What is Freedom?


Most people have some intuitive notion of what freedom is. When I’m at work and have an obligation to dispatch my duties, I am not free, because I’m obligated to do one thing at the expense of any other things I might want to do – take a nap, watch a movie, read a book, etc. During my free time, though, I have the freedom to make those decisions if I wish. Someone in prison is not free because they are not allowed to go where they want; those of us not in prison have the freedom to go where we please. But are these intuitive notions of freedom a good definition for being free?

Post inspired by the above video.

Many will notice that there is a subtle but important difference between the person who is not free because they are at work and the person who is not free because they are in prison. The person at work could certainly do as they wish, but would then have to face the consequences of missing deadlines or being reprimanded for not performing their job. The person in prison is literally barred from leaving, and even if some opportunity arose where they could leave, armed people would come after them and physically detain them, bringing them back behind bars.

There is also a distinction between what can be called negative freedom and positive freedom. These are not value judgements, but a distinction between “freedom from [blank]” and “freedom to [blank]” respectively. The former is the reduction or abolition of certain restrictions from doing as one pleases, while the latter is a kind opportunity to do something. While negative freedom is the kind of freedom championed by libertarians, positive freedom is usually seen as something to be facilitated by governments, usually at the cost of enduring some restrictions on negative freedom. For instance, the freedom to live without fear of being killed in a mass shooting might be facilitated by laws restricting gun ownership; or the freedom to live more healthy by way of universal healthcare might be facilitated by universal healthcare, which comes at the cost of tax dollars (i.e., a reduction in freedom from having money taken by the government); or the freedom to have quiet when we go to sleep at night might come at the cost of having rules or laws that restrict us from blasting music at 2:00 a.m. Or, of course, the freedom to live on a planet with a hospitable climate might come at the cost of our (or someone’s) freedom from restrictions on where we can dump our garbage or emit greenhouse gases.

As I go through this post, it is important to keep these two types of freedom in mind as they pertain to the categorization I’m going to propose.

My proposal is that there are 5 different kinds of freedom. I will call them the following:

  1. Metaphysical freedom
  2. Physical freedom
  3. Freedom from force
  4. Economic freedom
  5. Freedom from obligation

I’ll go through each of these in turn.

Metaphysical Freedom

Metaphysical freedom has to do with determinism and so-called libertarian free will. We could maybe even put things like genetic determinism and social determinism under this heading: how much responsibility can a person have for their actions if they are biologically predisposed toward those actions, or if their social upbringing has instilled in them a code of conduct different from our own? How much is a person’s culture (and place in history) responsible for determining their actions?

We also have to consider doxastic voluntarism: how much control do we have over our own beliefs? Can we choose what gender we identify as? Can we choose whether we believe in God or not? Our choices are led by our preferences and desires (and as humans by our metacognition on these), but we don’t have much, if any, choice about what we prefer or desire (or meta-prefer or meta-desire). If I asked why you made one choice over another, you might say because you desired that outcome more than the other; when I ask why you desired that outcome over another, you could say that either the desire was innate (not chosen by you) or that you chose it (i.e., voluntarily); but then if I ask why you chose to desire one thing over the other, we end up at a sort of metacognitive desire, which then requires us to ask the same question (why metacognitively choose one meta-desire over another); and so on ad infinitum.

To even speak of our “personality” is to admit that there is something about ourselves that we have no control over: if we were perfectly free to choose our behavior when faced with any decision, then why would the probability that we choose one kind of action over another remain constant throughout (or at least throughout long stretches) of our life?

Additionally, there is the issue that our past choices influence our current choices. Not only insofar as our past decisions bringing about the decisions we now face in a causal manner, but also that our personal and social subjectivity is determined by the decisions we’ve made. In other words, we don’t have absolute freedom since our past selves have determined who our present self is.

This is a whole big topic in-and-of-itself that I won’t go into here. I discuss free will and determinism in detail in this post. Lets for the sake of argument assume that people do have free will.

Physical Freedom

Physical freedom are those things people are physically able to do. For instance, humans are not free to fly without the aid of some technology (we don’t have wings and we can’t fly like Superman). But it also has to do with, for instance, a person’s strength. Some people are free to lift 300 pounds, others are not. Some people can dunk a basketball, others cannot. Some people can run a mile in 4 minutes, others cannot. This means that some people have greater physical freedom than others.

