the plan for the future

Revolutionary Ideas: An Introduction to Legal and Political Philosophy


5. Freedom and Autonomy

5.1. Introduction

moral significance of freedom
In popular political discussion it's common to hear people talk about the importance of freedom or liberty. Philosophers talk about autonomy and self government in much the same spirit. As with equality, there's a general agreement that freedom or liberty or autonomy is a good thing, but there's much less agreement about exactly what's meant by freedom or what freedom requires. So almost every state, every political society sets out the importance or liberty as one of the core values.

US Constitution
This segment and the next several segments offer some philosophical ideas and tools to help evaluate claims about the state's role in promoting or impeding freedom, so that we can help get clear on what we want when we care about freedom, and how the state might help or impede us in being free.

The preamble to the United States Constitution says the following, we the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for The United States of America.

US Constitution
Liberty is set out as an important core value, but that is the only appearance of the word in the US Constitution, and the word freedom does not appear at all. Indeed the only appearance of the word free comes in this passage which does more to highlight the un-freedom that was at the core of the original United States.

It says Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included in this union according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, three-fifths of all other Persons.

US Constitution
So free Persons were explicitly described as free, leaving a category of other Persons to refer to the thousands and thousands of brutally unfree and slaved people living in the United States. At the time of the final ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1790, 20% of the people living in the United States were enslaved. In some of the states the percentage was much higher. In South Carolina, roughly 60% of the population was enslaved. In Virginia it was around 40%.

US Constitution
Outside of that in the Bill of Rights, which was put in at the same time as amendments to this constitution, the word free appears again several times. The first amendment prevents the US Congress from interfering with free exercise of religion, and from abridging the freedom of speech or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The Second Amendment notes the importance of a well-regulated militia to the security of the free state. There's a sense in which the United States was founded based on the idea of freedom, but there is also, even at this founding, a deep tension. Similarly, we see this kind of tension in a country like Cuba that's very different from the United States.

Cuban Constitution
In Article 1 of the current Cuban constitution, it's stated that Cuba is a socialist state of workers, independent and sovereign, organised with all and for the good of all, as a united democratic republic, for the enjoyment of political freedom, social justice, individual and collective welfare, and human solidarity.

Cuban Constitution
Political freedom is highlighted, but it's also explicitly stated that Cuba is a socialist state. So this is not one of the questions that can be taken up or challenged using one's political freedom. You can't challenge the socialist character of the state.

Article 9 of the Cuban Constitution says that the State both guarantees the freedom and full dignity of men but also that the State channels the efforts of the nation in the construction of socialism, and directs the national economy in a planned manner. So again, there is this idea of freedom coupled with these other commitments that don't seem to be up for discussion.

Cuban Constitution
Perhaps most nakedly paradoxical, Article 53 of the Cuban constitution states that citizens have freedom of speech and of the press in keeping with the objectives of socialist society, material conditions for the exercise of that right, are provided by the fact that the press, radio, television, movies, and other organs of the mass media are state or social property and can never be private property. This assures their use at the exclusive service of the working people and in the interest of society.

So one has freedom of speech in this article 53 provision but only in keeping with certain objectives. This might seem like the opposite of right to free speech. The state itself controls all the institutions of mass media, which again might seem to be a kind of denial of a certain kind of freedom to express one's opinion. So even in the aspirational documents of these two very different political societies, we see a deep tension with respect to freedom.

distinctions with respect to freedom
Things might be even worse for freedom in practise as societies often do not live up to the ideals they set out in documents of this sort. These kinds of tensions might just be dismissed as a historical accident of a certain kind. There's some reason to think that the state often will involve a somewhat paradoxical relationship to freedom and liberty. This tension is generated in part by the fact that there are at least two important distinctions with, with respect to thinking about freedom, liberty, and autonomy.

The first distinction is between what's called positive and negative freedom. That's one distinction, and we'll talk about that. The second distinction is between what we might call individual and community freedom. The state might play a role in promoting freedom but it also might serve to undermine freedom as political actions are backed by the coercive force of the state and states serve to limit or restrict what people can do.

A community might organise to become free as a community, becoming a self-governing entity sort of trying to get a democratic say, but in doing so, that community might set out a set of ideals or values that not everyone signs off on, creating a tension between the state that's been created, and individual freedom. The freedom of those individuals who find themselves within such a state, but with dissenting ideas or values.

