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Understanding freedom and its evolution over the years


Recently, Dr. John Milliken, Assistant Professor at LCC International University in the Theology department, discussed freedom and whether we actually have it. Freedom is a central value of Western culture and is one of the culture's dominant understandings. The idea of freedom has shifted over the past few hundred years, but its fundamental ideologies only developed over time in the ever-changing society and we keep on exploring freedom through different decades and in twenty-first-century culture. 

According to an English philosopher and physician, John Locke, freedom is closely related to the government or to the state. Locke develops an interesting view about the limitation of a state in certain ways by the rights that individuals have within society. The government receives the authority by the consent of those who are under its’ rule. But John Locke also proposes the idea that society should be autonomous and refuse the government to overpower, for example, property rights or much more. Although his understanding of freedom is based on the political notion, the philosopher states there is a moral law given by God. There are constraints, there are limits and rules to what people can do, and the government is only limited to impose certain things upon us. “We have a spear of liberty, we have a spear of freedom. But there are also limits to our freedom, set by the notion of the moral law” commented John Milliken. 

A great example is the Constitution of the United States, which was created in 1787. This document was heavily influenced by John Locke, as the writers and the readers of the constitution were the followers of his ideas. Society believed that the state has limits to what it can do to them.

Another English philosopher, political economist, and civil servant, John Stuart Mill discussed freedom in the 1800s. John S. Mill believed in political freedom and he was interested in what the state was able to do in relation to an individual. The philosopher was setting a strict limit about what the state can do, meaning a simple rule or a law could not be dictated to the society by the government. The only reason that the state can interfere with the individual is to prevent harm to other people. For example, wearing a seatbelt while driving is required by law for safety reasons, and according to John Stuart Mill’s ideology, the state cannot dictate this, if an accident occurs, only the individual is responsible. Unlike John Locke, Mill promotes personal freedom ideas, the limits in the society around us, the expectations, and the norms of other people. One of his ideologies is for people to be free not just from the powers of law, but from the opinions of others. As John Stuart Mill states himself, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way. So long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it.” Compared to John Locke’s ideology, John Mill’s can be named as a more modern, contemporary way of thinking about freedom. 

Freedom in the present-day culture did not encounter many significant changes. It is still believed today, that freedom is the ability to live a fulfilled life without anyone else’s interference, without permission or approval. But the core ideology of what we think morality is, means to understand that we are free when we can do what we wish without any constraints and harming another individual. A basic level matter arises when Timothy Keller, an author and theologian who states that no individual is actually free to do anything because the cost is the trade-off between things. The moment of choice arises, and where there are more choices, there are more constraints. According to John Milliken, Assistant Professor in LCC’s Theology department, “Since we can’t be completely free; we must trade some freedoms for others, submitting ourselves to constraints”. Given the nature of reality, we are unable to completely decide what those constraints are, and eventually, it becomes easier to get lost in this cycle of seeking complete freedom.

However, some tend to believe that such an approach is unjust, cannot stand alone, or is potentially corrosive of communities. It should be taken into consideration that when other people invest in us and we don’t belong to ourselves alone. This would only be justified if we were to be self-created. Think about the teachers over the years of your existence, parents, friends, maybe even neighbors - they have all invested in us to some extent. As Timothy Keller points out in his poem, “No person is an island all by himself, we’re connected to other people.” Knowing that we are connected to others, the comprehension of freedom to do what one wants without harming others can also seem obscure. What is considered as harming others? It is like a never-ending debate about the freedom of speech. One side interprets freedom of speech as an expression of ideas, and some believe that it can cause harm and be offensive to others. It is important to respect the different values and moral considerations of others. Moreover, blind individualism can cause communities to erode and make them more mobile. We tend to distance ourselves, move away from certain relationships or people, and this radical point of view of freedom pushes against other important matters.

“...Whatever is the object of your meaning in satisfaction, ultimately controls you. You are never your own master, never actually free in the contemporary definition. Something else is always mastering you,” said Timothy Keller. Whether it’s a need for internal or external freedom, to some extent, people will never be free, because we live for something, we aspire for more, and we are compelled to do and to feel in a certain way. Once you set the path of your freedom, and acknowledge that over the years, there will be some freedom regulations set by the government, but as long as there is no harm intended to others, freedom can be attained in the long process. 

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