Is meant freedom without borders

Philosophy InDebate

Annemarie Pieper

Annemarie Pieper

Let us first take a look at our everyday understanding. When we claim freedom for ourselves, we are demanding that everyone can do what they like, provided that and as long as they do not impair the freedom of others, or at least not impair them in an unreasonable way. The freedom of laisser faire is therefore the idea of ​​freedom that we associate with the word freedom. Accordingly, we consider total independence from a material point of view to be the most desirable thing, because we believe that we will then have complete freedom of choice and that we will be able to fulfill our every wish. In this understanding, freedom means, on the one hand, liberation from the hardship of earning money through work and thus freedom from countless strenuous tasks and responsibilities, which the exercise of a bread-and-butter profession entails. On the other hand, all those who can afford the freedom of laisser faire have an inexhaustible reservoir of opportunities to use their freedom; yes, you can take your own freedom not to do anything. In the end, it doesn't matter what you choose, whether you just do what you feel like doing, or enjoy how wealth grows day by day, whether you appear as a great patron and promote young talent, or whether you are in the world goes out in search of adventure.

To the everyday understanding of freedom
What fascinates us so much about the idea of ​​laisser faire is the idea of ​​unlimited, undetermined freedom that does not impose any kind of bond or obligation on us, except for those that we choose ourselves. Kant described this kind of freedom (in the sense of arbitrariness) as a life in which everything goes according to one's wishes and will. A prerequisite for this, however, would be a land of milk and honey with inexhaustible resources. Seen in light, however, this dream of great freedom is anything but a desirable scenario. Probably the earth would not even cope with two people who are free without barriers without interfering with each other. The idea of ​​arbitrariness with regard to the billions of people who make up the world's population today is completely impossible. A war of all against all would be the result, because anyone who stands in the way of their own freedom is exterminated without hesitation. Nevertheless, the concept of freedom of choice is important because, based on it, we can better assess the necessary restrictions of a freedom that is not only my freedom but the freedom of everyone.
For enlightened people it is easy to see that one must allow every member of the community as much freedom as one demands for oneself. Everyone has the right to equal freedom, and wherever freedom is restricted it must be for the sake of greater freedom for all. This requires the express consent of the general public. Individual freedom and collective freedom are mutually dependent. One alone cannot be free. In a community of unfree people, the individual is not free either.
The self-limitation of freedom out of freedom and for the sake of freedom of all finds its expression in the norms of morality and law, which, in the form of unwritten or written laws, bind human action to rules and thus the totality of possible freedoms with regard to the legitimate claim to freedom of every individual restrict. Only within the horizon of this self-restriction of free ability through self-imposed limits can human freedom unfold. Ties that are not imposed from outside as a compulsion, but are chosen by oneself, are a product of freedom.

Freedom and slavery
Not only philosophy, but also literature and many idioms contribute to a better understanding of what freedom means. A number of sources confront freedom and slavery. Thus we find the following among Goethe's memoirs and reflections: “No one is more a slave than someone who considers himself free without being one. - One can only declare himself free, so he feels the moment as conditioned. If he dares to declare himself conditional, he feels free. ”Similarly, the templar in Lessing's Nathan the Wise expresses himself:“ Not all are free who mock their chains. ”No one is free simply because he thinks he can see through all imperfections. Even an awareness of freedom is not a sufficient criterion for being really free. In Goethe's opinion, it obviously depends on the fact that only when one discovers the togetherness of freedom and bondage, of unconditional and conditional man in oneself, one gets an idea of ​​what freedom is in spite of and in bondage.
This is also expressed in Goethe's poem “The Pleasure”, where it says: “One can live in true freedom / And yet not be unbound.” Matthias Claudius emphasizes this even more in “Ein golden ABC”, where he says: “ In you is a noble slave / to whom you owe freedom. ”Here the image of the master as the free and of the slave (or the fetters) as the unfree is suddenly reversed. Freedom and attachment, insofar as it is a matter of self-attachment, are inseparable. The emancipating person who strives to give freedom to everything unfree, oppressed, and slavish in him, has as goal in mind not total freedom or bondlessness, but a kind of bond, which is precisely because it is not from him is imposed on the outside like a yoke, but a self-chosen one is a product of freedom.