5.2. Positive and negative freedom

Isaiah Berlin's views
There is a distinction between positive liberty and negative liberty or positive freedom and negative freedom. This distinction is identified and named by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who was born in 1909 and died in 1997, in his essay Two Concepts of Liberty. In many ways this distinction is firmly rooted in the ideas of Immanuel Kant who was born in 1724 and died in 1804. Kant was one of the most significant philosophers in the western tradition, and pretty much every area of philosophy.

Isaiah Berlin's views
Negative freedom is freedom from various obstacles, barriers or constraints or freedom from outside interference. One's free to do an action in this sense if there's no external impediment to one taking that action.

So, in this sense a drug addict might be perfectly free to quit taking drugs. It's in this way that the prisoner impedes the freedom of the person put in prison. The state is often seen as a threat to this kind of freedom, since the state through it's laws and the imposition of coercive force behind those laws restricts what we can do. This what we usually would think of when we think of someone taking away our freedom or limiting our freedom.

Isaiah Berlin's views
Positive freedom is somewhat less familiar. Philosophers in particular have been responsible for developing the idea of positive freedom and the closely related idea of autonomy, with Kant being one of the central figures in this work.

Berlin writes, the positive sense of the word liberty derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men's acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object;

Isaiah Berlin's views
To be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from the outside. This is at least part of what I mean when I say that I am rational, and that it is my reason that distinguishes me as a human being from the rest of the world.

Isaiah Berlin's views
I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by reference to my own ideas and purposes. I feel free to the degree that I believe this to be true, and enslaved to the degree that I am made to realise that it is not.

This conception of freedom, positive freedom, positive liberty in this sense, notes that one can be un-free, not just because one is in prison or in chains or because there's a roadblock in the path ahead, but also because either one does not act for one's own reasons, or because one feels alienated from the reasons for which one acts. In this way, although one may be free in the negative freedom sense to quit using some very addictive drug, one may not be free in this positive freedom sense. One may still feel compelled, as if from a force that's outside oneself, or through desires that one does not endorse or identify with, to keep taking the drug.

One may be un-free even though the source of that lack of freedom comes from inside one's physical body. This is perhaps most evident if we imagine cases in which an evil scientist has implanted something in our brains that will force us to act in certain ways. We can also imagine in less dramatic fashion where it might actually go through our own cognitive system in some sense, for example cases of brainwashing where a person's beliefs and values are altered over time using various forms of sophisticated psychological manipulation.

We could also think of cases of severe sensory deprivation and social isolation, where a person is raised without any interactions with other people or anything other than the blank walls of a room. After a while such a person would become psychologically unable to do many things. So that at least initially, if the person were not in such a space, that person would be very limited, very un-free, in terms of what he or she could do, even upon being allowed to move around and interact with others. Drugs, evil scientists, brainwashing, this kind of extreme isolation and deprivation, are all extreme ways in which we can be unfree, even if there are no physical obstacles put in our way.

Kantian autonomy
But there are less extreme examples of ways in which our positive freedom can be threatened, limited, or undermined. The basic idea is that we do not just want freedom in the sense of there being no obstacles blocking the road, we also care about freedom in the sense of it being up to us to determine the direction in which we go, both literally and metaphorically. Positive freedom in this sense can be perhaps best understood through the Kantian tradition of moral philosophy, and in particular, the Kantian idea of individual autonomy.

Kantian autonomy
In a general sense, an agent is autonomous if that agent acts in accordance with reasons and motives that are the agent's own. An agent is autonomous if she is directed by considerations, reasons, desires, and characteristics that are not imposed on her, but are in some sense, part of her authentic self. Of course, we'll have to say more about when something is being imposed on a person, and what's meant by someone's authentic self.

Key idea for Kant is that freedom is not about being bound by no laws whatsoever. True freedom is not about being able to do anything at all. Instead, according to Kant, freedom consists in being bound by laws that are in some sense laws of one's own making. So Kant goes off in a particular direction with this idea connecting rational autonomy with an imperative to abide by constraints of morality. Kant connects rationality with morality in this way. The idea of positive freedom is more general than this. We can think of it as being about self-control or individual self-government where one's own views, beliefs and values determine what one does and where one identifies in some important sense with those views, beliefs and values.

5.3. Positive and negative freedom and the role of the state

negative freedom
This segment deals with the question what role might the state play in in promoting or threatening positive and negative freedom. The state presents a concern with respect to negative freedom in particular. It looks like the state imposes obstacles on us. Certain things are made illegal. If we do these things, our freedom will be curtailed even further.

