Liberty Conundrum   Leave a comment

Freedom can be a tricky concept because it tends to mean different things to different people. No-one really thinks that everyone should be free to do whatever they please. To everyone, “freedom” means freedom to do those things that don’t sufficiently harm others. There’s also an element of freedom from constraint imposed by particular actors ( such as government using the threat of legal action) and not other actors (such as churches using moral or spiritual sanctions). Church attendance is voluntary and portable. Government edict is neither.

Image result for image of freedomOf course, that brings us to the subject of harm. In a moral sense, what constitutes “harm”? Does paying someone a low wage for their work count as harming them? How about discriminating against them in various transactions? Interfering with their business relations? Libeling them? Having sex with their spouses? Revealing information about them that they view as private?

In a practical sense, causes “harm”? Does legal private gun possession really cause more crime and injury than would be present if guns were prohibited?

Ooo, that brings us to the question of when can avoiding some kinds of harm justify restrictions on people’s freedom? When can some behavior — e.g., the distribution of guns or alcohol — be properly restricted when the distribution is not itself harmful, but makes it possible for third parties to act harmfully?

Well-intentioned people can answer these questions differently depending on their individual points of view.


Abraham Lincoln asked these questions in his Address at a Sanitary Fair, Baltimore, April 18, 1864:

The world has never had a good definition of liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in need of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.

With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty.

It’s a useful reminder that “liberty” in the abstract is not self-defining. Most rhetoric that simply refers to “liberty” — whether in the context of slavery, where Lincoln said this, or abortion rights, or national sovereignty, and so on — rests on the question of the proper definition of people’s rights; and it’s that definition that cuts to the heart of the debate.

Many questions can’t be resolved by just talking about “liberty” or “not imposition one’s beliefs on others” in the abstract. If liberty means freedom to do things that don’t violate the rights of others, the important questions are

  • what constitutes those “rights”
  • what counts as violation,
  • who counts as “others”

At that point, you have to take the discussion of liberty out of the abstract and look at in reality.

Posted June 27, 2017 by aurorawatcherak in Uncategorized

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