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Taking liberties with freedom

In the absence of an explicit common understanding of what a good life is, and in the face of a government that has taken on responsibility for the whole of human life, from the rearing of children to the relations between the sexes to the validity of communal loyalties, the people responsible for persuading us that everything makes sense have decided to base public authority on freedom, choice, individual autonomy and the like. That’s what liberal political philosophy is all about. We should do what we’re told because it’s all in the service of a system that maximizes freedom.

A problem with that line of argument is that people don’t agree on the content of freedom any more than they agree on the content of the good life. In fact, the two issues are largely the same. Freedom might mean

  • Freedom to do whatever you happen to feel like doing. So if you feel like watching TV all day, then freedom means access to a TV, the availability of a lot of channels, and the absence of other demands on your time.
  • Freedom to do what you really want to do. If you often feel like watching TV, but don’t like the habit, then freedom means the ability to turn the TV off so you can spend your time doing something you’re happier with overall.
  • Freedom to realize your true good.

The first idea of freedom seems perfectly straightforward, and it’s what people generally think freedom means. The problem, though, is that on reflection the second makes even more sense to most people. If you’re addicted to something then freedom from the addiction seems better and more free than freedom to follow the addiction. The freedom of a drunk to drink himself to death doesn’t seem like anything to base a social order on.

The third does not at first sound like freedom to most of us. Nonetheless, I think it’s closest to what people end up meaning by freedom if they really want to make it the basis of social life. After all, if following actual desires isn’t really freedom when they get in the way of desires that would make us happier—which seems to be the lesson of the “addiction” example—then why can’t the superior desires, the ones that would help us be all that we can be or whatever, have to do with things we don’t presently see the value of? Isn’t education supposed to be liberating? False consciousness oppressive? Psychological manipulation a bad thing? Consciousness-raising correspondingly good? And shouldn’t the government and social order generally support education, enlightenment, and liberation?

People believe that in the long run freedom has to do with their version of the good life. Otherwise they wouldn’t care so much about it. If other people aren’t living the good life, or at least aspiring to it, it’s hard for most people who aren’t cynics to avoid concluding that they’ve been misled, miseducated, deprived, defrauded, or manipulated, so that their freedom has been violated. We’re oppressed by whatever keeps us from thriving, and “thriving” means realizing our true good. That being so, it’s probably more illuminating to discuss political, social and moral questions with reference to conceptions of the good life rather than conceptions of freedom. It hides fewer issues. For all I know that’s why they’re discussed by reference to freedom: it’s easier to keep the lid on the jar if the nature of the discussion means that issues won’t be raised.