Arbitrariness and freedom
This brings us to a distinction that is important for understanding freedom, namely the distinction between arbitrariness and freedom, which was already mentioned at the beginning. That freedom that man fights for by trying to shake off everything that makes him a slave who only does what someone else commands him to do - that freedom that is sought through the act of self-liberation from given constraints, is none unlimited freedom, as it is described as the freedom of the mountains or the freedom of the seas.
The concept of arbitrariness in the sense of total, unrestricted freedom is a limit concept that serves to define human freedom as a freedom that sets itself limits, not to abolish freedom, but to enable more freedom. Limitless freedom is inhuman. This is also what Dostoyevsky means when he writes in The Demons: “Starting from unlimited freedom I end up in absolute despotism.” The French existential philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus shared this view. The freedom that people have fought for has its limits - to the freedom of others. For Camus, absolute freedom is immoderate freedom, a freedom that recognizes no measure and thus leads to nihilism. Nihilism leads to the principle: Everything is allowed. This 'everything is allowed' is the motto of pure arbitrariness, a freedom that is not limited to the freedom of others and destroys the freedoms that have been fought for over many centuries.
Boundlessness in the sense of excess is by no means worth striving for. It is true that we often wish for unlimited love, unlimited economic growth or endless happiness. But from experience we not only know that there is no such thing for a finite being, but on reflection we also understand that limitlessness is not even desirable. Under the limitless one imagines something infinite that presents itself as a complete openness and expanse. To lead a life in the limitless would mean that all of our desires, interests and needs come to nothing, as there is nothing resistant that could stop them and make them come true. What distinguishes man as a human being is precisely the ability to set limits for himself, not because he particularly loves limits, but because he becomes aware of his freedom by setting limits. That sounds paradoxical and needs some explanation.
The need for rules

If we don't want to treat each other as enemies, but rather as individuals who respect each other, we need rules by which we base our decision-making processes and actions. Moral norms and legal laws are rules that restrict everyone's freedom, not to abolish freedom, but to give everyone as much freedom as possible. The freedom of the one has its limit at the freedom of the other, to whom I have to grant as much freedom as I demand for myself.
So that in the limitless scope of action all the many individual claims to freedom are compatible with one another and no one is disproportionately privileged or disadvantaged, joint agreements are required on where the limits to human action must be drawn. Such moral and legal agreements are based in our western hemisphere on values ​​that have developed in the humanistic tradition and are reflected in human rights. According to this, human life is a basic value that every person must be granted without discussion, no matter how damaged an individual person may be in physical, psychological or moral terms. The same applies to human dignity, which forbids instrumentalizing people for certain purposes or treating them like things.
Expressions like you shouldn't, you mustn't, it is forbidden and the like refer to the limits that we voluntarily set to our actions on other people who kill, torture, humiliate and thus violate their rights, we forbid ourselves . Not only because we do not want to be killed, tortured or humiliated ourselves, but because we have realized that we have no reasonable arguments to justify a difference in values ​​between people, that humanity is rather something that we owe each other, insofar as this is precisely where the dignity lies that we as human beings ascribe to ourselves.

Human rights
As we know, human rights are de facto not respected in the same way everywhere in the world, on the contrary: the countless human rights violations documented by Amnesty International that happen every day around the world are only the tip of the iceberg, and the brutality, The way in which people let other people feel their contempt raises doubts about the binding nature of human rights. And yet they are valid. A norm - such as that one should be truthful or behave fairly - does not become superfluous because most of us now and then lie or are unjust. There are many reasons why we repeatedly cross the line that we have drawn for ourselves by violating norms: indolence, laziness, selfishness, vindictiveness, envy, etc. are just a few of them. But this does not invalidate the validity of the transgressed norms. On the contrary, we disqualify ourselves or our humane self-image through actions that, when viewed in the light, we cannot want to be carried out, precisely because we are thereby making a wrong use of our freedom that shatters the humane foundations of our community.

