This is (mostly) the English translation of an Italian article I wrote several years ago. There are a few small differences, due partly to that article referring other articles that are in Italian and for which I didn't write a translation, partly to some stylistic preference, and partly to my evolving knowledge —although none of it has so far affected my current belief on the matter, nor alter the core of this post.

When talking about freedom, several things can be said about the use and abuse of the concept, or even its ontologically possibility.

But what I want to discuss here is the paradoxical, when not even self-contradictory nature of the concept of freedom, and its application in the real world.

There are a few necessary premises before it even makes sense to talk about freedom at all; we will therefore assume in what follows that human beings have some quid that we call free will, and that gives them the possibility to choose how to act, within the limits of the laws of nature (that we shall assume by and large deterministic).

We can also take for granted that a human being, as long as they don't find themselves interacting with another human being (or other being provided with free will), is free (to act as they believe most appropriate), but also that in such a context the concept of freedom isn't particularly meaningful.

Indeed, and here we can already see the first paradox, it's more meaningful to define freedom in negative rather than positive terms: talking about freedom is most valuable when freedom is understood as freedom to not be bound by others. Hence the famous maxim that «a person's freedom ends where another's freedom begins» which, paraphrasing Giorgio Gaber, is a «romantic and evocative expression», but doesn't tell us anything about how (or where) the boundary between one's own freedom and that of others should be drawn.

Rather than looking more in depth into this rich subject, we could even remark that the whole discussion could be closed right now with a simple consideration: a being is either free (if they don't interact, directly or indirectly, with any other) or not (since in the interaction with another being they'll inevitably find themselves conditioned or limited in their choices).

But obviously that's not particularly interesting. The true core, when talking about freedom, is precisely in the determination of the limit that bounds one's freedom in relation to others (each of the others individually, and of the others as a collective), or at the very least in the determination of the criteria by which such boundaries could be determined. It's this, after all, the point of contention when debating political, ethical or moral philosophy: if there are boundaries that could be drawn other than the ‘natural’ one dictated by the power difference (however intended), and if so which, and how.

Because of this, ultimately in practice it becomes more important to discuss about freedom in the plural sense, as a collection of single freedoms (to be —or not— free to …) rather than about Freedom as an abstract concept. It's these freedoms that generally, in the formalization of the codices of society, become rights1 and that as such should (in theory) be guaranteed by society itself (the ‘how’ that's supposed to happen, or even ‘if’ it even happens in the first place is obviously an entirely different matter).

In fact, reduction from Freedom as an abstract absence of coercion to multiple single freedoms is not just something for the formally organized society: even the most staunchest supporter of anarchism will end up talking, concretely, about freedom from (taxes, government, the State, religion, …) rather than the abstract Freedom, because ultimately those are the ones that matter concretely.

And yet, this is precisely the point where the possibly most important aspects of freedom come into play: two symmetrical paradoxes riding the transition from being free and being not.

Free to be free

As a premise to the presentation of these two fundamental paradoxes of freedom, I'd like to pose a question: are the freedoms that are more important than other freedoms? Is it possible to define an (at least partial) ordering of freedoms?

I would say the answer to this question is affirmative: after all, it's precisely starting from this that one can define the limits of individual freedoms conflicting with each other. For example, the freedom of movement (the right to go undisturbed wherever one wants to) is in conflict with the right to have a corner where one can be left alone without anybody coming to disturb you. The freedom of a group of people to organize to manifest conflicts with the freedom of other people to use the same path. Which of the freedoms prevails?

Less superficially, it's clear that there are freedoms that are fundamental, in the sense that without them one wouldn't even be able to exercise the other freedoms. Obviously, such fundamental freedoms are more general, and more abstract.

We're talking, for example, to the right to life: I am free to live, and hence others are not free to kill me. Obviously, if I'm not alive I cannot exercise my being free (ignoring the metaphysical and transcendent matter of the freedom of the spirit beyond death).

We're also talking about the right to be free: the freedom to be free: I am free to be free, and therefore others are not free to coerce or constrict me.

It's important to note that these fundamental freedoms, not by chance expressed as rights, are in a certain sense passive2, expressed more precisely by a lack of freedom of others rather than active choice of the individual: where the subject can act, however, is in the defense of such freedom; and yet, in some way, the necessity itself for defence of these fundamental freedoms is a loss of freddom in itself. And this is already a small paradox, that would probably deserve to be discussed more in depth.

