Degrees of Freedom

11 Nov

Albert Camus wrote that absolute freedom is simply the freedom of the very strong to enslave everyone else.

One could argue that there can be no such thing as absolute freedom, but this is simply nit-picking, essentially Camus is right.

Have you ever noticed that people who are already very rich and powerful often seem to argue in favour of free choice?

Did you know that both sides in the American Civil War claimed that they were fighting for freedom? (Although they preferred to use the term Liberty). In the case of the Confederacy, this freedom included the freedom to own slaves, while supporters of the Confederacy would have claim that the Union was fighting for the freedom of the Federal Government to deny freedom to individual states within the Union.

Cliff Hanley put it rather well when he said that the freedom of my fist ends at the tip of your nose.

If you dislike Camus’ talk of absolute freedom, then it’s always possible to borrow from the language of calculus and talk in terms of ‘tending towards absolute freedom’.

In this way, it becomes possible to express a paradox in the relationship between freedom and justice. (Two concepts that are often assumed to go together).

Hence one can rephrase Albert Camus’ observation to say that, as conditions tend towards absolute freedom, justice is reduced to zero.

One can also add that as conditions tend towards absolute justice, freedom is reduced to zero. To illustrate this point consider the way we legislate for justice by introducing more and more rules and regulations of ever-increasing complexity.

The above argument may seem to indicate that freedom and justice are essentially incompatible, but this is only true when either is taken to extremes. In moderation freedom and justice are actually mutually dependant. One does not produce any meaningful form of justice by denying freedom, one does not produce any meaningful form of freedom without justice.

This is all very abstract and may seem quite irrelevant, but it does have a certain bearing on how we understand the claims made by politicians and campaign groups for their policies.

So when someone claims that they’re standing up for freedom, it’s worth asking ‘who’s freedom?’ and ‘freedom to do what and to whom?’.

Similarly when someone talks about justice, or fairness, it’s always worth asking how this is going to restrict people’s ability to make their own choices.



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