What is freedom?

Liberalism originally wanted to solve that problem by letting everyone decide on his own way of life. As we see all around us, it didn’t work.

(Image: Hanna Zhyhar/Unsplash.com)

We talk about freedom as if we knew what it is, but it’s a tricky business.

Issues relating to health are a constant source of dispute, so they dramatize some of the problems. Medical freedom is the right to make one’s own medical decisions. But it can be hard to pin down what that means, since it’s not always clear which decisions are medical, why medical situations are different from others, and which decisions are truly one’s own.

For example, does suicide when depressed or terminally ill count as a medical decision? “Gender confirmation” surgery? Killing one’s baby before birth? Sixty years ago, hardly anyone would have said so. It would have been like saying injecting heroin, female genital mutilation, and producing castrati for church choirs are medical decisions.

Today, politicians, activists, and professional associations say the former are medical decisions and should be protected as such. If a teen-aged girl wants to get her breasts removed, and her doctor will do it, that’s her right and her parents can’t be allowed to stand in the way.

But life, pregnancy, and normal sexual development are not diseases, so why is ending them a medical decision? For that matter, what health benefit is conferred by birth control pills, which are designed to disrupt normal bodily functioning for the sake of other goals?

The participation of medical professionals is thought to make such matters medical decisions that are properly left up to the patient and his doctor. But why do white coats make such a difference? If they are signs of special knowledge and standards, the same argument should apply to sports doctors who prescribe anabolic steroids. And how about doctors whose medical knowledge and loyalty to the Hippocratic Oath lead them to refuse participation in abortion? There’s a growing tendency to say that kind of professional judgment doesn’t count.

It seems clear that it’s not medical considerations that provide the answers to such questions but considerations that fall outside doctors’ professional expertise and have to do with the nature of man and human life. Such considerations are accessible to us all, and too important to be left up to the health-care industry.

The phrase “one’s own decision” raises even more questions. Abortion is again an obvious case. It is said to be an “intensely personal” decision for the mother, and that is often so. But many intensely personal decisions—marriage, for example—involve more than one person, so they cannot be left to the discretion of a single individual. The mother is not the unborn child, and the father, whose involvement is also intensely personal, will be equally responsible if the mother lets the baby live. So why is the decision so uniquely hers?

In fact, the question of who decides for whom arises in almost all medical situations. As assisted suicide becomes routine, it seems inevitable that the actual decision will often be made not by the patient but by a doctor, guardian, or someone holding a health care proxy. More generally, medical problems usually create problems for other people. COVID-19 vaccines provide an example—a great many people are prepared to force a novel semi-effective vaccine with serious and largely unknown side-effects on everyone, on the theory that doing so will help suppress a pandemic and thereby increase most people’s well-being and effective freedom.

But it’s not just medicine. Concerns regarding effects on others arise everywhere, because our choices depend on those around us and how they choose to live. A friend told me that his Italian grandmother visited when he was young and complained about the lack of freedom in America. He expressed surprise, and she pointed out that in Italy she was free to go out and buy a loaf of bread whenever she wanted, before or after dark. In 1970s America, as a lone woman without an automobile in suburban New York City, she was not.

In the absence of a way of life that worked for her, she found American freedom hollow. Similar points have been made in other settings, notably in the case of people who don’t have the money to exercise freedoms that are theoretically theirs.

The problem pops up everywhere. Gay “marriage” and easy divorce mean that more relationships qualify as marriages, and people can easily escape abusive ones. But depriving marriage of social definition, support, and specific function makes it much harder to enter a marriage worthy of the name. That’s bad for men, women, and especially children. So which freedom is more important, the freedom of each individual to define marriage for himself, or the freedom to have an actual marriage?

It can be hard to deal with that kind of problem. Socialism takes some of these issues very seriously, but its emphasis on system leaves no room for the individual. That is why economic inefficiency killed it, at least for a time. Fitting people into a perfect system is impossible without turning them into passive drones, and passive drones aren’t good for much.

In non-economic settings that problem is still with us. As sensitivities have developed, for example, cancel culture, political correctness, and the tyranny of health are determining more and more of what we are allowed to do, say, and think. When was the last time you heard someone say “it’s a free country”?

Even so, those who support the growing tendency to supervise and control everything believe it increases freedom. Bigots and unvaccinated people restrict what other people can do, they say, and that’s oppressive. It’s the “Karens” and judgmental people, the white middle-class cisheteronormative types who expect everyone to live like them, who are the enemies of freedom and need to be crushed.

All sides can make these arguments. Freedom can’t be maximized as such. When we can’t rely on others for basic things, because they are free to do as they wish, our own freedom is restricted. But what are those basic things?