It's worth noting that, often, the state imposes these kinds of obstacles or laws, that also prevent others from undermining our freedom in the negative freedom sense. This connects with some of the Hobbesian ideas on escaping the state of nature that without the state where we'd all be at war with each other. So, the state might come in and give us sort of a sense of freedom from that kind of interference from the outside.

negative freedom
The state might also play a role with respect to positive freedom. Here again there's both a worry about the role of the state and a suggestion that the state might play a good role in helping us to achieve freedom in this positive freedom sense. The good role for the state with regard to positive freedom might come from Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum's capabilities.

People are born into very different situations and some of those situations involve severe deprivation or isolation, whether in terms of nutrition and shelter, education and social opportunities, or opportunities for employment. The state might be useful in helping people to develop their capabilities for autonomous action. We don't start life as autonomous creatures, capable of acting freely in this manner. We need a lot of help to develop and the state could play a vital role in this regard.

One significant concern is that the idea of positive freedom introduces the possibility of people acting in ways that are from a certain perspective free, but which we can start to worry are not authentically free. We can entertain ideas like this one. Imagine a person who wants to work hard to save money to buy an expensive car. Maybe these desires do not stem from the person's authentic self. These designs and values might be the product of a certain kind of consumer culture or social conditioning that encourages people to think about working hard and buying material goods as being very important.

Certainly things like this can be said when talking about drugs of certain kinds. So sometimes there is regulation to prevent people who might be on those drugs from harming others. But often the regulation is justified on the grounds that people on those drugs become impaired agents lacking positive freedom, and so they lack the ability to make a good choice about whether or not to use these drugs, even if using them wouldn't harm anybody else.

It can be dangerous to thread down this path of having the state play a role in promoting positive freedom. Consider for example public education. Certainly it's valuable and important for human beings to receive education in order to develop their capacities. But what should the content of that education be? Should certain values and beliefs be promoted? Inevitably however, some beliefs and values will be at least implicitly promoted and endorsed. These are things that we should think carefully about when we think about how systems of public education are going to be designed and implemented. The line between education and propaganda can often be blurry.

Isaiah Berlin's views
Isaiah Berlin was writing during the height of the cold war and was reacting in part to the way in which ideals of positive freedom and what was called self-realisation had been invoked by totalitarian political systems. To justify various forms of re-education, and policies aimed at introducing massive social change, creating new men and women in some sense, many of these ostensibly were aimed at promoting positive freedom, but these efforts were not made in any way optional, nor were they in many cases democratically chosen.

So putting them in place required a huge cost to the negative freedom, the freedom from interference in individual lives of the people living under those systems. And in so far as any positive freedom was promoted by these totalitarian regimes, it greatly compromised positive freedom along this one dimension to try to promote it along another. So countries like Cuba represent a continued effort in this direction. Many of these particular political experiments were and continue to be unmitigated disasters, leading to rampant political corruption, inhumane restrictions on intellectual and artistic freedom, great poverty and terrifying abuses of political power, including widespread use of imprisonment, forced relocation, and execution.

It's difficult for anyone to be free from biases with respect to these kinds of questions, since everyone was raised in some particular society, given some particular kind of education, with its own particular biased influences and vivid history. Professor Guerrero's grandfather was executed in 1959 by the revolutionary government in Cuba led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. He has thought about the role that the state might play in promoting positive freedom and the way that it can try to do some good things and do really terrible things along the way while trying to achieve good things.

One thing to be careful about, is thinking that because these particular political experiments have gone badly, that we then infer from that that the current systems are good or even acceptable particularly from a perspective of freedom.

Consider for example the United States, which currently has the worlds highest incarceration rate, imprisoning 25% percent of all the people imprisoned in the world while only containing 5% of the world's population. In 2006 over 7.2 million people in the United States were in prison, on probation or on parole, which means released from prison with some restrictions on what they could do.

That means that roughly one in every 32 Americans were being held in some capacity by the justice system that is starkly biased towards the greater imprisonment of African-Americans and other minority groups based on proportions of those members in the population. Professor Guerrero thinks that the history of the United States with respect to slavery makes this kind of racial injustice in the criminal justice system all the more terrible. Having a state imprison people, is one way in which the state can impede individual freedom.

