The True Notion of Freedom

Freedom is a good which all humans possess.  To reduce it is considered as an attack on human dignity and on the Rights of Man.  But is it true that we can do everything that we want to do?  On this basic question depends all our thinking and our actions.

Physically, are we free to do everything that we want to do?

It is undeniably, unless ill or paralysed, that we enjoy a certain liberty, freedom of movement, we are able to move our heads, to raise fingers, to run, etc.  But this physical freedom is not unlimited, we can frantically wave our arms but we cannot manage to fly.  Our freedom of movement is governed by rules which we are unable to transgress, we cannot live without eating, we cannot eat any thing whatsoever, etc.  To rebel against the limits of our physical liberty is useless.  On the other hand, if we accept to submit ourselves to the laws of the nature of things, like that of gravity for example we can succeed in flying but by going up in an aeroplane.

Psychologically, are we free to do everything we wish to do?

Our thought and our will possess a certain freedom.  To deny it would be to reject the testimony of our conscience.  Even the man who is chained down keeps it.  One can beat him, torture him, but one cannot prevent him from thinking of his wife or of wanting to escape; his jailer can apply the whip as much as he likes but he can never constrain him by force to like him.  The latter remains free to think or to like whatever he wants; one can by force prevent him from expressing his thoughts or of realising his desires but one cannot force him to change his opinion; he keeps his free will, a freedom which he calls free judgement.  To reject it would amount to putting in doubt the very purpose of counsels, exhortations, teaching, prohibitations, rewards and punishments; the Penal codes of every country would lose, e.g., their reason for existing.

Morally are we free to do everything we want?

Imagine that I have the choice between two paths to arrive at an appointment, one is long but nicer than the other.  Before making my decision, I use my intelligence to find out which is the better way for me.  I ask myself which is the best for me, the less tiring or the contemplation of a lovely scenery?  The solution could vary, according to circumstance but I wall always seek to take the best route.  My free-will permits me, in fact, to choose a way to reach what is good.  That which I always seek is what is best for me.

I can be mistaken. I could just as well follow the impulses of my disordered sensibility rather than the judgement of my intelligence; e.g. starving, I could take a balanced meal or swallow many bars of chocolate.  If I suffer a liver attack, it is not less true that it was to my benefit which I believed to find in swallowing the chocolates; I sought to be satisfied by enjoying the taste of the chocolates, but not to suffer a liver attack!

This thing is important because it proves that liberty is not an end in itself but a means to achieve an end.  That which makes the importance and the value of liberty is the importance and the value of that which it allows to be achieved.  In itself, liberty is only a potentiality, e.g., I am free to go and see a film at a cinema.  I have the possibility.  It is evident that this possibility has value only by relation to the film in question; it relates to a good film I will be delighted by the possibility which is given to me; if I know, on the contrary, that the film is long, sad and tiresome, I have no reason to be particularly delighted.  One sees by this that liberty is not a goal or end in itself as one hears it today.  Liberty is only valuable because of the good it permits us to achieve.  It has no value except in as far as the thing which one achieves is good in itself.

If man always seeks his good, he can be mistaken in his search: e.g. he could take a poisoned fruit. whether he wants it or not, that fruit could cause him harm.  If the human being has therefore the power of freely directing itself towards its good, it has not, however, the power to choose that which is good for him.  He could never arrange it so that a deadly poison, taken in a big dose, would give him health.  Things are good or bad independently of his will.  This is what one wants to express when speaking of moral liberty.  By moral liberty one means the right man has to do that which is good for him, whether he wills it or not.  Man is free and can be mistaken; so a moral law exists to indicate that which is good.  The moral law shows that a hierarchy exists amongst the good things, e.g. my life has more value than the pleasure obtained through a poisoned sweet, even if it is delicious.  One has not the right, therefore, to sacrifice a higher good for an inferior good.  Evidently the moral law which man should follow to attain and achieve his good flows from human nature.

First objection:  To be free is to be able to do whatever I want.

Reply: To allow oneself to live by following all the nervous or glandular reactions is, on the contrary, to be the slave of a material determination.  Glands and nerves are in fact, material or corporal, and all that is material is determined, follows automatically very precise laws.  To be free is to be able to control that by an act of spiritual will power.  It is to control one's appetites, it is to choose that which appears good to us according to our intelligent assessment.

Second objection:  My liberty stops where that of my neighbour begins.

Reply: And if your neighbour and you are not in agreement on the limits, who will decide?  The State?  And in the name of what?  of the people's will?  The Rights of Man?(1)  But they assert that public authority is founded on the people's will.  One ends up, therefore, in a vicious circle.  Consequently, my liberty must inevitably be limited by some objective thing.  That objective good will be as independent of my will as that of my neighbour's because, otherwise, what now could compel me to respect the liberty of the said neighbour?
(1) Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dec. 10, 1948, art. 21, §3

Third objection:  I am free as long as I do not harm others.

Reply: In any case, everyone of our actions, even the most private, has an influence on society: to keep in good health, to enrich one's mind or to practise one's profession cannot but have good results; while laziness, deceit or theft cannot but have harmful results for our entourage.  Whether we want it or not, we are not autonomous individuals placed one beside another; we are members of the same society.

Fourth objection:  I am the sole judge of what is good or bad for me.

Reply: That is exactly what was said to the chemist by the man who poisoned himself three days later for not having listened to his advice...

Fifth objection:  If I must submit myself to a law, I am not free.

Reply: If laws did not exist in nature, man could construct nothing solid, everything would fall down.  It is by relying on the laws of gravity, or physics, etc. that man succeeds in constructing what he wants.  It is in so far as he submits to them that he makes use of his liberty.  It is through them that he is free to act.  The law is therefore the means of our liberty.  Without them - no liberty.

Sixth objection:  I find my happiness where I wish to.

Reply: The drug addict believes he find his happiness in drugs.  He actually finds a certain pleasure in them but he always finishes by finding unhappiness in them.  The happiness of man is in fact determined by his nature.  Man has the possibility of seeking happiness where he wants to but he has not that of finding it there because he cannot change his nature: drugs finally can only harm his physical constitution.


Freedom is then only a means to reach a good.  It is not an end in itself.  To confound physical liberty (liberty of movement), psychological liberty (free-will) and moral liberty is a mistake. Many distinctions must be made!  Liberty establishes Man's dignity when it is a question of moral liberty. To be able to adhere to what is good without being conditioned is indeed what differentiates man from the animal.  Freedom of movement and free-will alone - without moral liberty - give man the poossibility to adhere to what is good as well as to what is bad.  Human liberty does not have the power to render good by the simple fact that it desires it.  If we submit ourselves daily to the laws of gravity, of nutrition, of electricity, etc. why not submit ourselves too to the objective moral law?