The Freedom Fallacy

Friday, November 25, 2005


Written by Tristan Dineen

Freedom is a word that we hear trumpeted on a daily basis: from our television sets, on the radio, on websites, from our politicians making election promises, businessmen attempting to assert good intentions, people on the street expressing opinions, activists and radicals crying out for more. Always the word “freedom” returns again and again in our lives and in our vocabularies. It is the global watch word and inescapable in the modern age and while it is so widespread it is shocking how broadly defined it really is and how little we actually understand this word that holds so much diverse meaning and is literally the obsession of a globalized world. It is time that we understood what this thing is that we so desperately seek. For what we find may be less than desirable.

Since the French Revolution in particular freedom has been the word that one uses if one wants to rally mass support around a cause, any cause. Liberals used it first and perhaps most successfully to rally popular support for the American and French Revolutions. Socialists used it to rally working class support against the status quo. Conservatives, while originally wary of the term, have now embraced it as part of the neo-conservative creed and used it in a large part to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ever since the masses of common people appeared on the political stage in the 18th Century it has been the desire for more and more freedom that has driven them to follow often criminal ideologies and policies. The Nazis promised freedom in racial terms to the German people and freedom from past national humiliations. The Soviet Constitution under Stalin promised an incredible range of freedoms even as millions were being sent to their deaths in the Gulag.

Freedom motivates, probably more than any other word in our vocabulary. People make money and buy luxury goods largely because they believe and are often told that they will bring them a measure of freedom they otherwise would not have. People seek social status and political status for the same reasons. They believe that power brings freedom along with it and will enable a person to ignore the mundane concerns of everyday living.

Of course all these perspectives are incredibly naïve. You might make a certain amount of money and enter a higher tax bracket and be able to afford a fancy car or house or whatever. For a while you might be happy and empowered but then you see that so many others are in the same situation and so you must now work to distinguish yourself from them with more wealth and more and better trappings of material success. You end up back at square one essentially.

Someone might gain in social and political status attaining high positions of authority and might at first be in awe of their new found power and see it as a release from the mundane activities of lower station. What they soon come to realize is that they must now take on responsibilities they never had to take on before and the consequences of mistakes and of failure are now infinitely higher than they were. They will realize that with power comes responsibility and not freedom to do as one wants all the time. Mature minds realize this fact early on but immature minds fixated on getting away from responsibility and unconcerned with the concept of duty find themselves trapped.

Freedom as a concept is quite naïve unless you have duty as a precondition. Personal fulfillment through doing one’s duty and fulfilling one’s purpose is perhaps the only real way of attaining freedom. When you serve the broader interests of society you are effectively serving yourself as a member of society. The common good is of paramount importance.

Winston Churchill is a prime example of this. Throughout his life he had a very strong sense of duty and sought to fulfill himself through accomplishments that benefited his country and ultimately the world as a whole. While Hitler promised an immature, tyrannical freedom to the German “master-race,” Churchill promised “blood, toil, tears and sweat…” but promised ultimate victory in World War II no matter the cost. What he did was for the common good of humanity laid out in the starkest of terms.

Often people do not wish to hear what must be done to attain real freedom. They feel freedom is theirs by right and should be taken at liberty like a child reaches into a cookie jar. If Churchill had said what he had said during peacetime he would have been mocked and other less astute politicians would have won over the people with promises of instant gratification. Those who speak the truth are rarely welcomed except in times of crisis and we are indeed very lucky that Churchill emerged as he did to take charge of Great Britain in one of humanity’s darkest hours. While Remembrance Day as a tradition continues, we as a generation are rapidly losing sight of what the concept of duty means and it is no surprise given our society of material affluence which preaches instant gratification and ultimately childish values. What will we do when all the veterans are gone, when there is no one left alive to remember what must be done and what sacrifices must be made to achieve real fulfillment and real freedom? I wear a poppy year round in remembrance of the war dead of all wars and I can only hope that others share the sentiment that in an age of laziness, the concept of duty and honour must never die. For if they do humanity will be in great danger largely from our own childish impulses. Impulses that misguided notions of freedom merely reinforce.

In conclusion I wish to leave you with a quote from one of the greatest philosophers of all time and one of the true founders of Western Civilization itself. Plato said the following: “So from an extreme of liberty one is likely to get, in the individual and in society, a reaction to an extreme of subjection. And if that is so, we should expect tyranny to result from democracy, the most savage subjection from an excess of liberty.” Balance is essential and duty and purpose are the best defenses we have against extremism of any sort, these form the source of human dignity. We must never forget this.

