In our polarized nation, no other word causes so much confusion as freedom. Everyone claims to fight for freedom. Each side in the political debate claims the other is an enemy of freedom.
And yet, it seems we have less and less freedom. We have lost the meaning of the word. When no one knows what freedom, it becomes whatever we want it to be. Each side understands it in a different sense and thus plays by different rules. The resulting chaos is tearing our nation apart.
Making Distinctions About Freedom
In his excellent book, The Cunning of Freedom: Saving the Self in an Age of False Idols, the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko defines two classical types of freedom. These distinctions do much to explain our present plight both on the right and the left.
One category is negative and the other positive. The two are not necessarily contradictory and are generally complementary. However, when distorted and misunderstood, the two can cause conflicts like those we now see.
The Perils of Negative Freedom
The first type is negative freedom. When thinking of freedom, most people think of negative freedom. It means the absence of coercion. By this freedom, no one stops us from doing what we want as long as we do not hurt others by our actions.
This is a legitimate freedom that involves the unrestrained exercise of the will. We enjoy this freedom because the human soul does not function well under coercion. We need space where we can act uninhibited.
However, we cannot have a society where total or absolute negative freedom rules. To live together in peace, we must give up some negative freedom by accepting restrictions. There must be rules to keep things peaceful.
However, modernity, especially individualism and liberalism, holds absolute negative freedom as an ideal. And that is where things start to go wrong. Many people come to think that freedom only means a regime of no limitations or restrictions, regardless of the consequences.
Negative freedom works well when we live lives of virtue. In a society of vice where people want bad things without restraint, it can be disastrous.
The Positive Value of Ordered Liberty
The second type of freedom is positive freedom, which Prof. Legutko defines as “a set of qualities and conditions needed to achieve important aims.”
Positive freedom assumes the development of character, talents and virtues that allow us to overcome obstacles so that we might be free to pursue higher goals. Thus, we might deny ourselves the negative freedom of excessive drinking so as to possess the positive freedom of driving without danger.
This definition was what people in ancient, medieval and pre-modern societies understood as freedom. They believed that individuals who did only what they wanted were not free but enslaved to their passions. To be truly free, people must suppress bad habits and addictions. They must pursue important goals with virtues, efforts and qualities that freed them from the slavery of gratification. They could thus find order, the common good and sanctification.
Thus, positive freedom had a stabilizing effect upon society and led to what the Founders often referred to as ordered liberty.
The Destruction of Freedom
With the destructive sexual revolution of the sixties, absolute negative freedom became the dominant paradigm adopted by both right and left. Those on the right falsely believe they can use absolute negative freedom to reach the ordered liberty always sought by conservatives. Meanwhile, the left is willing to bulldoze over everything to impose a regime of absolute negative freedom without taboos and moral restrictions.
Today, nobody talks about positive freedom that builds character and allows progress. Such a concept is portrayed as something hateful that restricts freedom and inhibits individuals. Everyone talks about negative freedom, even as it enslaves those who follow vice and addiction.
As a result, a confused notion of freedom leaves us with a polarized and fragmented society in which everything is allowed in the name of a concept that we can no longer define or classify.
Wrong Notions of Positive and Negative Freedom
Indeed, the confusion increases as each side now adopts wrong notions of positive and negative freedom as part of the strategy to dominate the other.
Conservatives are at a disadvantage. Because only negative freedom is discussed, conservatives ardently defend it as the only freedom needed, even while it destroys the excellent goal of ordered liberty. They need to think in terms of positive freedom.
Liberals reveal their real face. They now defend a pseudo-positive freedom, which they claim allows them to suppress conservative rights to reach their destructive goal of absolute negative freedom to do everything.
Returning Freedom to its Proper Place
A true solution to the problem requires returning each freedom to its proper place.
There is nothing wrong with negative freedom as long as we desire things that are good and virtuous. Then, there is no need for limitation or restraint.
However, absolute negative freedom must be opposed since it easily turns people into slaves of their passions. It can easily give rise to the tyranny that comes from the hatred of legitimate restraints.
Above all, we need a return to positive freedom. Then we might develop our talents, abilities and virtues to overcome the vices and defects that keep us from reaching our full potential.
The interplay of positive and negative freedom allows society to function harmoniously and with the least coercion.
The Moral Problem
Freedom is only a means, not an end. It only works when people have a sense of right and wrong. It has meaning when we follow the first and most basic principle of the natural law written on the hearts of all: do good and avoid evil. Freedom involves moral acts and therefore presupposes natural law and Divine assistance. If we ignore this aspect, we will be delivered to our obsessions and manias.
As Edmund Burke noted: “Men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
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