By: A. Melcon Carrasco
Debates about what the word ‘freedom’ actually entails and the necessity of the government in securing this right for all citizens have been severely contested for centuries. The most commonly accepted view of absolute, complete freedom is the liberty to do what you want to do, without being stopped by anybody else. However, the harm principle was introduced to redefine freedom as the liberty to do as you please, as long as you do not impede others in the exercise of their own freedom, as absolute freedom, in theory, allow violent acts such as rape and murder. There are two major stands of freedom, these being positive and negative freedom.
Negative freedom is a human model which, assuming we know what we want, sees our main obstacle to getting what we want is other people’s own desires. This model has been seen as crude by many, and the philosopher Charles Taylor said negative freedom offers us an opportunity concept of freedom, emphasizing what we can do, whether we can do anything to exercise them. Philosopher Hegel referred to negative freedom as ‘freedom of caprice’, as asking if somebody is free to satisfy desires won’t necessarily determine they are free.
Positive freedom takes into consideration that what we want is not necessarily what is actually in our bast interests, and also expands on considering society as a whole instead of the individual. Whilst negative freedom can be seen as entertaining an opportunity concept, positive freedom is an exercise concept. It associates beliefs, desires, and ideas with self-understanding of who individuals want to be. Critics of liberal models say that positive freedom marks a shift of priority from the right to choose, to choosing rightly.
The state is the defender of liberty and property of the citizen in a sort of social contract between rulers and the ruled, making it responsible for guaranteeing freedom for citizens. The state derives laws to diminish the absolute freedom of citizens to ensure majority’s liberty and security and avoid returning to the violent anarchy of state of nature. Thomas Hobbes believed that people agree on a social contract to avoid a hypothetical state of nature with no laws nor central authority, and to instead give up some of their individual liberties to a sovereign responsible for granting freedoms. Objections to the social contract theory have arisen because of its historical inaccuracy, as there was never a time when state and citizens signed an arrangement, as well as the fact that the theory is tied to a simplistic model of human nature where we are all self-interested individuals. There are many distinct theories of political philosophies.
Liberalism is split between libertian and social democratic views. Although these two theories have fundamentally distinct principles, they do agree on various values. Firstly, both believe that freedom to choose is more important than the goods to choose from itself, thus prioritizing the right over good. Moreover, both also agree that inequality will always inevitably go hand in hand with freedom, as the political economy of liberalism is the free market, and capitalism, which will ensure perpetuating inequality.
Social democracy is the political theory that prizes individual freedom, but not to the exclusion responsibility or of justice. Social democrats interpret justice as not only leaving individuals to themselves but also providing them with equal freedom, leading to more inclination towards higher taxation. Despite insisting on equality of opportunity, social democracy assumes inequality of result. However, it does insist that individual autonomy, private property rights and free market are social arrangements that we, as a society, can change if we wish. John Rawls was an avid defender of social democratic liberalism and believed that the principle of justice should be based on what we would opt to if we were to all be reborn in a random original position.
Egalitarianism or democratic socialism is the alternative to the liberal free market. Richard Norman said that equality does not need to be the opposite of liberty, and uniformity, but instead as the equal access to freedom. Democratic socialists criticize liberals false promise of freedom as liberal meritocracies reinforce privilege based on inequality of outcomes. The Egalitarian approach favors social changes which limit inequality; however, many argue that this actually diminishes the freedom of some as better education and opportunities come with larger taxes restricting the freedom of the rich. This proposes the question of how we can have a theory providing a basis for justice without losing possibilities of pluralism and freedom.
The Utilitarian view aims to promote greatest happiness of the greatest number. To maximize happiness, utilitarians argue that the same codes must be respected by everybody, and the universal observance of such laws will be most beneficent. Regarding the ethics of civil disobedience, the utilitarian viewpoint says that allegiance to the state and laws are always conditions, which some argue is wrong as there are some cases, such as the lawful discrimination against African Americans in the US in the 1950s, in which defying the state should be allowed.
However, a problem which arises with this view is the difficulty in predicting the full long-term consequences of passing laws or implementing policies will be. Moreover, it is hard to measure, and thus maximize, happiness when there are different types of happiness and ways to get it. Theorists have tried to distinguish between preferences, rather than happiness, as preferences are what people want but not always in their best interests. Following a utilitarian viewpoint fully would most likely be unbeneficial to society, having a paradoxical position of lowering utility in its intent to giving people what they want no matter the consequences in the long run.