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March 10, 2014

Freedom: What in the (modern) world does it mean?

(Continued)

“Exemption from the constraint or restraint of physical or moral forces … independence.” “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint” (Oxford Dictionaries). I can’t find a way to give any meaning to these broad terms except by coming down to specific instances of freedom and non-freedom as they affect us as individuals.

One can start with the question generated by New Hampshire’s motto. “What does “free” or “freedom” mean as applied to each of us every day?” My quest for the referent begins with a recognition of the innumerable “constraints or restraints” that actually affect one’s “power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.”

Let us visualize freedom metaphorically as a large of piece of canvas, and then see what pieces of it have been cut out and what holes made by these various “constraints or restraints.” I was somewhat shocked to see that the canvas of “freedom” ended up pretty shredded by a vast variety of constraints, of some of which I had never thought.

Most obvious are the legal laws and rules. The state prohibits you from doing many antisocial things, and fines or punishes you if you hurt people or property. You are not free to do all sorts of anti-social things, such as shoot people, drive too fast, steal — and so on and on. We’re used to these, and trade our freedom to do them for the freedom from being shot, run over or robbed. They do, nevertheless, greatly curtail the total freedom Rousseau envisioned in his “state of Nature.“

These laws and regulations, strangely, may be less important than hundreds of other constraints in our lives — limits cultural (don’t malign your country’s values), societal (don’t spit on the floor, don’t be gay), familial (don’t contradict your father), economic (don’t get into debt), security (don’t walk late at night in a strange place), all enforced by the omnipresent fear of criticism, of being thought a fool or a boor, of being hurt, of being ostracized.

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