OnWords: Freedom!

Dec 31, 2013

Credit U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region / Flickr / Creative Commons

The word “freedom” is both dear to the American heart and almost never well defined.

Politicians love to line up their favorite issues behind freedom's banner, as if mere association with the word were enough to make everything from packing heat to pornography the essence of freedom.

Those who study political philosophy have long divided freedom into so-called positive freedom (the freedom to) and negative freedom (the freedom from). Positive freedoms are active, such as speech or peaceable assembly. Negative freedoms are passive, such as being free from unwarranted seizure or search.

Practically, these different freedoms work together: most interpretations of the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment say that it assures both the freedom to practice a religion and freedom from being subject to a state religion.

But neither of these formulations takes into account the real complexity of what freedom means for the individual. For that, it might be helpful to apply self-determination theory.

Self-determination theory has found that we need three elements to act on our own behalf: we need autonomy-- that is, no one telling us we can't do something. We can think of that as negative freedom. And we need a sense of competence— the feeling that we are capable of doing something. That parallels our sense of positive freedom. But we also need relatedness-- the sense that we are supported in what we're doing by those around us.

In other words, freedom is not just a matter of being allowed to or not prohibited from; we must also feel that what we do matters in a social context.

As we've seen, Americans are great at the first two: competence and autonomy. But if we want to get at why so many of us still feel that we are not free, perhaps we should look at how we have failed to relate, how we fail to support one another in what they do.