What does it mean to have freedom and autonomy?
Classical economic and political definitions of freedom (and neoliberal definitions as well) tend to work negatively, defining freedom as absence of formal restraint. Formal restraint would consist of deliberate actions intended to constrain the actions of others. Such freedom from formal restraint is important, e.g. freedom from restriction of speech or assembly.
As Peter Singer argues in Marx: A Very Short Introduction, one of Karl Marx’s most important contributions to thought was a new way of thinking about freedom, with freedom defined in positive terms. Marx recognized that the liberal conception of freedom as the absence of formal restraint was insufficient. Free wage labor means the laborer is freed from a formal obligation to work or to work a specific job. That’s not insignificant – it beats the alternatives of serfdom, slavery, debt peonage, or being sent to the labor house as a vagabond, but in no realistic sense does a worker have freedom to not work.
My conception of freedom and individual autonomy would similarly be framed positively as the ability to determine one’s own actions and personal destiny. I’m reminded of a statement by Peter Fonda’s character, leader of a motorcycle gang in the movie Wild Angels. The motorcycle gang have just ridden their bikes through a rural church and are generally tearing the place up when the preacher asks the Peter Fonda character what it is that they want. He responds, “We want to be free!” To which the preacher asks, “But what is it that you want to be free to do?” (A reasonable enough question.) “We want to be free to do what it is that we want to do.” There’s something absurd about the scene, especially with the over the top delivery of the lines, but completely free action and individual autonomy would entail being free to do what one wants to do, including being free to not know what one wants to do. The scene also indicates, what with the freedom-loving motorcycle riders ripping apart the church for no apparent reason, that there may be desirable limits to individual free action as well.
As I’ve argued elsewhere (see my earlier posts “Tradition and Individual Autonomy,” and “Are Some Cultures Better Than Others?”), I place tremendous importance on freedom and autonomy, though within the limits of one’s actions not seriously threatening or constraining those of others.
Also, in practice, though I prefer not to define freedom in the negative terms of restraint on action (those would be inhibitions to freedom, but not freedom – and the lack of such inhibitions is simply the lack of such inhibitions, rather than freedom itself, which again, I would conceptualize in the positive terms of ability to determine one’s own actions and personal destiny), all of us have our actions shaped and restrained by a variety of factors.
Among the factors that routinely restrain human action are human biology, physical conditions of the environment, power relations in interpersonal relations, economic relations, cultural custom and law. These will be the topics of my following two blog posts.
I should note at the onset of that short project, though, that while I generally feel that free action and autonomy are positive qualities, and that changes or policies that enhance individual autonomy are generally good, that doesn’t mean that I feel that all the restraints on free action that I’ll discuss are uniformly or straightforwardly bad. Some I would consider neutral – the nature of the human body places limits on what we’re physically capable of doing, but I find it hard to consider that either good or bad. Other restraints on free action are clearly not bad. Legal restraints prohibiting ripping apart someone’s church with motorcycles for no good reason other than one felt like it are a good thing. As I write this, I just got home from my parents’ house where I celebrated Mother’s Day. There was no formal restraint forcing me to celebrate Mother’s Day. Like any reasonably good son, I didn’t mind and quite enjoyed honoring my mother on this day. At the same time, I couldn’t not celebrate Mother’s Day. This was a different type of restraint from legal restraint or economic restraint, but my free action, technically speaking, was constrained, albeit in a way I didn’t mind at all and am quite fond of. In other words, over my next few posts, what I’ll be interested in is simply discussing the various factors which shape and constrain individual free action, without assuming that all such factors are undesirable or socially negative.