Freedom is the ability to pursue the life one values. This view of freedom is inclusive, open-ended, and flexible. It embraces our plural, evolving, and diverse conceptions of the good life. It also admits other long-standing ideas of freedom, such as not being held in servitude, possessing political self-rule, or enjoying the right to act, speak, and think as one desires.
Some people naively equate freedom with an absence of social restraints. But should I be free to do whatever I want? Should I be free to pollute the river, not pay any taxes, or torture the cat? To play loud music on the metro, not rent my apartment to Dalits, or incite hate or violence against other groups? I hope not. My freedom requires limits, so that others may enjoy their freedom. Edmund Burke held that freedom must be limited in order to be possessed. A freer society is not necessarily one with fewer social restraints, but one with a wisely chosen set of restraints and provisions, such as public education, healthcare, and ample safety nets for all.
But inevitably, in pursuing the life we value, we’ll sometimes run into strong disagreements over our values and the restraints and provisions we see as conducive to freedom. These disagreements might spring from our religious vs. secular values, modern vs. traditional values, egalitarian vs. libertarian values, authoritarian vs. democratic values, and various other axes of identity, culture, and belief. The perennial task for members of a free society is to find ways to manage and contain such disagreements, while maximizing freedom for both self and others. ‘For to be free,’ wrote Nelson Mandela, ‘is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’ However, especially with deeply polarized moral or sacred values, at times with no middle ground, tragic conflict may be unavoidable, as with blasphemy or abortion laws.