Free to lose one's freedom

If the freedom to be free may seem like little more than wordplay, it's in going beyond, in looking at the loss of freedom that the topic becomes more serous, and more interesting.

Obviously, we're not talking here about a loss of freedom resulting from coercion: such an event is clearly nothing more than a violation of one's freedom. But what can we say instead of the case of a permanent, voluntary loss of freedom?

Let us assume that it's realistic what's stated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), that is that everyone is born free (Art. 1) and they have a right to life and liberty (Art. 2). As long as we're talking about rights, we're implying that others may not deprive us of our life, of our freedom. But this says nothing about the possibility for each of us to choose to lose one's life —or one's freedom.

Are we free to become slaves? It's important to note that such a choice would not be voluntarily reversible: slavery is something you can only get out of by an act of somebody else. In this irreversibility, voluntary loss of freedom isn't that different from a voluntary loss of life (even though the latter is, for obvious reasons, ‘more’ irreversible, unless one believes in reincarnation, or medicine offers us, in the future, the possibility to come back to life after death).

The question is thus: are more free when we're to not be free, or if one's freedom is unrenounceable?

The answer is not simple: on the one hand, if I'm free to give up my freedom, and as long as I do not exercise this option, I'm ‘more free’ than I would be if I wouldn't be free to give it up; on the other hand, once I do exercise my freedom to give up my freedom I would be (from that point forward) less free than if I hadn't had the option.

It's not an idle question either, even though in this article I only care about underlying the paradoxical nature. One could ask: why ever would voluntarily choose to permanently lose one's freedom? And the truth is, there are innumerable circumstances in which this can happen, especially when having to face a choice between, e.g. life and freedom.

It's not by chance that the aforementioned Declaration maintains (Art. 4) that no individual can be kept in slavery or servitude: in other words, according to the UDHR, we are not free to lose our freedom.

On the other hand, there are (self-proclaimed) libertarians that support the opposite, at least as long as the situations that would lead one to choose to lose one's freedom come from ‘natural’ circumstances, and are not forced by somebody's intervention (understandably, since otherwise —e.g. if someone was threatening your life if you wouldn't give up your freedom— that would be coercion).

While of the two position is more favorable to freedom? For sure, they're both paradoxical.

Forced to be free

The counterweight to the previous discussion concerns the opposite situation: let as assume we are not free (be it because it's not true that everyone is born free, or because we exercised our freedom to lose our freedom, or because we were coerced into slavery); the question is: can we be forced to be free? (Or on the other side of the barricade: can be force others to be free?)

Let us assume an individual i snot free. Let us assume they want to be. Can we help them, free them? Do we have to? (moral duty)

Let us assume instead that they do not want to be free. More, let us assume they want to not be (which isn't exactly the same thing ). Should we free them anyway? (here obviously the question is directly related to what one thinks about one's freedom to not be free).

Or let us assume that we have given ourselves the duty to free those that want to be free, but we do not know if this particular individual does or does not want to be free. Assume the only way to know if they want to be free or not is to free them. Should we?

Or suppose that the freedom of each of us (individually) depends inescapably on the fact that everybody else be free too. Should we free them regardless of their will, if not else to ensure that everybody else (that wants to be free) can be?

Or suppose that this individual doesn't even know they could be free, and therefore they didn't choose in either sense (i.e., in some sense for them not being free is the ‘natural’ condition). Is it morally acceptable or even our duty to show them this possibility?

(To the extreme: if nobody is free, and nobody has ever been, and we do not even know what would really happen if we all were, would the answer be different? But that's a different matter.)

Education to freedom

Closely related to the previous there's another matter we can't go without discussing when talking about freedom, a much more practical, yet no less paradoxical, matter: education to freedom. Can we educate people to be free?

It's interesting to remark that the answer for the opposite is obviously positive: there is a long, glorious, multimillenial tradition of indoctrination, brainwashing, orientation. And one could hardly say it hasn't had (almost) always success.

One could hardly say the same for freedom, and in this case the situation is even more delicate. Indeed, there's a purely ‘technical’ problem: can freedom be even taught in the first place?

But there's also an ethical question: is it morally acceptable (assuming it is even possible) to each others to be free, or is even just going in that direction coercive? More, like in the case of ‘forcing’ people to be free, is it maybe a ‘moral duty‘ to teach others about freedom?

The problem of education is as important as it is overlooked. On the material possibility to ‘teach’ freedom, on the other hand, there's a lot be said, and the possible methods (and subjects!) deserve an in-depth discussion that falls outside the theme of this article.

