Published 06/25/2021

Andrew Jacobs is a student at University of Utah studying Philosophy and Cognitive Science. He focuses his philosophical mind powers on cats and good movies.

The Prison of Freedom

When we think of freedom, it's easy to conjure images of liberation: a bird flying in the wind, unconstrained by the gravity that binds us humans; a hostage released from the shackles that once held him captive; a horse frolicking through a field, escaped from the corral that once restrained her. When I think of freedom, I remember the liberation I found in removing the training wheels that hindered my ability to ride my bike. I suddenly could turn more sharply and move more quickly. I could now really—I could now freely ride my bike.

Riding down the street, I was admiring the whole new world to which I had access. The sidewalk whizzed by underneath my tires as I looked back at what was now behind me. Putting the world in my (non-existent) rearview mirror,

I crashed straight into a pole.

What happened? I've never crashed like that before. Picking myself up off the sidewalk, I learned an unforgettable truth about freedom: it requires more effort to use. As much as I felt freed by getting rid of my rickety training wheels, I had imposed new limitations on how I now had to approach bike riding. To stay upright, I needed to be in constant motion. To remain in motion, I needed to be more attentive than I ever had been before. My freedom from training wheels shackled me with the freedom to ride well or not. This is the oft-forgotten prison of freedom.

Freedom From and Freedom To

In 1969, Isaiah Berlin famously published an essay highlighting the distinction between positive liberty and negative liberty—commonly described as freedom to and freedom from, respectively. In drawing out the differences in types of liberty, Berlin gives us a new framework with which we can think about freedom. Before him, philosophers and political theorists conflated the two forms of freedom. John Stuart Mill's influential work On Liberty acts as the basis for many people's political and social philosophies surrounding the primacy of individual freedom. Berlin argues that Mill "confuses [the] two distinct notions" of liberty in his handling of the term. On one hand, Mill argues that to inhibit a person's ability to act according to her desires is evil as a matter of objective reality. On the other hand, Mill contends great intellectual truths can only be found by acting as prescribed by one's unique individuality. Conflating these two attitudes is customary in modern society as a consequence. The language we use presently around notions of liberation and freedom is detrimental to speaking accurately about the subject.

We speak of being free from government oversight in the same way we speak of acting freely as an American. We speak of freeing the oppressed in the same way we speak of freely choosing to oppress people. We speak of freedom from in the same way we speak of freedom to. These principles are critically different from one another, and the latter carries a significant burden that the other does not. Freedom from restrictive laws and mandates is entirely different than the freedom to act in ways that endanger others.

The Burden Personal Determination

Scraped and bruised from my collision with the pole, I set back out to more attentively ride my bicycle. I was steadfast in my goal to successfully cruise without crashing. I mean, could you imagine if my mom had seen that crash? Once would probably be fine. But if I couldn't maintain my speed, balance, and direction in ways conducive to good bike riding, I was sure that those training wheels would go right back on. The negative liberty I enjoyed by riding my bike without training wheels would surely go away if I did not utilize my positive liberty to ride my bike without hurting myself.

Such is the burden of freedom: positive liberty—_freedom to_—must be used to contribute to a better society, not a worse one. When we have, for example, the freedom to decide for ourselves what the science and risk factors are for vaccines in the middle of a pandemic, we need to make the best assessment possible by appropriately informing ourselves. If we fail, we establish a foundation for enacting laws to save us from causing harm to ourselves or others—we give ourselves reason to put our training wheels on.

As we increase our positive liberty, we continually stack the bricks of our imprisonment—confining ourselves to acting well or putting our negative liberty at risk. The prison of freedom is our constrained use of positive liberty to reasonably retain negative liberty.

Training Wheels: Do we need them?

Last year, residents of several states protested the "stay-at-home" orders made to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This group of protestors, ironically, is the reason executive orders were necessary at all. Consider for a moment a reality where all Americans understood the dangers COVID-19 posed to others, appreciated the resulting imperative to socially distance, and had the moral wherewithal to follow through with those requirements. Would a mandate be necessary? Ever? Absolutely not. Neither businesses nor our government would have reason to instate such rules. Because a significant portion of the U.S. population kept crashing into the pole of harmful social behaviors, training wheels of "shelter-in-place" orders needed to be established.

Presently, we face a new problem of how Americans use their freedom to make personal conclusions about scientific accuracy and effectiveness: vaccination rates. As of June 25th, the United States population is only 46% fully vaccinated (i.e., both shots of either Pfizer or Moderna, a single shot of Johnson & Johnson). With the goal of 70% immunity to qualify a reasonable return to pre-pandemic lifestyles, we should be seeing the rate of people being vaccinated going up—at the very least, staying the same. Instead, vaccination rates are going down. Vaccine hesitancy is so widespread that Dr. Anthony Fauci and the mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina, "spent 90 minutes talking to people on their front porches" hoping to ease people's fears of the COVID-19 vaccines. The Delta variant of the virus, described as "basically covid-19 on steroids," is now spreading in the U.S. This new variant poses a sort of "soft test" of how Americans will handle a newly empowered threat growing in our country. How will American citizens use their freedom to decide to get a vaccine? Will they utilize their positive liberty in a way that promotes the expansion of freedom from mandatory orders by governments, schools, and businesses? Or will they fail to act responsibly, suggesting that the training wheels they detest are vital for their safety and a well-functioning society?

Positive Liberation

Using positive liberty in responsible ways requires knowing what is responsible. It is our duty to be informed about the decisions we make. And becoming informed itself an act of responsible positive liberty. We have the freedom to become informed. While some knowledge is held behind monetary paywalls by private organizations, you can access most of that information via Sci-Hub. More often than not, becoming informed means talking or listening to professionals who have dedicated time and effort to become knowledgeable in a particular field of study. We can benefit from their efforts by rationally assessing what they have to say about a specific subject.

Using Google Scholar in tandem with Sci-Hub, knowing what the scientific community says about something is much easier than it ever has been before. (Check out this short guide!)

Truly, we must use our freedom to think and assess information for ourselves by attentively considering all the information available about our social contexts. Rather than assuming that your medication disqualifies you from getting the COVID-19 vaccines, ask a doctor. Rather than assuming that we know more about the disease and virus than we do about the vaccines, consult the experts. Your freedom to inspect these questions, beneficially using your positive liberty to promote social well-being, is crucial for maintaining the degree to which we enjoy our freedom from involuntary social regulations.

The Weekly Phil is a publication exploring social, political, and individual issues through the lens of applied philosophy.

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