On Freedom and its Necessary Limitations

“The present system of commerce, based on anarchical competition, will furnish us a fine occasion for censuring science, which has not discovered that in commerce, as in any other branch of relations, simple liberty is a source of discord and disorder; that all liberty should be sustained by guarantees and counterpoises; in fine, that liberty should be compound and not simple, like that of the merchants, against whose frauds the social body has no guarantee.”- Fourier, Harmonian Man

Such dubious phrases as ‘It’s a free country, I can do what I want’ have always irked me in more ways than one. First off, free in what sense? Freedom for or from what, exactly? The term ‘freedom’ has been laden with ambiguities and context-dependent variations in meaning likely since it first sprouted as a notion in the human brain. It is perhaps among the most frequently misused, and inadequately understood, concepts. Far too few have taken into account the relative and intricate nature of freedom. In complex societies such as ours, a global human (and more-than-human) family comprised of billions from a variety of cultural backgrounds, with an infinite variety of skills, interests, and aspirations, and whose smooth functioning depends on cooperation and consideration of others at all levels of interaction, there is no (or shouldn’t be) such a thing as absolute freedom.  Of course, I don’t mean that there shouldn’t be freedom in the sense of being free from physical confinement, from bondage, from despotic control, or that everyone shouldn’t be ‘free’ to ‘self-realize’ intellectually, emotionally, and the like so long as one’s desires for self-realization isn’t injurious to others. What I mean is freedom in a social sense, for one person or group’s unhindered ‘freedom’ to do as they please without regard for the wellbeing of others is a nefarious form of freedom, a one-sided, dangerously ‘simple’ form of freedom that takes from the ‘freedom’ of others and from society as a whole by way of its undefined and unrestricted nature.

“But for all men, since man is a social creature, the play of will must fall short of absolute freedom. Perfect human liberty is possible only to a despot who is absolutely and universally obeyed. A socialism or a communism is not necessarily a slavery, and there is no freedom under Anarchy. Consider how much liberty we gain by the loss of the common liberty to kill…it means freedom from a thousand fears and precautions.”- Wells, A Modern Utopia

There is a lovely new walking trail close to where I live that was constructed just a couple of months ago. It features a winding path amidst tall trees, thick shrubbery, luminous lakes, and all manner of bird, mammal, reptile, and insect life. I love going for my evening jogs there, or at least, I did at first, until over time the trail became increasingly littered with trash. Soda cans, beer bottles, wrappers, paper cups, all sorts of junk now cover its margins, all while there are garbage cans located in various areas close to the trail. I’ve never understood this kind of behavior, try as I might. It signifies an utter lack of consideration for others- other people who may enjoy viewing the beautiful landscape in an unpolluted state, other animals who reside along the trail  who may be harmed or even killed by ingesting a piece of trash that they’ve mistakenly taken for food. What it’s a prime example of is the misguided notion of ‘simple freedom’, of absolute, unrestricted freedom to ‘do whatever I please, because I’m free to do so’. Such people will say, ‘Well, I just don’t feel like waiting until I come across a trash can’, as I’ve often heard such arguments go. In the process, the freedom and right of others to enjoy healthy and clean environments is hindered.  Similarly, the ‘freedom’ of a corporation operating under the woefully misguided ideology of ‘free competition’ to ‘do as it pleases’ in order to cut costs and increase profits, even if this entails weakening controls for limiting social and environmental harm, is an assault on the rights and freedom from harm of whole communities and ecological systems that are threatened by ensuing disasters such as oil spills and the dumping of toxins in rivers.

To cite a contentious yet similar example, there’s the more personal issue of diet. Global industrial meat (and dairy) production and consumption, when associated devastation such as deforestation and similar land use changes are factored in, account for up to 80% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, more than all forms of transport combined. The feeding of the hundreds of thousands of animals packed into modern industrial-style ‘factory farms’ requires the conversion of vast swaths of land into monocultural maize and soya fields, which in turn drive the deforestation of vital and biologically diverse regions across the globe, and species extinctions. These massive monocultural fields depend on all manner of noxious chemicals and fertilizers for increased productivity, which along with the vast amounts of refuse generated by the farms, make their way into our waterways and cause further devastation. What’s more, meat and dairy production are enormously inefficient in terms of energy input/protein output ratios, wherein it takes an infinitely greater amount of energy and resources to raise a single animal for slaughter than it does to cultivate plant-based food sources directly for human consumption. Meat production is so wildly inefficient that hundreds of millions of the world’s undernourished people could be fed on the grain that is currently fed to livestock. Ethical and health considerations aside, the environmental impacts of meat consumption and production are colossal; they constitute a crime against the planet and an impingement on the freedom of all of its inhabitants to healthy and resilient ecosystems, to clean water, and to thriving forests, to say nothing of the horrid lives oled by the billions of farm animals who know no freedom of any kind. And yet, when these issues are discussed, those who insist on gorging themselves with meat justify doing so by simply stating: ‘It’s my right to do what I want’, or ‘It’s a free country’.

These are the kinds of ‘freedoms’ that are injurious and even lethal when they take place within dynamic socio-ecological systems that depend on cooperation and consideration of others’ wellbeing. They are the sorts of egotistical freedoms that undermine the good of the whole. When one’s ‘freedom’ to do a certain thing impacts negatively on the freedom and wellbeing of others, it is no freedom worth having. As Wells reminds us, we are social creatures, and as such, when everyone is absolutely free, then no one is. One person’s freedom to engage in duplicity, to pollute, to plunder, or even to kill entails the lack of another person’s right to freedom from such horrors. Societies are kept together by fellow feeling, by cooperation, and by consideration for the ‘other’. No man is an island, and therefore, each of our actions have consequences that reverberate far and wide; so, we can’t just do whatever we like when we like. To do so would be reckless and irresponsible at the best of times, and at the worst it can cost others their lives. We must each do our part to ensure that the world we’ve helped to create is a world worth living in, for all. Yes, this will entail occasional inconveniences such as walking those extra few yards to throw away that coffee cup (if you’re not using a reusable mug!), lighting up that cigarette in a non-public place, or subbing that cheeseburger with a veggie burger, but think of how much we all gain in the process.

“To be resisted…is ‘the conception of unfettered activity, of uninterrupted procreation, of chubby insatiability, of freedom as frantic bustle, [which] feeds on the bourgeois concept of nature that has always served solely to proclaim social violence as unchangeable, as a piece of healthy eternity.'”- Adorno, Minima Moralia

Content by Heather Alberro

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