It may seem easy to get rid of the matter altogether by maintaining the (debatable) assumption that we are born free, and that the habit to submission and coercion that seems dominant is the one that is ‘acquired’, and as such a truly ‘free’ system wouldn't need to ‘teach’ freedom in the first place. But such a dismissal doesn't take into account some important points.

The first one is, obviously, that precisely because in the context in which we live the dominant mindset seems to be the opposite, some form of ‘teaching’ of freedom (be it only just to ‘unlearn’ the habit to submission and coercion that we have allegedly been instilled since our early years) becomes necessary.

More, it's quite clear that any ‘lesson’ History can teach us is easily forgotten in a couple of generation: how, then, should be educate the new generation to avoid falling back to the system of submission and coercion which we're supposed to get rid of?

The biggest problem is that education is an instrument that can lead to diametrically opposite effects: it can be used to show, illustrate, open the mind, make free, but just as much it can be used to mold the minds into pre-established canons, plagiarize, restrict, close down. But this is a matter that concerns education as a whole, and not something specific to the education to freedom.

The roots of the paradox

Let's go back to, and conclude, the main topic. There is actually a single crucial point from which the whole matter of freedom as a paradox stems from, and that's the issue of keeping one's freedom.

A system based on coercion can easily preserve itself following its own rules. Its founding elements have an internal consistency that make it stable.

On the other hand, a system based on freedom as a fundamental principle cannot be but based on compromise, if not else because «one person's freedom ends where another's begins». Freedom, in itself, cannot thus be an absolute principle, as coercion can be (except, of course, in the trivial case of a single individual that never interacts with any other, not directly, nor indirectly).

The problem is obviously the unavoidable existence of conflictual situations that do not allow a pacific resolution, be it for the inflexibility of the individuals involved, be it for the uniqueness of the sought resource, or be it for any other reason. Even accepting as freely resolved any compromise that the involved individuals may reach3, there will be circumstances in which a compromise may not be reached —and in such a case, coercion of one of the party on the other will be unavoidable.

Therefore, as free as a system can be, it cannot avoid coercion, even if restricted to individual, particular cases: local coercions, so to say, rather than global or systemic. But as minimal as it may be, the most circumscribed of coercion ultimately means, in practice, a negation (even if local) to the freedom as absolute, inalienable principle.

Freedom as a founding principle therefore leads inevitable to an inconsistent, self-contradictory system. This the root of the paradox of freedom. A fissure, as minuscule as it may be, that irrimediably undermines any discourse that could be born from freedom as an absolute principle.

In other words, any (non-trivial and not superficial) discussion on freedom ultimately coalesces on a deliberation about which compromises are acceptable to be as little non free as possible.

Any situation of conflict is fertile ground for doubts that have no answer that are not limiting to freedom.

Assume for example that there is an unresolvable conflict between two parties. Is a third party, independent from the two, free to intervene (without being asked), in favour of either of the original party? If yes, we're accepting prevarication, if not, we're denying the third party freedom of action in participating in the conflict.

There's also the matter of the relative weight of one's freedom versus those of the others. It's easy to say that all have the same weight: it's much harder to act as if they were, especially in the case of strong divergences, e.g. ideological: should somebody else's freedom be respected purely on ideological grounds, regardless of any other factors, or only if there is reciprocity in respecting one's freedom? Can we equally respect the freedom of somebody who does not believe in respecting freedom?

In the negative case, we get in the sticky situation of selective respect (what is the criterion to decide who's deserving of our respect, and who is not?), on the other side we're keeping the doors open to power moves that may direct society towards more coercive systems.

More in general, what prevents a system, that has freedom of its participants as a cornerstone, from degenerating towards a coercive system? How many, and which limitations can be posed to prevent it from happening?

Now much freedom is it right to lose to guarantee freedom?

  1. the matter is actually considerably more complex than this; there are several ways to present the concept of right, but in the ethical/philosophical sense and in the judicial sense, and not all of them directly or indirectly relate to freedom. But this is somewhat tangential to the whole point of this article, so this gross approximation will do in this place. ↩

  2. this is more usually expressed in terms of Negative and positive rights and similarly with positive versus Negative liberty. I'm not a big fan of the negative/positive choice of terms, preferring passive and active depending on the direct involvement of the subject. ↩

  3. a debatable point, except maybe for the cases where both individual have similar contractual power —so-called “euvoluntary” resolutions. ↩