as conformist and mediocre. Democracy may increase political freedom, but it also leads to impoverished personality. At the end of the century Friedrich Nietzsche provided a more aggressive critique of democracies. Opposing the abstract individual of liberal theory and the Protestantism underlying Immanuel Kants notion of autonomy, Nietzsche argued that religion (namely Christianity) produced meek unfree subjects who feared authority and lacked the qualities needed for heroic struggle.

A third objection focuses on the distortions of democratic freedoms inherent in the concentration of power in mass democracies. Agreeing with developmental democrats such as John Stuart Mill and John Dewey that democratic citizenship requires an educated and informed public, critics argued that mass democracies are characterized by a manipulated mass culture. This mass culture is a product of the ownership and concentration of media in the hands of powerful economic and political interests that maintain their power positions, restricting political and social freedom, by controlling the production and reception of information. Access to the means to make sense of and deliberate about public issues remains a major concern for the health of democracies.

Max Webers work on rationalization and bureaucracy raised another concern over the compatibility of large liberal democracies and freedom. Weber saw in social rationalization the increasing centrality of instrumental rationality. Bureaucratic authority became prominent in political regulation for reasons of efficiency or technical expertise, and it has come to displace not just deliberation and citizen participation but also the development of personality and social freedom. Bureaucracy itself further interprets the needs identified by developmentalists in an instrumental fashion, with resources of money or power rather than freedom or mutual understanding; citizens become subjugated clients and dependents.

In complex modern societies, democracies have grown in territory and population. The possibility of face-to-face democracythe town meeting tradition with its stress on citizen participationis difficult to maintain. Most modern democracies are representative, but the process of representing the varied subpublics of a democratic public can lead to conflicts. For critics, liberal and pluralist democracies are also thought to be dominated by interest groups and hence incapable of formulating a common good. Individual freedom does not lead to social or political freedom. This objection, which comes from all political outlooks, tends to see liberal democracy as a form driven by self-and group interests. For example, the conservative jurist Carl Schmitt thought that parliamentary systems were unworkable because of the conflict of interest groups, and contemporary communitarians see liberalism as lacking any orientation to a common good or moral core. This objection has some merit. Many proponents of the interest-group position devalued citizen-shipalready little more than voting. For some proponents, nonparticipation in even a minimum of democratic citizenship is seen as dysfunctional or unnecessary.

Conservative and communitarian objections, however, require a notion of sociocultural unity or homogeneity that is incompatible with the diversity of publics found in multicultural societies. These new challenges to liberal democratic society reflect a conflict between the claims of cultural integrity, which is not generally acknowledged in classical liberalism, and civil and political rights typical of liberal democratic notions of freedom. They also apply to newly important categories such as gender. Other conflicts between a developmental politics of distribution and the newer politics of resignation raise questions of the ways that liberal democracies reconcile the needs for solidarity, which are necessary for communicative freedom, with other freedoms producing a conflict between developmental politics of distribution and the newer politics of recognition. How do liberal democracies reconcile the need for solidarity, which is necessary for communicative freedom, with other freedoms? The renewal and reform of freedom in modern democratic societies rest with the healthy respect for and space for political protest and dissent. Freedom is not a fixed essence; instead, it has to be renewed and transformed in ever-changing social circumstances. Social movements have instituted new regimes, as in revolutions, but also have pressed claims for rights in established democracies, as in labor movements, movements for equal rights for women, racial minorities, and gays and lesbians, and even antiwar movements. The ability of a society to respond to dissent and protest is an important feature of a functioning democracy. In modern societies this often goes beyond mere tolerance to what postmodernists have called openness to the other. Societies have to recognize that dissent takes place in the context of a broader solidarity: We have to be aware of and open to others who seem different, yet we must also accept the need for discussion that may or may not vindicate their claims.

Cultural movements can also be sources of freedom movements. These can often be generational conflicts, as in the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany in the romantic era, and the counterculture movement in the 1960s. Both of these challenged what they saw as repressive social and cultural practices well before they became forces for political change. It could also be argued that cultural resistance had a decisive if largely unacknowledged role in maintaining subterranean political resistance in Eastern Europe prior to the fall of Soviet Communism.

A deliberative model of democracy employing the insights of communicative freedom seems to propose a different model of democratic freedom. Political order is not constituted by a unified general will, but by a web of symbolic interactions in which solidarity and commonality is established through participation in social and political life, not in a reestablished common good. A healthy democracy requires a well functioning parliamentary or representational system, and significant civil rights and economic and social equality. But it also requires a substantial measure of private and public freedom, supported by extra-governmental publics who are able to discuss and actively challenge existing practices. It has to pay equal attention to the claims of solidarity and cultural integrity. It requires a greater interchange between the knowledge of experts and the judgment of citizens in the formation of policy and the formation of public policy. It also requires a truly democratic educational system open to all and a free system of media that promotes knowledge and discussion of significant issues.

Theories of freedom are associated with different institutional arrangements for the maximization of freedom. Theories of negative freedom have been linked most often to liberal political institutions such as constitutional governments with representative political institutions; elected representatives; free, fair, and frequent elections with a competitive party system; and an independent judiciary; along with extensive freedom of information and communications and a network of voluntary associations.

Developmental theorists argue that the institutional framework associated with negative freedom tends to negate the very conditions of freedom that it intends to facilitate. When combined with market economic institutions, liberal political institutions create large-scale inequalities of economic and social power that make the exercise of equal liberty impossible. Poverty, powerlessness, and forms of disrespect all combine to make the exercise of freedom difficult. A commitment to freedom requires maintaining a minimum satisfaction of human needs. In market societies, developmentalists have advocated extensive welfare measures to compensate for the effects of power. They contend that rather than restricting freedom, as classical and neoclassical liberals might think, extensive public support in fact enhances freedom, by providing a basis for equal employment to all. However, for develop-mentalists, such institutions have to include the promotion of civic equality as well. Developmentalists go beyond welfare-state reform to advocate replacing the private-property market system with social production, or radically democratizing areas of work education and communications.

Despite the triumphalism of neoclassical liberals in the postcold war era, democracy has not increased. Only about half of the worlds nations, consisting of less than half its population, can be considered democracies, and all of them do not meet all the criteria discussed above. The dissolution of the Soviet Empire has led to a rise in fundamentalist movements and ethnic conflicts that threaten to undermine democratic institutions in some newer states and to prevent their establishment in others. Some well established democracies have succeeded in accommodating ethnic diversity by forming consociation democracies, but these require special conditions not achievable in all countries. Attempts to design constitutions or democratic institutions through planning or by shock therapy have not led to large-scale democratic movements in these countriesthey have simply reinstituted the pathologies already present in advanced societies.

Pathologies of democratic freedom have sometimes resulted from restricted conceptions of representative institutions in the twentieth century. Examples include competitive elitism, which reduces democracy to a form of choosing leaders, and corporatist representation, which limits popular participation and substitutes consultations with large organized groups. Although contemporary democratic societies provide some room for competing groups, they are characterized by deepening asymmetries of power and wealth that limit the effective equal freedom of all. Actual capitalism, unlike the myth of self-equilibrating markets, requires concentration of economic and social power. The growth of corporations beyond nation-states is another important factor in the growth of poverty and income disparity. Many commentators question whether the nation-state and its conception of democratic freedom is a feasible model in light of the increasing global power of corporations. The nation-state, it is argued, no longer has the autonomy from the economic system to direct its own affairs and achieve its own goals.

In the developing world democratic freedom faces these obstacles and others. The subaltern economic status of developing nations has made them vulnerable to forced political and economic restructuring in order to obtain funds for development projects, and for the most part, attempts to create a civil society from above by local leaders or outside groups has led to limited democratization with a limited role for popular democratic initiatives.

SEE ALSO Aristotle; Bureaucracy; Civil Liberties; Civil Rights; Constitutions; Cosmopolitanism; Democracy; Elitism; Hobbes, Thomas; Individualism; Kant, Immanuel; Liberalism; Liberation; Libertarianism; Liberty; Locke, John; Mill, John Stuart; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Participation, Political; Philosophy; Philosophy, Political; Plato; Political Culture; Political Science; Private Sector; Public Sector; Republicanism; Revolution; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Self-Determination; Social Movements; Tocqueville, Alexis de; Weber, Max


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Fraser, Nancy, and Axel Honneth. 2003. Redistribution or Recognition: A Political Philosophical Exchange. London: Verso.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1974. Theory and Practice. Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. The Structural Transformation the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into the Categories of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Held, David. 2006. Models of Democracy. 3rd ed. London: Polity Press.

Macintyre, Alasdair. 1984. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

MacPherson, C. B. 1964. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pettit, Phillip. 2000. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Skinner, Quentin. 1978. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Charles. 1975. Expressivism in Hegel. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Charles, et al. 1994. Multiculturalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wolin, Sheldon. 2004. Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. Expanded ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Brian J. Caterino


views updated Jun 27 2018


Social freedom

Other descriptive meanings

Valuational meanings


The word “freedom,” with its synonym “liberty,” has a strong laudatory connotation. It has therefore been applied to whatever actions, policies, or institutions may be deemed valuable, from obeying the law to attaining economic affluence. Political writings seldom provide explicit definitions of “freedom” in descriptive terms, but it is often possible to infer descriptive definitions from the context. If this is done, it will be seen that the concept of freedom refers most frequently to social freedom, which must be distinguished from other descriptive and valuational usages. Descriptive definitions of “freedom” designate empirically specifiable states of affairs and can therefore be accepted by anyone, regardless of his normative views on liberty. “Freedom” in a valuational sense is used to commend rather than to describe; it therefore means different things to writers committed to different ethical standards.

Social freedom

The concept of interpersonal or social freedom refers to relationships of interaction between persons or groups, namely, that one actor leaves another actor free to act in certain ways. This concept is best defined by reference to another interaction relation, that of interpersonal or social unfreedom.

