Why you are not free (whatever that means)

The popularity of the word “freedom” is in direct proportion to its adaptability. We can slide from talking about a “free market” to “free speech” to “free will” without taking a breath, and we can happily switch between talking about our “freedom” to choose which brand of toothpaste to buy and our “freedom” to practice our religious faith, without stopping to question whether that elevates toothpaste or degrades religion (or the other way around).

To adapt a metaphor by Tom Robbins: “freedom” is a sponge word, soaking up meanings by the bucketful.

To illustrate some of the different kinds of “freedom” that often get intertwingled together, consider the following diagram. This picture shows the universe of options that you may (or may not) have available to you at any given point in time:

Everything Imaginable

In this bubble shape there are an infinite set of points, representing the infinite number of things that you can imagine doing. If you really had “ultimate and complete” freedom, you would be able to choose to do anything inside this bubble. However, you are not “ultimately and completely” free. Your freedom is limited. And it is limited in different ways.

Logical Limitations: You cannot measure the angle formed by the intersection of two parallel lines. This is something you can sort of “imagine,” in the sense that you can puts the words together in that order, but even if we bent and broke the physical laws of the universe, you couldn’t do it because it doesn’t make sense. So even if you wanted to do this, you simply cannot. You are therefore not totally free.

Physical Limitations: You cannot date a vampire, because they don’t exist.  The behavior of “dating a vampire” simply doesn’t correspond to anything that could happen in reality. So no matter how badly you might want to, this is not an action that you can choose.  You are therefore not totally free.

Interaction-Based Limitations: Chances are good that, no matter who you are, you cannot beat up John Cena and you cannot buy a tropical island. In one case, it’s because the only way you could physically overpower John Cena is if he let you do it (and why would he?); in the other case, it’s because the only way you could buy an island is if it was cheap enough for you to afford it (and why would it be?). In both cases, the “freedom” to choose the course of action is limited by the fact that it is an interaction that requires the agreement and participation of another party.

Consequence-Based Limitation: You probably feel that you are not free to smoke pot or call your boss a stupid sack of puss.  Both of these things are actions that you are physically able to engage in, and you certainly could choose to do them if you really, really wanted to. But you feel that your freedom is “limited” because of your fear of consequences: in one case, because the government might fine you $2 (or whatever) for smoking the pot, or in the other case that your boss may fire you.  Both of these are what I call “soft” limitations on freedom, because if you unilaterally decide that you don’t care about those consequences, you can unilaterally make yourself more free.

And of course, you are free to eat a pretzel.

This kind of “continuum” of limitations is important, because when most people think about being “more free” or “less free” they think only in terms of counting the number of alternatives a person has in any given situation, or counting the number of items on a list that a person can make decisions about.  If you can choose your religion, your job, and your spouse then you are more free than if you can only choose your job.  If you can choose from five brands of coffee then you are more free than if you can only choose from two brands of coffee. And so on.

But the type of limitation is just as important. In some ways, it may be more so. If you can’t say “nigger” because you might get fired, then you are not totally free; however, if it’s really that important to you to say that word (for whatever reason) then you can choose not to care about the consequences.  And many people have taken this route. But if you cannot afford to eat, or to go to school, or to buy a car, then there is no “decision” that you can make to make yourself more free: you have no choices to make.

In politics, and in philosophy in general, it’s worthwhile to keep some of these ideas separate, instead of muddying them together and hefting them around in the already over-filled bag that we call “freedom.”



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