Freedom. What is it, and how can It be defined? The word freedom is problematic to singularly define. And in this way is much more subjective to the individual as opposed to a simple text book definition. One person’s definition of freedom could be highly conflicting to others. Whether someone feels free or not, could be due to an array of reasons, such as the individual’s state of mind, how strict (or not) the individual’s country allows them to be and so on. So many factors can be taken into account such as social, cultural, geographical, economical etc. when deciding whether one is truly free or not. But personally, freedom to me normally coincides with my state of mind. And more often than not is related to whether I feel content with things that are going on in my life at that time. Being free to me in this way, means being unrestrained from irrational thinking.
The Paradox of Choice
I also like to think about freedom with reference to consumption. Here’s a scenario; you’re at a supermarket, and you’re down the confectionery aisle. What chocolate bar will you choose? You think you have an abundance of choice, 20 to 30 brands are sat looking at you. Double Decker, Whisper, Morrisons own etc. The packaging of that one looks bright and appealing. But this one you always used to buy from the corner shop with your 50p weekly pocket money. But this one’s the cheapest! Ooo but Cadbury has just brought out a brand new recipe, I wonder what that one’s like! PICK ME! PICK ME!
There’s too much choice, an overwhelming amount. You’re now stood, frozen in a state of indecisiveness. You start to wish there was wasn’t so many choices available to you after all. It would be easier that way, you’d be able to make a quicker decision, and limit this pointless faffing in the supermarket. You finally make a decision. But why is something so simple so anxiety provoking?
And the looming question remains; did you really have freedom of choice?
In a capitalist society, due to its economic system, emphasis is placed on choice being available, however this can seem quite domineering. With so much emphasis on consumption, even though there appears to be a freedom of choice, do we really have a choice? Or do societal factors such as anxieties around making sure you choose the right product which will impress the most people, or the product that is the current trend, imprison us and prevent us from making a decision which is solely made on our own personal choice, with disregard to any other external factor?
When we make choices whilst consciously baring in mind what other people will think of us, we are invoking a need to be regarded in a certain way by others. And not so much acting of our own individual desires. Therefore when we make consumer choices it can be said that we aren’t making straight-forward decisions with no outward consideration to society, it is not just us singularly who are making the choice. We sometimes like to choose what everyone else is choosing, and are obsessed with how others will regard us, in regards to our choice. Choice in this way is a very social thing. We also try to make an ideal choice. For example when choosing a mobile network provider, we’ll try and go for the one with the best value for money. Making ‘the ideal choice’ is something that will most likely play a part in determining our decisions on a regular basis. But this is another reason why choices can be anxiety provoking, and it’s met with the recurring question of ‘Do I really want this?’
Freedom as the achievement of self-realisation
The idea of positive and negative liberty, made famous by Philosopher Isaiah Berlin, creates a divide between people’s ideas of freedom. Philosopher John Stuart Mill, for example, favoured a negative conception of liberty, and perceived freedom as allowing individuals to act as they wanted, without the interference of authority. So maybe, freedom in this way means to do things that may harm the individual, like smoking or drug abuse. This also perhaps is alluding to rebellion against the constraints of authority. Furthermore, Mill clarified that individuals under this conception of liberty would only be free as long as they were not using their freedom to harm others. So it seems, a moral compass is apparent in Mill’s ideas.
On the other hand, more positive conceptions of liberty, do not link the concept of freedom with having no interference of others and authority, but instead with doing the right and rational thing. This links with Mill’s idea of first-order desire and highest-order of desire. First-order meaning choices you make which are ruled by irrational thoughts, impulse or emotions. And highest-order on the other hand; choices which are made by thinking rationally, and are often reflective of reaching your full potential. To put this into a more simpler way to understand, i’ll apply it to a personal experience;
I have often tried to lessen my usage of social media due to it often making me feel dissatisfied with my life, its fueling of unhealthy comparisons and making me feel like a mindless robot whilst using it. Basically a mixture of negative feelings. As much as I tried to stop pointlessly checking my phone to see if I had any messages, or scrolling through Instagram repeatedly, I regularly gave in to my first-order of desire (checking my phone unnecessarily ) when in actual fact I knew I would feel more mentally free if I just stopped checking my phone so much (highest-order of desire). I more recently have lessened my phone usage by at least 50% and feel more free within myself from doing so.
So in this sense, I can say I have achieved my highest-order of desire (achieving what I most wanted), but it took me a lot of attempts and failings to my first-order of desire to do so. It was an annoying habit that I wanted to break, and the addictive nature of social media meant many failings to my first-order of desire, but I got there in the end.
Freedom is a very ambiguous term, with an abundance of definitions as a result of it being so highly subjective in nature. But freedom for me is probably what Berlin coined ‘positive freedom’, in being that it is internal barriers, that keep me from being what I define as being free.
What do you define ‘freedom’ as?
I would love to hear your opinions and ideas, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!
Thanks for reading! 🙂