Social unfreedom defined . With respect to actor B, actor A is unfree to perform action x if and only if B makes it either impossible or punishable for A to do x. “B makes it impossible for A to do x” means that B performs some action y such that were A to attempt x, his attempt would fail. By denying a citizen a passport, the government makes him practically unable to travel abroad and, hence, unfree to do so. With respect to the United States, Communist China is unfree to conquer Formosa, and vice versa, since U.S. forces would presumably prevent either power from invading the other. If the Ku Klux Klan forcibly prevents Negroes from entering a public school, the Negroes are unfree to do so with respect to the Klan, but not with respect to the government. “B makes it punishable for A to do x” means that were A to carry out x, B would perform some action y that would deprive A. Governmental sanctions against illegal acts are only one example of punishability as an instance of social unfreedom. With respect to a union, a company would be unfree to withhold certain benefits if the union were to picket the company. Residents in a typical block of modern suburbia are unfree to deviate from certain tacit norms with respect to the “neighborhood,” which tends to penalize nonconformists.

Social freedom defined . Social freedom is not the contradictory of social unfreedom. I am not officially unfree to pay incomes taxes, yet, I am not free to pay them either; rather, I am unfree to withhold payment. A relationship of freedom refers to a set of at least two alternative actions or types of actions. I am unfree to do this; I am free to do this or that. An actor is free to act in any one of several ways, provided there is no other actor who makes him unfree to perform any of these actions. Thus, with respect to B, A is free to do either x or z if and only if B makes it neither impossible nor punishable for A to do either x or z. “Freedom to vote” means freedom either to vote or to abstain; but “freedom to propagate the truth” really means unfreedom to spread “erroneous” views. Furthermore, I may be free to act in one way or another with respect to one person or group, whereas another actor makes me unfree to engage in one of these activities. Officially, Americans are free to adopt any religion or to adhere to none, but many Americans are unfree to be agnostics with respect to certain nonofficial groups who subject “atheists” to all kinds of informal sanctions.

Testing statements about social freedom . Whether an actor was unfree to do what he actually did can be determined with certainty, but only ex post facto. If A’s attempt to do x was frustrated by B, or if A succeeded in doing x but was penalized by B for having done so, it follows by definition that A was, with respect to B, unfree to do x. That A is imfree to do x, or that A was or is or will be free to do x or z, are empirical hypotheses that can be asserted only with a certain degree of probability, depending on the answers to such questions as: were A to carry out x, would B penalize him? If 60 per cent of all speeders in France are convicted, every French driver is to that extent unfree to speed, regardless of how many comply. A person’s social freedom does not depend on his actual behavior. We often perform actions that we are unfree to do (for example, speeding) and refrain from actions that we are free to perform (for example, driving at any speed lower than the speed limit).

Social freedom and political freedom. Relationships of interpersonal or social freedom and unfreedom may hold between any two persons or groups, for example, members of a family, buyers and sellers, legislature and executive, pope and emperor, members of the Common Market. A government’s freedom may or may not be limited by an international organization, another government, a church, its own citizens, some interest group within or outside of its jurisdiction, etc. Political freedoms are a subclass of social freedoms and usually refer to the freedom of citizens or associations with respect to the government. Interest in political liberty has in various periods of history centered on freedom of religion, of speech and writing, of association (religious, political, economic), and of participation in the political process (suffrage). The idea of political freedom has been extended to cover demands for economic liberty, “freedom from want,” national self-determination, etc.

Social freedom and control. Social unfreedom and control are overlapping categories. By preventing A from doing x, B makes A unfree to do x and controls his behavior. If B punishes A for having done x, one may infer that A was, with respect to B, unfree to do x; but B did not control A’s behavior, since his threat of punishment failed to deter A from doing x. Influence is another form of control; however, if B succeeds, for example, in persuading A to vote Democratic, B does not thereby restrict A’s freedom to vote Republican (or Democratic). Here, both control and freedom relationships hold between B and A.

Social freedom and power. Although there may be unfreedom without control and control without unfreedom, the concept of power had best be taken as comprising both control and unfreedom relationships. If B either has influence over A’s not doing x, or prevents A from doing x, or makes it punishable for him to do so, B may be said to have power over A in this respect. The example of B persuading A to vote Democratic illustrates that power and freedom relationships may hold between the same pair of actors. The same is true in the following situations: B has power over A with respect to a limited range of alternatives; A is free within that range. Government, for example, has the power to compel citizens to serve in the armed forces but may leave them free either to submit to the draft or to volunteer. A may be, with respect to B, free to do x, either because B has no power to limit A’s freedom or because he permits A to do x. The United States Congress is free to legislate as it pleases as far as the president is concerned, to the extent that he chooses not to exercise his veto power. To affirm that freedom of speech prevails in a given society is to refer to the following relationships of both freedom and unfreedom (and power) between any two of its members, A and B: A and B each leave the other free to say what he wants; with respect to B, A is unfree to prevent him from expressing his views, and vice versa; A and B are unfree to do so, not only with respect to each other but also with respect to the government, which protects everybody’s right to free speech.

Social freedom and legal rights. It is true both that liberty depends “on the silence of the law” (Hobbes) and that “where there is no law there is no freedom” (Locke). I am socially free to act in a certain way only if (1) there is no effectively enforced law prohibiting or ordering me to do so and if (2) I have an effectively protected legal right to that effect, that is, if all others are unfree to hinder me from doing so. We must distinguish between freedom in the behavioral sense and in the legal sense. All drivers have the legal duty not to speed, but they are socially unfree to speed only to the extent that speeders are actually fined. Thus, driver A, who sped on a particular occasion without being detected, was socially free to do so on that occasion, even though he had no legal right to that effect. If 40 per cent of all speeders in France escape conviction, French drivers are to that extent socially free to speed.

Other descriptive meanings

Freedom of choice . Whereas social freedom refers to two actors and their respective actions, freedom of choice signifies a relationship between one actor and a series of alternative potential actions. “A has freedom of choice as to x or z” means that it is possible for A to do either x or z, or that both x and z are open as well as avoidable to A, or that A will bring about x provided he chooses to do x. Conversely, if it is either impossible or necessary for A to do x, A has no freedom of choice as to x. It is in this sense that Hume defines liberty as “the power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will.” Freedom of choice is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for social freedom. If A cannot do x, he is unfree to do so only if his inability has been caused by some other actor B. Otherwise, A remains free to do x, even though he has no freedom of choice as to x. Most men are incapable, yet at liberty, to become millionaires or to run for high political office. Unemployment during a recession diminishes freedom of choice, not social freedom, unless the recession itself can be causally linked, for example, to specific governmental policies. The high cost of television time renders this medium inaccessible to most; this restricts freedom of choice for prospective broadcasters, not their freedom of speech. Everybody is socially “free to sleep under bridges” or at home, including the homeless, who have no choice in the matter. (In all such cases, the illusion of paradox arises because the actor is likely to value the opportunity he lacks, not the freedom he has.) Conversely, we do have freedom of choice with respect to most punishable actions; we can be made unfree to do them precisely because they are open to us.

Free will . Indeterminists often hold that human beings have “free will,” that is, that their actual choices and resulting behavior are not causally determined but constitute chance events. Determinists can with perfect consistency deny this doctrine and yet affirm that men often have freedom of choice. They argue that the fact that A has the choice of doing either x or z does not preclude the possibility of explaining and predicting A’s actual choice by virtue of causal (for example, psychological or sociological) laws.

Free actions . Of an action itself, it can be said that it was either a free or an unfree one, as when we say: “this murder was a free action,” or “he paid his taxes, but not freely.” Involuntary behavior is unfree, and so are nondeliberate actions, for example, those that the actor has been conditioned to perform. Voluntary actions are free, unless they are motivated by fear of punishment. A’s handing over his money to B, who points a gun at him, is an unfree action (yet it is a voluntary action, determined partly by B’s threat and partly by A’s desire to save his life). But if A refuses to comply with B, then A acts freely. One may do freely what one is unfree to do. Again, if B persuades A to do x without threats of punishment, A’s action x is a free one. Sometimes, however, “free” is used more broadly to refer to actions that are autonomous, that is, determined exclusively by the actor’s own decisions and not by the influence of others, as when John Stuart Mill said: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.”

Free persons . “Free” often refers to a characteristic, not of actions but of persons. A person may be said to be free to the extent that he has the disposition to act freely, or to act autonomously, or to develop his capacities to the fullest. Marx, for example, prophesied a society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” “Freedom” becomes a synonym for “self-realization.” Laski uses the term almost exclusively in this sense in his article on liberty (1933).

Feeling free . Liberty is often said to consist in doing what one desires. It would be more accurate to say that an actor feels free to the extent that he does what he wants. Freedom as a state of mind must be distinguished from freedom as a state of affairs. Among the things I want to avoid doing, there may be some I am free to do and others I am unfree to do. Some persons derive a feeling of freedom from the fact that they are left free to act out any one of several alternatives. Others feel free when they “escape from freedom” into submission to some authority that conditions them to want to do its will. Dostoevski’s grand inquisitor plays on these two meanings of the word: “Today, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom; yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet.”

A free society . Is it legitimate to use “free” as a characteristic of a group, such as when democracy is held to be a free society? There is no such thing as freedom in general; every organized society consists of an intricate network of specific relations of both freedom and unfreedom. Citizens in a democracy have the political freedom to participate in the governmental process through “free” elections. Voters, parties, and pressure groups are thereby empowered to limit the freedom of their elected officials. Democracy also requires that “civil liberties” be protected by legal rights and duties, and these duties again imply limitations of freedom. In a perfect dictatorship, the ruler has unlimited freedom with respect to his subjects, whereas they are totally unfree with respect to him. In a democracy, both liberties and restrictions of freedom are distributed more evenly, for example, among the various branches of government, between government and governed, majority and minority. Equal freedom, not more freedom, is the essence of democracy. (Strictly speaking, it is not meaningful to say that there is “more” freedom in one society than in another; but it is possible to define degrees of social freedom in the sense that one actor has greater freedom in a certain respect than another.) A society in which liberties are evenly distributed may be called a free society. However, here we come close to using “freedom” in a valuational sense: a society is free in which those and only those freedom relations hold that are desirable.

