If I’m free, why can’t I do what I want?

by Katarzyna De Lazari-Radek on November 7, 2013

By Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek

I woke up my son Jan (9) for school, as I do every morning. He was very unhappy and started to complain loudly.

I asked him not to shout, to which he replied: “I live in a free country and I’m a free man, I can do what I want!”

My son used the word “freedom” in a way that we often use. When I say “I am free” I can mean “I have no limits, I can do whatever I want to”. “I am free! If I want, I will shout and make others feel uncomfortable. I am free! If I’m fed up with my work, I will quit and become a hippy! I can do whatever I want with my life!” Yet something seems to be wrong with what he is saying, and doing. What is it?

Needless to say, it is on the verge of naivety to believe that we are not dependent on outside factors. But even if we weren’t limited by other people or circumstances, couldn’t we be limited by ourselves? 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that real freedom can only be realised when we give up our natural inclinations, follow our reason and act morally. In other words, he believed that only a rational and moral action is really free and autonomous. Otherwise, we are ruled by our desires and irrational preferences.

This is illustrated by the language we often use while yielding to our bodily appetites, and after eating another large piece of cake we are sorry that we didn’t restrain ourselves from eating it. The feeling that our desires rule us – against our wishes – is a common experience.

If we don’t want to define freedom as narrowly as Kant did, we will face another problem. We need to think how important a value freedom is. Could it justify anything we do? That hardly seems possible. The fact that I am a free person may not justify the fact that I harm someone. If I believe myself to be free I need to believe the same about everyone else. This means that I don’t have any special right to justify my actions by referring to my freedom as if it were something that other people don’t also possess. This simple truth was famously expressed by American legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee who said:

“Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

Which can be paraphrased as: “My freedom ends where yours begins.” And in the same way, I told my son, your freedom to make noise ends where my freedom to enjoy peace and quiet in my own home begins.

Dr. Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek is a philosopher who works at the University of Lodz in Poland. She is interested in ethics, especially utilitarian ethics, ethical problems of globalisation, bioethics, and animal rights. She is a mother of two wonderful kids, Jan and Zofia, who surprise her every day with how thoughtful they are. Together with Professor Peter Singer she has started a project www.mychildisaphilosopher.com intended to encourage parents to help children to develop their natural philosophical curiosity.

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