Somewhat less fundamental than human rights and the fundamental values ​​on which they are based are those norms that differ from region to region and that we call taboos - these, too, are understood as self-imposed limits. A taboo marks a forbidden zone, the border of which is touched or even crossed with sanctions. The area excluded by the taboo is declared inviolable because it is a sacred or morally declared place. One of the oldest and most well-known taboos in our culture is the tree of knowledge, from which Adam and Eve were forbidden by God to eat in the Old Testament. The terrible consequences of this taboo breach, through which the first humans crossed a boundary line that God had drawn between the human and divine spheres of power, arose with the expulsion from Paradise. If the Garden of Eden was that protected area in which people, animals and plants lived in peaceful communion with God, the world outside of this fullness of meaning turned out to be a sterile chaos, which man, when all his strengths are put in, first as a meaningful area, as new Had to shape paradise by excluding small living spaces from nature and setting up in them, without ever regaining what was lost as a whole.
One of the greatest taboos that has become increasingly fragile over the past few decades is sexuality. While not so long ago the related problems were hushed up for reasons of modesty, but also because of uptightness and prudishness, the Enlightenment has long since reached schools and prepares children for puberty and the dangers of puberty with more or less suitable material uncontrolled handling of one's own body. While the older generations often have a lot of trouble with the sexual uninhibitedness that many young people show today, which they see as unrestrained, they do not understand all the excitement because they draw the shame lines differently than their parents and grandparents.
But they too draw limits, just not to the extent that sexual intercourse is restricted to marriage, and certainly not to the purpose of procreation prescribed by the church. This example shows that a taboo becomes less restrictive when the boundaries it draws restrict human freedom to an extent that is felt to be unbearable. In their intimate area, most people today no longer want to be dictated by outside authorities, but rather determine for themselves who they get involved with in what way and for what purpose. The only limit they recognize is the responsibility they have towards themselves and their partner. Shame has many faces, too, although pornography not only crosses the boundaries of good taste, but also stages a form of shamelessness that implies that sexuality is a public playground where everything that the imagination can think of is allowed.

The conscience
Violations of norms and taboos as unauthorized transgressions of boundaries in the interpersonal area call the conscience on the scene. Conscience not only raises its voice, it actually bites ("remorse") when we plan or have done something that violates the rules that we have learned to recognize. Conscience is thus the border guard over our moral behavior, constantly reminding us that our actions are not arbitrary, but that where our own freedom or that of our fellow human beings is at stake, it is bound to etiquette and duties enable amicable coexistence. The conscience as the judicial authority in us warns us to treat the people with whom we are dealing as equal and equal persons, on whose rights our wishes have their limits. It is true that the voice of parents, teachers, churches or other authorities, whose commandments and prohibitions we have internalized in the course of a long-term educational process, often speaks from our conscience. But as mature people we are called to form our own judgments, that is, to rethink our prejudices, which encourage false, narrowing of boundaries, which amounts to the mental attitude that we use to describe as narrow-mindedness. It is important to recognize only those norms as meaningful limits to our actions that allow the greatest possible freedom of all individuals who form a community.
Freedom is not a natural disposition, not a quality that humans bring with them from birth. Freedom in all areas of life is independence from external constraints achieved through protests and revolutions. Nobody is free other than by dealing with himself, with his fellow human beings and with nature - but not in order to be victorious and to rise to the master over oneself, one's fellow human beings and nature. For a long time this was a misunderstanding of freedom according to the paradigm of domination and servitude. Freedom in the sense of domination remains correlative with regard to bondage in the form of slavery and oppression. The Grimm dictionary shows this for the oldest expression of freedom: goth. freihals (ahd. frîhals, lat. collum liberum) means the neck that has no yoke. It was not until Middle High German and New High German that the abstractions Freithum and Freedom were formed. The free neck was thus originally someone who was not a serf, but was allowed to impose a yoke on others and make them unfree.

