On my way to work the past week I was listening to a discussion on radio about what exactly freedom is and what exactly the concept entails. The radio presenter facilitated the discussion which involved a philosophy lecturer from the Stellenbosch University and also various listeners who had the opportunity to share their opinion on the matter. The lecturer started off by mentioning that freedom is a difficult concept to define but roughly described it as a situation where firstly, nobody actively prevents you from doing something and secondly, where you are able to do as you wish. A listener then shared Charles Kingsley’s view that there are two types of freedom, namely false freedom and true freedom. False freedom occurs where one can do as you wish while true freedom is practiced when someone does as they are supposed to. It was then mentioned that in a political sense freedom requires laws while in a personal sense one can actually practice pure freedom as you wish. This has its limitations though seeing that as soon as your personal freedom is practiced outside of a confined space it moves into the sphere which is governed by national laws and thus it becomes political once again.
Hereafter many questions were raised and the conclusion was reached that although freedom tends to suggest doing whatever one feels, there are obvious boundaries. It was agreed that moral guidelines play a definite role and then the discussion finally boiled down to the most obvious question of all: who decides on morality, who decides what is right and wrong?
The next few minutes seemed quite awkward and uncomfortable as a continual bunch of reality dodging statements followed. Uhm, yeah… uh, well… Finally the studio guest said that if any person would sit and think real hard and real deep they will know when they have crossed the boundary of abusing their freedom. She basically said that everyone knows right from wrong. How does one, however, explain that to the typical secular humanist of today? Something or someone obviously has to determine it, otherwise right and wrong is always, without exception, relative and not open for discussion. Even the laws of countries are based on the fact that people have an inherent understanding of right and wrong and that it could be explained in a way which makes sense logically and people always agree about these basic laws and they are similar across cultures even. At this stage of the radio discussion there was agreement on the fact that morality and the definition of reasonable behaviour could be determined but the ‘law maker’ was not yet identified. The discussion continued nevertheless.
I will take the bold step now to define ultimate freedom in a few words.
So the question is: What is ultimate freedom and what exactly does it entail. I stand in partial disagreement with Charles Kingsley. I believe what we want to and ought to do is the exact same thing and being able to do just that, is freedom. I believe (hope) we have agreement on the fact that we all know the difference between right and wrong and also that there is a moral law in play in our lives, given that our consciences are intact of course. From personal experience I have found that all people long to do what is good and what is right, and they really have a desire to love their neigbour, so to speak. People want to adhere to their inner awareness of this universal law and they also recognise that it is best for everyone if we adhere to it. But can we? Can we do what is good and right at will? Can we stand before a choice of right and wrong and actually choose to do what is good and noble? It is not that easy, let me tell you. Al Pacino made this statement in his Oscar winning performance as the character Lt. Col. Frank Slade in the movie Scent of a Woman as he addresses an assembly and discusses his experience of the matter: “Now I have come to the cross roads in my life, I always knew what the right path was, without exception I knew but I never took it, do you know why? It was too damn hard!”. He made this statement after considering his life of doing as he pleased instead of as he wished. All of us know this place, the ‘cross road’, where we have an opportunity to do what we are supposed to and what we actually desire to do deep down, but on many occasions we just can’t get ourselves to take that step.
Lt. Col. Frank Slade was not a free man; he was a man living in bondage. If you have the freedom to do what is right, as written in the moral law which is set out by the law maker himself, no earthly or governmental law can prevent you from being free and hold you in bondage. It is also only the law maker himself who can provide you with that freedom.
We can either keep on avoiding the reality of the law maker or even accept his existence but choose to leave him nameless and faceless, or we could seek him out and obtain that freedom we all long for.
So my very basic conclusion is this:
Freedom is the ability to not do the things you don’t want to do.