So, what does freedom mean to us?

Freedom is a BIG topic and it’s not until you listen to someone who has spent a considerable amount of time exploring the subject, that you begin to realise the complexities, the nuances, and most importantly, the importance of freedom as it relates to law, politics and society as a whole.

Last week I attended a lecture titled So, what does freedom mean to us? by  Professor Quentin Skinner, Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities, Queen Mary, University of London,  which was held as part of UNSW’s “So What” lecture series. Professor Skinner is the type of person who exudes intelligence and also, someone surprisingly, possesses an abundance of 1st class English wit. The talk only lasted for one hour and this was never going to be enough time to more than scratch the surface.

As with many Philosophy lectures, I find myself fluctuating between rabid curiosity and the feeling that Philosophy as a whole is a pointless pursuit akin to sticking one’s head up one’s ass. The continual unpacking of meanings sometimes seems pointless but at other times offers amazingly deep insights.

But back to the topic at hand. I’ve been aware of the divergent relationship between Freedom and Equality for quite some time.  In short, if you allow people to be free, then by following their own paths people will become unequal by almost any measure you care to use.  For example, one person may work hard and build a fortune through business, another may eat junk food and watch TV for 8 hours a day, and yet another may exist on a meager income whilst creating wonderful artwork. To equalise these three fictional people, let’s say across dimensions such as income, and health, would require moderate to sever restrictions on their person freedoms. But more on this in a future post.

Professor Skinner talked more about the definition of Freedom, what must be absent or present in order for freedom to exist, and the history of thinking on the topic.  One point that was only briefly touched on was that for someone to be free then they must have the power to act – a crude example would be am I really free to purchase a Rolls Royce motor vehicle if I don’t have enough money to purchase it?

Early thinking was that only physical constraint could be considered a “lack of freedom” however this was rather quickly superseded to include coercion by mental manipulation. A very interesting train of thought emerged when you consider that the coercer could be the individual themselves rather than some external party. Could someone be denying themselves freedom and if so then is the person free?

Skinner also covered in some detail that Freedom can also be defined as the absence of dependence. This really starts to get to the heart of the matter because everyone is dependant on many other people – the government to manage the country, the garbage man to collect my garbage, my partner to iron my shirts (just joking). So let’s say that we decided to do away with all these dependencies and move to live in isolation in a cave in the mountains.  I’ll grant that this will remove most of the aforementioned dependencies but will not of course remove the most basic of dependencies for staples such as food and water.  We can never be free from these most basic needs and therefore can never be totally free.  But this leads to an argument against the definition of freedom as the absence of dependence.  For while I am dependant on others to undertake certain activities (e.g. a farmer to grow food for me) it also leaves me free to pursue other interests. So freedom can actually come out of dependence.

If this topic interest you then the lecture is well worth viewing.  It’s soon to be available on UNSW TV.


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