Valuational meanings

Because of the laudatory connotation of the word “freedom,” writers have been inclined to define it to cover those and only those relationships of both social freedom and unfreedom that they happen to value and wish to commend to others. Such persuasive definitions of freedom are useful not as tools of the empirical social sciences but as rhetorical devices; they enable the writer to express his normative views in assertive form. For example, by stating that “to obey the laws laid down by society is to be free,” Rousseau in effect exhorts citizens to obey such laws; he is not trying to explicate the meaning of freedom. Persuasive definitions of freedom have been used to propound almost every political ideology, as is illustrated by the following examples.

Freedom as protection of basic rights . Classical liberalism from Locke to Spencer and his followers advocated that government ought to restrict a person’s freedom when and only when necessary to protect another person’s basic rights (often held to correspond to natural rights). Accordingly, “no society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free” (Mill). Conversely, a society is free, provided it is based on these laissez-faire principles. And a person who enjoys these legal rights and is subject to the corresponding legal duties is free, however unfree he may be in other regards and with respect to actors other than the government, for example, because of economic exploitation or social pressure. Thus, the United States Supreme Court once held that minimum-wage and maximum-hour laws violate the constitutional principle of liberty, because such regulations are not necessary to the protection of basic rights but constitute “arbitrary” limitations of “freedom of contract” of both employer and employee.

Freedom as satisfaction of basic needs . Neoliberals point out that the right to acquire the necessities of life is of little value to those who lack the opportunity to acquire them, that government ought to make them available to all, and that this may require governmental restriction of individual freedom through regulations concerning public health, education, and welfare. Social welfare, not social freedom, is their ultimate goal; but they still use the word “freedom” to designate this end. “Personal freedom means, in fact, the power of the individual to buy sufficient food, shelter, and clothing” (Sidney and Beatrice Webb). And so, “the distinction between welfare and liberty breaks down altogether” (Ralph Barton Perry). Conversely, those who are unable to bring about what society ought to enable them to achieve, but who are free with respect to the government to make the attempt, are said to lack “true freedom.” “Freedom from want,” unlike freedom of speech, does not refer directly to social freedom, but to absence of want and presence of a satisfactory living standard for all. It is only in an indirect sense that “necessitous men are not free men” (Franklin D. Roosevelt). They have little freedom of choice and are socially unfree with respect to the economically powerful. “Freedom” is applied not only to the welfare goal itself but also to whatever restrictions of social freedom are deemed necessary to achieve it. The Supreme Court now interprets liberty to be compatible with minimum-wage laws and other “reasonable regulations and prohibitions imposed in the interest of the community.” “Freedom” includes desirable social unfreedom and excludes undesirable social freedom.

Freedom as government by consent . This persuasive definition of freedom is used to express the norm that government ought to be based on consent of the governed, and this usually means representative government and majority rule. For example, “the liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth” (Locke). Under such a system, men are free because their freedom is limited only by measures in the enactment of which they were free to participate. With a slight shift in emphasis, “freedom” stands no longer for the government’s duty to be responsive to the will of the citizens but for the citizen’s duty to obey governmental enactments reflecting the will of the majority or the “general will.” According to Rousseau, the citizen is free whether he fulfills this obligation freely or whether he has been “compelled to be free.” And so “freedom” comes to refer no longer to having the choice of acting in one way or another, but to acting in no other way than that prescribed by authority.

Freedom as moral constraint . The definitions of freedom taken up so far, including even the persuasive ones, are made up entirely of descriptive terms. However, definitions of freedom often include ethical words, such as “right,” “ought,” or “virtue.” In such cases, not only the term to be defined (freedom) but also the defining expression has valuational meaning. For example, “Liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will” (Montesquieu). Similarly, a person is often said to be free, not if he acts freely or develops his capacities, but if he realizes his “best” or “essential” self. For example, “Liberty may be defined as the affirmation by an individual or group of his or its own essence” (Laski 1933, p. 444). Some have held that a person is most likely to realize his essence if he is left free to choose for himself.

According to another tradition, which extends from Plato via the Stoics and Christian thought to Neo-Hegelianism, man reaches the highest form of self-realization by submitting to some moral norm imposed by his own “higher self,” which is usually identified with faith, reason, or moral conscience. “I call him free who is led solely by reason” (Spinoza). “Obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty” (Rousseau). Freedom no longer signifies the absence of unwelcome, but the presence of welcome restraints. “For freedom is not acquired by satisfying yourself with what you desire, but by destroying your desire” (Epictetus). In short, freedom is unfreedom to do wrong, whereas freedom to deviate from the prescribed path is license. “If unbridled license of speech and of writing be granted to all, nothing will remain sacred and inviolate. . . . Thus, license will gain what liberty loses” (Encyclical libertas 1888).

If “freedom” becomes a label for anybody’s moral or political ends, then everybody’s value commitment to freedom will be vacuous. All will agree that liberty is the supreme good, but they will agree on nothing else. Meaningful disagreement about the value of freedom presupposes agreement about the meaning of freedom in nonvaluational terms. The concept of social freedom provides an adequate basis for a fruitful discussion of the normative, as well as the empirical, aspects of liberty. In this discourse, the divergent views about which social freedoms ought to be extended or limited will depend on the value one assigns to such other social goals as equality, justice, or welfare, which may compete with the goal of freedom.




ABLER, MORTIMER J. 1958-1961 The Idea of Freedom. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. ⇒ Contains significant quotations about freedom selected from all major writings from the Greeks to the present. Bibliography covers anthologies and periodical literature.

AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR POLITICAL AND LEGAL PHILOSOPHY 1962 Liberty. Edited by Carl J. Friedrich. Nomos 4. New York: Atherton. ⇒ A collection of essays.

AHON, RAYMOND 1965 Essai sur les libertés. Paris: Calmann-Lévy.

BAY, CHRISTIAN 1958 The Structure of Freedom. Stanford (Calif.) Univ. Press.

BERLIN, ISAIAH 1958 Two Concepts of Liberty. Oxford Univ. Press.

CRANSTON, MAURICE (1953)1955 Freedom: A New Analysis. 2d ed. London: Longmans.

HAYEK, FRIEDRICH A. VON 1960 The Constitution of Liberty. Univ. of Chicago Press; London: Routledge.

LASKI, HAROLD 1933 Liberty. Volume 9, pages 442-446 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

MULLER, HERBERT J. 1960 Issues of Freedom: Paradoxes and Promises. New York: Harper.

OPPENHEIM, FELIX E. 1961 Dimensions of Freedom: An Analysis. New York: St. Martins; London: Macmillan.


views updated Jun 11 2018


In the history of philosophical and social thought "freedom" has a specific use as a moral and a social conceptto refer either to circumstances that arise in the relations of man to man or to specific conditions of social life. Even when so restricted, important differences of usage are possible, and most of the political or philosophical argument about the meaning or the nature of freedom is concerned with the legitimacy or convenience of particular applications of the term.

Absence of Constraint or Coercion

It is best to start from a conception of freedom that has been central in the tradition of European individualism and liberalism. According to this conception, freedom refers primarily to a condition characterized by the absence of coercion or constraint imposed by another person; a man is said to be free to the extent that he can choose his own goals or course of conduct, can choose between alternatives available to him, and is not compelled to act as he would not himself choose to act, or prevented from acting as he would otherwise choose to act, by the will of another man, of the state, or of any other authority. Freedom in the sense of not being coerced or constrained by another is sometimes called negative freedom (or "freedom from"); it refers to an area of conduct within which each man chooses his own course and is protected from compulsion or restraint. J. S. Mill's essay On Liberty is perhaps the best-known expression in English of this individualistic and liberal conception of freedom.

Some writers take the view that the absence of coercion is the sufficient and necessary condition for defining freedom; so long as a man acts of his own volition and is not coerced in what he does, he is free. Other writers wish to widen the concept in one or both of two ways. They argue that natural conditions, and not only the will or the power of other men, impose obstructions and restraints on our capacity to choose between alternatives and that therefore the growth of knowledge or anything else that increases our capacity to employ natural conditions for the achievement of our purposes ipso facto enlarges our freedom. They also sometimes argue that whether or not it is the will of other men or natural obstacles that are considered as limiting or constraining our actions, we cannot truly be said to be free to choose some preferred alternative unless we have the means or the power to achieve it, and thus the absence of means or power to do X is equivalent to absence of freedom to do it. For those who take this view the necessary conditions for the existence of freedom would be (a ) the absence of human coercion or restraint preventing one from choosing alternatives he would wish to choose; (b ) the absence of natural conditions preventing one from achieving a chosen objective; (c ) the possession of the means or the power to achieve the objective one chooses of one's own volition. Many of the assertions frequently made about liberty in recent political thought assume that possession of the means or power to realize preferred objectives is part of what it means to be free. For example, the contention that men who suffer from poverty or have a low level of education cannot really be free, or that they cannot be as free as the well-to-do and the well educated, relies on the assumption that "to be free to do X " includes within its meaning "to be able," "to have the means," and "to have the power" to do X.

What are the objections to thus connecting "being free to" with "having the capacity or the power to"? It can be said that, at least in many cases, equating freedom with possession of power will involve a distortion of ordinary language. If I ask, "Am I free to walk into the Pentagon?" the question will be clearly understood; but if I ask, "Am I free to walk across the Atlantic Ocean?" the appropriate answer will be "You are free to, if you can." This suggests the main argument: The linking of "being free to" with "having the capacity or power" deprives the word free of its essential and unequivocal function, which is to refer to a situation or state of affairs in which a man's choice of how he acts is not deliberately forced or restrained by another man. As Bertrand de Jouvenel points out, if we say that to be free to achieve chosen ends requires the possession of the power and the social means necessary for their achievement, then the problem of freedom coincides with (or becomes confused with) the quite different problem of how satisfactions are to be maximized. It may be true to say that the poor man is as free to spend his holidays in Monte Carlo as the rich man is, and true also to say that he cannot afford to do so. These two statements, it is argued, refer to two distinct states of affairs, and nothing is gained by amalgamating them.

