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Introverted_Leo's avatar

What is freedom, and does it exist? If so, does it have a catch?

Asked by Introverted_Leo (1957points) March 5th, 2009

And by “catch” I mean does it have to exist withint a framework of laws that people must oblige to?

I’ve been pondering on this lately and have my own outlook on it, but I’d like to see what other people have to say about it.

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16 Answers

ubersiren's avatar

True freedom does exist, albeit in small obscure communities where government leaves them alone.

wundayatta's avatar

No one, and no thing have complete freedom. We are all subject to constraints. The universe, as far as we can tell, can’t violate physical laws. People also cannot violate the laws of physics, but more importantly, we are only as free as other people and our environment allow us to be.

Human laws are attempts to codify the rules a society lives under. We provide various incentives and sanctions to encourage people not to act outside the law. I guess you can say humans have freedom to the degree that the laws allow it, or, if they violate the laws, the degree to which they can not be sanctioned for such violations of the law.

Laws can be made to benefit a small number of people, or they can be made to maximize the number of people they benefit. Most political systems struggle to balance somewhere between those extremes. We like to think we live in a system that maximizes the benefit for all.

Freedom, as used in the context of politics, means the ability to have a voice in political decisions. In many democratic societies, there is near 100% freedom for people meeting the qualifications for participation, as far as participation in the political system is concerned. Of course, this does not mean 100% freedom for the society, as children and criminals and some others are usually left out.

Freedom, in the sense of liberty of action, means that you can do whatever you want, with no sanctions. This is clearly not true for anyone. Even the most powerful people are constrained; by the need for security, for example. Many leaders of nations can not go where they want to. They are subject to the constraints of security.

Some people believe they should have freedom to use that which they own. Even this is constrained. We do not allow people to do things with their land that will hurt their neighbors’ ability to do with their land as they see fit. Rights of ownership, and the freedom to use property are constrained.

Freedom, I would argue, can only exist in specific contexts, such as the political freedom I described above. Any other kind of freedom outside of any particular context, is always limited, and therefore, not freedom.

Harp's avatar

Freedom is always relative. Because, as @daloon said, no condition of absolute freedom ever exists, we can only speak of freedom in comparison to a less free condition.

We trade off our freedoms all the time in order to gain other advantages. We commit to a relationship with a significant other and exchange some of our freedom to spend our time any way we like (or to leave the toilet seat up) for love and companionship. We want the advantages of living in civilization, so we sacrifice some of our ability to behave however we like and in exchange we get protected by a military and don’t have to catch our dinner in snares. We decline to exercise the freedom to inject heroin into our veins, or maybe to smoke cigarettes, in exchange for a longer life.

A world in which complete freedom reigned would devolve very quickly into chaos. American democracy has been an experiment to see just how much freedom it’s possible to allow without going past the tipping point into chaos (we’re currently witinessing the consequences of crossing that tipping point in the financial sector).

The various political ideologies in America essentially differ in where they think that tipping point is within various segments of society. Some want to see less freedom accorded to business and more accorded to individuals. Others think the opposite is required for a sustainable balance. No one, even libertarians, argues for absolute freedom.

wundayatta's avatar

@Harp: Really? Libertarians don’t argue for absolute freedom? I’ve always wondered about that, because I thought they wanted to get rid of government entirely. Although they do seem to have an exception for a military, although I don’t understand why that would be.

marinelife's avatar

We create our own constraints. Living in total anarchy is not comfortable.

Harp's avatar

@daloon Risky to make generalizations concerning Libertarians, because their phiosophy is, by its nature, extremely hard to pin down. You’re right that they reject, to varying degrees, the ascendancy of government over the individual, but they generally recognize certain other limitations. The emphasis libertarians place on property rights carries an implied lack of freedom of one person to make off with the property of another, for instance. Some believe that government can only exercise authority by contractual agreement with the individual, but any contractual agreement is by definition a restriction of freedom. So Libertarians may not want government interference in their affairs, but that’s hardly absolute freedom.

Introverted_Leo's avatar

Hm…interesting. I think there is a bit of truth in everyone’s answers. Anyways, thanks for your thoughts. This is probably one of those questions most people can’t be arsed to answer, so I’ll take what I can, lol.

pekenoe's avatar

Freedom does exist in theory, in reality freedom does not as long as there is at least one other people on the planet. The last one alive will have complete freedom, minus the physical constraints.

aeschylus's avatar

I would be interested to know what freedom was before deciding whether or not it exists. It sounds like most people are thinking of it as “doing whatever you want, whenever you want,” but I wonder what other meanings it could have. For instance, it could mean: “the ability to do wrong,” thus making doing good valuable. It could mean: “the privilege of governing the city (rather than doing hard labor to sustain it).”

I feel most free when I am making a decision or doing something that has nothing to do with the part of me that is an animal, such as doing math. I think freedom is being what you most fundamentally are. It flows from one’s being. I am free when I follow the right whims, the whims of my highest humanity, over those of my immediate obligations and impulses.

wundayatta's avatar

@aeschylus: That is a totally excellent post! Welcome to fluther!

