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Freedom and liberty

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S026-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

There are at least two basic ideas in the conceptual complex we call ‘freedom’; namely, rightful self-government (autonomy), and the overall ability to do, choose or achieve things, which can be called ‘optionality’ and defined as the possession of open options. To be autonomous is to be free in the sense of ‘self-governing’ and ‘independent’, in a manner analogous to that in which sovereign nation states are free. Optionality is when a person has an open option in respect to some possible action, x, when nothing in the objective circumstances prevents them from doing x should they choose to do so, and nothing requires them to do x should they choose not to. One has freedom of action when one can do what one wills, but in order to have the full benefit of optionality, it must be supplemented by freedom of choice (free will), which consists in being able to will what one wants to will, free of internal psychological impediments. Autonomy and optionality can vary independently of one another. A great deal of one can coexist with very little of the other.

Perhaps the most controversial philosophical question about the analysis of freedom concerns its relation to wants or desires. Some philosophers maintain that only the actual wants that a person has at a given time are relevant to their freedom, and that a person is free to the extent that they can do what they want, even if they can do very little else. Other philosophers, urging that the function of freedom is to provide ‘breathing space’, insist that freedom is a function of a person’s ability to satisfy possible (hypothetical) as well as actual wants. A third group consists of those who hold a ‘value-oriented’ theory according to which freedom is not merely the power of doing what one wants or may come to want, rather it is the capacity of doing something ‘worth doing or enjoying’, something that is important or significant to the person said to be free, or to others.

Citing this article:
Feinberg, Joel. Freedom and liberty, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S026-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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