Flavours of liberty

In lecture, reflection on August 18, 2012 at 12:00

A dear friend yesterday shared his quest to sharpen his understanding of philosophical concepts by studying their opposites. Like one can better understand light by acknowledging darkness, it seems to him that much is to be learned about wealth, power, comfort, safety and liberty by considering what they are not.

As I pointed out, this exercise is tricky with liberty, because “liberty” encompasses several notions with diverging opposites.

The first notion that came to my mind is free will; that is, one’s perception that one is the sole agent responsible for one’s decisions and actions. The contrasting notion is fate or predetermination, ie. the perception that one’s decisions or actions have been determined a priori.

The second notion is the one recognized as freedom of movement. This form of liberty entails one’s perception that one relationship with the natural environment is the sole constraint to one’s physical whereabouts: you can’t leave the atmosphere or o through hard surfaces, but otherwise you are confident that nobody prevents you from being where you want to be. The contrasting notion is the well-known restricted freedom of movement, where one is directly faced with obstacles to geographical self-determination created by other people.

The third notion is freedom of thought and speech, quite related to the second: here the liberty is one’s perception that one’s ability to think and create new thoughts is the sole limit to one’s ability to have thoughts and express them aloud (or in writing). The contrasting notion is the direct facing of restrictions (including fears of retribution) to this ability placed by other people.

(It seems clear to me that freedom of movement and freedom of thought and speech are two instances of a more general, intuitive notion of freedom shared by many, although I could not find a good definition of it without resorting to the two particular instances above.)

There is a fourth notion of liberty that I want to propose; not one I have seen often associated with “liberty” by others, although it resonates profoundly with my own experience. It is one’s perception that one is the sole agent responsible for one’s interaction with society, starting with one’s immediate social environment. It includes, for example, my confidence that I could, if I wanted to, say “fuck you” to an aggressor and punch him, and that I could, if I wanted to, embrace my best friend in public, kiss him on the cheek and tell him “I love you for all you bring to my life.” This form of liberty is impeded, and thus find its contrast, in all the obstacles to social interaction that are set up by commonly accepted “social norms.” I understand that these social norms find their origin in the desire for safety, and were evolved to limit one’s ability to harm others, but as my own experience shows social norms also impede more innocuous initiatives, such as my desire to show affection in public. In other words, the additional safety provided by social norms comes at the expense of this form of liberty.

Anyway, to conclude it seems to me difficult to find a single opposite to the word “liberty” in the light of what it can be made to mean.

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