Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Freedom from" or "freedom for"

Yesterday in my Catholic Jurisprudence class, we discussed Cardinal Dulles' essay "Truth as the Ground of Freedom" (in Catholic Perspectives on American Law).  During the discussion, I suggested that the concept of "freedom from" authority is illusory because all freedom is exercised "for" some good as directed by a criteria external to freedom itself.  I might, for example,  choose to act according to my understanding of the moral law and to act in such a way that I develop habits that make it easier for me to so act.  Or, I might act according to the dictates of my passions (or the strongest passion at the moment).  In both cases, I am placing myself under some authority - either the authority of the moral law or the authority of my strongest passion -  and exercising my freedom "for" some good, whether it be the good dictated by the moral law or the good achieved in satisfying that passion.

What do you think?  Am I missing something in my analysis?  Comments are open.


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I'm not sure I'd say "freedom from" is illusory, just that it's not complete. "Freedom from" a state requirement to worship in a certain way is not illusory, as it is a prerequisite to "freedom for" pursuit of authentic religious devotion. "Freedom from" hunger is not illusory, though no one would define a good life as consisting solely of the state of not being hungry. When the law focuses on "freedom from," it's not always purporting to be a complete sense of freedom -- often it's agnostic about the "freedom for" that follows from, and is made possible by, the "freedom from." That agnosticism is not always a bad thing.

Posted by: rob vischer | Feb 10, 2010 11:55:13 AM

Thanks Rob for your comment. It helps me hone my argument. I agree with everything you say, but my focus isn't on law and freedom "from" restraint by the state. Many people in our culture, including some students writing reflection papers, view freedom culturally as freedom from restraint (or even strong suggestion) by the state, church authority, parental authority, etc. In this view it is freedom to be your own master - to create yourself anyway you want. My narrow point is that any time we exercise freedom, we are exercising it "for" some good, bound by (under the authority of) some driving criteria that tells us that this is a good we ought to seek. In other words, we are always under some authority - the authority of our peers, if we desire acceptance, the authority of comfort, if that is what we desire, etc. What do you think?

Posted by: Michael Scaperlanda | Feb 10, 2010 12:03:14 PM

I agree with your point.

Posted by: rob vischer | Feb 10, 2010 12:14:31 PM

The classic place to start here would be Gerald C. MacCallum, Jr., "Negative and Positive Freedom," 76 Philosophical Review 312-334(1967)(freedom as a triadic relationship)

Posted by: R. George Wright | Feb 10, 2010 12:15:39 PM

There is also Isaiah Berlin's classic, Two Concepts of Liberty. I think he might be a bit more leery of "freedom for" than is suggested by your initial comment, at least if one is referring to "positive" liberty and the "freedom of rational self direction" lest we end up locked up in Sarastro's temple!

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Feb 10, 2010 12:31:07 PM

More specifically, even if we say that all of our choices and actions are under or pursuant to some authority, we normally still want to draw important normative distinctions, with regard to the degree of freedom involved, between, say, being under the authority of a Hitler or a Stalin, the "authority" of an unwanted addiction, the "authority" of a preference for chocolate over vanilla, or the "authority" of our cultivated, more or less reasoned or autonomous, identity-constitutive and identified-with preference for astronomy over astrology or even for Gabrielli over Gaga. You could certainly make the partly social scientific point that being under the impression that one is autonomously creating oneself through largely free spontaneous acts of pure self-determination [ask them how that fits in with what they learned in their science classes, by the way] may be mostly illusory. Has the number of students with tattoos increased because more people have recognized the rational superiority of having a tattoo? Or that a tattoo expresses one's genuine individuality, as distinct from being a sort of cultural fad or popular style?

Posted by: R. George Wright | Feb 10, 2010 12:45:21 PM

Hi Michael,

I would want to draw a distinction between power and authority. Although Patrick Brennan could speak with more clarity than me on this. It seems to me that authority implies legitimate use of power. I do not believe that freedom can ever be achieved without authority. To act under the authority of the Good is not inconsistent with freedom. To act under the power of an immoral impulse is coercive and destructive of freedom. It was John Paul II's belief that the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century prevented humans beings from being free to act under the authority of the Good.

Posted by: Kevin Lee | Feb 10, 2010 1:46:31 PM

Rob, George, and Kevin: Thank you for your excellent points. George and Marc, thank you for the citations. Michael

Posted by: Michael Scaperlanda | Feb 11, 2010 12:05:23 PM

i am also agree your point

serious and willful misconduct

Posted by: shilpa6 | Feb 12, 2010 1:06:13 AM