The concept of freedom is a central part of our lives. It has been subject to much debate, but people still disagree on what it entails. Wars have been fought and states have been formed in the name of freedom. In a world, in which the death penalty is almost universally abolished, the harshest punishment of criminals is the limitation of their freedom by imprisoning them. Freedom, no matter how blurry and ill-defined it may be, is extremely valuable to us. Yet, the feeling remains that the unclarity about it makes it difficult for us to structure international conduct in this globalised world. The misunderstanding about freedom is so far-reaching that some states violently intervened in internal affairs of other states, because they were concerned about the freedom of the domestic population. In an attempt to add a more universally applicable and utilitarian perspective to the debate, this article explores another point of view on freedom and how it could add a bottom-up approach to societal change.

Definitional Hurdles

Certainly, there are many different definitions of freedom, as well as countless categorisations of different types of freedoms. However, as opposed to empirical sciences, freedom is a universally relevant topic. In other words, the discussion of freedom is open to everyone, since it is a relevant aspect of everyone’s life. Accordingly, it is useful to depart from the most commonly adopted understanding of this concept. From this perspective, freedom means that a person’s actions and thoughts are not subject to limitations. For example, we can understand it by thinking of being able to travel to a desired place or voicing the personal opinion on a certain topic. Since there are, however, legal boundaries and other societal boundaries, full freedom is essentially not possible. Here, we can think of territorial boundaries that limit our movement across borders or we can think of legal limitations of freedom of speech in some countries. Further, from this popular perspective, actions and thoughts that would compromise the freedom of others cannot fall under the concept of freedom. Intruding other people’s homes or insulting them would be examples that can be thought of. This definition is simple, understandable and logical, but is it also useful?

Adopting such a perspective on freedom is prone to trigger hedonism and lethargy. Idealising freedom as a concept that is based on the assumption that the reduction of boundaries increases its extent without differentiating between those boundaries is lenient to produce indifference. In other words, if you are allowed to do anything you want (under the condition not to harm anyone else), then the lines between good and bad become blurred. There are countless examples that illustrate this point – from speed limits to drug use to meat consumption. The logic behind this argument is the following: if actions and thoughts that have rather negative effects on individual and societal progress fall under the understanding as rather positive actions and thoughts, then the normative distances shrinks and will eventually normalise rather bad actions and thoughts.

A counterintuitive approach

From the above, it follows that the more aspects of life are included in our understanding of freedom, the less positive are positive actions and thoughts going to be compared to rather negative ones. However, a state cannot and also should not deeply interfere in structuring these freedoms. For example, states should not forbid people to consume alcohol or to insult each other – it would simply be too much of an intervention into people’s personal lives. Rather, the key to true freedom is self-discipline. Sticking to the example of alcohol, let us imagine person A coming home from work and having two options regarding how she is going to spend her evening. In this case, option 1 would be to drink alcohol and option 2 would be to work out. Now, in a free society both options are equally possible and are not restricted in any sense. The popular view of freedom would be sufficient to identify that she is free and the concept would practically “end” here.

However, we cannot oversee that there is a substantial difference between those two activities and an extended perspective on freedom might help us to make a more effective choice. By choosing option 1, person A might have a nice and fun evening, but at the cost of her health. In contrast, choosing option 2 she will (maybe) have less fun, but it will improve her health. Certainly, we could simply put this example away by saying that this is just a matter of lifestyle and personal preference, but is it really? Looking at it from a freedom perspective, we can say that by forgoing option 1 and choosing to work out, person A enabled herself a variety of more freedoms. Since she improves her health, she gains the freedom to feel better about her body. Also, she gains the freedom to not fall ill so fast and struggling with the illness. Further, she gains the freedom to be stronger, which can be helpful in a variety of situations – and so on. Of course, this is an exaggerated example, but we can think about it as a constant trade-off in the long-run. The logic, however, remains the same: by putting a limitation (discipline) on herself, she becomes free to enjoy aspects of life that would not be possible, if she constantly chose option 1 over option 2.

This logic can be applied to many other aspects of life. In the case of freedom of speech, for example, we could think about a person who is always voicing his opinion on the people around him, including his negative views. While he is free to do so, he forgoes the opportunity to become a respected member of the society, since this behaviour would alienate him. As a final example, we can think about a very common problem in many contemporary societies: action towards climate change. Of course, we are legally free to eat endless amounts of meat, drive around in our cars all day and run countless electric devices in our homes, but we are paying the cost with rising temperatures, extinction of species, rising inflation (due to rising production cost) and increased exposure to health risks. Disciplining ourselves, however, might sound like we are taking away some of our freedom, when we look at it from the common perspective. Contrary to this view, the exact opposite is the case. By consciously limiting ourselves, in order to reduce the burden on our environment, we achieve a new level of freedom, because it enables us to live cleaner, healthier, longer and better. Our cities would be cleaner and greener, the climate would be more balanced and the economies would grow in a more sustainable and stable fashion.

Final Thoughts

The above-mentioned perspective on freedom is not a whole new concept. Many of our laws are based on the logic that certain restrictions bring greater benefit than they limit us – why else do we have speed limits on highways and have to put on seat belts? Moreover, many religions emerged due to the need for a codex that outlines acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Mostly, we view these restrictions as necessary, in order to maintain order – many simply argue that there “need to be rules” without being able to make deeper sense of them. Looking at limitations from the perspective of freedom and how discipline can help us reach these higher levels of freedom is a much more tangible and encouraging way to strive for a better self. In the end, we all want to be free.