One could also put under physical freedom things like natural intelligence and the absence of disability. Even if we do not have a good metric for measuring intelligence, most people are keenly aware that some people just seem to catch onto things better than others, or are able to put together disparate pieces of information to synthesize some conclusion, or are able to remember things very easily. And the difference between, say, a blind person and a sighted person, we could perhaps pose as a sort of freedom in that the person who can see has the freedom to see their surroundings; or, conversely, that the person who is blind has this freedom restricted of them (although one might argue that a blind person might have, say, the freedom not to have to see something unpleasant). Similarly between a paraplegic and someone who is ambulatory: the latter has the freedom to walk while the former does not.

(I’m aware that Critical Disability Theory would see things differently, in that the only freedom a disabled person lacks is due to how society is structured to favor those who are not disabled, but we could still frame it as a loss of freedom even if that loss of freedom has a “systemic” cause rather than a strictly physical cause).

This brings up notions of whether we can say physical freedom is restricted if we are unaware or unconcerned about such an impediment or restriction. Many people are unaware that we are being constantly bombarded with trillions of neutrinos every second, but we wouldn’t say we lack the (physical) freedom of being able to sense the presence of these neutrinos (in the way a blind person is unable to (visually) sense light or color). There may even be phenomena in our universe that we have absolutely no notion of, since we do not possess any means of sensing or detecting them, but we don’t feel some impediment or restriction on ourselves as a result of the thought that this may be the case. We could also think of things we are unconcerned with not sensing, even though we know about it (perhaps the neutrinos would fall into this category). But we also don’t feel much restriction as a result of our inability to digest rock, even though this is something we humans cannot physically do, and as such it could conceivably be thought of as a restriction on our (physical) freedom. And so, when we talk about restrictions or impediments to physical freedom, we often do it relative to what is within the realm of possibility for others (people; animals; organisms; or even what I could potentially do if I, say, worked out to get stronger, or studied Spanish, or learned how to repair cars, and so on). In other words, my inability to bench press 300 pounds feels like a kind of impediment only insofar as there are people who can bench press that much; on the other hand, my inability to lift, say, a Panzerkampfwagen VIII Maus doesn’t feel as much like an impediment because no individual human could ever lift it, and so it is outside the realm of possibility for me (although, if one were coming toward me and about to run me over, I might wish I could lift it, my imminent demise causing some sense that my freedom is being impeded, but I wouldn’t have any expectation that I could lift it).

It is also tempting to put under the heading of physical freedom the sort of “privilege” that attractive and/or charismatic people have as well. One could frame it this way: a beautiful woman will have much better luck making a lot of money on OnlyFans than someone like me would; isn’t this a sort of freedom that they enjoy that I don’t? This is an interesting case because it is not so much the freedom of the attractive/charismatic person that is at play, but those around them who have the freedom to respond to their physical or mental/emotional attractiveness. Additionally, there are social and cultural conceptions of beauty and attractiveness, making it more than just the physical features of the person that is at play. Thus, I would not classify this under physical freedom (at least not completely).

Freedom From Force (Liberty)

This is the type of freedom that the U.S. Constitution (at least ideally) was ratified to enshrine and to protect. When someone possesses liberty, it means that nobody is using force, or threatening to use force, in order to compel someone into doing anything they do not wish to do. Or conversely, using force or the threat of force to prevent someone from doing something they do wish to do. It’s the opposite of “those things that are not mandatory are strictly prohibited.”

Liberty does not mean freedom from consequences. Only that there is no force. But what then constitutes force? If we say that I’m at liberty to take all my money and throw it in the river, and then someone convinces me to throw all my money in the river and thereby making me broke, how is that different from someone pointing a gun at me and demanding I give them all my money? In both cases I end up with no money; the outcome is the same.

Perhaps we can say that something is force if and only if:

  1. harm is inflicted on someone, or threatened to be inflicted on someone
  2. from an external source that
  3. is also a being possessing free will (i.e., it could have chosen not to inflict or threaten harm; in other words, it is not some kind of natural disaster or disease)
  4. in order to coerce someone to do something against their will

What might also be a stipulation is that the harm inflicted or threatened must exceed some threshold, or perhaps that it must be physical harm, or maybe that if it is psychological/emotional harm that it must exceed some other threshold of mental injury, and perhaps this psychological/emotional harm might also include economic/monetary harm (i.e. reducing a person’s access to the economy, taking money, threatening to take money, blackmail, ransomware, or things of that sort). Regardless of where we set the threshold of harm, and what types of harm we include, I think most people have an intuitive sense of what would constitute an infliction or threat that would reasonably compel a person to do something such that responsibility for their action is displaced from them and onto the person exerting force against them.

