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What is Freedom?

I promised from the beginning of this blog that it was apolitical, and I have come to realize I did not say what I meant. A better word would be apartisan. Anytime a statement is made about human systems, it is a political statement—it deals with the policy of a polis, a group of human beings. Thus, when I discuss academic freedom or even different views on Creation, those are political statements, even if they are not partisan. Of course, I do need to clarify what I mean by partisan, which is I will not advocate for any of the organized political parties in the US. I will share views on issues, some (many) of which may be identified with a plank in a given party’s platform, but those are happenstances of agreement rather than advocacy, as I will also usually challenge weaknesses of a given view or its application to policy.

Enough disclaimer.

Obviously, I feel the need for the disclaimer today because “freedom” is a very political concept. There is inherently a prepositional implication: “freedom from” or “freedom to.” It is certainly THE most cherished value in our society, yet strangely, one of the least defined or discussed. It is so foundational an axiom in Western life that few meditate on it or study it. It is the water in which our culture swims, and we rarely realize that indeed, we are wet. That is, until we perceive dry spots on our scales.

Literally, herein lies the rub. In its most basic sense, freedom is the ability to shape the environment around us, to a greater or lesser extent. To have freedom is to possess the ability to influence. Therefore, if there is more than one entity with the ability to influence, then the risk arises that these influences will interact. When they do, the interaction can be constructive, neutral or destructive, in the sense of achieving the goals of both entities. Dry spots occur when the influence of one entity reduces the influence of another entity. Given that the entities are separate, it stands to reason that the motivations and goals of each will have differences, and can run counter to each other, or, that the preferred methods for achieving even common goals can be different.

Therefore, as the number and complexities of entities increase, the risk for conflict increases until at a certain point, that risk becomes a certainty. Conflicts are avoided or resolved by one of two means, restricting an entity’s own freedom, or restricting the freedom of others. These are the only two options, yet they play out in a variety of ways: self-restraint, overpowering, or compromise (which is mutual self-restraint).

When an entity refuses to exercise self-restraint, conflicts become more intense. If its influence is small, its impact on others is small to non-existent. The greater its power (the freedom to influence a larger area of its environment), the greater the conflict in intensity, number of involved entities, or both.

The ability to influence is not the only issue however. There is also the quality of self-awareness. A hurricane has a substantial ability to influence, but is not self-aware, and therefore cannot be said to have freedom. An animal has the ability to influence (building a nest), and perhaps some minor level of self-awareness (a dog being obedient or not), but it is an open discussion as to how ‘free’ they are in the context of this post. No, for purposes of this discussion, we are talking about human beings and the systems that groups of humans create in order to have working societies.

So, given that conflicts arise due to the exercising of freedoms, what are our options? We basically have two—live with it or take away freedom. If we live with it, it means we are accepting the other’s ability to hinder our freedom (i.e.- to be inconvenienced). However, in order to take away freedom, there must be an entity with enough freedom to do so. Thus, when a restriction in one entity’s freedom is imposed, it of necessity must be done by another entity with more freedom…AND/OR the permission of the restricted entity. So really, there really is only one option—when conflict arises (apart from issues of pure misunderstanding), someone’s freedom is restricted. The questions then become who’s freedom, by how much, and who imposes the restriction?

With this foundation, in the next post or two, I will look at contemporary examples of freedom to see if we can find resolutions for points of conflict. {Of course, if this extends past two posts, I am merely exercising my freedom as the owner of this blog. You are welcome to exercise your freedom to read or not!}


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