Comment below

| More


Back to Top
  1. Posted by: tom K on Nov 28, 2005 @ 11:57am

    Right... So Winston Churchill is our moral standard now? Does anyone else see a problem with this? Remember that it was Churchill who was a leading actor in the colonization of the Middle East (of which George W. Bush and Tony Blair are only modern incarnations). Churchill was once quoted as saying:

    "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes." (19 February, 1920 In a letter to Sir Hugh Trenchard concerning regaining control of Iraq)

    This lovely quote was related to dear old Winston's desire to use poison gas on Kurdish people in the Middle East. So how is this different from bombing Fallujuh? Is their duty or honour in this? Let's be honest. This article is nothing more than a rehashing of the same old tired tripe that has been thrown at us for years by rich, white men. The basic argument being that most of us are so stupid and listless then we need someone to run the show, someone who "knows" better than us. We've tried this before and it doesn't seem to work. So lets try something new - how about truly empowering people by allowing them to have control over decisions that effect them.

  2. Posted by: on Nov 28, 2005 @ 6:51pm

    "Freedom as a concept is quite naïve unless you have duty as a precondition. Personal fulfillment through doing one’s duty and fulfilling one’s purpose is perhaps the only real way of attaining freedom. When you serve the broader interests of society you are effectively serving yourself as a member of society. The common good is of paramount importance."

    Can you explain what you mean by this?

  3. Posted by: Tristan Dineen on Nov 28, 2005 @ 10:29pm

    Basically what i'm saying there is that freedom is something you earn by working for it. You attain freedom by developing yourself as an individual and by finding your place in society, where you can contribute most as an individual. Everyone has something they do best and by combining those things we make an effective society. You fulfill yourself, you feel empowered, you empower society by contributing to society. Thats the common good.

  4. Posted by: Tristan Dineen on Nov 28, 2005 @ 10:35pm

    As for Winston Churchill, he is not perfect, no one is, but he was one hell of alot better than anyone in power in the present day. I know he did some questionable things, I am of Irish descent and I remember his attitude toward Irish independence and how he sought to prevent it even if it meant brutal force. Churchill wanted to keep the British Empire together, but in his quest to do so he defeated one of the most dangerous tyrants this world has ever seen. I would say he did far more good than wrong. I used him as an example because he was a very dutiful person and achieved much because of it.

  5. Posted by: on Nov 28, 2005 @ 11:54pm

    Woo. I was hoping you could maybe break that down into its constituent parts, cause you're still saying an awful lot all at once.

    Forgive me if I'm misinterpreting your argument, but are you saying that freedom cannot exist without duty? If so, I don't think I agree.

    I would argue that duty is in fact not an aid to, but a restriction upon freedom. Ultimate freedom is to be found outside of society entirely; society is a convention that limits our freedom, but one which we accept in order to enhance our security.

    Freedom can be a terrible and dangerous thing when *others* possess it. The chief benefit of society for me is the limits it imposes on everyone else's freedom, and the converse is true.

  6. Posted by: on Nov 28, 2005 @ 11:56pm

    And I really would drop the Churchill motif, as a professional recommendation. He was a drunk and a bully, and he was responsible for war crimes and the use of weapons of mass destruction. History is populated by better role models with keen senses of duty.

  7. Posted by: on Nov 29, 2005 @ 12:50am

    Incidentally, I'm not trying to get under the skin of any Churchill fans out there. If you disagree, just say so; I'm far more interested in the freedom line of discussion.

  8. Posted by: Tom K on Nov 29, 2005 @ 2:32pm

    I think its important to note that I am not against Churchill per se, though I think he is a poor moral role model. I questioned Churchill has part of a broader issue - the idea that society must rely upon great leaders who have a particularly keen sense of duty and honour. It's many ways this is connected to your last article Tristan. I cannot believe that as a society we are better off putting our trust and fate into the hands of a small group of leaders who supposedly know better than us.

