We are only free in that we have limits.
What do I mean?
A little over a month ago, I wrote a post on homosexuality, and on what I see as a mistake in how the debate about it is usually conducted. I got many responses to that post (protip: if you want your blog to get a lot of hits, write on something controversial) and, in response to one of those, I wrote a comment about the relationship between genetics and choice.
As I said in that comment, genetics are, in one sense, predetermining of the kind of people we will be. It might seem, then, that where genetics controls us, freedom is absent. Yet, I contend, there is a much more complicated relationship here, and, speaking more broadly, a much more complicated relationship between limits in general and freedom.
Typically, we think of freedom, and consequently choice, as the ability to be free from constraints. Often, this is a metaphysical reflection on a political reality. A person held back by the law from driving 100mph down a busy street is not, in one sense, free to perform that action. And there is some truth in this, an utterly predetermined being, with no choice whatsoever in its course of action (for example, a rock) would in no sense be free.
However, there is a flipside to this. In having limits, I have something to act against, and that in turn actually gives me choice. Take the above mentioned case of genetics - genetics gives me a certain sort of body, and that body gives me limits (I can't fly or run faster than a locomotive), yet at the same time it is only in terms of that body that I can make many of my choices (whether to type and this computer or go for a jog for example). Without the limits of a body, the choices of physical actions would be meaningless. Likewise, the law may prevent me from going 100mph (without consequences) but this in turn means I'm free to cross the busy street without fearing a car barreling over me at 100mph.
This last case also relates to a further point, that limits not only make us free, but they make us free to flourish. This is particularly true in the case of morality. Whatever your views to the objectivity of morality, anyone would agree that a person who feels protected from murder will be more likely to thrive (even though the choice of murdering another is thereby cut off to him).
Further, if we have in mind any view of human nature in which men are fallible and liable to fall into grave immorality, whatever system or training helps that nature to take hold of its passions and become thereby better able to follow morality, even though it blocks off the former bad choices, creates in the man another kind of positive freedom.
Thus, freedom, at least for humans, seems to always exist in light of limits. Limits are a precondition for genuine choice1.
1. I cannot claim these ideas as my own, though the specific expression of them, especially in terms of embodiment, is. I'm not sure exactly where I've picked up these notions, but I am aware that I have heard similar views advocated at various times and do want to give those individuals due credit to the best of my ability. It seems to me that Kant espouses something like this view in the last section of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, though typical of Kant it is written in very obscure language that makes it hard to be sure. I've further heard a discussion of the difference between negative freedom (freedom from restraints) and positive freedom (freedom for a kind of action) given at certain times. One case was a Mars Hill Audio discussion, and another was in a discussion of the ideas of Phillip Blond. Finally, my wonderful Bishop and pastor Todd Hunter espoused a similar idea in a sermon while talking about training in virtue. This in turn, I am told, comes from Aristotle and can also be found in Anselm (and no doubt Aquinas).