The Meaning of Freedom


We care a great deal about freedom, but we rarely give much thought to what the term actually means.  People have argued about the meaning of ‘freedom’ for a long time.  I would like to suggest that one major reason why we struggle with the concept is because the meaning of freedom is paradoxical, partial and ambiguous: there is an inherent contradiction in the idea of freedom; it is an important value, but it is only one value among many; and it means different things at different times, depending both on the setting and on what we are concerned about.

Paradoxical: Two Types of Freedom

It is generally recognised that there are two basic types of freedom - freedom to and freedom from - freedom to do what I want, and freedom from things I don't want.  If we consider these two types of freedom, then the meaning of freedom from is the more straightforward of the two.  If we talk about 'freedom from hunger', we have a fairly clear understanding of what this means, and that understanding is fairly consistent from person to person and culture to culture.  But freedom to is much harder to pin down.

Freedom to is generally understood as the power or right to act as I want – to think, speak and act without constraint.  But when we include both ‘power’ and ‘right’, we are recognising that ‘freedom’ can mean quite different things, even in a single context – it can be both present and absent at the same time, depending on how we think about the situation.  If I stand by your side as you do something important on your computer, I have the power to switch off your computer, but I don’t have the right.  I am free to press the power button, and also not free, depending on which aspect of the situation you are interested in.

If freedom to is the freedom to act as I want, without constraint, then the nature of this freedom is determined by the kind of constraint I have in mind.  Constraints vary with context, and can take many forms.  For example, we can be constrained by a physical barrier; we can be constrained by internal realities, such as love, fear, ignorance or morality; we can even be constrained by a belief that we should obey the law.

It should be clear that, within any given society, these two types of freedom are in opposition to each other, in two distinct ways: firstly, the more I have freedom to, the less you have freedom from; and, secondly, the more freedom I have to do what I want, the less freedom you have to oppose me.  And people sometimes talk about a third kind of freedom [see Kinds of Freedom].

The contradiction between these two types of freedom is not always obvious.  They are often presented as being complementary - and, in a sense, they are: we want and need both types, so they belong together in (for example) political rhetoric.  Roosevelt's 'four freedoms' is a well-known example, containing two of each type - freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and fredom from fear.  We need to build a world in which both types of freedom are respected and lived.

Ambiguous: Context and Focus

When we talk about freedom, the meaning depends to a large extent upon the context: freedom can be limited in many different ways - here are some obvious situations.  There are many other examples which could be given, and many other contexts, but these should be enough to demonstrate a range of possibilities.

  • Physical: a prisoner in a locked cell; a psychiatric patient in a secure ward; a dissident denied a visa to leave their country.
  • Love: someone remaining in a loveless marriage for the sake of their children.
  • Fear: someone trapped in an abusive relationship by the fear of what will happen if they try to leave; a dissident in a totalitarian state, unable to write and publish what they believe for fear of the consequences.
  • Ignorance: a bright child going to a failing school because nobody told them about the bursary scheme operated by an excellent school nearby.
  • Morality: a political prisoner refusing the offer of release if they will give evidence against their colleagues; not saying something to your advantage because it would mean breaking a confidence.
  • Law: a person driving on a wide, straight, empty and dry road in daylight, late for an important appointment but keeping to the speed limit because that is what the law says they should do.

Of course, these categories are not exhaustive, and they are not exclusive. I drive on the correct side of the road, partly because I want to obey the law, and partly because I am afraid of the consequences if I drive on the wrong side.  So when we talk about freedom, the meaning is not only determined by the context - it is also determined by the aspect of freedom we choose to focus on at that time.

Partial: Choosing to Limit Freedom

Our freedom can be limited by many external things, but we can also choose to limit our freedom: we choose to get married, to have children, to get a job, to join a sports team.  Every commitment we make limits our freedom.  We desire freedom, but sometimes - as with marriage - we desire something else more.  Whenever we commit ourselves to a person, a group or a principle, we decide that something else is more important to us than freedom in this situation.

It is often the case that different freedoms will exclude one another.  In an election, you are free to vote for one candidate, and you are free to vote for a different candidate, but you are not free to vote for both of them: choosing to exercise one freedom means giving up another freedom.  From a different perspective,  you can be free to be faithful to your partner, and you can be free to sleep around, but you cannot be free to do both.

Our freedom can also be limited by our desire for another kind of freedom: as we have noted, freedom from and freedom to pull us in opposite directions.  Take health and safety as an example: I am only free from the risk of serious harm in the workplace if my boss is not free to cut corners on health and safety measures.  I am only free from the risk of serious harm when I drive on our roads because your freedom to drive when and how you want is limited by the Highway Code.  With children, we restrict their freedom to be employed because we want to give them freedom from exploitation, and we want them to be free to gain knowledge and develop skills which will benefit them later.  Social reforms often involve a choice between freedom from and freedom to; when we choose freedom from, this is often because we value security more than we value some other kind of freedom.


In conclusion, 'freedom' is a paradoxical idea: the more freedom we have of one type, the less freedom we have of another.  Freedom limits itself.  There is no such thing as complete, perfect freedom.

Also, ‘freedom’ is a deeply ambiguous term.  When used in a specific context and using a specific perspective, it can have a clear meaning; but when used without an explicit perspective and context, there is no clear meaning.  Freedom means different things to the prisoner in the cell, the married person about to get a divorce, and the writer in a totalitarian state.

And finally, freedom is always partial - not only because one freedom pulls against another, but also because freedom is only one value among many.  Freedom is important, but it can, at times, be a distracting idea, attracting our attention when we should be focused on something else - perhaps health and wellbeing, or the potential for growth and development.  It may be that we find ourselves talking about freedom when we are discussing an individual’s rights and responsibilities within a society, when freedom is not the most useful perspective from which to consider the question.


[See also Freedom, Kinds of Freedom and Freedom and Responsibility]


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