WHAT IS FREEDOM
The word “free” is one which is often used, especially by politicians, but it is not always clear what is meant. Rousseau, for instance, said that man was born free but everywhere he was in chains. Did he mean the same thing by “free” as Churchill when he advised us to ‘Set the people ‘free’.
All such uses of “free”- these are only two examples- have something in common in that they recommend to us whatever state of affairs the term is used to describe. In other words the word “free” has a strong commendatory force; it is prescriptive..
It expresses approval on the part of those who use it to create an attitude of approval in the minds of the listeners. This is also the case with words like “democracy” the trouble about the word “free” is that it means too little because it means too much. It is like the term “equal” or “same”. when we say all men are equal or that All men are the same we have not conveyed much information until we state the respects in which people are being compared.
In general when we say that a person is free, we mean that, if a person wants to do something, he will not be impeded by some kind of constraint or limitation. But until we have stipulated what it is that he might want to do and what kind of constraint or limitation is absent, we cannot convey much information. We have said too little because we have said too much.
This is so often the case, especially with political arguments.When one person says we are more free than we used to be and his opponent denies it, the discussion very often drags on interminably because different sorts of things are being referred to.
We can go so far as to say that it is only the context in which it is used that gives any sense to the word ”free” for unlike words like ‘bovine’ or ‘square’ it indicates no positive characteristics It is a word that is used to rule out some suggestion implicit in the context in which it is used.
The suggestion would be of an impediment or constraint imposed on what a person might want to do. If we say in general and out of the blue that John is free, we are conveying no positive information. whatever about him And, if there were no question of a constraint and John could do what he might want to do, there would be no use for the term ‘free’. Such a description only makes sense if we know that John had been in prison recently, or had been involved in divorce proceedings, or had been in quarantine for small- pox.
Acknowledgements: Social Principles and the Democratic State. (1959) S. I. BENN R.S. PETERS
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