Recognition of proprietary rights
If one understands freedom according to the pattern of domination and servitude, one thinks hierarchically and discriminates against the subject. Regarding the relationship to oneself, body control has long been understood as the dictate of the mind over the natural urges, which were to be suppressed as needs that were in themselves worthless. As far as the interpersonal relationship is concerned, the rule of people over people degrades the ruled to subhumans. And rule over nature has degraded natural resources to a warehouse from which one can help oneself at will. No wonder that the battered body, the oppressed people and the exploited nature defend themselves and fight against the freedom of domination that is misunderstood as the exercise of power.
Freedom in the true sense is based on the recognition of the proper rights of the body, of fellow human beings, of nature. Recognition respects a limit to freedom, a measure that prohibits any use of force and compels us to think about equality. Freedom is not a privilege for the powerful, freedom is a moral principle that calls for all living things to be given the freedom they need for their specific self-development. Recognition no longer divides into a hostile top and bottom, but relies on a peaceful coexistence of different, but equal.
This is how Friedrich Schiller defined freedom using the metaphor of the game: people are only fully human where they play. Playing means: to mobilize the entire potential of the human being, his intellectual powers as well as his senses, his imagination and his physical dexterity. Instead of trying to distinguish themselves at the expense of the other abilities, they pull themselves together, and the result is an individual who has produced himself as a work of art, as it were, as an overall composition that is coherent because all forces - namely those of Head, heart, hand and stomach - what yours contributed to her.
In the interpersonal area, too, the replacement of the paradigm of domination and servitude by the metaphor of play would produce a self-image that is more appropriate to freedom. Justice, fairness, solidarity leave room for a freedom that opens up equal opportunities for every individual to lead a self-determined life across all conflicts of interest and claims to power that separate people.
Finally, as far as nature is concerned, we are sufficiently informed about the damage to ourselves, our environment and future generations that have been caused by the ruthless exploitation of natural resources and rigorous interventions in natural processes. With the help of technology, we have truly subjugated the earth and seriously disturbed the ecological balance. Man's rule over nature has brought him freedom and independence at the expense of nature, at the price that the four vital elements water, air, fire and earth have gotten out of joint. Whether the destructive process can still be reversed is an open question. But in any case a rethinking is necessary, which aims at a new cosmic alliance between man and nature, whose autonomous laws need to be respected more strongly again.
The path to freedom leads through obligations that are based on the simple principle: Never violate the freedom of another person without sufficient reason - neither in your private nor in your professional or political environment. Protest against violence is required wherever these rights are disregarded! To use Albert Camus again. The rebellion, the outrage against injustice and violence is at the center of his essay “The man in revolt”. Absolute freedom is murderous; it tramples human dignity. Shared freedom, on the other hand, recognizes in fellow human beings an equal being with whom one is in solidarity. The revolt, according to Camus, “sets a limit to oppression, beyond which the dignity common to all human beings begins”. It defines the highest value as the “transparent complicity of people with one another”, the “solidarity of the chain that makes them similar to one another and connects them with one another”.

Freedom of will and action
In the last part I would like to address a distinction that illuminates the problem of freedom from a different perspective, the distinction between free will and freedom of action. Freedom of will consists in setting your own goals without external dictation, while freedom of action comes into play in choosing the appropriate means and ways to achieve the goals set.
As far as freedom of will is concerned, the restrictions imposed by someone else's will and the associated regulations with regard to what one should want were perceived as an impairment of the right to self-determination. This led to the view that the mature human being is legitimized by virtue of his reason to want what he wants, and that this freedom cannot be curtailed either by a divine will or by other authorities. Freedom in the sense of autonomy, however, I repeat, does not mean any irregular freedom, not the so-called freedom of choice, but a freedom willing to commit, which recognizes its own rules as binding, since they serve to secure and maintain the initial conditions under which a life is possible in freedom.
In the case of freedom of action, unlike freedom of will, the restrictions are not normative, but factual. Those who are in prison cannot go where they want to. But the unfavorable circumstances, scarce resources, the problem of the object, unforeseen obstacles or random events reduce the options for action, in extreme cases even to zero. We are therefore by no means as masters of our actions as we are masters of our will. Immanuel Kant's dictum “You can, for you should” relates to the will, not to the action. I can determine myself in my will at any time, because I should; and I should because I always want to be free.

