Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Freedom, Liberty, and Autonomy

Freedom is one of the moral considerations we most frequently refer to when we discuss moral and political matters.

Freedom of or from What?

But, what is meant by "freedom"? Freedom of what? Freedom from what? There are lots of things that people would like to be free from: fear, hunger, illness, old age, poverty, pain and suffering, death and so forth.

But, when we talk about freedom, we're typically talking about the freedom to rule your own life, to run your own affairs. Freedom from tyranny, freedom from someone else telling you what to do, the liberty to choose and to act as you please. In other words, we're talking about autonomy (i.e., "self-rule").

In particular, freedom is typically understood to include rights that were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution: freedom of speech, the right to assemble and freedom of association, freedom of religion, etc. And the political philosophy of libertarianism -- AKA, "classical liberalism" -- is based on the notion of individual freedom.

We expect that we should be allowed to think and speak as we please, to choose our friends and who we associate (or don't associate) with, to choose when and where (and whether) we want to move, and to do what we want to do and be free to trade and exchange with others as we wish.

Your Liberty Vs My Liberty

One qualification on freedom is that one person's freedom often conflicts with another person's freedom.

My right to swing my arms around ends with your nose, so to speak. I might want something, but I can't take it from others without their consent.

"Consent" is a key term, here. When it comes to liberty, any number of actions are judged appropriate or inappropriate based on whether the people involved give their consent or not. Kidnapping, rape, murder, and torture are violations of freedom (at least in part) because people don't consent to them.

Liberty Vs Other Moral Considerations

Also, liberty is one among several moral considerations. And, like any moral consideration, it might sometimes be outweighed by another one.

Good Samaritan laws, for instance, are an example of laws that take the position that -- at least in some circumstances -- you are not free to refuse aid to a person in need. Typically, these are circumstances where a person is in urgent need of help and it's only a minor inconvenience for someone to do so (for example, it would only require calling 911, the emergency services).

There are also cases where we restrict people's liberty for their own sake. We don't let children or people who are mentally impaired do what they please, often, because they would likely harm themselves (and maybe others, too).

And, in practice, we often allow some violations of (or compromises on) our privacy, property, and autonomy. For instance, we allow police to enter our homes and search our belongings, so long as they have reasonable cause and a warrant in order to find someone or something that poses a threat to others (e.g., a murderer hiding out from the authorities).

How Do We Get Freedom?

And, as always, there are empirical questions about what policies do the best job of securing freedom.

Again, children are a good example: is their liberty best served by letting them do what they want, or by forcing them -- frequently against their wishes -- to go to school, to eat healthy food, to get painful vaccinations and medical services, etc?

How do we maximize liberty? Just by leaving others alone at any given moment? Or, occasionally, by making them do things in the present that will make them more free in the future? Does liberty concern our actions in and of themselves, or also the consequences of our actions? (In other words, are libertarians deontologists or consequentialists?)

And, as with most moral considerations, there's the dilemma of whether it's OK to do a bad thing in order get something good? For instance, is it OK to murder one person in order to secure the freedom of a dozen more?

"Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins."
-- Legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee, Jr., June 1919, in the Harvard Law Review article titled “Freedom of Speech in War Time”. Chafee was quoting an unknown judge, and variations of the quote seem to go all the way back to temperance advocate John B. Finch in 1882.

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
-- Benjamin Franklin, Memoirs of the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin, 1818.

Comment: This is sometimes rendered as, "Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither", or, "If we restrict liberty to attain security we will lose them both". Is this true, though? If you compromise on liberty for the sake of some other moral consideration, you don't deserve liberty?

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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