Friday, November 26, 2010

Philosophy: Freedom as Limits

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). 


  1. Not that I necessarily advocate what I am going to say but I think it might be a common objection. I hope most will agree with your example of murder as a limit which opens up freedom, but I think one may agree not because it limits an individual and therefore makes him more free/virtuous but because it protects another individual (the murdered) from being infringed upon. If one were to take this line of logic your concluding paragraphs would be one terrible non-sequiter.

    I think your response may very well be that the notion of infringing on individual freedom already presupposes the law as ethics (notions of equality, sanctity of human life, etc)--meaning that moral limits have already been imposed. Fair enough, hypothetical Kevin in my head, but it does not necessarily follow that any "system or training" that leads us to "become thereby better" is a good let alone a positive freedom. Without pulling St. Paul into this, who would seem to say that the function of law is to reveal corruption not to fix it, I could clearly think of examples of impositions which make someone engage in more moral actions that are not for his or her or society's betterment (ie castration of male subjects to prevent sexual immorality--a ridiculous example but one that seems to follow your sketch of law and limitation).

  2. All that to say, yes, limits are a condition for freedom as all oppositions are conditions (silence for sound and vice versa) for each other; however there are such things as "un-natural" or "immoral" or "unjustifiable" impositions (like the castration example). These impositions, in short, constrain individual freedom with no "pay-off" for society or the benefit of another (at least when compared to the loss of individual freedom--the loss to have children, enjoy a healthy sexual life are huge freedoms to lose when the societal "pay-off" is a reduction of sexual perversion). In other words, although I think the language you use is right (freedom/limitation--very Freudian), profound even, I do not think too many people would really disagree with you when it comes down to it.

    Yes, all law is ultimately a limitation to allow for individual and public flourishing, freedom, on some level. It sort of just seems like you're saying you do not want us to ask "does this constrain freedom?" but rather "does this by its inherent limitations open up a social space for a greater public, and in a teleological way the aforementioned individual's, freedom?" These seem to me to be the same question though--I think most people mean precisely what you say in the first question, but avoid saying the latter either for convenience or because they haven't read Nicomachean Ethics. That being said, I think it's a helpful linguistic distinction and expression, but I think more people might agree with you than you think.

  3. As I said to you in person, I think you've focused too much on the legal aspect of what I've said. I was making a general metaphysical claim, the legal aspect of which was merely for illustration.

    To get very Wittgensteinian/Analytic for a moment. The grammar of choice is only meaningful in terms of limits. I am only free to choose to eat my breakfast or not eat my breakfast if the one excludes the other.

    Or, to put things another way, choice is only "interesting" if what we choose from are real things with real differences (and therefore, in some sense, constrained). If I am a being who can choose absolutely from a field of variables a,b,c,d,e,f, etc. my choice isn't really meaningful. My choices are empty, and the difference between my picking a and picking d is superficial.

    However, if I am a being that can choose to sit here at the computer, or go for a jog, my choice means something and, by extension, I am truly free.

  4. I agree that there is a limitation to choice in the sense of the mutual limitation of options one on the other--I also get the "limitations" of the body being its very condition for freedom--what I do not follow so much is your direct application of it to morality. You seem in your post not so much to be saying, "hey, all choice presupposes limitations, so too for ethics" but "hey, all ethical choices presuppose ethical limitations" (the systems of ethics being the condition as limitation of the individual's ethical freedom). This is what I was uncomfortable with--not the pseudo-metaphysics of choice/freedom bit.

  5. Ah. Then my post was poorly written. Ethics stood as an example.