Four restrictions on freedom of action
In the area of ​​action, on the other hand, I cannot simply take the path recognized as the best. The restriction of the room for maneuver by other people as well as by extra-human constellations and factors are generally understood as a form of power in accordance with the already mentioned domination-bondage paradigm, whereby the acting person experiences himself as inferior. Powerful skill or more influential people prevent her from performing the act that implements her own free will in the best possible way.
Another form of restriction of freedom of action occurs when someone is compelled - again by people or circumstances - to perform an action that he did not want. In that case you are not prevented from doing something by outside influence, but are forced to do something that you do not want. Extortion, for example, is an involuntary act that one is not free to refrain from. One becomes the vicarious agent of another who dictates what to do. The action is then not carried out to achieve a self-chosen goal, but to prevent the occurrence of an event that one does not want: the killing of a hostage, the coming to light of a misconduct.
This also applies to other cases in which someone does something that he originally did not want. He wants to avert or prevent worse by accepting that he is doing things that he would normally avoid doing his best. In everyday life we ​​often choose the lesser evil when an option for the good is not possible and we only have the choice between evils.
Two further forms of restriction of freedom of action differ from the first two in that the restriction does not occur from outside, through circumstances or through other people, but rather takes place from within, through the acting person himself. The phrase that someone is a slave to his instincts assumes that the person in question is dependent on something in him, more precisely: He has made himself dependent on a desire that he can no longer deliberately influence. This dependency is not a forced one, but a freely chosen one, although in the course of time it can no longer be easily given up. Anyone who has become dependent on stimulants such as cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, has at the beginning freely chosen to use such agents, be it as a stimulant, be it for consolation, anesthesia or to create feelings of happiness.
However, we usually allow those who have become addicted to mitigate circumstances in a world that is unbearable for some and overwhelms the strength of many, so that they get into a life crisis from which they can no longer see a way out. Therefore, such restrictions on freedom of action can to a certain extent also be assigned to the second category, according to which someone is forced to do something that, when properly understood, he actually does not want to do something. He is fixated on something that he is no longer free to want or not to want, although it was once free. However, since nobody is born a drinker or a smoker, and since it is normally assumed that there are other ways for the individual to solve his problems, he was initially free to make a different decision, especially since an enlightened person is nowadays about them Dangers of habituation is adequately informed.
Now one could say that we always bind each other in some way, and why should someone not become dependent on something that they enjoy, that makes them happy or that gives them a quality of life without which their life would be poorer. The problem here is the lack of freedom, which in the long term undermines the starting conditions for free self-determination and makes the person a slave to himself.
The situation is quite different, however, with the fourth and last form of restriction of freedom of action, which I would like to address here. Unrestricted freedom of choice in the sense of any ability to do or not would have inhuman consequences. Insofar as a person lives as an individual among other individuals, in order to be able to realize his individual goals he must respect the goals of the other individuals and limit his own wishes accordingly not only on the level of action, but already on the level of will.
Now it might seem as if this restriction was not a freely chosen one, but follows the pattern of the first category of restrictions, which according to someone is prevented by factors outside their own sphere of influence from acting in accordance with their own interests. This would undoubtedly be correct if man were a being at the level of the pack animal, on which each animal is assigned its fixed place within the framework of the natural hierarchy, and breaking its limits usually has painful, if not fatal, consequences for it. The animal in the so-called free wilderness normally accepts the place that its natural endowment has allocated to it and, depending on the circumstances, practices the imposing behavior of the top dog or the humility of the weaker.

Practical reason
With humans, on the other hand, we assume, unlike with animals, that they have an idea of ​​freedom based on their self-confidence, according to which they understand their actions not as a mere reaction to certain stimuli or as the implementation of given goals, but as the active realization of their own intentions. For man, action means: to enforce his will, but not naturally with the means of struggle, physical strength, violence, but with those means by which he defines himself as a person and distinguishes himself from animals: with the means of understanding and reason.
It is practical reason which commands the individual to restrict his freedom for the sake of the freedom of all. This imperative of restricting freedom of action and, associated with it, the willingness in principle to reduce all possible actions to precisely those that are compatible with the freedom of others is immediately understandable after one has seen through the principle of freedom of choice as an inhumane principle it leads to the struggle of all against all and thus assigns normative binding force to violence.
The principle of autonomy, however, demands equal freedom for all on the basis of practical reason and compels the individual not only to restrict his freedom of action, but also the freedom of will on which his freedom of action is based in such a way that his own goals do not negate the justified claims of other individuals.
The first three categories of restrictions on freedom of action - 1. You can't do what you want, 2. You have to do what you don't want, 3. You are fixated on doing something (“slave of your instincts”) - represent forms of Heteronomy, an external determination that was not chosen or brought about in the first two cases, but in the third case it was. Only in the fourth form can one speak of autonomy, because here the restriction is the result of a carefully considered self-determination based on freedom and in order to maintain freedom.

Published in fiph-Journal No. 10, Fall 2007, pp. 1 and 3-8.

Annemarie Pieper is a professor emeritus of philosophy and most recently worked at the University of Basel. You can find more information at

The pdf version of the article can be downloaded here:
Annemarie Pieper, Limits to Freedom

© Annemarie Pieper