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March 27th, 2020 7:41:19 pm

Re-thinking Freedom in a Crisis

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This essay is a critique of what I take to be our most common way of conceptualizing freedom. I argue that at times like we are currently experiencing, we can see the flaws in this conception quite well and this should aid us in a developing a better idea of what freedom is.

Re-thinking Freedom in a Crisis

Image result for pull yourself up by your bootstraps

I take this to be our conception of freedom. Rugged, individualistic, and impossible. Our freedom, as we say, involves “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” The problem, of course, is that this is impossible. Expecting this of someone puts them in a position where they cannot succeed, but yet they will blame themselves if they do not. In what follows, I would like to briefly examine a common way that we have of thinking about freedom, and notice the flaws in these ways of thinking. I believe that these flaws show themselves quite acutely during a pandemic like we are currently experiencing.

Most commonly, when we talk about freedom, we refer to it “negatively”, as philosophers often say.(1) I am free, I may claim, if nothing in the external world is preventing me from doing whatever it is that I want to do. Freedom requires an “absence of restraint.” There are good reasons to care about freedom in this way. For example, there are some very obvious cases of oppression where removing restrictions would increase freedom. If one is literally in chains, enslaved, held against one’s will in a way that has nothing to do with a concern for their freedom, emancipation from these restrictions will generally result in greater freedom. There are also, and have been, many laws that restrict people from doing any number of things: voting, attending school, becoming literate, marrying whomever they wish. Again, we generally expect that removing these laws means the emancipation of those who were restrained by them. This way of thinking about freedom affects how we think about politics. Freedom is the central concept in American political life. If freedom as absence of restraint is taken to be the aim, we can see how this idea plays out politically: we focus on removing restrictions, regulations, laws, or coercion of any sort. This, we may think, is what makes a society free.

This conception focuses solely on our immediate, individual resources. The problem with this is that freedom, I believe, cannot be reduced or abstracted in this way. Doing so results in unfair expectations of ourselves and others, and a politics that is fundamentally rooted in an erroneous conception of freedom. Let’s return to our image above. The idea that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps refers to the idea that we can succeed without any outside help. The bootstraps image is impossible because it is in fact physically impossible to do this. One problem with only thinking of freedom negatively is that it takes no account of how we might actually do whatever it is that we want to do with our lives. We in fact require outside help. In this case, we need the ground, a wall, or some other force outside of us that pushes against us. We need, in fact, some kind of limit or restriction on our movement in order to move. If we think negatively about standing up (I am free to stand up if I am not restricted in any way), we would fail to account for the actual human body and the physical environment in which it operates.

Right now, it is painfully clear that this kind of conception of freedom misses the fact that true freedom cannot exist without external forces, limits, and ultimately a social foundation. We can see how much of our ability to simply go about our lives and do what we do relies on forces outside of us and a social reality of which we are only a small part: grocery stores with the labor involved in producing food, to the management of the supply, to the clerk checking us out with our food; health care, involving governmental bodies tasked with organizing and dealing with this crisis, health care workers, and the production of basic medical supplies without which they cannot do their job safely, or not at all; sanitation workers, and all of those who deal with infrastructure like water, energy, roads; the list goes on and on. When these parts of our lives are working for us, we have the luxury of not noticing them and thus taking them for granted. The ability not to focus on these parts of our lives is important so that we can go about our lives and pursue whatever it is that we want to do. The danger, however, is that we construct a fantasy of freedom that thinks that we are free become there are no limits placed up on us, and that the pursuing of our aims is actually something that we are doing alone.

Let’s take as an example some very real limits that people are currently experiencing. One may be under stay-at-home or self-quarantine orders. These are very straightforward limits. We could conceive of them as limits to our freedom such that we are less free because our ability to travel, go out to bars and restaurants, and live our “normal lives” is restricted. On the other hand, to oppose this is not to want to live one’s normal life, but would wandering out into closed stores and restaurants, potentially spreading the virus and increasing the sickness and death around us. If this is what one means by freedom, it does not seem worth fighting for. To go further, and to say that I would like us all to go back to normal so that I can live my regular life, then I am already acknowledging the social foundation for my freedom. My activity is only possible because of the activities of others around me. The error relies on the idea that restrictions, limits, or whatever we might call them, by their nature limit our freedom. As Hegel would say, these limits, far from taking away from our freedom, are the very condition for it.

Consequently, we need to think of freedom as socially embedded.(2) To think of freedom as “social” is to think of it as the property of a group and not of an individual. Freedom can be something that I have only on the condition that others have it too. This involves thinking of freedom as something that cannot be done alone. Certain institutions of social reality, including their restrictions, regulations, and limits, are the condition for freedom and the medium through which I can experience it. If freedom is the aim of our political world, and I do think it is a good one, then we need the right conception of freedom to be leading the way.


  1.  Berlin, I., 1969, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in I. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, London: Oxford University Press. New ed. in Berlin 2002.
  2.  I am following Axel Honneth’s terminology and argument from Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life. Columbia University Press. 2015.







April 13, 2020 at 2:14 pm

I’m unconvinced that today the prevalent conception of
personal freedom is represented by “the bootstrap” metaphor. The author’s
reference to freedom as “absence of restraint” comes from Berlin’s lecture “Two
concepts of liberty” first delivered in 1958. In some sense I believe the
author has constructed a straw horse in which freedom means “removing
restrictions.” Certainly, personal freedom involves autonomy but it also
requires responsibility to legislate laws that insures freedom.

The author concludes: “To think of freedom as “social” is to
think of it as the property of a group and not of an individual.”
The author has set up what feels like a false dilemma that freedom is either
the property of a group or of an individual. Since freedom is only social then
inherently I have no personal freedom. In other words, the individual’s freedom
is not primary but rather derivative. This is dangerous position at best and
can result in social structures that abuse their power.