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What is Liberty?

October 14, 2020

Where do we draw the boundary line of liberty? Where do we enter the domain that my own authority over my own body, mind and actions takes over?

I think in practice most of us make most of our decisions and live most of our lives assuming quite a clear answer to these questions. We are all quite sure where are boundary line is. The problem is twofold: 1) Our sense of this boundary can change over time and depending on our frame of mind and 2) enunciating clearly our boundary is difficult, and indeed in the very enunciation tends to render it changeable in the light of how others respond to us.

So, if I set my liberty limit in one way now, and say quite clearly my boundary is such and such, that very knowledge being made available to others will influence their actions in certain ways. On the other side, advances in science and in the manipulation of the masses through things like advertising, raise questions about where that boundary of our own freedom to make decisions that can be drawn. It seems the boundary is receding all the time, and tends to vary from person to person depending on how well informed you are and how well off you are.

What is going wrong here? What is the tacit mistake we are making?

The answer here, I believe, is that we are assuming humans share equally in some quality, when they don’t. Now, there may be good grounds for assuming human equalness, certainly for ideological reasons, but if we attempt for one second at least to break out of those strictures and think about what is really going on, we can perhaps see that real humans have different degrees of autonomy in their being and in their actions based on how well they are informed.

So then we are pushed along into an issue of information, and how to ensure fair access to information to give people at least the levels of liberty they deserve. The problem here immediately that will be apparent, is that so many agencies and powerful forces are intent specifically on feeding people misinformation.

The attempts to find neutral fact checkers always fail because no one is neutral and it falls back to relying in some way on a fundamental good will among people to be honest and sincere. I don’t see how we can avoid some such moral invocations as this to defend a notion of Liberty.

And as such, I end this preambling set of thoughts with the idea that Liberty is a value judgement, made to ensure some level of honesty and sincerity in our dealings with other people. We talk of being “at liberty” to give people certain information, and indeed the free sharing of information it will turn out depends precisely on being at liberty. When we have to be constrained in what we share, then we don’t share honestly, this is basic human nature. So the defence of liberty is primarily a defence of a state of discourse where people can be at liberty to express their views on things freely and honestly.

A public, open discourse of this kind is what is the foundation of the whole western political establishment, and is more important and much deeper than any ideological sentiments about rights, freedoms and democracy. To have liberty is not something to be abused as a natural right just to show you are free to do what you want to do, it is to be given the confidence by your culture and community to speak and act freely and honestly so that discourse can proceed in line with conscience and reality, rather than in line with pretence and ideology.

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