Around the world too we see the role that relatively unregulated market institutions and other political institutions have played in increasing income inequality, and in many cases allowing or not doing much to address the exploitation of the so called developing world. Here are some startling facts about the modern world. According to UNICEF 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. There are 2.2 billion children in the world. One billion of them live in poverty.

Unsurprisingly, the reach of education has a long way to go, as well. About 72 million children of primary school age in the developing world are not in school of any kind. Girls and young women are disproportionately excluded from educational opportunities in many places. Nearly a billion people in the world entered the 21st century unable to read a book or to sign their names.

Currently the richest 85 people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion in terms of how much money and wealth they have. We might think is that political and legal institutions should do more to address many of these facts. These facts also mean that one will be dramatically more free in terms of both negative and positive freedom, and especially positive freedom, depending on one's luck in terms of the situation into which one is born.

Because there's almost no movement out of the poor situations into financially better positions this may be all the more significant. The game is, in this way, rigged. It's hard to imagine how political equality is going to be possible in a world with so much economic inequality. The causes of poverty and the lack of education are complicated and the solutions are going to be complicated as well. One thing to consider is the role that the state might play either in promoting or undermining freedom and equality. Professor Guerrero wants to stress that even if some of the political experiments of the 20th century were a failure, we should still continue to examine the ways in which current political systems fail with respect to ensuring freedom and the possibility of development.

The discussion in this segment has focused mostly on the ideas of freedom in the individual context or thinking about how individuals might be more or less free in terms of both negative and positive freedom. But there's a concern about that kind of limited focus. Some have argued that a focus on individual freedom ignores both the significant role that social interactions play in promoting real autonomy, and the way in which individual freedom can be meaningless or pointless or impossible in context in which one is part of an unfree, subjugated, oppressed community or group.

5.4. Individual and community freedom

positive or negative freedom
With regard to positive and negative freedom, the question which is the most important, is a very hard question to answer. We'd need to know, important for what? It may seem that negative freedom is relatively unimportant if we do not have a substantial degree of positive freedom. So if we're not meaningfully autonomous in this positive freedom sense, then who cares if there are no obstacles in our path?

Perhaps that line of thought is right, but then there are hard questions about what's really required for positive freedom. Things like physical nourishment and education are going to be necessary, but perhaps the vast majority of human beings will develop robust enough positive freedom as long as they physically survive until adulthood, even if they might not be as free it they would be if given more robust education and opportunities.

Frantz Fanon's view
If we could develop positive freedom on our own then what we really might want from the state is first and foremost attention to helping us secure negative freedom, which is freedom from outside threats and interference. Once that's somewhat in place, it might be possible for a particular political community to turn towards promoting positive freedom in a more extensive sense, by trying to promote education and development on those lines.

Along with the totalitarian political experiments of the 20th Century, one of the most significant political developments was the process of decolonisation that took place over much of the world. Colonial powers like Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and the Dutch Empire were expelled from territories all around the globe, with many new nations being born.

Frantz Fanon's view
Frantz Fanon, a Martinique born Afro-French philosopher and revolutionary who lived from 1925 to 1961, is one of the most important philosophers who thought about colonisation and decolonisation. His book The Wretched of the Earth has been extremely influential, both amongst academics and intellectuals, and amongst people struggling for independence around the globe.

Frantz Fanon's view
His work questions, among other things, philosophical conceptions of freedom and philosophical conceptions of value, that emanate from Western traditions, including in many cases, traditions that are embraced and furthered, by the very people who are directly oppressing people under colonialism. He raises questions about these values, including, the triumph of the individual and European conceptions of enlightenment and beauty, and he argues against the way in which these values are inculcated in the colonised people themselves, particularly the best educated members of those groups.

In The Wretched of the Earth he writes, those values which seem to ennoble the soul prove worthless, because they have nothing in common with the real-life struggle in which the people are engaged. And he continues, and first among them is individualism. The colonised intellectual learned from his masters that the individual must assert himself. Think about the paradox that Fanon is drawing attention to here. Colonised people being taught about the importance of individualism and individual freedom from what he, not inappropriately, refers to as their masters.

Frantz Fanon's view
So Fanon continues, the colonialist hammered into the colonised mind the notion of a society of individuals where each is locked in his subjectivity, where wealth lies in thought. But the colonised intellectual who is lucky enough to bunker down with the people during the liberation struggle, will soon discover the falsity of this theory.

