The following text is an essay I wrote for the STS course at CODE University of Applied Sciences in 2018.
When asked in an interview in 1968 what freedom meant to her, singer Nina Simone said:
What Simone grasped with her statement, is, that „feeling free“ is a very individual emotional condition which one can only try to describe to others and which again is never fully accessible to others. This raises the question whether all human beings perceive freedom as a value as such – and how this again can be ranked in relation to other things which are „good“ or „achievable“ for individuals or a group of people. In this essay, I will argue, that freedom itself is perceived as a value only in certain settings or societies, which is why its rank in relation to other values cannot be fixed. The relevance of freedom as a value needs to be debated and challenged constantly and cannot not be transferred from one society to another.
FREEDOM IN RELATION TO OTHER VALUES
Since a short essay does not allow an in-depth reflection on the topic, I decided to focus on a very broad concept of values as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary: Values are „principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgement of what is important in life.“ So, very generally speaking, values require concepts of the „good“ or the „right“ and they lead human actions and decisions.
The first problem which arises when reflecting on how to rank one value in relation to others, is, that what exactly those good and right elements in value constructions are. This is an ongoing debate which is complicated by the fact, that values are not fixed, change over time and are perceived or ranked differently in different cultures and societies. What is relevant for this essay, is, that values are social, because they come into being by cultural imprint, human interaction and discourse, but also individual, because usually every single person weights the importance of one value against the other.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines freedom as „the power to act, speak, or think as one wants“ and „the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved“, but, as Simone put it in her interview answer, in its most basic and fundamental way, freedom is a feeling. And taking the dictionary definitions into account again, freedom can only be known by the experience of the very opposite: Not feeling free. To feel freedom requires individual concepts of what a person wants to do or achieve and how to act. And the feeling of freedom results from mental ideas about freedom and from willing or even longing.
Freedom – to me – has two dimensions: A long-term, time-outlasting perception of the possibility to act and develop as a human being and the sometimes very short, selective and intense momentum of weightlessness, lightheartedness and carefreeness. Both dimensions can relate and determine each other, but do not have to. Additionally, a person can feel unfree in certain circumstances, but experience a deeper feeling of freedom in the long run. Freedom can be felt even when a person adjusts his or her actions in a seemingly restrictive way in order to serve a higher goal or other needs.
In sum, freedom comes only into being as an individual act of thinking, feeling and behaving, which is embedded in a societal context. Freedom thus cannot be seen as something which a human mind could experience in isolation, but also not something which is purely objective or collective. Taking this into account, it can be questioned whether freedom is necessarily a value for every person or society.
The issue is even more complicated by the fact, that feeling free is not necessarily connected to the idea of „free will and action“ in the sense of a will which is truly unaffected by or unattached from other humans’ influences or neurological and psychological conditions. As long as a person is able to create the feeling of freedom from his or her willing and actions, he or she is free.
Following this, a person can experience freedom in all kinds of settings and embedded in very different sets of belief and value systems – even in a very restrictive society. How exactly this feeling came into being and how the will of the person was build is irrelevant. And on the other hand, not having a concept on freedom and not feeling freedom or feel it the same way as for example people aspire it in so-called Western societies must not necessarily result in less contentment.
Additionally, musing about „not having a free will“ can result in less contentment and also prevent a person living in a more liberal society from feeling free. Additionally, people who are offered several choices do not necessarily feel more free than others. Constantly present in recent discussions, freedom of choice can even be experienced as a burden and the freedom to act for everyone can be seen as a thread to other needs.
From the thinking of Aristotle to more recent ideas, the reflection on values has led to a differentiation of values which have intrinsic value and values which are instrumental, that is, a means to an end. If perceived as a value, freedom fits into both categories. If a person has a certain concept about freedom and a desire for it, it can be seen as a value which is „good as such“. On the other hand, in some political systems, the idea of „people who are free to think and act“ can also lead to the conclusion that freedom serves higher goals (for example equality or justice) and is a means to an end.
All those aspects result in the conclusion that freedom on its own must not and is not necessarily be seen as a value (intrinsic or as a means to an end), which again would imply that freedom always bears something integral „good“ or „better“ and that this aspect is perceived as something which is important for a good life. Freedom is only perceived as a value by a group of individuals and people who have been raised and educated in certain societies. Following this, freedom as a value can only be ranked in relation to other values in those settings.
Freedom comes into being as a very individual state of feeling which is not experienced the same way and given the same relevance in all societies. Freedom in relation to other values thus can only be explored in the way it is embedded in the individual’s contexts (society, time). Different to other concepts which are referred to as „good as such“ (for example love), the construction of freedom as a value needs a certain setting.
Since freedom is perceived differently even in societies which agreed on it as a value, ranking it in relation to other values requires constant readjustments and reflections. The relevance of freedom should and needs to be discussed – especially when it’s a personal need or demand for larger groups of people in a society. But there is no fixed answer to the question how values like freedom, equality, self-fulfillment or security should be ranked and freedom itself should not be seen as the only key to contentment and „a good life“ as it is often in Western public discourse.
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