What Is Freedom?

The other day I came across these words, “Freedom is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. When you have no end and make freedom an ultimate goal, anything goes.” Upon reading the quote, I started pondering our continuous societal conversation about freedom. Freedom, when considered seriously, is a loaded word that conjures passionate emotions from the fundamental values people choose to ascribe to. At the same time, freedom is an ambiguous term; an abstract word that continues to be contested. Is freedom a means to an end or is it an end in and of itself? And are the two mutually exclusive?

As a means to an end, freedom has historically been celebrated. Freed slaves and former colonies experienced the freedom of no longer being subjected to rule by their masters. But beyond these obvious examples of an escape from enslavement, freedom can be experienced in various capacities. We often talk about financial freedom, freedom from poverty, and freedom from fear. And we herald our freedom of speech and of religion. In these contexts, freedom doesn’t exist as the objective; it exists because there is another objective to obtain, and freedom is the means to obtain it.

But what about freedom as an end in and of itself? What are the consequences? Perhaps I should backtrack. Earlier I asserted that the concept of freedom is abstract and I believe it is with regard to how it is understood, discussed, and maybe even experienced. Nonetheless, freedom is defined; and according to Merriam-Webster’s first definition; freedom is, “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.” The very definition of freedom then, seems to support freedom as a means to something – a choice or action. Is it possible that freedom can be an end? And if it is, is it even desirable?

In popular lay discourse, I think that many people believe that freedom is the right to do whatever one wants, as long as nobody is being hurt. I think this has come to be the understanding of how freedom is gained and experienced. And to be perfectly honest, I think that in lay understanding, freedom needn’t have a specific aim. And if freedom doesn’t have a specific aim; if all we want is more freedom for freedom’s sake, is the quote earlier right? Does “anything go?” And if anything goes, freedom as an end in and of itself starts to resemble something else -anarchy.

On the other hand, how many people truly experience freedom? Today, many of us do not experience slavery in our historical understanding of the word. But do we experience other kinds of slavery? I believe that our society enslaves us in many ways. In the first place, consider how we work and why we work and how we are taught to work. The general premise is not to use one’s talents and abilities to share with others, or to create something that makes a difference. The premise is to pay bills and to buy things, many of which we are convinced to want in the first place. We become enslaved to our organizational practices and to our careers, and of course, to the almighty dollar. And if you doubt it, just Google search the state of personal debt in this country where living beyond one’s means is the status quo; a status quo that has not left us free.

Beyond our financial enslavement, think of the messages we consume every day. We are told what is beautiful, what is politically popular to ascribe to, and the type of person we ought to want to be. And as for our passions, we are told to give in to them because it is supposedly liberating. But when I look at the world around me and all these things that were meant to give us more freedom, I don’t see a lot of freedom. I see a lot of mental poverty, a lot of heartbreak and hurt, and mostly, a lot of fear. All of these things are the antithesis of freedom. And our compliance to all of these things that were supposedly meant to set us free has actually left us still in chains.

I think freedom is a balancing act. And I don’t think it’s one that we have mastered very well. Doing what you want sounds a lot like freedom but doing what you want does not always have an end that is freeing. Alternatively, if freedom has no limits, a potential consequence could be anarchy. Neither outcome sounds optimal. Freedom seems to me, like it is best exercised as a means to an end. But even then, I think the end must be one that gives people the choice to make the best possible decision. Perhaps “What is freedom?” like many important questions, is something that will undeniably leave us with more questions than answers. But I suspect that when we find true freedom, we realize that like most things that are good, it is not an extremity but something moderate. And I suspect freedom gives us the right to do at all times what is right, even sometimes at the expense of doing what we want. TC mark

image – Jochen Spalding

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