What Is Freedom? Watch Four Philosophy Animations on Freedom & Free Will Narrated by Harry Shearer

Grow­ing up in Amer­i­ca, I heard near­ly every behav­ior, no mat­ter how unpleas­ant, jus­ti­fied with the same phrase: “It’s a free coun­try.” In her recent book Notes on a For­eign Coun­try, the Istan­bul-based Amer­i­can reporter Suzy Hansen remem­bers singing “God Bless the USA” on the school bus dur­ing the first Iraq war: “And I’m proud to be an Amer­i­canWhere at least I know I’m free.” That “at least,” she adds, is fun­ny: “We were free – at the very least we were that. Every­one else was a chump, because they didn’t even have that obvi­ous thing. What­ev­er it meant, it was the thing that we had, and no one else did. It was our God-giv­en gift, our super­pow­er.”

But how many of us can explain what free­dom is? These videos from BBC Radio 4 and the Open Uni­ver­si­ty’s ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Ideas series approach that ques­tion from four dif­fer­ent angles. “Free­dom is good, but secu­ri­ty is bet­ter,” says nar­ra­tor Har­ry Shear­er, sum­ming up the view of sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry philoso­pher Thomas Hobbes, who imag­ined life with­out gov­ern­ment, laws, or soci­ety as “soli­tary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The solu­tion, he pro­posed, came in the form of a social con­tract “to put a strong leader, a sov­er­eign or per­haps a gov­ern­ment, over them to keep the peace” — an escape from “the war of all against all.”

But that escape comes hand in hand with the unpalat­able prospect of liv­ing under “a fright­en­ing­ly pow­er­ful state.” The nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry philoso­pher John Stu­art Mill, who wrote a great deal about the state’s prop­er lim­i­ta­tions, based his con­cept of free­dom in some­thing called the “harm prin­ci­ple,” which holds that “the state, my neigh­bors, and every­one else should let me get on with my life, as long as I don’t harm any­one in the process.” As “the seedbed of genius” and “the basis of endur­ing hap­pi­ness for ordi­nary peo­ple,” this indi­vid­ual free­dom needs pro­tec­tion, espe­cial­ly when it comes to speech: “Mere­ly caus­ing offense, he thinks, is no grounds for inter­ven­tion, because, in his view, that is not a harm.”

That propo­si­tion remains debat­ed more heat­ed­ly now, in the 21st cen­tu­ry, than Mill prob­a­bly could have imag­ined. But then as now, and as in any time of human his­to­ry, we live in more or less the same world, “a world fes­ter­ing with moral evil, a world of wars, tor­ture, rape, mur­der, and oth­er acts of mean­ing­less vio­lence,” not to men­tion “nat­ur­al evil” like dis­ease, famine, floods, and earth­quakes. This gives rise to per­haps the old­est prob­lem in the philo­soph­i­cal book, the prob­lem of evil: “How could a good god allow any­one to do such hor­rif­ic things?” Some have tak­en the fact that the wars, mur­ders, floods, and earth­quakes con­tin­ue as evi­dence that no such god exists.

But had that god cre­at­ed “human beings that always did the right thing, nev­er harmed any­one else, nev­er went astray,” we’d all have end­ed up “automa­ta, pre­pro­grammed robots.” Bet­ter, in this view, “to have free will with the gen­uine risk that some peo­ple will end up evil than to live in a world with­out choice.” Even so, the mere men­tion of free will, a con­cept no more eas­i­ly defined than that of free­dom itself, opens up a whole oth­er can of worms, espe­cial­ly in light of research like neu­ro­sci­en­tist Ben­jamin Libet’s.

Libet, who “wired up sub­jects to an EEG machine, mea­sur­ing brain activ­i­ty via elec­trodes on our scalps,” found that brain activ­i­ty ini­ti­at­ing a move­ment actu­al­ly hap­pened before the sub­jects thought they’d decid­ed to make that move­ment. Does that dis­prove free will? Does evil dis­prove the exis­tence of a good god? Does offense cause the same kind of harm as phys­i­cal vio­lence? Should we give up more secu­ri­ty for free­dom, or more free­dom for secu­ri­ty? These ques­tions remain unan­swered, and quite pos­si­bly unan­swer­able, but that does­n’t make con­sid­er­ing the very nature of free­dom any less nec­es­sary as human soci­eties — those in “free coun­tries” and oth­er­wise — find their way for­ward.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Can I Know Right From Wrong? Watch Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions on Ethics Nar­rat­ed by Har­ry Shear­er

47 Ani­mat­ed Videos Explain the His­to­ry of Ideas: From Aris­to­tle to Sartre

An Ani­mat­ed Aldous Hux­ley Iden­ti­fies the Dystopi­an Threats to Our Free­dom (1958)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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