Meaning of "Coercion"

Even if we confine ourselves to saying that a man is free insofar as his action is not coerced by another, it is evident that the concept of coercion itself requires some consideration. An important point may be made by examining Bertrand Russell's often-quoted sentence: "Freedom in general may be defined as the absence of obstacles to the realization of desires." This hardly goes far enough. Let us imagine an authoritarian society in which rulers have for years been so successful in controlling and manipulating what members of the community read and what views they encounter, and in which the educators have been able so subtly and skillfully to mold the minds and dispositions of the very young, that almost all citizens naturally desire what their rulers desire them to desire, without its ever occurring to them that there are alternatives to what they are accustomed to or that their freedom to choose has been in any way circumscribed. They are not conscious of any obstructions to the satisfaction of desire and, indeed, no obstructions may exist to the satisfaction of any desires they experience. This is a limiting case, but it points to conditions that exist more or less in all societies. We would scarcely concede that the members of such a society enjoyed any or much freedom. The society described may be one in which coercion in the usual sense does not occur and has in fact become unnecessary.

Two important points follow from this. First, if absence of coercion is a necessary condition of being free, coercion must be understood as including not only the direct formscommands or prohibitions backed by sanctions or superior powerbut also the many indirect formsmolding and manipulation or, more generally, forms of control that are indirect because they involve control by certain persons of the conditions that determine or affect the alternatives available to others. This is an important extension of the notion of coercion. Second, if liberty means the right of individual choice between alternatives, then this right in turn implies that the alternatives can be known by those who are to choose; that individuals have the opportunity to understand the character of available alternatives and can make a deliberate or informed choice. The freedom that members of a society enjoy will be connected, therefore, with the extent to which competing opinions, objectives, modes of behavior, ways of living, and so on are, so to speak, on display; on how freely they can be recommended, criticized and examined; and thus on the ease with which men can make a deliberate choice between them.

For this reason, since literacy or education enlarges the capacity or faculty of choice and decision, it is an important precondition of the existence of freedom: knowledge extends the capacity for acting freely. Similarly, not only suppression but also distortion and misrepresentation, any kind of dishonest propaganda that gains its effect from privileged control over sources of publicity, may restrict the freedom of others; insofar as it succeeds in concealing or misrepresenting the character of certain of the available alternatives, it will tend to restrict or manipulate the range of choice no less effectively than direct coercion or constraint may; and thus it will also tend to limit the exercise of freedom in a particular society. It is not sufficient to consider only the presence or absence of coercion in the more literal and direct sense. Freedom in its positive aspect is the activity or process of choosing for oneself and acting on one's own initiative, and choice can be manipulated as readily as it can be coerced.

Does it follow from this that the extent of freedom is related to the number of available alternatives, in that the more alternatives there are for choice, the freer a man is? Clearly there can be no simple or direct relationship between the range of available alternatives and the extent of freedom. However numerous the alternatives between which a man may choose, he will not admit himself to be free if the one alternative that he would most prefer is the one that is excluded. In a society that forbids the preaching of Catholic doctrine and the practice of Catholic forms of worship, Catholics will not concede that they are free just because they are still free to be either Anglicans, Methodists, or Buddhists. In certain circumstances the extent of the range of available alternatives may be relevant to a judgment of the extent of freedom; but in general we can talk profitably about both the existence and the extent of freedom in a particular society only by taking into account the individual and social interests, the capacities, the modes of behavior, and the ways of living on behalf of which freedom is claimed.

Kinds of Freedom

When men speak of their being free or claim freedom for themselves, they are referring not only to the absence of coercion and restraint imposed by others (freedom from ) but also to that on behalf of which freedom is being claimed (what they are claiming freedom for ). This is another sense in which we can speak about a positive aspect of freedom. In political and social discussion a claim to freedom is almost invariably (albeit usually implicitly) a claim to a particular liberty, a claim to freedom for or in the exercise of some particular interest or form of activity. Although Russell says that freedom is the absence of obstacles to the satisfaction of desire, probably no serious philosophical or social thinker has defended freedom in the sense of absence of obstacles to the satisfaction of any desire; what has been defended, and what freedom has been identified with, is the absence of obstacles to the exercise and satisfaction of specific interests and forms of activity that are accepted as possessing special moral and social significance.

Thus, freedom in the abstract is a class comprising many speciesfreedom of thought and speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, freedom of movement, freedom in the use or disposal of one's property, freedom in the choice of one's employer or occupation, and so on. In every case there is, of course, a reference to the absence of coercion or interference and to an area within which one can choose or act on one's own initiative; not to an abstract or indeterminate possibility of choosing but instead to a specific sphere of individual or social activity within which the right to make one's own choices and decisions, to follow one's own course, is regarded as being of particular importance in the moral life of the individual. This seems to be one way in which positive notions of freedom (as contrasted with the more abstract idea of bare immunity from coercion or interference by others) have emerged, namely, in the attempt to identify (and thus to identify with freedom) those specific spheres of human activity within which what Mill calls individuality, the right and capacity for individual choice and initiative, really matter.

Some of the particular freedoms that have been much emphasized in recent times (freedom from want and freedom from fear are important examples) seem at first sight to refer neither to the absence of coercion nor to any specific interest or form of activity for which freedom is being claimed. It might appear that what is being claimed is, rather, the institution of political and economic arrangements by means of which men may be made immune from feelings and circumstances that they find to be evil. If this is all that is meant, then this is to employ freedom in a sense different from the one we have been discussing; this is shown by the fact that freedom from want and fear could conceivably be attained by the setting up of political and social arrangements under which the amplitude of choice within important spheres of activity would be drastically restricted and under which there might be a considerable measure of coercion and constraint; in other words, freedom from want and freedom from fear might well be compatible with a very authoritarian regime, just as in contemporary China freedom from flies is said to have been achieved by very authoritarian methods. Thus, if "freedom from want" and "freedom from fear" are taken simply in that way, the freedom involved is logically and socially distinct from that which has so far been taken as being central and fundamental in the tradition of liberal thinking. However, this may be to interpret these two freedoms superficially. For a more sympathetic interpretation we must return to what has been said about manipulation.

Freedom and Power

In modern societies manipulation in various forms is at least as important as the processes we normally identify as coercive. It is well known that, within a society, a group of men may enjoy such control over property or the means of production, or over an educational system or the media of communication, that they are able to determine within a fairly narrow range the alternatives between which their fellow citizens can choose. It is not only true that less privileged men often lack the means or the power to attain their preferred alternative but also that others can exploit their lack of power in order to prevent them from attaining what they would wish to attain; sometimes the less powerful can even be prevented from knowing what alternatives there are and from knowing that some of them might be capable or worthy of being pursued. It is this argument that can justify notions like "freedom from want" or "freedom from economic insecurity" and that links them with what has been taken to be the central sense of freedom, the absence of constraint. Even though we refuse to conclude that the mere absence of the means or the power to attain a preferred alternative goal is equivalent to not being free to pursue it, it is a different situation when means and power are controlled and manipulated by others in order to secure compliance with their demands. Thus, if "want" and "insecurity" describe a condition in which there is unequal control over the means and conditions of choice and action, in consequence of which some men can manipulate the range of choice available to others, then freedom from want and insecurity belongs with freedom from coercion; in that case, freedom from want and insecurity is the condition of the ability to act on one's own initiative, which is the positive side of liberty.

There is, then, this connection between freedom and power: When there is conflict between individuals and groups for possession or control of scarce means and conditions of action, control over means is a condition of the availability of alternatives, and hence of choice and freedom. It follows, therefore, that when men have unequal power, this will often mean that they will also be unequal with respect to the freedom they enjoynot merely in the sense that the man who is better off has the means to choose more widely and live more abundantly than his poorer brother (although this is also true) but in the more relevant sense that the more powerful man can restrict the range of choice and the freedom of the less powerful in order to satisfy his own interests more fully. Obviously this relation between inequality of power and inequality of freedom provides one of the connections that exist between liberty and democracy. If we define democracy as being a form of political organization in which all adult members of the community share in making decisions about the common arrangements of the society (including those decisions about the use and distribution of the resources that affect the choices of acting available to men), then the right to participate in the making of these decisions is a liberty that will affect (or at least may very substantially affect) the range and character of the alternatives that are available in very important areas of social and private life.

political participation

Thus, we may say that political participation, or sharing in the process of government, will enter into the meaning of "liberty" in society in at least two different ways. First, political activity and participation in government is an interest and mode of activity to which many men attach great importance, and thus the existence of the right and opportunity to engage in this form of activity is one of the liberties that some men cherish highly. Second, it is in addition a liberty that forms part of a wider structure of liberties because the extent to which this liberty is accorded and exercised will usually also affect the extent to which liberty is available in other areas of social life. This is not to say, of course, that the more democratic a society is (the less men are restrained or restricted in their participation in the activity of government), the more freedom there will be in other areas of social life; it is possible for democracies to be exceptionally coercive, restrictive, or intolerant in certain areas of living and, apart from this, it is also true that expansion of particular liberties (or of liberty in particular areas) often entails the curtailment of others. The point is, rather, that political liberty in the sense specified forms part of a more complex system of liberties in any developed society; both logically and causally, political liberty is connected with the liberties that are established in other spheres of individual activity.

Freedom and Choice

We have seen that liberty has its negative and its positive sides"negative" referring to the absence of obstructions, interference, coercion, or indirect control; "positive," to the processes of choosing and acting on one's own initiative, and more concretely and less formally to the general types of human interests or forms of activity for the expression and exercise of which liberty is claimed. Some writers, concentrating particularly on the positive aspect, have been inclined to assert that a man is being free only when he is actually choosing, exercising initiative, and acting deliberately or responsibly. Mill, in what he says in On Liberty about "individuality," "individual spontaneity," the "despotism of custom," and related matters, comes very close to asserting this, although he never quite does so. The same kind of view is hinted at in Graham Wallas's "Freedom is the capacity for continuous initiative," but it would be difficult to accept this as a general position. For the devotee of a religious faith, the religious freedom he claims and believes himself to enjoy may be no more than the freedom to practice unmolested a form of worship he has inherited and which he has never felt the faintest temptation to question; in such a case it is a fiction to speak of a process of choice. The same can be said of the man who is content to follow narrowly, uncritically, and unadventurously the established customs and conventions of his society. Even though there may be a sense in which we can intelligibly talk of such men as being slaves to customs, habits, or orthodoxies, it would still be straining the point to maintain that they are not free.

