In the early 21st century, Western-style freedoms are often presented as an ideal template for the rest of the world. Yet supposedly free democracies are also marked by substantial and growing disparities of wealth, power and status. Fellow citizens seem to be increasingly socially-disengaged, individualistic and narcissistic, and suffer record levels of psychological ill-health, reflected in (among other things) high suicide rates. So is this vaunted freedom simply an illusion?
Many would argue that the gross inequalities characteristic of Western societies compromise its freedom. Upbringing, education and family background still dramatically affect the opportunities available to citizens, and it may seem that the underprivileged are inevitably less free. But tempting though it may be to equate freedom with opportunity, and desirable though equality of opportunity may be as a general political goal, freedom and opportunity are not the same.
My freedom is not measured by the breadth of the options available to me, but by how I am equipped to choose between those options: am I in reality the author of my own choices? Hence Sartre’s initially paradoxical-sounding remark: “Never were we freer than under the German occupation.” Liberté and égalité are both worth fighting for, but they are not the same.
Philosophers have long questioned whether freedom, thus understood, is even possible. Human acts are events in the physical world and all such events are held to have determining physical causes. Every natural event follows from other precursor events, such that if the precursors occur the event must follow. Modern physicists have complicated this debate by arguing that nature is ruled by chance rather than causal necessity. But neither the advocates of chance nor the advocates of necessity have so far succeeded in persuading us that we are not really the authors of our own actions.
In recent decades, philosophers have sidestepped these somewhat sterile debates by asking a more subtle question: freedom is something we say we want, but what sort of freedom would be worth wanting?
Take freedom of movement for instance. Whether or not I might end up living in another country is of relatively little interest to me if that outcome can only come about through some deterministic (or alternatively random) process that I am powerless to influence. The freedom I want is the freedom to make my own thought-through decisions about where I live; and these decisions must make sense from my own particular standpoint. To generalise, then, the type of freedom worth wanting appears to be self-determination or “autonomy”.
Construing freedom as autonomy seems to chime with the way we understand our freedoms in practice. I am free to give money to charity, or withhold it, in line with what I consider to be important. My list of favoured charities may have nothing in common with yours, but neither of us gives or withholds our contributions randomly. Equally, I am free to engage in extreme sports, to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, despite the serious attendant risks and the possible disapproval of others, if doing so makes sense from my standpoint.
The philosopher who provided the main theoretical foundations for modern liberalism – John Stuart Mill – famously argued in On Liberty (1859) that it is the mark of a civilised society that it only seeks to actively curtail the options available to people where taking up those options would risk significant harm to others. Are societies that succeed, as far as possible, in abiding by Mill’s principle, consequently free?
There is an important further factor we need to consider. As Mill recognised, the “liberty of thought and discussion” has a vital role to play in any free society. If my freedom consists of being able to select those options that make most sense from my standpoint, I will be free only insofar as my choices are properly informed.
Freedom of thought
Mill championed freedom of speech on the basis that the airing of unpopular and controversial views will ultimately enhance freedom. He reasoned that the critical public discussion that follows will lead us all closer to the truth and equip us to make better-informed choices. Here Mill seems to have been dangerously overoptimistic.
In this era of “post-truth” – and more recently the proliferation of “fake news” – reliable information on the issues that matter most (for example, climate change) seems harder and harder to come by. Many of our most important choices seem to be made on the basis of more or less deliberate misinformation.
Bizarrely, such misinformed choices are sometimes themselves defended in the name of freedom. But there is a world of difference between a well-informed choice that we happen not to agree with and a choice that is significantly misinformed. I may (conceivably) respect your choice to smoke 40 cigarettes and drink a bottle of whisky every day if I am persuaded that you understand the risks involved, but I cannot respect your choice if I know that you have been seriously misinformed about those risks.
Our choices are free only if our thought is free, and our thought is free only if it is properly informed.
Freedom of thought does not, it seems, arise naturally from freedom of discussion. The idea that it does may stem from confusing the freedom of thought (which consists in making good sense of the world) with freedom of speech (which seems to be interpreted as an entitlement to say whatever we want, within the limits of legality, however misleading it may be).
We cannot properly assess the quality of our freedom until we have established whether and to what extent the choices we make are based on adequate understanding. Perhaps, then, the roots of the apparent two-facedness of Western-style freedoms lie in this: that while the majority of people in those societies have access to a wider range of choices than their grandparents could have imagined, this development has been accompanied by a growing disregard for individual and collective abilities to properly understand those choices and their broader context.
Read more in our series, On Freedom.