No word is more abused, confused and misused in politics today than freedom.
On a local, state and national level, we see opposition in the name of freedom to public health measures, environmental regulations, gun-safety regulations, and, in general, regulations to promote the common good. For example, in the US. House, one representative chastised Dr. Fauci’s support of public health safety measures as, according to the representative, the cause of one of the greatest assaults on our freedom. Locally, some have opposed public safety measures as unjustified because they limited the freedom of business owners. In Helena, the common criterion for promoting legislation is does the bill promote freedom from government regulation.
Freedom has become a political god-term, which the rhetorical theorist Richard Weaver defines as “those words that are so forceful and influential that they can overpower a lot of other language or ideas.” Freedom has become an argumentative absolute, an all-encompassing, unquestionable value. But these god-terms, and they exist on both the right and left, are purposely vague, which like many articles of faith we don’t know why they are true but they are a rigid article of faith.
While precision and sound reasoning are not usually associated with political discourse, that does not obviate the duty of citizens to define concepts; to think about what is being discussed; to critically analyze the pro/con arguments and reach an informed conclusion that is the product of rational deliberation. The unquestioned use of god-terms debases public discourse.
If freedom is to be used as the judge and basis of public policy, the meaning of freedom is in need of precision.
Historically, two views of freedom predominate:
1. Freedom as the absence of external restraint.
2. Freedom as doing what one ought to do personally and socially.
Today, too many only focus on the first definition and forget altogether the second. We see freedom today as doing what one wants and an absence of constraints and we think any limits to our freedom are contemptuous political blasphemy. Consequently, our actions are subject to no order or restraint.
Carried to its logical conclusion, this view would lead to the dissolution of society for society depends on people limiting their individual pursuits so as not to harm others. Aristotle noted: “Every man should be responsible to others, nor should any be allowed to do just as he please; for where absolute freedom is allowed there is nothing to restrain the evil which is inherent in man.” Society demands that there must be some sense of community, which means that individuals have to limit their self-absorbed pursuits in the interests of society. There must be some sense of submitting to the needs of the community.
Simply because we freely do something doesn’t make what we do right. Before praising a person on the exercise of their freedom we should first see what they are using it to do.
The second conception of freedom is that true freedom is attained by performing our ethical duties. i.e., doing what we ought to do, which usually involves concern and care of others. Our civic duty is to put aside our private concerns and attend to the promotion of the commonwealth. Within society, no freedom is absolute for were there to be absolute freedoms, society would dissolve. We enter society in order to control the harmful behavior of others; to promote common endeavors and because we are social by nature. But society demands that there be rules limiting the behavior of individuals in order to promote the common good. “Freedom is the means by which exercising both our reason and our will, we act on the natural longing for truth, for goodness and for happiness that is built in us human beings.” Thomas Aquinas
Neither type of freedom can flourish independently of the other. While we need to espouse freedom as liberty of action, we must not lose sight of freedom as pursuing the common good.
Given the prevalent view of freedom as absence of constraint, no wonder civil society is atrophying. We have lost sight of our public duty to promote the general welfare and replaced it with a ruinous egoistic self-absorption that threatens our destruction.
Dr. John W. Ray teaches classes in political philosophy, political science and ethics at Montana Tech. He has presented peer reviewed papers on the social dimension of freedom at conferences in England, France, Germany and Greece. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Montana Tech.