I was listening to an excellent podcast episode the other day about three different senses of the word “freedom.” I found it really helpful and thought I’d ruminate on it a bit here.
The lowest sort of freedom is the freedom from external compulsion. This is the freedom which the modern liberal capitalist state tries to maximize. This is what most of us have in mind when we use the word freedom today. Short of anarchy this freedom can never be perfect (and probably not even then), but it can be made pretty extensive, and that’s what we’ve been trying to accomplish with increasing effectiveness for the past few centuries, and which we continue to labour toward today.
What makes this freedom lowest is the fact that it is freedom for vice as well as virtue, for rank ignorance as well as for seeking wisdom, and it even often rewards vices (eg greed, over-ambitiousness, dishonesty) at the expense of those whose souls are comparatively lacking in those defects. On the other hand, this sort of freedom is the one that’s most easily quantified and recognized and legislated, which is one part of the explanation for the astonishing success of modern politics.
Are there other things which are not so external, material, bodily, which can constrain us and limit our freedom? There are indeed. Vice is an obvious example, which leads to the second variety of freedom: moral freedom. The coward who is prevented from taking a desired action by fear, for instance, or the addict who wants to say no to a harmful substance and yet cannot resist: these point to the sort of internal compulsions from which we seek to extricate ourselves at the level of moral freedom.
Moral freedom is higher than the external freedom listed above, since it leads us much more fully into the fully human life we desire. It is also not dependent on the first kind of freedom; a person can be good even in a society with less political freedom, especially (but not only) if those laws are laws that support moral excellence.
Another kind of freedom that is not external, and which can be compatible with virtually any legal or political arrangement, is freedom of thought. I do not mean freedom from governmental interference into what people are allowed to believe or to say. I mean something deeper, more interior.
Freedom of thought, as I am speaking of it, is freedom from error and falsehood, and from fallacious and imprecise thinking. This sort of freedom is difficult to attain, and easy to pretend to. Still, pretending to be free is of limited actual benefit to the person who is unwillingly confined. What matters most in this sphere is the firm commitment and continual effort to seek out erroneous thinking in ourselves and to seek out meritorious thoughts among those with whom we disagree (and then in turn to search those thoughts as well for defects once we have made them truly our own) in an ever-growing quest to root out our intellectual failings.
The first sense of freedom is an important thing, but its justification must always be grounded in, and its implementation always be guided by, the other two higher meanings.