On the other hand, the man who has been so molded and manipulated that he always wants what his ruler or superior wants him to want is scarcely free. This case suggests that freedom will exist only where there exists the possibility of choice, and the possibility of choice in turn implies not only the absence of direct coercion and compulsion but also that the availability and the characteristics of alternatives must be capable of being known. Thus, whatever the situation of any particular individual may be, it is most likely that there will be a large measure of individual freedom within a society when there exists what Mill calls a variety of conditionswhere a wide variety of beliefs are in fact expressed and where there is a considerable diversity of tastes and pursuits, customs and codes of conduct, ways and styles of living. And, because of the connection between inequality of power and inequality with respect to the enjoyment of freedom, a society in which power is widely distributed is also likely to be the one characterized by the existence of wide possibilities for choice and individual initiative.

See also Authority; Censorship; Democracy; Determinism and Freedom; Liberalism; Liberty; Mill, John Stuart; Power; Rights; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William.


Adler, M. J. The Idea of Freedom, 2 vols. New York, 19581961; Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1973.

Bay, Christian. The Structure of Freedom. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1958.

Berlin, Isaiah. Two Concepts of Liberty. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.

Cranston, Maurice. Freedom: A New Analysis. London: Longmans, Green, 1953.

Friedrich, C. J. Man and His Government. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

Fuller, Lon. "Freedom: A Suggested Analysis." Harvard Law Review 68 (1955): 13051325.

Hayek, F. A. The Constitution of Liberty. London, 1960.

Jouvenel, Bertrand de. Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Knight, Frank. Freedom and Reform. New York: Harper, 1947.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Freedom and Civilisation. London: Allen and Unwin, 1947; Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1976.

Mill, J. S. On Liberty. London: Parker, 1859.

Oppenheim, F. E. Dimensions of Freedom. New York: St. Martin's, 1961.

Russell, Bertrand. "Freedom and Government." In Freedom: Its Meaning, edited by Ruth N. Anshen. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1940.

P. H. Partridge (1967)


views updated Jun 11 2018


The concept of freedom or liberty is complex, with political, ethical, and psychological dimensions. In the context of modern science, technology, and ethics, freedom exhibits all of the ambiguity of human experience. The promise of modern science and technology is that the increases in knowledge and the power they afford will expand human freedom in an unqualified sense. But in opposition to this original and continuing justification are questions about the extent to which science and technology may also limit or qualify freedom. Moreover, the professional ethical requirement for the free and informed consent of human participants in scientific research situates the complexities of freedom in the heart of science itself. The issue of "free and informed consent" is a key locus for the discussion of freedom in science and technology.

Human Freedom versus Deterministic Science

The philosophical concept of freedom may be seen in opposition to that of determinism. The determinist holds that there is no freedom. For a hard determinist, all events in nature are strictly determined. As such, the idea of freedom is incompatible with that of the causal determination of all natural events. What is sometimes called soft determinism or compatibilism modifies the hard position by maintaining that freedom is compatible with the determination of natural events. A compatibilist holds that all events in nature are causally determined but that human beings can initiate new series of events and have responsibility for the outcomes of their actions. Thus, moral ideas of praise and blame make sense if people are able to act according to some causality arising from their will or for reasons of their own choosing.

Finally, it should be noted that with the development of quantum mechanics some thinkers allow for indeterminacy at the atomic level. This may allow for a notion of freedom in the sense that an action is not caused, but it may not be able to account for personal responsibility if the action is not determined in some way by the person.

Whether or not human beings are in fact free, most people think and act as if they are. Such acts of freedom have been conceptualized in two basic ways: negative and positive.

Negative Freedom

Negative freedom may be taken as an absence of obstacles to the fulfillment of one's desires or wishes. The view of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) is representative of this approach. This form of freedom depends upon the existence of favorable external circumstances for the attainment of a human goal. It can thus be considered a freedom of self-realization. One peculiar implication of this approach is that a person who wishes to be in a prison cell may be said to be free. Nor does it require that there be alternatives from which to choose. If there is only one course of action available, but that is what an individual wishes, then such a person may be said to be free. It also seems to allow for animals to be described as free. A further point is that the obstacles to human desires include physical and social ones. Thus, if persons are physically constrained or constrained by fear, they may not be said to be free to act. If, on the contrary, they are coerced to act in a certain way, they are not considered to be free nor responsible for their actions.

According to this conception, modern science and technology may be construed as eliminating any number of obstacles that have historically restrained human action. Therefore, those taking engineering approaches to science and technology tend to see modern technical methods as enhancing human freedom. With modern methods of communication and travel, for example, time and space seem to shrink in their significance. Many elderly people of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been able to act without the encumbrances of the maladies of old age that have plagued human beings for millennia. This form of freedom is a freedom from such things as disease, hunger, and fear.

Modern technologies, however, may also be seen as introducing new obstacles to human action. The automobile provides for transportation over great distances, but millions of cars on the roads produce traffic jams that obstruct a person's desire to move. The roadways also block a person's desire to walk if the destination is across a multilane highway. The very complexity of modern technological societies may represent an obstacle to human action. With all of the information that is available through the various media, many persons feel overwhelmed by information overload. Greater knowledge is thought to increase one's freedom to act, but it becomes difficult to act rationally in such an environment. Indeed, the self may become fragmented as it interacts with the technological environment.

This seems to be an outcome that is contrary to the self-realization that is characteristic of the notion of negative freedom. A further problem with the notion of negative freedom is that modern science and technology may be used to manipulate human desires, and so in a sense persons are coerced to act. Thus, propaganda techniques are used to mold consumer desires. Indeed, it has become possible to manipulate human desires pharmacologically. This possibility has been the theme of dystopias such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Huxley imagined a society in which a drug called "soma" could be taken that would make a person content in any environment. Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962) depicted a cruder reconditioning of human desires. Many thinkers in the humanistic tradition would not consider human beings to be free if there are no obstacles to the fulfillment of a person's desires, but the desires one has result from technical manipulation. It is appropriate from this perspective that B. F. Skinner should have written Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). The practical application of his behaviorism would make human freedom into an illusion because behaviorism holds that all human behaviors are molded by the environment. The control of nature, as C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) pointed out The Abolition of Man, easily leads to the control of some human beings by others.

Positive Freedom

The positive notion of freedom requires that individuals be able not only to act on their desires but also to choose from among the many desires they have to act upon. Such a view of freedom constitutes a theory of self-perfection. According to this conception, some desires may be more worthy than others given a standard of human life that is considered good. Only persons who have acquired virtue or a self-consciousness of their humanity may be said to be free. Contrary to the common view that people have greater freedom to act if they have more choices, in this case ideas of virtue or moral duty may lead individuals to restrict their pursuit of certain desires. Rather than simply doing what one wants, one does what one thinks one ought to do.

Moreover, one may have a desire for freedom itself that requires the subordination of one's physical inclinations. This is an example of second order desire, that is, the desire for certain kinds of desires. Here, freedom is an end to be pursued in itself rather than a means to the pursuit of other ends. A peculiar aspect of the positive notion of freedom is that it seems to require a degree of self-denial, at least the denial of the drives of the lower self for the sake of higher drives or interests. It may be that this is necessary for the fulfillment of the higher self. A certain independence of the self from the social and physical environment is also necessary for the pursuit of this form of freedom. As such, positive freedom does not depend upon external circumstances.

The positive notion of freedom is especially significant in ethical reflections on the impact of science and technology on the quality of human existence. The concern here is whether human existence is degraded by the rationalization of the world associated with modern science and technology. If all of human existence, including human beings themselves, is subject to rational control, then there may be no room for the dignity of persons; in such a scenario, persons will have been reduced to objects of manipulation and control. If technical methods are applied to political action, for example, this tends to transform what has traditionally been considered the "art of the possible" into a matter of technical necessity. Technical rationality is a rationality directed to the efficient determination of means to achieving some end. This form of rationality tends to become the dominant form of rationality in a highly developed technological society in which the only worthy ends that are recognized are those that can be pursued by the technical means available.

Positive freedom, however, seems to require a broader form of rationality that takes into consideration the choice of humanly worthy ends. In the debate concerning human cloning, for example, the President's Council on Bioethics placed special emphasis on "human dignity" by calling one of its reports, Human Cloning and Human Dignity (2002). Furthermore, Francis Fukuyama (2003) has described a posthuman future resulting from the genetic manipulation of human beings. If modern science and technology lead to the evolution of a posthuman era, of what value is human freedom?

Dialectical Freedom

Beyond the negative and positive accounts of freedom is a dialectical one, with roots in the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) and Karl Marx (1818–1883), among others. According to this account, human freedom is to be understood precisely as an opposition to some obstacle. As such, freedom depends on the existence of some resistance against which we struggle. If humanity were to succeed in eliminating all obstacles to the fulfillment of its wishes as per the view of negative freedom, it would also eliminate human freedom. The dialectical approach to freedom recognizes that the obstacles human beings confront take both physical and social forms. As one obstacle is overcome, however, new ones arise, so that human freedom can be seen as developing over time as humans confront new obstacles.

From a dialectical perspective, freedom must be coordinated with the environment in which humans exercise their freedom. The first and historically most fundamental form of freedom in this scenario occurred when human beings struggled against nature. Nature provided both the means of pursuing human desires through the use of tools as well as obstacles to their use. This form of freedom was superseded by a stage in which human beings developed social institutions, which can be seen as "second nature." Social institutions provided protection from the forces of nature but also introduced new human-made obstacles. After the development of this new environment, the desire for freedom had to be directed against social institutions. The dialectical character of this view of freedom can be seen in that the liberty gained with respect to one environment gives rise to new necessities that must be overcome by creating a new form of freedom. In turn, the new form of freedom is also relevant to a new milieu.

