In a nation obsessed with creativity, freedom is the exalted position. For freedom gives meaning to our actions. Yet it is the defect of ideology to assume action is reducible to one simple principle, a uniquely explanatory element. In reality, freedom is a complex and composite affair.
While freedom is often reduced to choice – a means to achieve our goals – in cultural terms freedom is defined negatively i.e., non-compulsion from without and self determination from within. However, freedom can exist in a culture with normative judgment and moral constraints. The newly liberated contend freedom means unbound without reference to ontological claims. But this is absurd. Freedom is defined by boundaries.
Camus, in The Stranger maintained that there isn’t justice (read: freedom) without limits. Those who believe you are free to do whatever you like invariably strike the walls of licentiousness. Freedom is inhibited by responsibility, morality and law. The focus on autonomous choice ends up with a normative account of the human good.
In this postmodern era the limits imposed by norms are continually questioned. Freedom is now seen extending further into the domain of practical reason (what is done), but also speculative reason (what might be done). This postmodern idea seeks to extend the prerogatives of self determination into every aspect of our lives, including challenges to human dignity and religious concerns.
The reason why this is the case is that post-modernists find any normative account of human nature inherently dangerous. They wish to control every aspect of life whether it be the meaning of existence, the content of moral norms, religious claims, and human sexuality. But this liberal ideal of freedom leads to a willful ignorance of human nobility.
Thomas Aquinas noted that the knowledge of the good plays an essential role in the actions of freedom. This is consistent with a point made by Thomas Jefferson in the “Declaration of Independence” who argued for the free pursuit of human happiness bounded by a well understood idea of virtue. This was not Benthamite utilitarianism: if happiness derives more pleasure than pain, it is desirable to pursue “the greatest good for the greatest number.” For Jefferson, it was the pursuit of happiness within the parameters of normative beliefs.
The exaggerated desire for freedom of indeterminate choice cannot be sated solely by the discipline of legitimate authority, albeit that is a necessary but insufficient condition for defining freedom. Ultimately the pursuit of truth, a deep vision into the human capacity – what James Q. Wilson described as “the inner morality” – is critical. Such a vision should address the complexities of our age, but also should resolve the difference between freedom’s past and its present postmodern state. Norms do change. However their acceptance is more likely when they nourish our spiritual appetites.
The freedom unhinged from norms invariably leads to confusion and despair. Unlimited choice is a spiritual nightmare. And the darkness of confusion emerges when we are paralyzed by options beyond our understanding.
Yes, we want to be free, but only when that freedom results in personal enrichment. That enrichment is paradoxically found in limits, the very condition against which the postmodern liberationists marshal their energies. Here is the irony of modern life: to be free we must recognize constraints. Even the artist challenging the barriers of the past must recognize the need for constraining techniques. The past always seizes us by the collar reminding mankind that fulfillment through the use of choice puts us on a path tread before. Ultimately mankind cannot escape its basic nature and the real meaning of freedom within the contours of normative constraints.
Herbert London is president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).
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