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What is the place of freedom?

What is the proper place for freedom? Certainly the liberal view that freedom is a self-contained final standard for politics is wrong, since freedom is always freedom to do or be something. As such it must be understood by reference to some further good. Freedom is primarily freedom to acquire or achieve something good. Self-defining freedom, the equal freedom to do or be anything whatever, is a singularly useless conception that in practice requires everything to be suppressed because if A isn’t suppressed then just by existing it interferes with not-A and so denies it equal freedom.

Freedom must therefore be defined by reference to an understanding of the good and defended as part of that good or at least conducive to it. We can’t make sense of it otherwise, and if we can’t make sense of it or say it’s good why bother with it?

Linking freedom and the good might seem difficult: if we know what the good is, why not ignore freedom and just go for the good using whatever means seem effective, while if we don’t know what the good is, what conception of freedom other than the liberal one is available?

The dilemma can be avoided if the ultimate good is transcendent—if we can’t fully know, articulate or possess it—and if it is a matter of what we do and how as well as what we experience, so that our participation in the good has an essential voluntary component.

If the good is transcendent then no system of discipline and control can adequately embody it, and our participation in it must develop in ways that can’t be altogether predicted, planned or explained. The transcendence of the good therefore implies the need for a certain freedom and independence for communities and their traditions, and for limitations on government and especially on bureaucratic administration of social life. It also suggests some role for individual conscience, since no authoritative statement of the good can be altogether sufficient.

If the good includes what we do, why and how at least as much as what we experience, then freedom becomes a constituent of the good. If satisfaction of desire were the good then the most effective way to realize it might be to manipulate desires so they relate to things that can be reliably delivered to everybody. A combination of drugs and electrodes in the brain might be just the thing. In contrast, if the good cannot be fully realized unless we choose and pursue it voluntarily then manipulation and control are no longer neutral means but at best necessary evils.

An understanding of the good as publicly valid but transcendent, as objectively knowable but only in part, can be difficult to maintain. On such an understanding it is not possible to demonstrate beyond objection what things public authority should insist on, what it should support or encourage, and what it should leave up to the conviction or choice of individuals and communities. These distinctions must nonetheless be made. Without them, the good loses either public validity or the quality of transcendence, and in either case freedom, along with many other things, is doomed.

The only practical way to make the distinctions is by reference to the traditions and practices of a particular community. Freedom thus requires particularist loyalties and traditionalism. The rights that can do something for us are not universal human rights but the rights of Englishmen, of Americans, of any people whose way of life gives freedom a function with respect to a guiding understanding of the good. To give up that way of life or deprive it of authority in the interests of universality, multiculturalism or whatever is not to generalize the freedom that it secures to us but to destroy it. And that is what we see happening around us.