Freedom and liberty

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S026-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2018, from

4. Freedom as optionality

Among the controversies that still divide writers about freedom is the question of whether freedom (in the sense of optionality alone) should be conceived of as simply the absence of present frustration or whether it is best understood as the absence of wider opportunities to do more than one wants to do now. We can call the former concept the ‘actual-want satisfaction’ theory and the latter the ‘hypothetical-want’ or ‘dispositional’ theory. The former allows a person to be called free to the extent that they can satisfy their present wants, without hindrance or frustration. The dispositional concept, however, will not consider them free unless they can also do things that they do not want to do at that present moment, but could, for all they now know, come to want to do at some future time. Why, one might ask, would added dispositional freedom be of value to the person whose actual wants are always permitted their satisfaction? Why should a person miss merely hypothetical want-satisfaction when they can do everything they want without frustration? The usual answer to this question points out that the love of freedom can be a love of breathing space, or room to manoeuvre, of frequent opportunities to change one’s mind. The hypothetical account of optionality, therefore, can also be called the ‘breathing space’ theory.

The most influential spokesmen for the ‘actual-wants’ concept were the ancient Stoics (see Stoicism §17). According to Stoic teaching, there are two ways a person can increase the degree of their want-satisfaction. One is to leave their wants as they are and work for the means to satisfy them. The second is to avoid trying to change the world – that is the path to misery – but instead to develop the techniques for changing desires so that they always accord with what happens. The Stoic does not need any breathing space. Whatever happens will please them because their only desire is that God’s will be done, and since Zeus is believed to be omnipotent, that desire cannot be frustrated.

Consider Dorothy Doe, who can choose among 1,000 things at time t, but is prevented from choosing, or actually doing, the one thing she wants most to do. Richard Roe, on the other hand, can only do one thing at time t, but it happens to be the one thing he wants most to do. Richard Roe, one should say, is not simply ‘comparatively’ or ‘largely’ unfree; rather, he is totally unfree, for to say that he can do only one thing is to say that he is forced or made to do that thing. And it is beyond controversy that one cannot be both free and compelled to do the same thing. It may be the case, however, that Richard Roe will be entirely content with the arrangement, and actually welcome the compulsion, which if so, shows again that one can sometimes find more contentment in being unfree than in being free. This at least is the message derived from the example by the hypothetical-wants theorist. The actual-wants theorist will deny that Roe is truly unfree; after all, Roe can do what he most wants to do.

Dorothy Doe, on the other hand, may have just lost her last chance to pursue a career as a medical researcher, or her last chance to marry the man she loves, or to find a cure for her child’s disease. But she does ‘enjoy’ thousands more options than Richard Roe. She might seem to be freer in respect (say) to prospective marriage partners (one hundred philosophers are eager to marry her tomorrow, but she loathes them all). But her greater freedom is of no significant use. She will be unhappier but more free than Roe. This example may please the breathing space theorist more than the actual-wants theorist, but it may give still more support to the value-oriented philosopher of freedom considered next.

Is Dorothy Doe really more free simply by having more open options? Does not the superior desirability, in her judgment, of some of the options count as well as the sheer number of them? The proponent of the hypothetical-wants theory of freedom often baulks at permitting desirability into our determinations, partly because of the danger that philosophers will reduce the issue to a purely normative question to be settled by considering which definition of the word ‘free’ links its meaning to something that is worthy of the value we associate with the word.

The problem of counting options remains a difficulty for all the above theories. Berlin had earlier written that ‘the method for counting [possibilities] can never be more than impressionistic. Possibilities of action are not discrete entities like apples, which can be exhaustively enumerated’ (1958: 130, footnote 1) But individuating possible actions is not the only problem for the philosopher who would apply quantitative measures to freedom’s many dimensions, including comprehensiveness, fecundity, and diversity. And one does not exhaust the relevant possibilities by dividing all action into ‘possible’ and ‘impossible.’ There are also the component categories – difficult and easy, possible at great cost and possible at small cost, statistically probable and statistically improbable, multiple choices and either/or choices.

It is hard enough to deal with these problems of measurement, but they are almost equally difficult to evade, especially if we continue to speak of one individual or one society having more freedom than another. Moreover, if a philosopher maintains that both the number and the significance, importance or value of open options determines how free one is (and probably most philosophers take such a combination view), then the difficulties begin all over again when they leave off option-counting and begins option-evaluating.

Citing this article:
Feinberg, Joel. Freedom as optionality. Freedom and liberty, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S026-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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