Why and in what sense do we say we want people to be free?
Freedom is one of the most central and certainly most emotive issues in political philosophy. It has been discussed since the times of ancient Greece, and is still as controversial and divisive a topic as ever. This question deals with two separate questions concerning freedom: Firstly, why we consider freedom necessary, and secondly, what exactly is meant by freedom. Clearly, the answer to the second part will greatly affect the answer to the first, but it shall be seen that it is a very challenging task to arrive at a definition of freedom. It is possible, however, to make this job easier by not strictly defining freedom, and using an examination into the desirability of freedom to help form this definition. This will be done below.
One of the first issues to be resolved is the relationship between 'freedom' and 'liberty'. There has been several theses proposing a distinction between these two concepts. Theorists such as Belaief and Pitkin claim that liberty is a political term, while freedom is metaphysical. This distinction, however, is a false one. The only difference between these two terms is linguistic convenience. To illustrate, in the example above, liberty could be described as 'political freedom'. This shows the error in the apparent distinction. The two terms are synonymous, and will be used interchangeably in the remainder of this essay.
We use the terms 'freedom' and 'liberty' in everyday language without giving much thought to a detailed description of the concept to which these terms refer. It is possible, to a certain degree, to examine why we see freedom as morally good, also without completely defining it. The investigation into a definition of freedom will follow this initial examination of freedom's moral value. The clearest reasons why freedom is seen as morally desirable is because it is clearly preferable to coercion; a situation in which an individual who is free to pursue their own wants is more morally desirable than one in which the individual is coerced into actions which are contrary to those wants. It seems, therefore, that one of the main reasons for the moral desirability of freedom is the fact that freedom allows the pursuit of happiness, which is inherently good. The question is then raised as to whether or not liberty is then also inherently good. This can be shown to not be the case by looking further than simply the individual, and the effects certain freedoms have on society. It can be seen that there can be certain freedoms that may be 'bad', and therefore certain restrictions on freedom that may be 'good'. A simple example of this may be in the form of traffic laws - I may have the desire to get to my destination quicker by driving the wrong way down a one-way road, but no-one would say that the restriction on my freedom to do that without punishment is necessarily wrong.
It would seem then that the main root of the moral desirability of freedom lies in our wants. This raises two very important questions. Firstly, many scholars note that our wants can be ranked into more significant long-term goals, and lower, short-term desires. It is often the case that shorter-term desires, such as the desire for comfort can prevent us from achieving greater, long term goals such as climbing the mountain. Does this mean that our own baser desires can be a restriction on our own freedom? This question is examined in more detail in the discussion over the definition of liberty below. The second question raised by the point above is how do we judge which is more morally desirable when two persons wants directly interfere with each other. A common example of this is the question of private property. The fact that one person owns something directly rules out the possibility of someone else owning it. Therefore, if one person owns something, his desire to continue owning it directly conflicts with another's desire to own it.
How are we to judge which one's freedom is more morally desirable? The answer to this lies in how we are to judge the freedom of society. This is the area of fierce ideological conflict, best characterised by the contrast between official Communism and strict Capitalism - one relying on complete state or public ownership, and the other on the doctrine of private property. It is also possible to use the distinction between 'higher' and 'lower' wants to solve this dilemma. One could say that the health of society is usually a 'higher' want in a rational and moral person, and thus the conflict between individual and social freedoms can be one of conflict between 'lower' desires of selfishness, and 'higher' wants of social stability.
It is important now to start to attempt to define freedom. The most significant and provocative attempt at defining the concept of freedom has been Isaiah Berlin's distinction between Positive and Negative concepts of liberty. Briefly, Negative liberty is liberty in the form of an absence of obstacles to the pursuit of wants, and Positive liberty is concerned with being in control of one's own actions. This thesis has provoked much debate, and one important comment on Berlin's idea was put forward by Charles Taylor is his essay 'What's wrong with negative liberty'. Taylor espouses the notion that proponents of ideas of Negative Liberty are too narrow in their definition, confining obstacles to freedom to external ones. The result of this, he claims, is that the debate over liberty falls into the hands of proponents of Positive Liberty, unless this definition is changed. The consequences of changing this definition are that the line between the apparent distinction between Positive and Negative liberty are blurred.
For example, if we take something which would be seen as a Positive liberty, that of the freedom from coercion by the state. This is clearly positive liberty, as it is concerned with the control over one's actions. This freedom can also be seen in terms of obstacles, and negative liberty, as follows. The freedom from state coercion can be seen as freedom from obstacles to do exactly as one chooses. The state coercion prevents the agent from pursuing their own wants by whatever methods they deem fit. Indeed, it has been commented that Positive and Negative liberty are just 'different sides of the same coin'.
This blurring of the distinction moves from a mere blur to a complete cohesion under the thesis that liberty is a triadic relation, as put forward by Gerald MacCallum. His thesis is that every statement concerning liberty takes the form of X is free from Y to do Z, where X is the agent, Y is an obstacle, and Z is an activity, or state of person or mind. Although this thesis seems to completely refute Berlin's idea that there are two separate and distinct concepts of liberty, and replaces them with this one single idea, that is not quite the case. It must be noted that this thesis of the triadic relation does not offer a complete definition of what is freedom. One needs an idea of what liberty is in order for judgements can be made over what properly constitutes an X, Y or Z factor. For example, could it be said that mentally handicapped persons can be called agents in statements of freedom. If one defines freedom as freedom of physical movement, then they clearly can, but if the definition of freedom requires rational thought, then they may not. One of the most important features of MacCallum's system is that every statement of freedom requires reference to an obstacle.
It is not impossible to marry these two ideas of liberty into some sort of aggregation. If we accept that every statement is in the form of a triadic relation as MacCallum sets out, then of every possible statement that results out of that formula, or 'conception' of freedom as Tim Gray refers to it, can be put into one of two categories, either Positive or Negative. Here we shall use Charles Taylor's use of limiting Negative liberty to external barriers, and making all cases of an internal barrier, such as weak-heartedness or short-sightedness, cases of Positive freedom. It can be seen that we are now, with this slightly different use of the terms Positive and Negative, returning to the question of how internal barriers, or conflicts of one's own wants can be resolved.
If we can, as many suggest, be mistaken in our wants, then it may be possible for another person, or state to be justified in preventing us from attempting to realise certain wants. This appears to be an excuse for tyranny - if the individual may be mistaken if his wants, then let the state decide what is best for that individual. This threat can be overcome, however, by recognising that there is no other person, or state who is better equipped to judge the individual's wants. Even, if the individual is mistaken, then there is still no other person or body who knows better. This having been said, however, room must still be made for the freedoms of groups of people, and society as a whole.
In answering this final question raised, the conclusion to the essay emerges. We have seen how difficult it is to simply define liberty as a single conception, but have discovered many properties that a statement of freedom must posses. In the question between the conflicts of freedom, where two persons individual freedoms create a zero-sum game, the idea of social freedom emerges, and the idea that it is possible for there to be restrictions on an individual's freedom that are morally desirable. To best, and most simply explain in what sense we want people to be free, a balance must be found between the extent to which society may restrict an individual's freedom, and vice versa. As can be seen by observing politics throughout the ages, it is finding this balance that has proven to be the most challenging aspect of the ongoing question of freedom.