The sociologist Karl Mannheim distinguishes a third stage, that of planning. In this stage, the totality of social institutions and other techniques are organized into a systematic whole. For Mannheim, democratic planning is the last stage in the development of human freedom, whereby human beings take conscious control over the social process. Jacques Ellul (1976) depicted this third stage as the stage of technique, which involves a new technological determination of the human person by the systematic application of techniques to human beings. He thus called for a struggle against the technological environment, especially in its ideological aspect.

The Ethics of Freedom in the Scientific and Technological World

In all of its forms—negative, positive, and dialectical—freedom is closely associated with notions of moral autonomy and political democracy. The ideals of moral autonomy and democratic politics depend on persons and citizens not being wholly determined by external forces, able to pursue personal perfection and the public good, in dialectical engagement with others and the world around them. In the contemporary technoscientific milieu, the others and the world exhibit strongly scientific and technological characteristics.

One area in which this is particularly pronounced is in research on human subjects. Especially since World War II both the scientific community and society at large have increasingly stipulated that scientific research on human subjects be limited by requiring free and informed consent of any such subjects. Participants in scientific research must not be constrained to participate either by force (as in Nazi Germany) or by ignorance (as in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study [1932–1972] in the United States); they must be able to see their participation as positive aspects of their own lives; and they will inevitably struggle against the obstacles of disease and perhaps their own lack of understanding in the process. The commitment to such freedom, which respects limitations in science, even when it also limits scientific progress, makes science more human.

In the larger technoscientific world there are further reflections of such efforts to respect freedom in the emergence of individual and collective ethical responses to the artificial environment produced by modern science and technology and the cultural aspirations to use science and technology to transform the world. Thus, Hans Jonas (1984) has called for an ethic of responsibility that posits an ethical imperative to maintain the existence of human beings. This marks a sharp contrast with those who have called for a posthuman age. Further examples include Ellul (1976), who developed an ethic of non-power to counter the technical impulse to augment human power. And, more recently, Bill McKibben has sought limits to the effort to perfect human beings in his 2003 book, Enough. All of these observers are concerned with establishing some humanly significant limits to the technological remaking of the world. They recognize that within a dialectical account of freedom, while the reality of human freedom depends upon the overcoming of limits, it also depends upon the recognition of limits. If the technological project has become an attempt to eliminate all limits, it may very well eliminate freedom as well.


SEE ALSO Alienation;Autonomous Technology;Critical Social Theory;Determinism;Dignity;Ellul, Jacques;Free Will;Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich;Jonas, Hans;Kant, Immanuel;Marx, Karl;Posthumanism;Security;Rand, Ayn;Thoreau, Henry David;Tocqueville, Alexis de;Weil, Simone.


Adler, Mortimer J. (1973). The Idea of Freedom. 2 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Berlin, Isaiah. (2002). Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty, rev. edition, ed. Henry Hardy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A modern classic of liberalism, Berlin's four essays defended the notion of negative freedom as necessary for maintaining a liberal society.

Borgmann, Albert. (1984). Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burgess, Anthony. (1962). A Clockwork Orange. New York: Norton.

Campbell, Neil. (2003). Freedom, Determinism, and Responsibility: Readings in Metaphysics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Dennett, Daniel C. (2003). Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking.

Ekstrom, Laura Waddell, ed. (2001). Agency and Responsibility: Essays on the Metaphysics of Freedom. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Ellul, Jacques. (1976). The Ethics of Freedom, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Fukuyama, Francis. (2003). Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hayek, Friedrich A. (1960). The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A defense of freedom as an absence of arbitrary coersion.

Hayles, N. Katherine. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hobbes, Thomas. (1994). Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668, ed. Edwin Curley. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Huxley, Aldous. (1932). Brave New World. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran.

Jonas, Hans. (1984). The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, trans. Hans Jonas, with the collaboration of David Herr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kane, Robert. (1996). The Significance of Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kane, Robert, ed. (2002). Free Will. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Malinowski, Bronisław. (1976 [1944]). Freedom and Civilization. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Mannheim, Karl. (1940). Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

McKibben, Bill. (2003). Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. New York: Times Books.

Mill, John Stuart. (1998). On Liberty, and Other Essays, ed. John Gray. Oxford: Oxford University Press. An immensely influential study of the limits of individual liberty and the power of the state.

O'Connor, Timothy, ed. (1995). Agents, Causes, and Events: Essays on Indeterminism and Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press.

President's Council on Bioethics. (2002). Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry. Washington, DC: Author.

Rutsky, R. L. (1999). High Techne : Art and Technology from the Machine Aesthetic to the Posthuman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf.

Watson, Gary, ed. (2003). Free Will, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


views updated May 17 2018


Freedom as understood in the modern West is self-determination by an autonomous being with a rational mind. Precursors to this understanding of freedom begin with Plato in ancient Greece, who shifted the locus of freedom from the political distinction between citizen and slave to the internal will that exercises influence on external events. Aristotle saw in the human will the capacity to harmonize itself with the will of God and the pursuit of the transcendent good and the good life.

Conceptions in Various Religious Traditions

In Hinduism and sister traditions such as Buddhism the doctrine of karma places the human person in a causal nexus of moral determinism where past life behavior determines present life status. Liberation (moksha ) consists of being freed from the wheel of reincarnation, freed for eternity from the effects of karma. A variant of the dispute between grace and merit appears in Hinduism over the role of free human action in salvation. The cat school (Tenkalai ) argues that God's irresistible grace saves the adept like a mother cat carries her young by the nape of the neck; whereas the monkey school (Vatakalai ) argues that human free will is required in a way that a baby monkey is required to cling to its mother.

Islam teaches that God (Allah) is in control of the outcome of human acts, whether those acts are free or not. Human beings are free to choose between good and evil; the Qur'an teaches that God will judge mortals on the Last Day according to good and bad deeds. Some Muslims find comfort in predestination as a doctrine that affirms divine control over the course of events. "God leads astray whom he pleases and guides whom he pleases" (Surah 74:34). Human moral responsibility is not obviated by strong reliance upon divine control.

Freedom according to Christian theology belongs preeminently to God, who is absolutely free. God is the one, original, and authentic person through whose creative self-expression all other persons come into existence and are sustained. Human freedom derives from divine freedom, expressed as divine grace. God liberates Hebrew slaves from their Egyptian taskmasters and liberates faithful believers from the threat of sin, death, and the power of the devil. Christian advocates of predestination hold that human salvation is the result of free divine action, a gracious action that bestows eternal life as a gift rather than as a reward required by a legal structure of merit.

Commitment to belief in a single all-powerful God, which Christians share with Jews and Muslims, has led to three theological struggles over the nature of freedom that provide background to the contemporary conversation with science. The first is the predestination controversy. Once it is accepted that human salvation is a gift of divine grace and not the product of human moral achievement, then the question arises: Why do some persons exhibit strong faith in God and others do not? Predestination answers this question by contending that God has eternally decreed that some individuals would be infallibly guided to saving faith and, thereby, to eternal salvation. Those who do not have faith either were not included in the eternal decree; or, according to the double predestination school, they were actually predestined to damnation. The import of predestination is to make salvation solely a product of divine action, not a matter of human freedom. Humans remain free on a daily basis to make routine choices, but their salvation is a matter of divine decree alone.

The second theological struggle focuses on divine power, on God's omnipotence. Once it is accepted that God is all-powerful, metaphysical questions arise regarding the application of omnipotence to causal efficacy. Is God the cause of all things? Of every event? Should we eliminate causal efficacy, contingency, and human action as factors in the created world? If so, is God responsible for evil and suffering? This tempts some to affirm a thoroughgoing predestination, a complete determinism; and to do so not as a corollary to grace but as an implication of omnipotence. The unspoken assumption is that of a fixed pie image of power in the universe: if God gets more power then human beings get less. The fixed pie assumption has led two contemporary theological schools to compromise divine omnipotence. Process theologians in the tradition of Alfred North Whitehead (18611947) deny divine omnipotence and proportionately increase the power that local human free decision-making has on the future. Similarly, certain classical theists adopt the Kabbalistic notion of zimsum, a primordial self-withdrawal on God's part to permit contingency in nature and freedom in human life. In this case, the self-restriction on God's part is voluntary; whereas for the process theologians it is metaphysically necessary. For both these schools of thought, power is finite and competitive; so to have room for human freedom some proportion of power must be denied to God.

The third struggle in theological conceptuality is to clarify how power begets power, and how freedom begets freedom. Rejected here is the assumption of a fixed pie of power. Rather, theologians influenced by Karl Barth (18861968) and liberation theologians posit that God is the absolutely free one and that divine freedom is contagious; when God exerts divine power, it liberates the creation. The creation of the universe from nothing, creatio ex nihilo, took an act of divine power; and God's continuing work of creation, creatio continua, is similarly an exertion of divine action in the world. Yet this is fully compatible with natural causation, contingency in events, and willful human action. The prayerful cry of petitionary prayer is for God to exert divine power to liberate us from natural disaster, disease, political oppression, or our personal bad habits.

The historical struggles over divine power and human freedom set the stage in Western history for the contemporary debate regarding the relationship of determinism to free will. Rather than see God as the opponent to human freedom, modern Westerners see the causal ubiquity of natural law playing this opposing role. The word 'determinism' refers to lack of contingency in natural events, lack of noncaused events; it is a philosophy deriving from scientific reductionism.

Contemporary definitions of freedom

In the contemporary discussion of freedom versus determinism raised by reductionism among natural scientists, four definitions of freedom are of interest to theologians. First, political freedom or liberty is understood as independence from external coercion by government power. Liberation movements pursue freedom to escape economic and cultural coercion as well as political restriction. Philosophies of political liberty usually presuppose belief in natural freedom applied to the individual. Second, natural freedom or freedom of the will is the ability of a rational mind to choose between alternatives and make decisions that lead to actions. The locus of natural freedom is the choosing self. This is the Enlightenment view of freedom as self-expression, self-determination, and self-pursuit of happiness. Choosing between good and bad things and acting voluntarily are attributes of an individual's free will. Third, moral freedom refers to what the disciples of Aristotle dubbed 'virtue,' the freedom gained when conforming one's life to a higher truth or higher good that transcends the choosing self. For Augustine of Hippo (354430 c.e.) and Martin Luther (14831546) the human self, to be truly free, must be freed from being curved in upon itself; such freedom can come only from a bestowal of God's liberating grace. The Christian variant of moral freedom expresses itself in selfless love of neighbor. Fourth, future freedom is the release of human creativity through designing, engineering, organizing, and building in such a way as to influence future events. Freedom here consists of transcending the confines of past precedents and constraints.