Everyone wants a way of life that he finds good or at least tolerable, but a way of life depends on the cooperation of other people. So freedom that means anything must be ordered freedom, with sensible standards for what goes and what does not. But people differ on what those things are. The result is that everyone wants to infringe on what other people think is their freedom, in order to fit them into the system he finds most sensible.

Liberalism originally wanted to solve that problem by letting everyone decide on his own way of life. As we see all around us, it didn’t work. All we can do is try to find practical ways of living together, while making the freedoms that seem most valuable more secure and generally available.

That is difficult to do, since people are hard to manage. And we can’t begin to deal with the problem without some basic decisions about how it makes sense to live. But how can such decisions, which depend on a common understanding of human nature and the public good, be made?

We live in a technocratic age with democratic ideals, so people want to let experts or democratic politics decide. But such understandings are too basic to decide that way. They give expertise its mission and define the limits of legitimate political decision, so how can they be decided by experts or politicians?

In the past, such issues have been decided through the development of traditions that reflect the experience of the whole people, or else through divine revelation. That makes a great deal of sense, but technological society destroys tradition, the coherence of peoples, and public acceptance of revelation.

So now what? It’s a very difficult problem. To me, a Catholic society seems the only principled solution. Catholicism is the most reasonable way of understanding man and the world, and it supports natural law—ordering society in accordance with human nature. But that solution is practically very distant. For now it seems we have to bump along with various unprincipled arrangements, and do what we can to bring about something better. How that turns out we shall see.


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About James Kalb 120 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

8 Comments

    • From the Canticle of Zechariah prayed each morning in the Divine Office:

      “This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham,
      to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
      FREE TO WORSHIP HIM WITHOUT FEAR,
      holy and righteous in his sight.”

      I guess I’m just echoing the comment made above, but I would modify the statement slightly:

      Freedom is the ability to choose to know, love, and serve God, or not. But I don’t think we’re free to NOT make the choice. We have before us life and death, and we must choose.

  1. A very profound book about freedom and the vast consequences of choices is JRR Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”. Not an easy read, and freedom may not be a theme that stands out for many who read the chronicle, but so much in this long saga hinges on the freedom bestowed by the Creator on his creatures, and how they use this gift.

  2. Liberalism originally wanted to solve that problem by letting everyone decide on his own way of life. As we see all around us, it didn’t work (Kalb). So we have to redefine freedom if a natural law principle is modified by civil law [Aquinas’ question is natural law the same in all] or if warranted fight for it. That becoming increasingly evident in a society where the wise [Plato et al] predictably said democracy, liberalism with a political name likely mutates into tyranny. Kalb underscores the transference of meaning from the reprehensible to medical care, abortion, medical assisted suicide, euthanasia [did he mention surgically transgendering kids parents withheld by law?]. Has anyone ever seen such tyranny? If complained about today you’re apt to be beaten like the old granny in Blazing Saddles. AFCz in context has it right.

  3. I agree with Tom that The Silmarillion is an exceptional book of stories about freedom and it’s consequences. Presently I am in my third reading of the book since I enjoyed it so much the first two times and each time I am impressed by how good it is. Mr. Kalb, as usual, is very perceptive in pointing out contemporary confusions about freedom. I wish we could find in the contemporary Church much wisdom on this issue but alas…

  4. I understood that the classic definition by Catholic philosophers of freedom is that it is the power to do what you ought to do. The ‘ought’ element of the definition brings in morality so that the definition, if correct, effectively says that freedom consists in deciding to do what is morally good.
    A decision not to love God is not morally good and will lead not to freedom even in this life but to loss of freedom, and especially so in the next life.

  5. “Liberalism originally wanted to solve that problem by letting everyone decide on his own way of life. As we see all around us, it didn’t work.”

    How does one define “work?” The liberal would say that it did work. Now a person can fornicate, contracept, and murder their unborn child, and not a significant proportion of the population thinks that there is any big issue. Actually, the reason that they don’t think that it is an issue is because of ignorance (e.g. from public “education” and the blind media) and/or malice.

    I know that in the 1950s priests and religious were considered the elite for Catholics. Nowadays, it is “the expert” (e.g. lawyers, academics, and scientists) and the parroting media which “rule” in this country.

    The media pose as neutral by way of framing and presenting some issues. However, they carefully avoid questions of those issues which they don’t choose to cover. After all, they “need” to make sure not to offend their advertisers.

    “All we can do is try to find practical ways of living together, while making the freedoms that seem most valuable more secure and generally available.”

    This isn’t moral. The ATHEISTIC, communist USSR government found “practical ways of living together.” All it took was guns and bullets. Of course, that didn’t work in the long run and IT WAS EVIL.

    The fact is that law – and morality – is forceful. Technically, it isn’t coercive, but to a thief laws against theft might be perceived and named as such.

    The “practical way of living together” now involves “the law of the jungle.” A job is seen by those who matter as a gracious favor which is bestowed on whomever they please, and for as long as it suits their arbitrary fancy. For those in social media or who host comments on websites, they probably often unjustly ban whomever they don’t like or refuse to publish.

    “That is difficult to do, since people are hard to manage. And we can’t begin to deal with the problem without some basic decisions about how it makes sense to live. But how can such decisions, which depend on a common understanding of human nature and the public good, be made?”

    The decision will need to be made by appealing to reason and revelation. It is relativism which has fostered a “live and let live” attitude. Attack liberalism by sharing that one can be immoral with one’s beliefs (e.g. that abortion isn’t immoral). Of course, people will need to be set straight on what they should believe and how they should behave by the true Catholic Church.

    God taught men through The Ten Commandments, and He still teaches through the true Catholic Church. As the infallible guide the Catholic Church knows morality better than anyone else. I recall hearing on a Protestant radio station them refer to the Catholic Church when the question came up about whether gambling was wrong.

    “We live in a technocratic age with democratic ideals, so people want to let experts or democratic politics decide. But such understandings are too basic to decide that way. They give expertise its mission and define the limits of legitimate political decision, so how can they be decided by experts or politicians?”

    Natural science hasn’t ever claimed to answer questions of morality (e.g. when to use “the bomb”) and people can’t go by what scientists say because it is outside of their expertise as scientists. On the other hand, lawyers are supposed to know something about justice. Somehow law education has been greatly corrupted by the malicious. That is a history which I haven’t seen anywhere, yet.

    However, history isn’t necessarily important. The path is clear. All “alternative” “theories” MUST be banned from legal education. The biggest one is legal positivism. The natural law must be recognized and given recognition alongside the theory of gravity. While only God may be able to fully explain morality and the saints live it, a basic understanding isn’t beyond the ability of those who study it, and who rely on and submit their judgment to the true Catholic Church.

    “In the past, such issues have been decided through the development of traditions that reflect the experience of the whole people, or else through divine revelation. That makes a great deal of sense, but technological society destroys tradition, the coherence of peoples, and public acceptance of revelation.”

    Tradition, in itself, doesn’t have anything to say. Law and morality is a matter of reason, not tradition. Tradition as I understand it was a matter of pious devotions. The Rosary is a tradition. The Oberammergau Passion Play is a tradition. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a divinely commanded tradition. Note that, typically, a tradition isn’t fixed in stone.

    However, the moral fact that dishonesty is never acceptable is NOT a tradition. It is a matter of reason.

    “Technological society” hasn’t caused the issues. It is a matter of ignorance and malice.

    If the true pope was on the TV news frequently and reminded people of or taught basic morality, things would start to change. Legislators would realize that law isn’t politics and isn’t concerned with conversations with campaign contributors (i.e. bribers), and evaluating political surveys in an effort to win the latest electoral popularity contest, but is a species of JUSTICE.

    The TV coverage of the screaming of immoral radicals and talk of “love,” and “acceptance” of “alternative lifestyles,” and publications concerning certain immoral “story hours” have replaced truth. And, of course, there is always the perennial elephant in the room: immodesty dress (e.g. see above). It’s spiritual poison.

    I have seen a video of commentary on the Consecration of Pope Pius XII after his election. The existence of God and the importance of the pope was taken for granted. Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine such a thing happening on TV.

    “So now what? It’s a very difficult problem. To me, a Catholic society seems the only principled solution. Catholicism is the most reasonable way of understanding man and the world, and it supports natural law—ordering society in accordance with human nature. But that solution is practically very distant. For now it seems we have to bump along with various unprincipled arrangements, and do what we can to bring about something better. How that turns out we shall see.”

    Any difficulty is a matter of implementation. The principles are clear. Every human is supposed to be a Catholic. The fact that they aren’t is the issue. And what is stopping that is ignorance and malice.

    When protesters were pushing for the right to vote, the goal might have been distant, but that didn’t stop them from trying and eventually succeeding. Of course, a big (perhaps the second biggest) issue with democracy is that children can’t vote.

    • Some comments:

      Liberalism doesn’t work in the fundamental sense that it promises freedom and equality and ultimately delivers absolute rule by a small group to keep us from oppressing each other. And it aspires to absolute transparent rationality but ultimately goes insane because it insists on an aspiration that can’t be carried out.

      To speak of “practical ways of living together” is to say that prudence is a virtue in difficult circumstances, not that success should be the only standard.

      We human beings get our grip on rational truths through experience, through seeing how abstractions apply in practice, and tradition is social experience. Even science has a tradition – it matters in the sciences who you train under.

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