Freedom: I don’t think it means what you think it means

Freedom: I don’t think it means what you think it means February 28, 2017

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One of the conceptual blocks I ran into as a young convert was the notion that freedom is subject to morality.

Like just about everyone else I considered freedom to be amoral, or even better the highest moral value only grudgingly hemmed in by the freedom of other people.

Only later would I come to see that my convictions (if they could even be called convictions) were the same as the Utilitarians–people like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill–who saw the world in materialistic terms. The universe itself is an amoral place in this view, and the only moral consideration is what to do when your freedom bumps up against other people.

The Utilitarians did believe that there are other people and that we should be concerned for their happiness–the greatest good for the greatest number is the way it is usually remembered. I suppose we should be happy about that. But really, they shouldn’t receive too much credit. They were carried along on the coattails of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Neutral Space and Social Experimentation

Mill in particular believed that this neutral space–meaning the amorality of both matter and freedom–makes social experimentation possible. People should be permitted to invent new ways to live, with the caveat of course, that they don’t hurt anyone besides themselves in the process.

We see this everywhere today–in the economy, particularly in the ways technology and our lives coalesce. But we see it most intimately with our home ways–our domestic arrangements and our sexual practices.

Sometimes the term “social engineering” is used to referred to this way of shaping social life. The term gives away more than it gives though. For one thing, people are not as malleable as the metaphor can imply. We’re not discrete objects that can be moved about without damage to ourselves or to others. We’re fuzzy and we tend to cling.

Real engineers understand the need to work with the structures inherent to their materials. Unfortunately social engineers don’t look at real people this way. (Perhaps because they don’t have a background in the real sciences.) For social engineers human beings are not subject to a human nature. These engineers believe in the freedom of the blank page. Anything less than that compromises our freedom to make whatever we please of ourselves.

Blank pages are not really blank

I was trained as a visual artist and I know some things about blank pages. For one thing, to actually draw something you must begin. Once you’ve begun, then what you’ve done goes a long way toward determining what you end up with. And if freedom is a blank page, the further you progress, the less freedom you have. (No wonder people can’t decide what to watch on television.)

But that’s not even the full story. Pages are never really blank. They come in different weights and textures. Some are designed for pen and ink, others for watercolors, others for oils. So the page contributes to the work–the quality of the work and what you can do on the page are limited by what the paper will permit. (And that’s not even considering the medium you’re working in or your tools and their quality.) So even the page inhibits your freedom.

But wait! There’s more bad news. There’s the whole matter of skill. Just because you’ve got the right paper and the best medium for what you want to do doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to create the thing you envision. You may have no ability.

In art school the thing you do to hone your skill is copy. You copy great works of art, you use models and you work hard to reproduce what you see. And the reason you do these things, even in the age of photography, is because you want to be able to produce what you want to produce. Copying comes first, then comes creating your own work.

Not just freedom from, freedom for

What the preachers of the blank page miss is the real nature of freedom. Freedom is not keeping your options open. That’s keeping freedom in abeyance. It can even be a form of bondage–a slavery to indecision and fear.

True freedom is the freedom to pursue the good in truth. It gets you out of yourself. This is what the Apostle Paul was getting at when he spoke of freedom.

It’s a scary thing because freedom is intrinsically moral, not amoral. And this means you can get it wrong. It even means you are subject to judgment, not just your own judgment, but the judgments of others.

This isn’t all that difficult to understand really. We just don’t want to think about it. Amoral freedom comes with enormous blind spots. As I’ve mentioned, it blinds us to the nature of things. And that includes human nature. We’re not self-generating little gods–we’re rational, dependent creatures. Denying this makes us liars.

Where this comes home is at home. So much of the nonsense on gender and alternative lifestyles goes back to the error of the blank page and false notions of freedom. But if it were only the case that we were dealing with blank pages. If we were we could just throw the ugly products of false freedom in file 13. But we’re not. We’re dealing with real people, and human nature–expressed as male and female. And because of an amoral conception of freedom human beings are being trashed and wasted.


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