“Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.”
This quotation from Rebecca Slick sparked my interest in the topic of freedom almost one year ago. That spark led to me writing a pair of blog posts introducing the topic. Since that time, I have put a significant amount of thought into this topic, which means it’s posting time again. I’ll now summarize two common perspectives of freedom, and consider the implications of holding each perspective.
One perspective is “negative” in its nature, since it focuses on an absence of something. This negative perspective describes freedom as an absence of restrictions in decision making. For example, a prisoner wants to take an afternoon walk, but cannot do so since he is locked in a jail cell. This prisoner would have more freedom in his decision if the jail cell restriction was taken away. The prisoner desires to have freedom from this restriction.
The other perspective is “positive” in its nature, where freedom involves something that is present. This positive perspective describes freedom as an experience that can be attained by following specific guidelines. For example, a child wants to fly a kite on a windy day, and wants to experience the greatest amount of freedom in flying the kite. In order for the child to experience this freedom, she needs a proper kite structure, a particular range of wind speed, and the correct movements to release the kite. If she steps outside these boundaries, she will not experience a freedom for flight.
These two perspectives of freedom often relate to each other. In order to follow the set of guidelines that will lead to freedom (positive freedom), you may first need to eliminate a restriction (negative freedom). If you focus on one perspective, you can still incorporate the other perspective. However, focusing on either one leads to significant moral implications.
If you focus on negative freedom, you will desire to eliminate as many restrictions to your decision-making ability as possible. As more restrictions are eliminated, you will feel more free to make a moral choice you want to make. You will have a difficult time putting yourself under a structure of rules, as those rules could inhibit your ability to choose.
As a result, you may reject political or religious structures because they propose a set of rules that you should live by. Instead, you might believe that people should express themselves however they want to. There is no right or wrong in the expression itself. What’s right is the freedom to choose the expression, and what’s wrong is the restriction that prevents the expression.
If you focus on positive freedom, you will take a different path to obtain freedom. Rather than rejecting structures, you will seek a structure that will allow you to have the greatest experience of freedom. Restrictions will be present in this structure, but they won’t inhibit you. Those restrictions will actually lead you to freedom.
As a result, you may search for a specific moral system under a religious or philosophical viewpoint. The decision of which system to follow becomes an important one, as following a system with the wrong restrictions may lead to a significant loss of freedom. Under this perspective, the freedom to choose is not virtuous in itself. Instead, virtuous behavior comes through choosing the correct path to freedom.
Now let’s go back to the quotation from Rebecca Slick that opened this post – “Freedom is my God now”. Rebecca’s childhood influenced the way she would eventually view freedom. In the article that contains that quotation, Rebecca explains that her parents put excessive restrictions on her as she grew up, mostly due to their Christian convictions. Obedience was their focus, and Rebecca felt constant pressure to live perfectly. In response to the question of whether she would trade her childhood for another, Rebecca wrote,
“Without that childhood, I wouldn’t understand what freedom truly is — freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful.”
This quotation shows a strong focus on negative freedom, where true freedom is found through the elimination of restrictions. And there were moral implications resulting from this focus. After becoming an atheist, Rebecca had a desire to experience freedom from the rules of Christianity that she felt held her back for her whole life. She perceived religious systems as overly restraining. And she viewed the freedom to choose – the freedom to express herself in the way she wanted – as a virtue elevated to the same level as the God she once believed in.
If Rebecca’s view of freedom is indeed true freedom, then choice becomes more important than moral structure. For many people, acting on this view may be more convenient, since there is little obligation to follow a specific moral code. However, if Rebecca’s view of freedom is not true freedom, then many people are missing the big picture of freedom and what it’s about. So in my next post about freedom I’ll turn to that important question – what is true freedom? Or in other words, what view of freedom corresponds most with reality?