  9. Posted by: Tristan Dineen on Nov 29, 2005 @ 11:39pm

    Duty and freedom may seem like opposites but if you think about it they actually fit together quite well. If you are engaged in something that benefits you and benefits society you will feel fulfilled as a result. This feeling of fulfillment, of everyone benefitting, is very condusive to freedom because enhances your confidence as a person and sense of meaning as an individual. I would argue that fear is the opposite of freedom and duty is one of the best defences we have against fear. By removing all restrictions you don't create freedom, because men and women will live in fear of one another. Thats the basis for Thomas Hobbes argument and it was indeed a good argument. You find real freedom within society and not outside it, something Aristotle understood only too well.

  10. Posted by: Tristan Dineen on Nov 29, 2005 @ 11:41pm

    What I am trying to communicate to you is that there is a difference between anarchy and freedom.

  11. Posted by: kyle on Nov 30, 2005 @ 9:52am

    Tristan, your argument is an interesting one, but I believe you've got the freedom-duty dichotomy backwards. Scholars such as John Ralston Saul and, to an extent, Herbert Marcuse have argued that in order to live a good life and inhabit a "good" society, it is up to individuals to empower themselves by feeling a sense of duty that accompanies their freedom. However, freedom can still exist without duty.

    I am free to generally do as I please in life. However, I am socialized by both organizational laws and a sense of duty that stems from my conditioning as part of the society in which I live.

    I would argue that your definition of freedom is too restrictive is based solely on the dominant model in modern Western civilization. I think the definition of freedom has changed a great deal since Hobbes' time, something that makes his invocation by countless students of politics somewhat problematic.

  12. Posted by: on Nov 30, 2005 @ 10:13am

    I will not argue against the assertion that there are situations in which freedom and duty make good companions, but the existence of chocolate cheescake does not rule out ot the possibility of chocolate existing independently of cheese.

    While self confidence, a sense of meaning, and a lack of fear may make this person or that person *feel* freer, I don't believe they are in any way necessary precursors to freedom. The person who lacks self confidence or the fearful individual may be less likely to act on their freedom, but this does not mean that they do not possess it.

    I believe also that you may have misinterpreted Hobbes' conception of nature. His primeval state is a state of total freedom and total fear - the two existing side by side. It is the total freedom that creates the limitless fear, not the latter restricting the former. People quit that state specifically by agreeing to surrender freedom, which is evidence that they had it to begin with.

  13. Posted by: Tristan Dineen on Nov 30, 2005 @ 11:20pm

    I still stand by the assertion. A fearful individual with a lack of meaning in their lives is not truly free. The "freedom" they are experiencing is mere anarchy, where they do not feel fulfilled, they don't feel secure, and they don't feel purpose. I am trying to establish a distinction between two kinds of "freedoms". One is good because it occurs when the individual finds fulfillment and purpose which brings security and meaning. The second is not good because it lacks purpose and fulfillment and the resulting ignorance, fear, and insecurity basically contradicts freedom. It may be there but it is essentially meaningless under those circumstances.

  14. Posted by: on Dec 1, 2005 @ 2:22am

    Aha! 2 kinds of freedom!

    Now I feel like I understand what you're getting at.

    Sorry if you find my obsession with terms and specificity labourious. I think it's a habit I've picked up from reading too much analytic philosophy.

    I still must ask, though: does your conception of freedom really necessitate duty? Is someone in a position of power yet who doesn't perform their duty (whether that is to be honest, or act in the public's best interest, or whatever) really not free? Considering most of us have to show up for work every day, put in our 8 hours (or more), deal with the mortgage, etc etc, aren't we really less free that the sort of person I describe above?

  15. Posted by: on Dec 1, 2005 @ 2:50am

    And I have to add: I'm not trying to give you a hard time here for the fun of it. It's just that really, when I'm working full time, I don't feel that free.

    And I have it pretty good. I've been working office jobs for the last couple years. I used to work in a factory and it made me want to kill myself. I think the duty=freedom concept wouldn't hold water for most people in most places in the world. I can't imagine finding freedom in duty in a place where you're working 16-hr days or worried about getting pushed around by government goons.

  16. Posted by: Tristan Dineen on Dec 1, 2005 @ 11:05pm

    Someone in a position of power who does not perform their duty is certainly not a person of integrity. They would certainly be free in the second category(as in anarchic freedom)simply because they have power. But even they would be afraid and insecure, they would be afraid of losing their power, because of their lack of integrity it is also likely that they would end up being dominated by their darker passions. An individual can only really handle power if they have a sense of duty that can withstand temptations to abuse their authority.

