The Personalist Project

Lately I have been drawing attention to John Paul II's stress on freedom in personal and interpersonal life. Take, for instance, this line from Veritatis Splendor: "There is no morality without freedom." 

I'm thinking it might be a good idea to delve a little more into what freedom actually means.

The great moral hero and philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand said, "To be properly free, an act or movement of the soul has to "originate in one's personal selfhood". 

Recently I listened to a talk by Pete Colosi on death and dying, in which he mentioned that one of the opposites of freedom is aimlessness. We can't be said to be acting freely if we lack a sense of purpose in what we do. It was a new angle on the meaning of freedom for me, and got me thinking about its other opposites. Here are at least a few of them.

1. Coercion. If someone makes me do something—or to the extent that he makes me do it—I'm not acting freely. Coercion can be physical or psychological, blatant or discrete, deliberate or unconscious. In every case, though, someone else's will is the "prime mover" of "my" action or response.

2. Compulsion. It may be external (a law or command, say) or internal (an uncontrollable urge), but when I act under compulsion, I am not free. A young man who goes to war because he drafted is in a different moral situation than the one who volunteers to serve his country.

3. Manipulation. If someone uses me to get his way, I am not properly free, even if I consent to the action on some level. As with coercion, manipulation can be more or less deliberate, more or less discrete. The key is that someone else's end, not my own, is the motivation.

4. Seduction. In seduction, there is no force involved, but my will is overcome, "dethroned." Rather than acting from the center of my personal selfhood, I'm lured off center. I succumb to my lower nature.

5. Imprisonment. If I'm in prison, whether physically or psychologically, I cannot pursue my ends. I'm not free.

6. Shackling/constraint. If something is holding me back against my will, I'm not free.

7. Slavery/servility/dependency. If I'm bound to serve someone else's aims or do someone else's bidding, I'm not free.

8. Limitation (weakness, impotence). I may very much want to do something, but if I lack the power or virtue to achieve it, I am, to that extent not free.

9. Indifference. If I don't care about outcomes, my acting will be more arbitrary than free.

Those are the ones that come to mind. Has anyone else got others to suggest?

Comments (3)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, May 12, 2015 8:39am

I'm not sure what to call it—perhaps arbitrariness.  It is the "freedom" to choose between different subjective desires, without any objective standard to go by. The freedom to do what you want, instead of the freedom to do what you know is right/best.

This opposite comes close to what you mean by aimlessness and indifference. But the emphasis is on objectivity.  The question is not just whether I care, but whether what I choose is intrinsically worthwhile.  

Katie van Schaijik

#2, May 12, 2015 8:53am

Yes, that's good. We're not really free unless we have (true) reasons for our acting or responding.

I thought of another one last night. Oppression, which is a kind of restraint, but one that is from without. I can't do what I want to if I am harassed or oppressed by powers beyond me. A farmer isn't free to cultivate his fields if they are constantly being overrun by marauders. 

Jules van Schaijik

#3, May 12, 2015 11:08am

There is another opposite, less interesting from a practical point of view, but philosophically and theologically significant. I'll call it divine determinism. It grants that a free act "originates in one's personal selfhood" but then adds that, since God creates the self, He is the ultimate origin of its acts. Christian thinkers (even Augustine and Aquinas) are often attracted to some version of this view because it is a way of reconciling created freedom with divine omnipotence. But it seems to me (following Anselm and Scotus) that true freedom implies a measure of genuine independence even from God. An act is not truly free if it can be fully traced to God's primary causality.

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