Thus, we get things like freedom of speech, which means that the government cannot compel you to say things you disagree with, or prohibit you from saying things that others or the government itself disagree with. This applies to speech that you freely choose to express, and therefore the consequences you suffer are things you could have chosen not to suffer.

One objection might be that a person, even when having pain inflicted on them, or under the threat of pain, can still choose not to do what is being ordered of them. They will certainly have to pay the consequences of continued or initiated pain, but it wasn’t like the person coercing them reached into their brain and literally caused the person’s body to do things against their will in a very real sense (i.e. even if the person was mentally trying not to perform the action, their body was out of their control). This gets into the territory of whether a person has a duty (whether moral or legal) to accept harm to themselves in order to not to commit something against their will (or against their own moral code, perhaps). Most ethical codes seem to make at least some concession to people doing things if they are coerced through force or threat of force, but it’s an interesting discussion nonetheless.

Also of note: hings like cancel culture create sort of a gray area. I’ve talked about this on other occasions.

Economic Freedom

Does every U.S. citizen have the freedom to take a month off and go sightseeing around the country? The liberty answer would be: of course. The government can’t stop you from traveling. Even your job couldn’t, if you were willing to quit or suffer the penalty (perhaps even being fired). But is it really the case that every person in the U.S. could drop what they’re doing and spend a month sightseeing?

Most people are aware, perhaps painfully so, that this is not the case. Spending a month traveling, at the very least, means 1) a month where you are not actively making money and 2) you are spending money (on airplane tickets or rental cars and/or fuel and food and so on). And if you plan on actually seeing the sights and not just driving around, you then have to pay money for that, too. The point is, it all costs money. And not everyone has enough money to take such a vacation.

Having money opens up an enormous amount of things that a person is able to do that a person with less money just simply cannot do. That much everyone knows, even if some people might be loath to admit it.

What adds to this, however, is that not everyone starts at the same place. It would be one thing if everyone was, say, given a million dollars on their eighteenth birthday. Then if at the age of 36 they’re broke it was because of their own reckless spending. (We’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that giving everyone a million dollars on their eighteenth birthday wouldn’t cause inflation to skyrocket and make everything so expensive that a million dollars wouldn’t get you very far anymore anyway). This is obviously not the case. Some people are born without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of while others are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Thus, the distribution of economic freedom is extremely unequal through no fault or effort on anyone’s part.

Many people, especially on the political left, see this as a call to action to more fairly, or “equitably” redistribute the wealth. This post isn’t about what ought to be done about the situation; this is more descriptive than prescriptive. Suffice to say, though, that many attempts to rectify this unequal distribution of economic freedom has seen the solutions become worse than the problem.

Freedom From Obligation

One type of Freedom From Obligation I will call Freedom From (Social) Expectation. This is the freedom that comes from solitude. When you’re free to sit on your couch all day in your underwear eating Cheetos and binge-watching Netflix, without the obligations of work or family or even having to put on pants in order to walk among strangers, that is what modern people would likely see as “true freedom.” Indeed, freedom from obligation is my favorite kind of freedom.

This kind of freedom, however, can also be atomizing. It can lead to loneliness, depression, and the disintegration of our social fabric. When our social obligations feel like infringements on our freedom, then we’re likely to eschew such obligations such that friends, family, and romantic partners are only kept so long as they’re convenient. Throw your parents in a home and let someone else take care of them, because I certainly don’t want to do it. Break up with your romantic partner as soon as you stop feeling absolutely enthralled with them so that you an pursue that “new relationship” high with someone else. Dump a friend of 20 years because they voted for the wrong candidate, because having friends like that is mildly uncomfortable and isn’t a good look for you on social media.

The opposite of this, of course, is when people overextend themselves. This can come in two varieties. The first is the so-called “hustle culture,” which is a sort of extreme dedication to career or financial obligations. Over the last decade or so people are beginning to become aware that this is also not healthy, often leading to burnout and other emotional disorders.

The other variety would be clingy people or those kinds of people who find it difficult to say “no” to things. This is an extreme dedication to social relationships. Most people are aware that this isn’t healthy, either, as it can lead to things like codependency, or people getting taken advantage of, or burnout as people find it difficult to set aside any so-called “me time.”

