As I will define it, freedom is the absence of interference by other people. Interference can be understood either broadly or narrowly. Understood broadly, to interfere with someone is to bring it about that she has no reasonable alternative to performing a particular action. If I hold a gun to your head and demand your wallet, then I bring it about that you have no reasonable alternative to giving me your wallet. So I have interfered with you in this broad sense. But similarly, if you are starving, and I offer you a hazardous job on exploitative terms, then in the broad sense, I have again interfered with you, since I have brought it about that you have no reasonable alternative to accepting a hazardous job on exploitative terms. For that reason, some people might reject the broad understanding of interference, and opt for a very narrow understanding. On the narrowest understanding, to interfere with a person is to make it physically impossible for her to act in any other way that to perform a specific action (or omission). Thus, if I tie you down, then I interfere with you in this narrow sense. As far as I can tell, there is a spectrum of ways of defining interference, with the broadest definitions on one end of the spectrum, and the narrowest definitions on the other end. I suspect that there are many possible definitions along the spectrum. For my purposes here, I believe that any one of these definitions will suffice. That is to say, I think that what I have to say will apply to freedom on any of these definitions. Freedom is the absence of interference, on any of these various ways of specifying the concept of interference.
Now here is my question. Why should we value freedom? More precisely, why should we think that there is a right to freedom in a wide range of cases? This question goes right to the heart of liberalism. What I will do here is to survey some traditional answers. I think that there are serious problems with every one of them. I will suggest that one answer has the best prospects, but I’m still not sure whether those prospects are very good.
The first answer is that freedom is instrumentally valuable as a means to the end of human well-being. To say that freedom is valuable as a means to the end of human well-being is to say that, all things being equal, freedom increases the probability of a higher level of well-being. More precisely, for any given person, if that person is free, then all things being equal, it is more probable that she will achieve a relatively high level of well-being than if she is not free. If freedom is instrumentally valuable in this sense, then that might ground a right to freedom. The basic problem with this answer to the question was recently brought to my attention by Daniel Haybron, in the last two chapters of his book The Pursuit of Unhappiness (2008), and Sarah Conly, in the first two chapters of her book Against Autonomy (2013). Haybron and Conly both summarize the extensive evidence from psychology and behavioral economics that human beings are systematically prone to a wide range of biases and errors in both thought and action, and that these biases and errors render us poorly equipped to pursue our own well-being. I will not try to summarize those findings here. To my mind, the evidence is strong enough to cast significant doubt on the idea that freedom is instrumentally valuable to us. It casts at least enough doubt to make the instrumental value of freedom too weak and unstable a basis for anything like a right to freedom.
The second answer is that freedom is intrinsically valuable – valuable in itself, and for its own sake. Remember that the kind of freedom that we are considering here is the absence of interference. Is the absence of interference intrinsically valuable? This is a difficult question, but I think that the answer is either “no,” or “not very much.” Here I will just argue for the weaker conclusion – “not very much”. Suppose that I know, somehow, that if I were not interfered with in the near future, then I would act in ways that would bring about slightly more harm than good for me. Moreover, I also know that if someone interferes with me, then that will bring about slightly more good than harm for me. By hypothesis, there are no effects in either of these two cases that are not included in the final assessment that is built into the descriptions of the cases. Then what should I prefer – to be interfered with, or not to be interfered with? My own intuition is that I should prefer being interfered with, for the simple reason that I will be better off if I am interfered with. Now here is the thing to notice: this argument involves only the slightest amount of difference in well-being. So the upshot, as I see it, is that if freedom is intrinsically valuable, then its value is so small that it can be outweighed even by the slightest amount of well-being in any other respect. That seems to me too little value to constitute the basis for a right to freedom.
At this point, many people will say that my search has mistakenly prioritized the good over the right. I have assumed some kind of consequentialist basis for the right to freedom. However, the basis of the right to freedom is a duty that we owe to people to respect their freedom, regardless of the value that freedom has for them. On the face of it, I find this view strange. Just consider this statement: “I owe it to you to give you freedom, which is completely worthless to you.” That sounds odd to my ear. But I know that it doesn’t sound odd to everyone – not at all. So let’s dig in deeper. The usual basis for this view is the broadly Kantian idea that people deserve respect, and since people are naturally free creatures, that requires respecting their freedom. In order for this foundation to do the work that it’s supposed to do, we need a single sense of “freedom” in which it is true both that people have it, and that it deserves respect. I think that the recent empirical research, cited above, together with some thought experiments, casts doubt on that assumption. If freedom just means “capable of acting,” then people are free in this very minimal sense. People can perform actions. But does the ability to act, regardless of the degree of irrationality involved, deserve respect? I think not. Suppose that my father is told that he could have a surgery that has a 10% chance of success, and he wants to have it because it was described to him in that way. If he were told that it has a 90% chance of failure, which is also true, then he would decline the surgery. (This is a common cognitive error.) Does his ability to act on this well-known error deserve respect? It seems to me that it doesn’t. Given the research cited above, this problem generalizes. Human beings are deeply, systematically irrational. The mere ability to act, when it is driven by such irrationality, does not deserve respect. That’s my intuition. So, given the way people are, psychologically speaking, I don’t think that their actions deserve respect just because they are actions. I’m sure that some people will disagree with me at this point, but that’s my intuition.
This brings me to what I think is the final, and most plausible view. Freedom has what Ian Carter and others call constitutive value. Freedom is a necessary constituent of a larger state of affairs that is, itself, intrinsically valuable. That state of affairs is acting autonomously. Autonomous action is intrinsically valuable, and it deserves respect. To act autonomously is to act competently from motives that are, in an important sense, “one’s own.” I won’t even begin to try to give an account of autonomy or autonomous action here. That’s a very large question. I think that, of all the views canvassed so far, this one has the best prospects. But it also has some interesting implications. First of all, if this view is correct, then there is no right to freedom of non-autonomous action. Second of all, if this view is correct, then if we have a right to any sort of freedom, it is actually autonomy that we have a right to. That, in turn, would mean that we owe people the tools that they need to become autonomous. That might, in turn, require interfering with people’s negative freedom sometimes, in order to provide other people with the tools that they need to become autonomous. For example, if some parents want to indoctrinate their children to such a degree that their children are incapable of becoming autonomous adults, then we will have to prevent that, since those children have a right to become autonomous adults. So this view will have some significant implications.
But I’m not really sure about this view either. For one thing, I’m not really sure of the extent to which human beings are capable of becoming autonomous, at least to a degree that is significant enough to do the work that is needed here. Second, I’m not sure that autonomy has the degree of value that is needed to do the work here. In the end, I’m tempted to say that our love of freedom, in every sense of the word, might be something of a fetish. Call it the freedom fetish.