  17. Posted by: Tristan Dineen on Dec 1, 2005 @ 11:11pm

    I have also worked in a factory in the past and I would have to agree with you. It really has alot to do with potential. For people like us we have the capability to advance beyond that kind of work and work at higher things. Duty has to fit the individual's skill level. Some people are satisfied with a factory job and may even find it fulfilling, others who likely have more in the way of potential would likely not and would need to be in a different and more highly skilled job for them to feel fulfilled. Everyone has certain abilities and people are better off and certainly feel more free when those abilities are able to reach their potential in the work environment. Basically different people are suited to different jobs.

  18. Posted by: on Dec 2, 2005 @ 1:39pm

    Ok, I have to ask: what do you mean when you say "duty"? Obeying the laws? Showing up for work? Feeding your family? Feeding the poor? More? Less?

    Many of our duties are social constructions that have more to do with upholding an oppressive status quo than actually bettering society. To whom or to what principle do we owe duty? Duty alone is such an abstract concept that I'm having difficulty reconciling it to your notion of freedom.

  19. Posted by: Tristan Dineen on Dec 3, 2005 @ 12:04am

    Duty is something you do that benefits society and ultimately humanity as a whole.

  20. Posted by: on Dec 3, 2005 @ 1:36am

    Something you do or *anything* you do?

  21. Posted by: Tristan Dineen on Dec 4, 2005 @ 1:28am

    I hesitate to say anything, because if you leave the door open for anything generally you regret it later. No, you do what you are best at in terms of skills and knowledge and talent and by doing that you serve both yourself as an individual and humanity as a whole through your contribution. That said there are those who would seek only to serve themselves and that is why the right conditions and the right laws must be in place for this to be a reality throughout society and not just in certain areas of society.

  22. Posted by: on Dec 11, 2005 @ 1:09am

    Hi Tristan.

    Sorry to have left you hanging there. This week has been nuts for me.

    If you're game for continuing this line of inquiry, could you explain how it is that people are expected to determine where their duty lies? We certainly have many duties to many people (ourselves included), some legal, some moral, and they come into conflict all the time. It's easy to say that we should consider the ultimate success of humanity to be our duty, but that doesn't really offer much of a guide to the person in the street who is trying to make the right decision in the choices with which all of us are faced every day.

  23. Posted by: Tristan Dineen on Dec 12, 2005 @ 5:30pm

    Thats no problem Luke. Its been awhile but we might aswell continue this. Anyways, yes that is true that it would be hard for the average person to make sense of. Thankfully there are many ways to do your duty and the best way that an ordinary person can do their duty is to fulfill their potential and do their best at whatever occupation they have. This of course requires serious motivation on society's part to make it possible for the individual to do this. Ultimately no one must feel left out, everyone makes some kind of a contribution to society and they should be proud of that. If people feel pride in their society and want to do their part than human society will be infinitely stronger than it is currently.

  24. Posted by: luke! on Dec 13, 2005 @ 4:22am

    But, Tristan, surely it can't be the case that the best way to fulfill our duty is to try our hardest at our jobs.

    I say this for three reasons:
    1. There are jobs that are, frankly, immoral. Success in such occupations has a clearly deleterious effect on both the workers, those they come in contact with, and society at large.
    2. Some jobs, while not prima facie immoral, are part of an interlocking network of power relations whose existence serves to benefit a few at the expense of many. Most companies that engage in international trade fall into this category, for example.
    3. Marxists would argue that under capitalism, the very idea of labour itself has been corrupted to the point where the labour of workers serves first and foremost to hurt workers. I am sympathetic to this view, as I have worked hard in generally non-harmful jobs that had the effect of making me a worse and unhappier person.

  25. Posted by: on Dec 13, 2005 @ 4:23am

    I would argue that the vast majority of employment falls into one or more or these three categories. Together, they erode our humanity, undermine our sense of fulfillment in life, and actively prove harmful to ourselves and others, and society at large.

    So I'm sure you can see why I cannot accept this idea of duty. Do you have others?