Determinism in modern science

Determinism is a philosophical idea that may or may not be attached to a scientific understanding of natural law. The essence of the deterministic view is that natural law is exhaustive and total in its causal application. Once initial conditions are established, every event that follows is bound to happen as it does and in no other possible way. Nothing in nature is contingent; so no room exists for natural freedom or future freedom. Hard determinists hold that no human act of will is free, even if it appears so. Free will is a delusion. Soft determinists hold a version of compatibilism; they believe that human actions are physically caused, but room remains for exercise of free will.

The mechanistic model of the natural world bequeathed to modern science by Newtonian physics presents a closed causal nexus, an exhaustive nexus of events without contingency. If the laws of nature never go on holiday, then what follows is eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume's (17111776) repudiation of miracles as events that deviate from unbreakable laws. What also follows is the eclipse of freedom, both divine and human. What appears to be freedom in human experience must be reducible to lawful physical activity, and the appearance of freedom as something supraphysical or spiritual must be a delusion.

In the early twentieth century Newtonian mechanism in physics was replaced by quantum mechanics; determinism was replaced by indeterminism. The activity of the individual electron is contingent, unpredictable; it can be predicted only in statistical quanta. Some contemporary theologians such as Robert John Russell argue that indeterminism at the fundamental physical level is a necessary condition for human free will to appear at the psychological level. Some physicists repudiate indeterminism by posing the theory of many worlds, according to which every potential physical state becomes actual in one or another universe. This would in principle apply to every human state as well, eliminating natural freedom.

Near the end of the twentieth century, Newtonian mechanism reappeared in genetics and neuro-science. Genetic determinismthe widespread belief that human essence is found in DNA and that DNA is determinative of both traits and behaviorhas indirect implications for freedom understood as political liberty. The cultural response to the Human Genome Project (initiated in 1990) in conjunction with controversies over gene patenting, cloning, and stem cells lead many to fear an alliance between big science and big money; it is the populist fear that a powerful invisible elite will make decisions regarding human evolutionary future that will release forces beyond the average person's control.

Neuroscience and cognitive theory prompt some philosophers to reduce psychological and cognitive processes to neuronal activity in the human brain. This has led to an alliance between genes and brains that seems to challenge natural freedom with ferocity. If DNA through neural activity turns out to govern behavior, then the genes would turn out to govern human choices. What appears to be a self who makes decisions would be reducible to a complex interaction of genes with environment. Genes might even be found responsible for predispositions to choose between what is moral and what is immoral. Crime and virtue would then be predetermined. No self would need to be transcended by moral freedom, because no self would exist in the first place.

Some opponents of genetic determinism argue for a two-part determinism, genes plus environment. Other opponents defending the Enlightenment doctrine of freedom as self-determination hold to a three-part determinism: genes, environment, and self. In the latter case, the self is an emergent entity not reducible to either genes or environment.

Future freedom is enhanced by the Promethean dimension of genetic determinism, according to which molecular biologists are gaining the knowledge and technology to alter the human germline in such a way as to influence directly the future of human evolution. This future freedom elicits anxiety on the part of many people, because it raises specters of Frankenstein the mad scientist who lets evil loose on society. Those fearing Promethean pride on the part of scientists try to curtail research by saying, "thou shalt not play God." This warning appeals to something allegedly essential or sacred in nature prior to technological intervention; so the commandment against playing God is an attempt to avoid violating nature by legislating against future freedom.

Freedom in theology and science

The commandment against playing God in secular society shares the assumption made by some theologians that there is a fixed pie of power in the universe, that God's power competes with human power. These theologians believe that if God's power is restricted then human power is increased, thereby making human freedom possible. Those who forbid playing God in genetics or other scientific endeavors follow the opposite logic, namely, if human power is restricted then God is freer to act through natural processes.

The advantage for theologians in adopting either the process model or the zimsum model is that they can hold to a doctrine of divine creation while allotting to Big Bang cosmology and biological evolution principles such as deep time, contingency, self-organization, and development. The absence of divine power opens an arena within which a dialectic of regularity and chance governs natural occurrences. This is theologically significant because it solves the theodicy problem: suffering and evil on the part of sentient creatures is now the responsibility of self-organization through natural selection. God is exempt from responsibility for what goes wrong. Science and technology fill the hole vacated by God. God's absence makes natural freedom and future freedom possible.

The difficulty faced by theologians who cling to divine omnipotence is that nature's victims, such as the predator's prey or extinct species, must be judged to be part of God's plan. By allowing such waste and suffering, God risks being thought of as cruel. The theological advantage to omnipotence is that God is viewed as the very power by which development is energized and guided, leading the human race through scientific and medical discoveries toward taking control of its own health and wellbeing. God is viewed as the healer, the redeemer. Science and technology become liberating vocations, expanding the horizon of human freedom while imposing increased environmental responsibilities. God's presence makes natural freedom and future freedom possible.

Finally, reductionism raises the question of the status of the human self. Biologist Francis Crick (b. 1916) would eliminate any ontological status to the self or the soul, on the grounds that it is reducible to gene expression and neural firing patterns in our brain. Many who oppose a strict biological determinism substitute a two-part determinism, genes plus environment. In this case 'environment' can refer to the cytoplasm within the cell or to the food our parents place on our plate. Two-part determinism is just as eliminative of the human self or soul as is raw genetic determinism. What most defenders of natural freedom actually advocate is three-part determinism: genes, environment, and self. The self functions as a determinant. The self can be thought of materialistically as an emergent property within evolutionary development; or it can be thought of metaphysically as a divinely imparted soul. It need not have any material substrate other than genes and environment; but its deliberations, decisions, and actions are observable and can be empirically confirmed.

See also Determinism; Free Will Defense


adler, mortimer j. six great ideas. new york: macmillan, 1981.

barth, karl. church dogmatics. new york: scribner's, 1936-1962.

cobb, john b., and griffin, david ray. process theology: an introductory exposition. louisville, ky.: westminster/john knox, 1976.

crick, francis. the astonishing hypothesis: the scientific search for the soul. new york: scribners, 1994.

hartshorne, charles. the divine relativity. new haven, conn.: yale university press, 1948.

luther, martin, "freedom of a christian." in luther's works, vols. 31-55: minneapolis, minn.: fortress, 1955-1986.

marcoulesco, ileana, "free will and determinism." in the encyclopedia of religion, ed. mircea eliade: new york: macmillan, 1987.

moltmann, jürgen. the coming god. minneapolis, minn.: fortress press, 1996.

peacocke, arthur. theology for a scientific age. minneapolis, minn.: fortress press, 1993.

peters, ted. playing god? genetic determinism and human freedom. london and new york: routledge, 1997.

russell, robert john; murphy, nancey; meyering, theo c.; and arbib, michael a., eds. neuroscience and the person: scientific perspectives on divine action. vatican city state: vatican observatory; and berkeley, calif.: center for theology and the natural sciences, 1999.

searle, john r. the mystery of consciousness. new york: new york review of books, 1997.


taylor, charles. sources of the self. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1989.

ted peters


views updated Jun 11 2018


The concept of freedom in the Bible is found in the injunction that on the advent of the *Jubilee, "liberty was proclaimed throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof … and ye shall return every man unto his family" (Lev. 25:10). Thus the freedom envisaged encompassed not only the emancipation of slaves, but the return to one's ancestral lands which had been alienated by sale. This concept is extended in Jeremiah 34, in which the prophet denounces the people for later disregarding the order given by Zedekiah "that every man should let his man-servant and every man his maid-servant, being a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, go free; that none should make bondsmen of them, even of a Jew his brother" (34:9). Although the Talmud also uses the word freedom in antithesis to slavery (bk 15a), in general it employs the word in a wider sense as denoting absence of subservience, and the concept that it was morally and legally wrong under any circumstances for a Jew to be dependent upon or subservient to another Jew became one of the fundamental principles of the rabbis, but to the evil of the denial of freedom to Jew by his fellow Jew was added that of the subservience of the Jew to foreign rule.

The concept of that freedom was unique in the insistence on the freedom of the individual in order that he might be free to devote himself utterly and without restraint to the service of God and the fulfillment of His will. The locus classicus of this conception is the rabbinical interpretation given to the verse "For unto Me are the children of Israel servants," which is emphasized by the repetition "they are My servants" (Lev. 25:55), upon which the rabbis comment: "they are My servants, but not the servants of My servants." It is the basis of the reason given by Johanan b. Zakkai for the law that a Hebrew slave who chose to remain in slavery when the time came for his emancipation had to have his ear bored (Ex. 21:6), an interpretation which is called "a species of homer" (probably "an important ethical principle") "Why the ear of all the organs of the body? God said: Because it was the ear which heard Me say upon Mount Sinai 'Unto Me are the children of Israel servants, but not servants to My servants,' yet its owner went and acquired a [human] master for himself, therefore let that ear be bored" (Kid. 22b; in the Mekhilta to Ex. 21:6 Simeon b. Judah ha-Nasi derives the same ethical lesson from the fact that the ear had to be placed against the doorpost).

