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 American / Where 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.
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.