  26. Posted by: Tristan Dineen on Dec 14, 2005 @ 8:16pm

    I'm standing by what I said before. I accept your arguments but I believe that they do not refute my ideas. In a society such as the one we have now where there is no higher goal or vision and where imbalance and corruption are common if not rampant than trying hard in your job really won't be fulfilling. Presently, unless you are extremely lucky and get a job you have a serious passion for, you often don't feel motivated by anything except perhaps earning more money and that really isn't enough to feel fulfilling unless we are talking about a shallow person indeed. Society, the framework within which we exist, must itself ALLOW human beings to fulfill themselves. It has to provide the motivation, the conditions, the opportunities, the vision. Individuals have to feel like they are making a contribution to something worthwhile. When they have this they will feel like they have a place and will work hard to fulfill their role in society.

  27. Posted by: on Dec 15, 2005 @ 1:43pm

    Well, here's the problem, as I see it:

    To review the argument, you say that duty makes us free because it gives us meaning, fulfillment, and purpose. This type of freedom is not "real" freedom (which is anarchic), but is better because with it comes the appearance of security. Without these three things, we are not free.

    Duty is doing what you are best at, when it serves the interests of yourself and society at large. The best sort of duty is the performance of capitalistic labour. However, we agree that our society offers little or no such labour that allows one to do one's duty to oneself and society, or to find meaning and fulfillment. Therefore, most of us are not and will never have freedom.

    Further, those who are in positions of power yet do not do their duty may seem to have more freedom, but they actually have less because they are afraid of losing their power.

  28. Posted by: on Dec 15, 2005 @ 2:10pm

    I have tried to produce a faithful synthesis of your points so far. Before I get into it, let me say that I have enjoyed talking with you about this.

    I think my greatest problem with your argument is that it is simply not true that duty makes people free.

    While the powerful scoundrel may be afraid of exposure, he or she can form cabals with other people in similar situations to safeguard themselves in common against the masses. Further, while the powerful may fear exposure, this fear is certainly no stronger than that which most everyone else has; of starving to death, being homeless, being persecuted by the law, working in a meaningless job all their life, or any of the other afflictions that beset the non-powerful. The powerful, by definition, must have more power (and therefore some kinds of freedom) than the rest, and their fear of losing it does not make them substantially less free. Everyone lives in fear of losing what they've got, so the powerful do not differ in this respect.

  29. Posted by: on Dec 15, 2005 @ 2:11pm

    Secondly, I believe that capitalistic labour is not the best path to freedom, and I would argue that it is not such a path at all. The definition of labour under capitalism is that it is motivated by money. A sense of fulfillment and a passion for working simply don't enter into the equation. It is the desire of everyone to make as much money as possible, and the capitalist has the ability to do this by reducing costs (most of which come in the form of things that made work more meaningful or fulfilling). The prevalence of factories, office buildings, and sweatshops - awful places to work! - is testament to the truth of this in our society.

    Saying that something needs to change the system in order to make labour more fulfilling so that we can do our duty and become free is begging the question. It bears no relation to our situation, and I believe that were such reforms as those you advocate made, our society would not longer operate under the mode of capitalism, and so we would not have "jobs" in the sense that we recognize this word to mean. If I am right, then talking about people doing their jobs to be free in the context of a world where doing one's job *cannot* make one free is not advancing our knowledge.

  30. Posted by: on Dec 15, 2005 @ 2:11pm

    I think your ideas are interesting, but they need to be reexamined. You have redefined freedom in such a way that most people do not have it and cannot have it. That's fine, if you really believe that's what freedom is, but it doesn't really offer anything for people to chew on. It also doesn't square with the fact that some people, while lacking absolute freedom (which we've already defined as bad freedom), have a lot more than other people, and it certainly doesn't have a necessary and causal link with their performance of duty.

  31. Posted by: Tristan Dineen on Dec 15, 2005 @ 8:51pm

    Well I never said a thing about capitalism. I was simply saying that people feel free when they feel like they matter, when they feel wanted, when they feel they have a place in the world and a purpose. Most people lack this today and it forms the source of much of the problems that we face. I believe I have been needlessly complex in my arguing and you have misinterpreted me as a result. It is a consistent problem I seem to be having with this and other articles I have posted on this website. It seems I need to improve. This argument has been a good source of experience and it was a pleasure, thankyou.

  32. Posted by: Roberto Battiston on Jan 10, 2006 @ 3:34pm

    You said a lot about Capitalism, Tristan... It was between the lines, but you definitely said that you are not a supporter of Capitalism...as in when you stated that freedom comes in the toil and labour for anothers benefit.

Share your thoughts

Bookstore First Year