It was in accordance with this principle of freedom from man in order to be free for the service of God that R. Joshua b. Levi stated, "No man is free but he who labors in the Torah" (Avot 6:2), which may be a protest against those who thought of freedom in purely physical or rational terms. This principle was enshrined to such an extent that the Talmud actually asks how, in view of this interpretation, it is permitted for a Jew even to be the employee of another Jew and replies that the right of the laborer to withdraw his labor at any time preserves his essential liberty (see *Labor). This conception of the right of the Jew to individual freedom was extended to include national freedom from foreign rule. R. Judah interprets the freedom which comes from the study of the Torah as "freedom from exile" (Ex. R. 32:1), and the theme that failure to exercise this freedom brings in its train political servitude was a favorite theme of the rabbis in the period immediately following the destruction of the Temple, when foreign rule became a grim fact. Thus Johanan b. Zakkai homiletically interprets Song of Songs 1:8, "You were unwilling to subject yourselves to heaven; as a result you are subjected to the nations of the world" and his contemporary Neḥunya b. ha-Kanah states, "He who accepts the yoke of Torah will have the yoke of foreign rule removed from him, and he who casts off the yoke of Torah, upon him will be laid the yoke of foreign rule" (Avot 3:5). The striking statement of Samuel in the Talmud (Sanh. 91b et al.) that the only difference between the present world and the Messianic age is subjection to foreign rule is actually accepted as the halakhah by Maimonides in the last chapter of the Mishneh Torah, but he also emphasizes that the "sages and prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat, drink, and be merry. Their aspiration was that Israel be free to devote itself to the Torah and its wisdom, with none to oppress or disturb it" (Yad, Melakhim 12:4).

Most extreme in their passion for liberty were the members of the "Fourth Philosophy," the *Zealots or *Sicarii as thecase may be. Josephus states of them that "this school agrees in all other respects with the opinions of the Pharisees, except that they have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable, since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master. They think little of submitting to death, if only they may avoid calling any man master" (Ant. 18:23), a principle which they carried into practice with their mass suicide at *Masada rather than submit to the Romans. It has been suggested that the differences between them and the Pharisees with regard to the love of freedom was that whereas the Pharisees, while extolling the importance of liberty, did not include it among the cardinal principles for which one should suffer martyrdom rather than transgress, those members of the "Fourth Philosophy" did include it. The ideal of freedom was kept alive in the Jewish consciousness throughout the period of exile. The four cups of wine obligatory on the *seder night of Passover, the festival of freedom (Pes. 108b), are the symbol of freedom, and in the daily liturgy in the evening prayer, the Exodus from Egypt is referred to as the emergence of the children of Israel to "everlasting freedom."

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

Freedom of Thought

Because there never was a single body of official doctrine, Jewish tradition not only permitted, but even encouraged freedom of thought. Speculation about the fundamentals of faith was held to be a desirable and meritorious activity. *Baḥya ibn Paquda, the 11th century moralist and philosopher, states explicitly that, "On the question whether we are under an obligation to investigate the doctrine of God's unity or not, I assert that anyone capable of investigating this and similar philosophical themes by rational methods is bound to do so according to his powers and capacities… Anyone who neglects to institute such an inquiry is blameworthy and is accounted as belonging to the class of those who fall short in wisdom and conduct" (Ḥovot ha-Levavot, "Sha'ar ha-Yiḥud," ch. 3). Maimonides echoes this view, as do many other major Jewish thinkers. The last major Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, Joseph *Albo, summarized this tradition of freedom of thought: "It is clear now that every intelligent person is permitted to investigate the fundamental principles of religion and to interpret the biblical texts in accordance with the truth as it seems to him" (Sefer ha-Ikkarim, pt. 1, ch. 2). This freedom is evident in the lack of any one official Jewish creed. Proposed creeds vary in content, principles, and number of articles. From antiquity to the present Judaism has found room for almost every conception of God known to civilized man so long as it is consistent with the principle of God's unity.

Alongside this tradition of freedom of thought there was also a restrictive drive which sought to limit what Jews might think and even what they might read. A Mishnah teaches that certain categories of Jews forfeit their share in the world to come, either because they hold erroneous beliefs or because they read forbidden books (Sanh. 10:1). This repressive aspect of the tradition receives its most extreme form in the codified rule that certain kinds of heretics may, or even must be put to death (Av. Zar. 26b; Sh. Ar., yd 158; 2). There is, however, little evidence that such a rule was ever put into practice. David *Hoffmann argued that this rule was codified at a time of extreme Christian religious zealotry, and was intended to show that Jews were also devoted to their faith. He denied that this rule was ever intended to be enforced, adding that in modern times such a rule is a profanation of God's name. Restrictions were also enacted against the study of certain subjects. The Mishnah records the decree that "no man should teach his son Greek" which is interpreted to mean the study of Greek philosophy (Sot. 9:14; 49b). The study of mystic traditions as well was restricted. The Talmud relates that only one of the four sages who "entered the Garden" (i.e., engaged in esoteric speculation) departed unhurt (Ḥag. 14b). In codifying these laws Moses Isserles stated, "It is only permitted to 'enter the Garden' after one has satiated himself with meat and wine," i.e., the study of mysticism is only allowed for he who is thoroughly grounded in the study of halakhah and the details of the commandments (Sh. Ar., yd 246:4). In the Middle Ages bans were also imposed on the premature study of philosophy and sciences. Solomon b. Abraham *Adret proclaimed in his ban of 1305 that physics and metaphysics could be studied from the age of 25, but laid no restriction on the study of astronomy and medicine (other communities in southern France banned the study of philosophy until the age of 30; see *Maimonidean Controversy).

Freedom of thought was also threatened by those who banned or burned books which they found offensive. An almost continuous line leads from the talmudic prohibitions against certain works to the 20th-century zealot who burned a nonorthodox prayer book in New York in 1944. Over the centuries there were bans on and burnings of the works of some *Karaites, Maimonides' Guide, the Me'or Einayim of Azariah de *Rossi, and even of some books of M.Ḥ. *Luzzatto. The rise of *Ḥasidism and of the *Haskalah generated such intense efforts to suppress their literatures that one writer asserts that "there was no period in Jewish history in which so large a number of books … were banned or burned."

Such practical restrictions on freedom of thought came to an end in the 19th century. They can still be found only among some minor sects of the extreme orthodox right wing, but have no effect on the life and thought of the vast majority of Jews. In a peculiar way these restrictive elements in the Jewish tradition evoked a basic commitment to freedom of thought. Those who imposed bans on books could only enforce them locally, since there was no central authority. Such bans usually evoked counter-bans so that a book proscribed in one community found vigorous defenders in another. However great the stature of those who sought to prevent a book from being read, there were always men of equal stature who came to its defense and made it available. In this way, even when subjected to severe strains, freedom of thought was preserved and protected.

[Marvin Fox]


In the Bible: L.I. Rabinowitz, in: Sinai, 55 (1964), 329–32; S. Goren, Torat ha-Mo'adim (1964), 334–45. In Jewish Philosophy: M. Carmilly-Weinberger, Sefer ve-Sayif (1966); R. Gordis, The Root and the Branch (1962), 31–53; D.J. Silver, Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy (1965); E. Shmueli, Bein Emunah li-Khefirah (1962), 161–78.


views updated May 29 2018

282. Freedom (See also Deliverance.)

  1. Areopagitica pamphlet supporting freedom of the press. [Br. Lit.: Benét, 46]
  2. Berihah 1940s underground railroad for Jews out of East Europe. [Jew. Hist.: Wigoder, 80]
  3. Bill of Rights (1791) term popularly applied to first 10 Amendments of U.S. Constitution. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 78]
  4. Declaration of Human Rights (1948) declaration passed by the United Nations; the rights are the individual freedoms usually associated with Western democracy. [World Hist.: Payton, 186]
  5. Declaration of Independence (1776) document declaring the independence of the North American colonies. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 186]
  6. Declaration of Indulgence (1672) Charles IIs attempt to suspend discrimination against Nonconformists and Catholics. [Br. Hist.: Payton, 186]
  7. Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) proclaimed legal equality of man. [Fr. Hist.: Payton, 186]
  8. eagle widely used as national symbol. [Animal Folklore: Jobes, 213]
  9. Eleutherius epithet of Zeus, meaning god of freedom. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 292]
  10. Fourth of July American independence day. [Am. Culture: Misc.]
  11. Great Emancipator, The sobriquet of Abraham Lincoln. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 329]
  12. Henry, Patrick (17361799) famous American patriot known for his statement: Give me liberty or give me death. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 367]
  13. Jubilee year fiftieth year; liberty proclaimed for all inhabitants. [O.T.: Leviticus 25:813]
  14. Magna Charta symbol of British liberty. [Br. Hist.: Bishop, 4952, 213]
  15. Monroe Doctrine consolidated South American independence; stonewalled European intervention. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 329330]
  16. Phrygian cap presented to slaves upon manumission. [Rom. Hist.: Jobes, 287]
  17. Rütli Oath legendary pact establishing independence of Swiss cantons (1307). [Swiss Hist.: NCE, 2384]
  18. Rienzi liberator of Rome from warring Colonna and Orsini families. [Ger. Opera: Wagner, Rienzi, Westerman, 203]
  19. Runnymede site of Magna Charta signing (1215). [Br. Hist.: Bishop, 4952, 213]
  20. Statue of Liberty perhaps the most famous monument to independence. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 284]
  21. Underground Railroad effective means of escape for southern slaves. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 514]
  22. water willow indicates independence. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 178]


views updated May 29 2018

free·dom / ˈfrēdəm/ • n. the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint: we do have some freedom of choice | he talks of revoking some of the freedoms. ∎  absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government: he was a champion of Irish freedom. ∎  the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved: the shark thrashed its way to freedom. ∎  the state of being physically unrestricted and able to move easily: the shorts have a side split for freedom of movement. ∎  (freedom from) the state of not being subject to or affected by (a particular undesirable thing): government policies to achieve freedom from want. ∎  the power of self-determination attributed to the will; the quality of being independent of fate or necessity. ∎  unrestricted use of something: the dog is happy having the freedom of the house when we are out. ∎ archaic familiarity or openness in speech or behavior.


views updated May 11 2018

173. Freedom

independent self-rule free from outside influence.
a doctrine of or belief in social equality or the right of all people to participate equally in politics.
Rare. a strong desire for freedom.
an abnormal fear of freedom.
1 . a condition of freedom.
2 . a right or privilege, especially the right to vote.
1 . the advocacy of freedom, especially in thought or conduct.
2 . Theology. the advocacy of the doctrine of free will. See also necessitarianism . libertarian , n., adj.
1 . the destruction of freedom.
2 . the destroyer of freedom. liberticidal, adj.
the act of setting free or being set free from slavery; emancipation.

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