Introverted_Leo's avatar

@aeschylus: I agree, great answer! : )

“I would be interested to know what freedom was before deciding whether or not it exists.”

I can see how the phrasing of my question would render this interpretation.

If I’d asked, “Does freedom exist? If so, then what is it?” then there’s a warrant that I already have one particular definition of freedom in mind, which may or may not be shared by everyone else. By asking, “What is freedom?” first, I am asking for some definition of the idea/theory of freedom before asking whether or not that defined freedom actually exists.

I didn’t mean this as a trick question, though. Of course, as many of you have already shown, there are many ways to interpret freedom, which was the original aim of my question. I hope that clears up any confusion about the intent of my question.

hitomi's avatar

I am answering this question the way my brain first told me to answer it….although, after reading everyone else’s answers I feel….well…..naive….

Although I have to add that I loved @aeschylus for that answer.

I am a huge advocate for the concept that “everything is a matter of perspective”. This means that I believe that freedom is a state of mind and therefore not only very real, but also very possible. I rarely feel that I am NOT free (although…I’ve never thought about physics in my concept of freedom…that poses a problem).

If you go around saying to yourself that something/someone (e.g. the government, your boss, your parents, etc.) is keeping you from being free than you AREN’T free….I however…rarely do that, but maybe that’s just a sign that I don’t aspire toward something that is outside of the constraints that I am living in.

I also have to add on what my brother just said when I read this question to him:
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…and it’s nothing honey if it ain’t free” (Me and Bobby McGee)

toleostoy's avatar

@Marina: how would you know living in total anarchy is uncomfortable?

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

Freedom is having nothing left to lose, to steal a line from Janis Joplin.

Seriously though, freedom is relative, like many people ^ up there said first. We cannot violate the natural laws of the universe, so free will in that regard is impossible. Freedom is a choice, and a privilege.

In my job, those of us that man the gates are free to do our job as we see fit, as long as we remain within the constraints of the rules of the site. Some guards are very professional and business-like when dealing with everyone. Almost as serious as a policeman taking down evidence at a crime scene.

Myself, I have worked both sides of the guard shack, and there has always been a tenseness between truck drivers, and security guards. Both are just trying to do their jobs, and sometimes, they can come to opposing viewpoints. The truck driver just wants to deliver his load and get to his next stop, while the guard wants to be sure the trucker is following the rules, has the correct paperwork, and gets in to deliver and then gets out in a timely manner. Some guards look down their noses at truck drivers, as if they are somehow beneath their respect. Some truckers look at guards as rent-a-cops and arrogant boys playing soldier.

When I drove a truck, I knew some guards that I hated because they were egotistical bastards. As a guard, I get truckers that seem ready for a fight, as if I am going to be a jerk to them.

I try to walk a middle line, treating the drivers with respect and friendliness as long as they understand I am only doing my job, just as they are, and everyone will be better off if everyone follows the rules.

Sorry to get off track, but as I said earlier, freedom is about choices, and while you can’t choose to do anything you like, no matter what, you can be free to choose how you interact with those around you.

Freedom is also a privilege, because if you violate the rules or laws, of the land, or of the government, you can lose your freedom. Seems readily apparent, but if you lose your temper and kill your neighbor because he is doing you wrong in some way, you lose your freeedom when you go to prison. I suppose this all seems sort of naive, but this is a difficult question, and I answered it to the best of my ability.

Sorry for writing a novella as an answer. :^)

Bronny's avatar

there is no such thing as freedom in its applicable form because our rights as individuals only reach as far as to where the overlap where anothers has begun. they cannot overlap. there are limitations. the exception to the rule is that we have the freedom to not stick around and endure someone elses manhandling of their own.

Earthgirl's avatar

I think many of the answers serve to illustrate just how broad the facets of the question are. First of all, I would differentiate the concept of freedom from that of free will. Free will is a metaphysical concept having nothing to do with freedom as a construct of society. Freedom can be physical or mental. It can involve the actual ability to do things or the freedom from having things done to you or rules imposed on you. In the first case your freedom could be limited by economic constraints, physical disabilities, intelligence, access to education,etc. In the latter case, your freedom could be limited by a repressive government curtailing your ability to practice your religion, laws governing your right to birth control, your right to free speech, and your ability to board an airplane without being strip-searched first ;)
We willingly cede some of our freedoms in order to make society function smoothly. This may or may not result in a greater good. I think it does generally help keep chaos at bay. We need to have rules, like it or not. Quite simply, we are a very competitve species. Some people really do believe that all is fair in love and war. They don’t believe in the rules of fair play. (for purposes of simplicity, let’s just leave total sociopaths out of the equation)
I’ve been thinking a bit about this issue because I just finished reading “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. This book illustrates how dangerous it is to limit freedom in the name of improving society and trying to banish bad feelings, and pain. Conformity and total loss of freedom results. In order to have freedom, we have to accept pain.

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