By Paramjeet Singh Berwal
Is it enough to say “what I feel is my definition of freedom” or should one try to understand the basic fundamentals of freedom? It is not the answer that counts but the journey that one embarks upon to articulate the questions of life like this one. In his 1894 book The Philosophy of Freedom, Rudolf Steiner accepted “that an action, of which the agent does not know why he performs it, cannot be free”. Therefore, acting in a way that one think is a way to act in free and liberal way is perhaps not the best way to practice freedom and liberty. The “why” of every action should also be not only purpose oriented but should entail the details as to its real nature and the contextualisation.
‘Freedom’ and ‘liberty’ are the only words that are sufficient to hijack any discussion or debate. Anything that even remotely suggests “control” or “tyranny” is rejected outright in any progressive societal discourse. Communists find it in community living and libertarians find it in pursuit of individualistic aspirations. None but aside psychoanalysts and philosophers has given it much thought.
But this is not a discussion about what freedom or liberty means, rather one on what it really is. I generally ask my friends the same question and their responses are primarily limited to: “liberty to do what one wants” and “freedom to choose; the more the choices, the freer you are”. In response, I ask that since we do not live on a planet of our own but share it with 7.3 billion people, should there be any limit on one’s freedom or liberty. Their response to my question on limitation on freedom and liberty is never a negative but always a typical libertarian narrative that ‘one’s freedom and liberty stop when another’s begin’. Many libertarians have dealt with this proposition in a very detailed manner.
What I propose to submit in this regard is that in the wake of human interaction, the operation of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ between individuals has to be mediated to may be not define their respective limits but at least to not create any conflict. However, not creating conflict in the first place is also a sort of limitation on the operation of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. This assertion itself is sufficient to imply that the notions of freedom and liberty are not absolute ones but are subjected to certain dynamics which are operational and thus having an impact on the definition, as well. Now, what are those dynamics? The said dynamics could be compared to some kind of rules of interactions of any sort among humans. Without these rules, freedom and liberty become absolute in theory and diminish in practice. Here is when we get the picture of how our world works.
There is no such thing as ‘free’—be it market or relationships or anything—even in the most “free” scenarios or situations because everything is mediated by set of rules. If everything is guided or contoured by a set of rules or different sets of rules, how should those rules are formed? Here, it becomes a normative terrain. Human beings make the rules in an extremely complicated manner and the forms differ in different contexts. Regardless, the underlying idea is that human beings are ultimately responsible for the world they live in. In this case, what forms considerations for humans while deliberating on or making the rules can be referred to as “values”. The values are what finally everything depends on and thus they should be chosen to reflect a system that presents most optimal freedom and liberty sharing given that these things seem to matter the most to humans. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to do because the characterisation of one individual in all regards differ than that of another and only adoption of a comprehensive approach in defining values for rule making will reflect that every individual is taken care of in the most efficient manner. This also highlights that though the freedom and liberty are individualistic notions, their structuring is a social process and it is only through a social dynamic that we can approach individualism, if at all.
Paramjeet Singh Berwal is a lawyer and an invited lecturer at the University of Georgia.
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