How do we define freedom? Is it the power to do what we want, to be able to cast off restraint and give in to our every whim? Or is freedom that force which grants us the power to do the things we know are right or true? There’s quite a few number of people these days who would define freedom the first way: as the freedom from the chains of a particularly defined morality, the freedom to act as I wish anytime I wished, regardless (and hopefully minus) the consequences. Now, rarely would someone define freedom in that regard. Usually, the sentiment is expressed as the ability to write my own script, to play by my own rules, to be the captain of my own ship. But is that truly freedom and/or is that the best sort of freedom?
Back in 1860, John Dalberg-Acton expressed this idea in “The Rambler Volume 2” as follows: “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Now, some may say that this is a false dichotomy. Liberty, or freedom, can be the permission to do as I like and the power to do what I should. But, I submit, that these two facets of freedom are exclusive based on human nature.
Human nature is a tricky subject. Some purport that there is no such thing as human nature or that it cannot be defined. But everyone has an opinion of what it means to be a human. Secular Humanists believe that men and women can propel themselves above their most common instincts of treating each other poorly through the empowerment of knowledge. In other words, the more we know, the less we’ll act like savages to one another. Our baser instincts to kill, lie to and steal from one another are all a symptom of ignorance and with the right amount of knowledge, we can all hope to live harmoniously.
There are a few problems with this conception or idealization of human nature. First, there is no indication that knowledge leads to morality. Simply knowing the right thing to do does not guarantee that humans will do the right thing. For example, every driver in the United States knows what a speed limit for a certain road means. This speed limit is the fastest you may drive per hour. If you exceed this speed limit, you are breaking the law. This fact is something every driver must KNOW before they can pass their driver’s test and gain a license. However, most drivers find it completely permissible to drive 5 miles over the speed limit. Now, even though they KNOW the speed limit for a particular road, this knowledge does not guarantee that the driver will abide by the speed limit for that road. That’s why we have police officers to provide enforcement for those who do not abide by the rules…because we know that there are those drivers who, although they are fully cognizant of the speed limit and know that breaking the law will provide a penalty, decide to break the law anyway. In addition, the society seems to operate by the unwritten rule that if a driver can break the law and get away with it, then it’s okay. And this is in no way an isolated incident.
So, knowledge does not naturally lead to morally abiding by the rules that society has set in place. In fact, if the axiom that knowledge led to morality were true, then the more knowledgeable one became, the more moral one would become. Maybe that’s why society wants to put scientists on such a high pedestal as ones who are above moral reproach. Of course, one doesn’t have to look too far back in history to find scientists in Nazi Germany and behind Eugenics in America. And as for college professors in general, they are no strangers to being perpetrators of crime, even deadly crime. In business, we’ve had scandals involving the owners of companies. In politics, there are scandals erupting almost every day. So those we place in leadership or who ascend into leadership (normally the ones the average citizen would consider to be intelligent or at least more intelligent than there are) are no more morally superior than anyone else. In fact, another common quote from John Dalberg-Acton would be just as appropriate here. It’s a little quote about power and corruption.
So, if the Secular Humanist idea of knowledge leading to morality does not seem to adequately define the essential nature of humanity, are there any other options? Well, I think we can pretty much rule out that humans are essentially moral. First, we’d have to define what we mean by moral. Are they moral as defined by society? Well, let’s go back to the speed limit example. That’s a fail. In fact, I’d say that the presence and need of police in any society should answer the question of if humans are innately moral.
What else defines morality then? Well, morality could be a construct of evolution. So, then morality would be something that our bodies adapted to deal with environmental issues? That’s kind of a stretch. It could be that morality was something that our bodies created so that humans could interact easier within their societies. But then we have the problem of abiding by laws established by the societies and the problems inherent in any society as outlined above. So, we’re back at square one.
There are problems with any morality created by humans for humans. Why? Well, what do you think about lawmakers who can legislate their own raises and pay, healthcare plans, retirement plans, and legislate the process it would take to get one of them removed? That’s a considerable amount of power, and if power tends to corrupt…
And that’s the problem with human government systems…power corrupts. To get a completely infallible system, one that treats each human within that system equitably and fairly, that system would need to originate outside the human sphere of biases and self-serving tendencies. To get a perfect morality, one would need a perfect moral lawgiver. Otherwise, you’re just comparing shades of grey.
To sum up and get back to the subject of freedom, humans are basically corrupt. They are not naturally good, thinking about and placing the needs of others above themselves. Knowledge alone will not and cannot provide humans with better morality, unless that knowledge comes from outside of humanity (and presents a perfect morality). Why do we need to see a perfect morality? In order to make comparisons, one needs a perfect form. For example, I can’t know that an object with four sides is not a triangle unless I have a triangle to compare it to. I can’t know that a leopard is not a cougar unless I know what a leopard and a cougar or at least one of these looks like. I can’t know that I’m breaking the law unless I know what the law is and what it is not.
And what does the nature of humanity have to do with freedom? So glad you asked! Well, let’s go back to our original question. Is freedom the permission to do what we want or the power to do what is right? First, can freedom be both to do what we want and to do what is right? Well, freedom can only be both if what we want is what is right. But even when humans are presented with a human-made version of what is right (ie. laws given by a society) people tend to look for loopholes and ways around what’s “right” to enforce their own self-serving drives. So, if there is a perfect form of what is right, would humans really want what’s right if it did not serve their own individual interests?
And this brings us right back to Lord Acton’s original dilemma: When we speak of freedom and liberty, are we discussing the freedom to do as we please or the freedom to do what is right? The two, as we’ve seen, can be and frequently are mutually exclusive. Well, to address the problem, we need to determine if freedom is meant for the individual, the society or both? First, what is the freedom from, as you cannot have freedom without the threat of some sort of oppression, otherwise freedom would be the normal state.
When we think about the idea of freedom, it is often contrasted with the threat of an oppressive government or system. So, in that respect, freedom would be the ability for the individual and individuals within that system not to be directed by the government in their duties, but freedom to choose which duties they may pursue as outlined by the rules within that structure. If our freedom allowed us to break down the structure of that system by working contrary to the betterment of all, then our freedom would not be freedom at all, but anarchy and chaos. So, freedom is intended for a purpose.
Now, the permission to do as we like and the power to do what is right can both lead to the betterment of the entire society as long as what we like to do aids in the betterment of society. However, going back to man’s nature, humans like to do what is self-serving, which directly contradicts aiding the society as a whole. For what is self-serving is directed inward while what is society-focused is directed outward. So, in order for liberty to produce a free society as a whole, the individuals must be primarily outward-focused as opposed to inward-focused. In other words, in order for freedom to benefit the entire society, freedom must be the power to pursue what is right rather than the permission to do what we like.