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Freedom (Liberty)

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Liberty Enlightening the World, (Statue of Liberty)
Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Majestic_Liberty_Large.jpg

(Liberty Enlightening the World, known as the Statue of Liberty, was donated to the US by France and is an artistic personification of liberty. )

Generally speaking, freedom, or liberty is a concept that designates the possibility of action or movement.

In mechanics for example, we speak of degrees of freedom to account for the possible movements of a piece.

For common sense, freedom is opposed to the concept of confinement or sequestration. A person who has just been released from prison is called free. The original meaning of the word liberty is also quite close: the free man is the one who does not have the status of slave.

In philosophy, sociology, law and politics, freedom is a major concept: it marks the ability of individuals to exercise their will with – according to the political orientation of the speeches held – the highlighting of nuances of which none exhausts the integral sense:

  • negative formulation: where we point out the absence of submission, servitude, constraint, alienation … whether these are exercised by other individuals (example: slavery) or – not physically but operating on mentalities – by society (examples: propaganda, social control or law, since certain provisions are experienced as liberticides, such as video surveillance).
  • positive formulation: where the autonomy and spontaneity of the rational subject is affirmed; voluntary human behavior is based on freedom and is described as free.
  • relative formulation: different adages highlight the balance to be found in an alternative, aiming in particular to make freedom compatible with principles of political philosophy such as equality and justice. Thus, in accordance with the Declaration of Human Rights, freedom consists in being able to do everything that does not harm others, which implies the possibility of doing all that is not prohibited, like not doing what is not compulsory, the freedom to say or do what is not contrary to public order or morals (administrative law) or the freedom of some ends where others begin (perhaps inspired by John Stuart Mill). In such a formulation, freedom is closely linked to the concept of law, going so far as to confuse the two notions.

This notion refers to a double reflection:

  • on one hand on freedom as a questioning on the ability to choose and to do,
  • on the other hand, as a questioning on the concrete exercise of this power to choose and to do.

To the extent that these two perspectives overlap in a variety of ways, their overlap may result in misinterpretations in the analyzes and confusion in the debates. We must therefore take care to distinguish the different meanings of this word.


From a semantic point of view, we can consider freedom as a state where the subject is not the object of constraint.

Freedom and possibility of choice

The existence of a degree of freedom supposes that the subject is confronted at least with an alternative. The peculiarity of this situation implies that free choice is possible, which can only be expressed by a renunciation of other possibilities. It follows that, necessarily, the attribution of a possibility to act makes impossible one or more other possibilities to act and so modifies the scope of freedom of an individual. On the other hand, the interpretation of the constraints contained in the alternative encountered is not neutral in the determination of the choice as this analysis conditions the evaluation of the field of possibilities. There are obviously an infinity of such sets: For the same situation, distinct operators therefore see under the word “freedom” sometimes very different concepts. A fortiori when this same situation is in a different context.

Freedom and open or closed choice

Game theory teaches that choice is also affected by the perception of issues shared with others.

  • In a situation of “closed game”, the choice made determines effects that produce consequences that cannot be achieved objectively and necessarily only to the detriment or the advantage of one of the parties. what is won by one is inevitably lost by the other. The choice takes place – whether we like it or not – in a context of rivalry.
  • In an “open game” situation, the choice made produces consequences that may be carried forward not on the parties immediately present at the choice, but on third parties who are not necessarily present at the debate and may ultimately play the role of “scapegoat”

Freedom as source of rights and duties

Freedom can therefore be an attribute of the human being, of his will, and be the condition of natural or positive rights, but also of duties.

Freedom and responsibility

As St. Augustine says, “Love, and do what you want”: In this sense freedom is the expression of a dynamic understood as also a responsibility.

Formal freedom and real freedom

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) points to the distinction between “negative freedom” (being released from the interference of others in the exercise of activities that can be same) and “positive freedom” (being released from restrictive factors such as hunger, sickness, insecurity, helplessness, etc.). As a result, the text distinguishes:

  • the rights-freedoms or fundamental rights (freedom of expression, movement, conscience …) which guarantee the sphere of autonomy of the individual vis-à-vis the external powers and in particular those of the State. These rights are necessary but for Karl Marx they remain formal, “bourgeois” rights: “they are the rights of the selfish man, the man separated from the man and the community”. In this perspective, the defense of liberties is ensured by a minimal state.
  • rights-claims or real rights (right to work, social assistance, health, housing, culture). Thus freedom to pursue higher education may remain a formal freedom for some citizens if tuition fees or economic conditions hinder the exercise of this right. In this perspective, a right is considered a right, that is to say, a claim of the state towards its citizens. A welfare state is then required to guarantee everyone’s effective access to the “freedoms” supposed to be accessible to all.

Freedom-choice and freedom-exercise

The exercise of freedom must include a lived dimension that can not be reduced to the only voluntary choice. In a way “freedom wears out if you do not use it”. These two aspects of human existence are distinguished, to join and reinforce each other or on the contrary to diminish or even destroy each other: Thus, in a society, the existence of legal liberties can be objectively recognized, whereas in actual practice, reality (its existence in our actions) and the essence (our conception) of freedom can pose a problem.

Freedom as philosophical principle or socio-political practical freedom

This is why the socio-political inquiry into the practice of freedom is at least as fundamental as the questioning concerning the philosophical problem of its existence and its possible essence. It must be kept in mind, however, that the two aspects overlap.

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