Frantz Fanon's view
Involvement in the organisation of the struggle, will already introduce him to a different vocabulary. Brother, sister, comrade are words outlawed by the colonialist. This colonised intellectual, pulverised by colonialist culture, we'll also discover the strength of the village assemblies, the power of the people's commissions.

Personal interests are now the collective interest because in reality, everyone will be discovered by the French legionnaires and consequently massacred, or else everyone will be saved. In such a context the every man for himself concept, the atheist's form of salvation is prohibited.

Frantz Fanon's view
Here he makes the case that individual freedom, individualism in general, in this sense is at best, incomplete because we cannot be free at least under some condition on our own, at least under some circumstances of community subjection and oppression. The initial struggle has to be for the freedom of the whole community. One way of reading this is to see Fanon making a strategic point of prioritising freedom for everyone first. That's the only way toward any kind of freedom.

This could be in a way a solution to a kind of collective action problem. No one of us wants to stick our neck out, without all the others being there too. But a more radical way of reading Fanon, is as critical of the idea of individual freedom in its entirety, suggesting that there's some underlying conceptual confusion, in an idea of freedom that focuses just on an individual autonomous agent, and ignores the way which we're all socially embedded and connected to each other.

Frantz Fanon's view
Fanon points out is that for an oppressed community, the first thing to secure is negative freedom, freedom from a certain kind of outside interference. Fanon points to the importance of control and ownership, of physical space. So he writes, for a colonised people, the most essential value because it is the most meaningful is first and foremost the land, the land which must provide bread and naturally dignity.

But this dignity has nothing to do with human dignity. The colonised subject has never heard of such an ideal. All he has ever seen on his land is that he can be arrested, beaten and starved with impunity; and no sermoniser on morals has ever stepped in to bear the blows in his place, or share his bread.

In this way Fanon argues that control over physical territory is essential. Think seems very closely connected up with the idea of negative freedom in a way. We want to be free from a certain kind of external interference, and this is something that will generally be up to a community of people, not solitary individuals. We see in these ideas connections to an importance not just of individual positive or negative freedom, but also the importance of collective self government, the ability of a community of people to have positive freedom in terms of directing the shape, nature and actions of the legal and political institutions that surround them.

One common argument in this vein concerns the importance of democracy, where democracy is understood as government for the people, but also government by the people. It's commonly thought that one essential component is that the people living under the state also run the state. Their beliefs and values should determine what the state will do. In this sense, political or democratic freedom enters in as a constraint on legal and political institutions. Those institutions must operate democratically in a way that satisfies these constraints concerning self government or they'll fail a crucial test of political morality.

There are ways in which Fanon's thinking is relevant for our contemporary world, even though the colonial regimes that Fanon was describing are mostly gone. One thing that's still true in many parts of the world is that even if there's not an explicit colonial power ruling over a colonised people, there are often subgroups or sub-communities that are substantially less powerful than other members of the political community. As a result, even within a democratic system, there can be people who are completely or effectively politically disempowered.

Frantz Fanon's view
Often this is because they make up a numerical minority of the population, so, even if there're elections where each person's votes count equally, they can be easily outvoted. Their interests might be routinely overlooked as a result. In other cases this relative disempowerment might be the legacy of historical injustice. Maybe a history of inequality or injustice with respect to wealth, education or other things leave a legacy that continues to effect the political process.

Fanon wrote some memorable lines describing two different worlds, the worlds of the colonist and the colonised. We can still see these two worlds in many places today, even within very rich countries such as the United States. So Fanon wrote, the colonist sector, is a sector built to last, all stone and steel. It's the sector of lights and paved roads, where the trash cans constantly overflow with strange and wonderful garbage, undreamed of leftovers.

Frantz Fanon's view
The colonist's feet can never be glimpsed, except perhaps in the sea, but then you can never get close enough. They are protected by solid shoes in a sector where the streets are clean and smooth, without a pothole, without a stone. The colonist's sector is a sated sluggish sector. It's belly is permanently full of good things. The colonist's sector, is a white folks sector, a sector of foreigners.

The colonised's sector, or at least the 'native' quarters, the shanty town, the Medina, the reservation, is a disreputable place inhabited by disreputable people. You are born anywhere, anyhow. You die anywhere, from anything. It's a world with no space, people are piled one on top of the other, the shacks squeezed tightly together. The colonised's sector, is a famished sector, hungry for bread, meat, shoes, coal and light. The colonised's sector is a sector that crouches and cowers, a sector on its knees.