The terms 'freedom' and 'liberty' are used interchangeably in many contexts but liberty is restricted more to a political context. Freedom can be used in a political context but also more widely so I shall use the term 'freedom'.
One approach to freedom and its limits was suggested by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty
(1859). In the essay, he laid down what has become known as the 'harm principle': that the sole justification we have in interfering with the freedom of someone is to prevent harm to others. In the essay, Mill defends freedom and shows its application in many contexts.
His 'harm principle' – his limitation on freedom – is however open to various criticisms. There was always a problem of deciding what 'harm to others' amounted to. Mill was thinking of physical harm and harm to someone's interests, but nowadays 'harm' seems to include offending someone. Mill offers a robust defence of freedom of speech, but in present-day Scotland that freedom is more limited. Jokes about the three people who walked into a pub might easily become a 'hate crime'.
But Scotland's attempts to limit freedom of speech through the Hate Crime Act are replicated all over the UK, and universities offer prime examples of attempts to control language. For example, the University of Manchester has a Guide to Inclusive Language
. Words such as 'elderly', 'pensioners' and 'youngsters' are to be replaced. Alarmingly, students are advised not to use the word 'diabetic', even although that could have dangerous consequences. The guide advises using 'parent' or 'guardian', rather than 'mother' or 'father'. The Victorian melodrama which contained the famous line – Dead and never called me mother
– would now need to be: Dead and never called me parent or guardian
. Falls a bit short in drama, I'd say. In general, if you don't watch your language, you could certainly get yourself 'cancelled', and you might even have the police at your door.
Mill's principle is more fundamentally open to the criticism that it is negative in its application. We are free if we are not harming others. Yes, but you are not free to go to a university or to have decent housing unless you can afford the cost. For that reason, Mill's approach has nowadays been supplemented by what is called 'positive freedom', a freedom which enables people to do things in various contexts. 'Enabling freedom' will obviously involve enabling education, providing grants for various possibilities and positive opportunities of all kinds.
Mill's approach, even as supplemented in a more positive direction, does assume the philosophy of liberal individualism. Freedom, whether negative or positive, moral or political, is a feature of the individual according to the philosophy of liberal individualism.
A contrasting view has its origins in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle but was given a more modern expression via the writing of Hegel and his followers. They argue that we are not truly free when we act on this or that desire but rather when we have rational control over our lives, and that this is possible only through active involvement in the life of our society. In other words, true freedom involves the expression of the essential social nature of the self.
Christian thinking expresses a similar idea in terms of its own approach to the self. From the Christian point of view, human beings are imprisoned by false desires and beliefs about themselves. Whereas the rationalists from Plato to Hegel regard the route to freedom as via the taking of rational control over our desires, Christian theology would see true freedom as offered by God's saving grace. The idea has a strong appeal in evangelical preaching and singing, as in the Gospel singing of Mahalia Jackson, or in the ever popular Amazing Grace
The social side to freedom has been given a contemporary twist in the writings of the American moral philosopher Michael Sandel, and a little earlier by others such as John Macmurray, who was Professor of Moral Philosophy in Edinburgh in the 1940s and 50s. The view is known as communitarianism. I have written previously about communitarianism but here is a brief recap:
Liberals stress that individuals are the originators of all value, and freedom is simply doing as you happen to choose. Communitarians, on the other hand, see value as rooted in communal practices. The theory makes the claim that its description of the self as embodied and embedded in historical and cultural values is more accurate than the abstract, atomistic, liberal view of an a-temporal self. For the communitarian to act freely is to express the social nature of the self. The top value of liberalism is freedom in the sense of unfettered individual autonomy and the vocabulary of its moral discourse is based on individual rights. But the communitarian would stress values such as trust, solidarity, mutuality and friendship, concepts which by their nature require others to participate. True freedom for the communitarian is found in action governed by values of that kind.
The tradition of liberal individualism can be traced back to the Enlightenment and one interpretation of Kant. Its contemporary defenders include utilitarians and rights theorists such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. The tradition of communitarianism, as I said above, can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. There is also a version of it in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments
in which the role of 'sympathy' is urged as the creator of intersubjectivity in community life.
Another 18th-century writer who contributed to the development of communitarianism was Edmund Burke (1729-97). Burke believed that society depends on instinctive feelings of love and loyalty. He rejected the central place which revolutionary thinkers had given to reason and the idea of natural rights. Basically, he seems to be arguing that communities are held together not by enlightened self-interest but by the feeling that we are members one of another (again a Christian view). According to Burke, our freedom is not restricted by communal feeling but rather is expressed through it.
A more recent writer on communitarianism is Alasdair MacIntyre. He argues against the radically individualistic view of the self that is its own source of valuation (so-called 'autonomy'). The self on such a view has 'no necessary social content and no necessary social identity', but only 'a certain abstract and ghostly character'. MacIntyre is arguing for the cultivation of the social virtues, which require a form of human community with its traditions and collective memories. It is the community which is necessary to complete the life of the individual and it is through the community that true freedom is possible.
But there can be an impediment to the free action of the self. It is expressed in a memorable phrase – 'mind-forged manacles' – introduced by the poet William Blake. In his poem London
, Blake writes:
In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban
The mind-forged manacles I hear.
Blake is thinking in this poem of the social conditions of his time as being created by false economic and political ideologies, militaristic attitudes and repressive religious beliefs. All of these factors created 'mind-forged manacles'. In our day, some of these manacles still prevent free rational thought. For example, influential UK politicians still see the UK as a world power; they are manacled to a 19th-century view of the UK.
In a totally different area, the idea of 'mind-forged manacles' has been taken up by assorted types of therapist. Therapists help clients to set realistic goals and overcome obstacles which have hindered them in the past. Sometimes people become fixed in some kind of narrative about themselves and feel trapped and hopeless. The job of a therapist, or a good friend, might be to suggest other ways of looking at themselves or their situations.
Freedom, then, has multiple aspects. But whenever the banners of freedom are waved, we should ask: Freedom from what? To do what?
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow