Freedom as a virtue

Freedom

Freedom is seen as one of the great achievements of the western world. We worship it, and associate much positivity with the word, putting it on a pedestal as an inalienable right. But why?

What is freedom?

Wikipedia defines freedom as follows:

Having the ability to act or change without constraint.

In the western world, we pride ourselves on this. If I want to go out in the street and protest the government, I can. I can write an article like this, and have no fear of reprisal.

Contrast this with countries like Russia and China. In Russia, the government arrests and harasses you if you try to stand up to them. In China, you simply vanish if you criticize Xi Jinping.

Ever since World War II, The United States have led the western world in a quest to bring freedom everywhere. The thing is: it’s not about freedom.

Freedom, really?

I have the freedom to protest, but I can’t just ‘act without constraint’. If I ring my neighbor’s doorbell and when they open up, hit them in the face with a shovel, that’s not allowed. If I want to beat my wife or my daughter, that’s not allowed either. I can’t drink and drive, or speed through a suburban area at break-neck speeds. To be clear: I want to do none of those things. The point is: I don’t have the freedom to do those things either.

All countries limit freedom. You can’t kill people, or rob them, or sexually abuse them. There are laws to prevent that. But it’s even more complicated than that. If I kill somebody, I don’t automatically end up in jail. If somebody threatens me with a gun and I fight back and end up killing them, that’s alright. In the United States, guns are legal and the freedom to bear arms is in the constitution. In the Netherlands, that same thing is a crime.

Bottom line: freedom isn’t so simple, and it’s not the important thing here.

Equality

If a person tries to run for President of Russia and they are Vladimir Putin, the government helps them (up to messing with the election results). If that person is Alexei Navalny, the police arrests them and excludes them from the elections. Freedom to run for president in Russia exists, but only for a select few. And that’s the kicker.

The virtuous freedom everybody calls for is in fact a call for equality. You want a system of laws and rules that gives each person freedom. Instead of a rule of the majority, or an autocracy or oligarchy.

Sometimes, the freedoms of individuals clash. If I want to hit my neighbor in the face with a shovel, I might be doing what I want, but I’m curtailing my neighbor’s freedom to walk around around outside without being hit in the face with a shovel. Speeding through a suburban neighborhood curtails the freedom of the people there to walk around without getting killed.

So the dilemma’s are different: the rules must weigh the individual freedoms against each other. Framing it like that, certain discussions don’t look the same anymore.

Should you allow gun ownership? More guns lead to more people getting shot and more crime. So, there is a tension between the freedom for everybody to walk around with a gun, and the freedom for everybody to not get robbed, raped, or killed. Many countries feel that the latter is more important, while the United States feels that the first is (because, you know, the godlike prescient founding fathers said so).

Should you allow or forbid gay marriage? The question is really: are all people equally free to get married to whomever they want? Well, yeah, in the name of equality, we should of course allow gay marriage.

You’re using it wrong

To bring this back to some current events: in the Netherlands, we’ve had protests against the Covid rules. The argument is: “we want to end all Covid constraints because they curtail the freedom of people. Stop tyranny!” The same argument was heard in the United States. People want to decide for themselves the risks they want to take.

Of course, like drunk driving or speeding in suburban areas, you are not taking a risk with just your own life. By taking the freedom to do as you please, you are curtailing the freedom of others to do as they please. It’s selfish.

The argument is only valid if you stick to the words of the definition of freedom. However, as I’ve said above: the virtue is in fact in equality, not freedom. And in this case, the two bite. Those Covid-measure-haters propose old and young people be treated unequally.

Inequality is key: the elderly are unequally likely to die from the disease, while the young are unequally affected by the measures – and painfully, the poor are equally fucked by both.

And while I sympathize, I don’t agree with putting the want for social interactions — though all-important to many teenagers — above the lives of forty-year-olds-and-up and those with pre-existing conditions, aside from the fact that the young do end up in hospitals too. Like with the freedom to drink and drive, personal freedom simply doesn’t outweigh everybody’s freedom to live healthily.

It’s the same invalid argument as racists and alt-right use: they claim the right to be racist and toxic in the name of freedom, invoking the virtue argument that goes with equality, while they are in fact pursuing inequality.

Conclusion

Freedom is not a virtue in itself, and it should not be the end-all goal. Equality should be the goal, and that distinction becomes meaningful when the two don’t align.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands