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The protests are in the name of freedom. But what is freedom?

By John Wright - posted Monday, 26 October 2020

Throughout much of the world there have been protests, in the name of freedom, against some of the steps taken by governments to stop the spread of Covid-19.

What is assumed by the organisers of these protests is that the actions taken by governments (such as requiring to people to wear masks, to practice social distancing, not to congregate in public places and so on) have the effect of reducing people's freedom. And, at first, assumption might seem to be correct. It might seem that, in having to deal with the virus, societies are confronted with a choice between reducing freedom or letting the virus spread. Retaining freedom is one side, containing the virus is on the other.

But, as is often the case with political/social questions, things are not so simple. And the complexity of this situation starts to become apparent as soon as we ask: 'What, exactly, do we mean by 'freedom'?


Protesters possibly mean by 'freedom' the 'absence of laws constraining what it is they do.' While this is certainly one aspect of the notion of freedom, it is not the only one.

Possibly the best-known speech on freedom by a prominent politician was given President F. D. Roosevelt. He spoke of 'four freedoms': freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Of course, Roosevelt did not claim that these four freedoms constituted an exhaustive list of all freedoms. Rather, he merely suggested that they were, at the time he gave his speech, four freedoms that people throughout the world could reasonably hope to get.

But, Roosevelt's 'four freedoms' do remind us of a fundamental point: freedom from constraint by law is not the only freedom that there is. There are many 'freedoms'. Roosevelt mentioned freedom from want and freedom from fear. And we might also mention freedom from related threats, including disease, joblessness, societal disorder and security. Of course, we might dispute whether all these freedoms are obtainable. And we might also say some are less important than others. But most of us would, I think, accept that they are of some value.

Theorists have noted that there seem to be two dimensions to our ordinary notion of freedom. These are sometimes called 'negative freedom' and 'positive freedom'.

We can bring out how our ordinary notion of freedom contains these two dimensions by asking ourselves: 'Are we free to fly 'like birds', by flapping our arms and flying off in to the air?' Well, in one sense we are. There is no law prohibiting it. But to many people it does not seem quite right to say that we are, quite simply, free to fly like birds. Obviously, we can't fly like birds. And so, it doesn't seem entirely right to say we are free to do so. Or: since we can't do it, the question of whether or not we are free to do it "does not arise".

As a result of considerations such as these, a distinction has been drawn between negative freedom and positive freedom. To say that we are negatively free to do something merely means we are not prevented by law from doing it. To say we are positively free means not only that we are permitted by law, but we also have the power or ability to do it.


Once it is noted that there are a number of notions of freedom, the question of how freedom is to be defended, or maximised, becomes rather more complicated. What sort of freedom is to be defended, or maximised? Extending one sort of freedom might have the consequence of reducing other sorts of freedom. For example, increasing our "negative freedom", by not placing any (temporary) limits on how people mix, might in the longer term bring about a reduction in other freedoms, including a reduction in the positive freedoms of having the ability to get a job, to enjoy a decent standard of living and to be able to live one's life as one chooses.

The philosopher Karl Popper referred to the 'paradox of freedom'. Popper argued that complete freedom leads to the destruction of freedom. Popper was concerned with the fact that if there were complete freedom, in the sense of no laws, or no measures taken to enforce the laws that did exist, then the violent and ruthless would take over and deprive everyone else of their freedom. So, said Popper, in order to maximise overall freedom, limits need to be placed on some freedoms.

Popper's general point applies to the situation our societies now find themselves. Some restrictions have been placed on our freedoms. But this can be compatible with the aim of preserving other freedoms in the longer term.

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About the Author

John Wright lectures in philosophy at the University of Newcastle. He has published books in philosophy of science, metaphysics, and ethical issues of economic rationalism.

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