Like with many things, our freedom from obligation is probably best kept somewhere between the two extremes of atomization and over-extension. Where that happy moderation lies between the two extremes is going to be different for different people.

Another aspect of obligation relates to accountability. We might even call it a subset of Freedom From Obligation and name it Freedom From Accountability, with accountability being a type of obligation to take responsibility for your actions. This isn’t the responsibility I’ve already covered, like your responsibility to your parents or to your romantic partner. I mean Freedom From Accountability for your actions. Most people don’t enjoy having to be accountable, especially when they screw up. Humans have devised all sorts of ways to pass blame or maintain plausible deniability.

People also like to come up with excuses for why they shouldn’t be personally held responsible: they were intoxicated, or misinformed, or they had a rough childhood, or that their victim status exonerates them, or whatever else.

Freedom From Accountability is also what a lot of people misconstrue freedom of speech as being: that you can say whatever you want and not have to suffer any consequences.

There is, of course, and unequal distribution of accountability as well. This comes from two things: 1) whether or not you are caught or discovered for your misdeeds and 2) where a person finds themselves in social, political, and economic hierarchies. The former tends to have an element of chance to it. Certainly, if we were willing to give up other freedoms and allow ourselves to be monitored more deeply (i.e. the threat of force and therefore the loss of liberty), then more perpetrators could be caught. That’s a tradeoff that people have to consider.

There is the problem, however, that other things, such as economic freedom, can mean that getting caught is worse for some people than others (i.e. the rich, even when caught, usually receive lighter punishments than the poor; this could perhaps even be an aspect of Economic Freedom).

With the accountability hierarchies, obviously some people take positions of greater responsibility on themselves. Indeed, there can often be great financial reward from taking a position where, should things go wrong, the accountability should (at least ideally) fall most heavily on the person in that position. But things like bigotry can also mean that an individual is held to account for whatever cohort they are (seen to be) a part of, or even for what their cohort may have done in the past.

Another form of Freedom From Obligation that also has some elements of Economic Freedom is the Freedom From Persuasion. I put this under Freedom From Obligation because 1) when we are persuaded of something, it instills in us a feeling of obligation (i.e. if I convince you that A is wrong and that B is right, you feel an obligation to reject your belief in A and accept a belief in B; when a charismatic person you trust tells you what you ought to do, you feel a sense of obligation to do it; when you need money, you feel a sense of obligation to do what you can to acquire it); and 2) there just wasn’t a better place to put it, yet Freedom From Persuasion didn’t seem to merit its own heading

Freedom From Persuasion goes back to what I mentioned above about physically attractive and/or charismatic people. I’m not sure how much people desire Freedom From Persuasion. People seem to desire freedom from having their beliefs challenged, which is a variety of persuasion (or attempted persuasion). Certainly he safe-space cancel-culture micro-aggression crowd are seeking freedom from persuasion. Interestingly, things like freedom of speech are anti-Freedom From Persuasion, since if everyone is free to speak their mind they can say things that might persuade you that your cherished beliefs are incorrect or incomplete.

Freedom From Persuasion in the sense of attractive or charismatic people is often something we want for other people. We don’t like when others are taken in by charismatic charlatans and demagogues. We don’t like when people we know fall under the sway of someone attractive but who is clearly not good for them. It can be downright painful when loved ones fall into toxic relationships with narcissists who start controlling their every action. Yet, when it comes to what we ourselves say, we wish people would be much more easily persuaded.

Under the concept of Freedom From Persuasion is not only the kind of persuasion we get from the attractive and charismatic, but also economic persuasion. At its extreme end people view economic inequality as a type of force, coercing the poor into doing things they do not wish to do. Why this isn’t force per se is because it doesn’t satisfy the necessary and sufficient conditions I laid out above – there is no conscious entity causing or threatening harm. But there is the persuasion, admittedly strong persuasion, that money has as a powerful incentive to persuade people to do things against their conscience or that may cause harm to others.

Thus, under the heading of Freedom From Obligation are the following three subcategories:

  1. Freedom From (Social) Expectation
  2. Freedom From Accountability
  3. Freedom From Persuasion


Coming up with definitions of how to define and categorize freedom is all fine and good (and I’m sure people could come up with others that are not on this list). But the reason to do it is in order to determine what we ought to do and how we want to organize society and live our own lives. Which freedoms we want to value more is an issue of ongoing (and probably endless) discussion. But being able to know what kind of freedom people are talking about is at least an important first step – perhaps even precondition – of having a fruitful dialogue on the subject.