On freedom

Essay on Freedom

People do a lot ot things in the name of freedom. One of those things that never seemed to get done in the name of freedom is "think". At this point in my life i an not sure i know what freedom is or looks like, or perhaps i have an idea of what it is like for me and am not sure how that matches up with the general use of the word "freedom", but i will try to think about it.

Specifically, here is an example of what i find problematic. Some people say that other people, mainly soldiers, gave up their lives "for freedom". Don't think for a moment that I am belittling these great sacrifices, but what soldiers do is more accurately the hardest and dirtiest work of promoting or defending a country's interests.

Honestly, wars between countries don't generally increase freedom, they decrease it. Wars get started because of miscalculations. All but the most insane of leaders in the world would avoid wars if they could accurately foretell the results of such a war. It's the stupidest kind of game of chicken. Any wars are profoundly destructive of lives and property (including the leader's own) but in trans national wars the main point is to break the other guys stuff. Civil wars are much nastier in human terms. In any war freedom is destroyed because the freedom to be alive, to live peacefully with your family is obviously paramount. All other freedoms are trivial, by comparison. Thus, unless ones home country has been invaded (and you are fighting there) - I believe it is incorrect, no, morally wrong, to make the fighting for freedom claim, since it isn't your families and houses being bombed, and if you place your nation's strategic interests above the lives of people in other countries - well they have words for that but freedom isn't on the list.

So I conclude it is a serious mistake to conflate freedom with war fighting .fortunately most people are not trying to enjoy freedom in a war zone, so what esle about freedom?

Freedom is the ability to make important decisions. Making desicions is pretty much all we do every waking moment. We decide what words to use in a sentence, and which way to walk to the bathroom, when to take the next sip of coffee. Making decisions all the time is a function of being alive. Most of these dicisions are trivial, and pretty much relate to mainaining our state of being. So if a rabbit decides to eat a carrot in order to fuel it's metabolism - to keep thinking and living - this is not freedom. When we decide to do laundry it is in the same category. Over 99% of our conciousnees is making and implimenting these trivial decisions. Much more rarely we make much more important decisions, but the process is no different, and really what important decisions are is a sequence of minor (but non-trivial) decisionsthat change the trajectory of our lives. Important decisions don't just maintain who we are, they make us into something different. Important decisions aren't necessary. We don't have to change, but we can choose to. Thats what freedom really is to me, concious choices i didn't have to make, made anyway, that changed the tragectory of my life.

List A. List of decisions we make.

What to eat.
What to wear.
How to spend our spare time.
Who our friends are.
Which cultural things we like: arts, entertainment and sports.
What we spend money on.
Which educational path we take.
What we read, and what information we absorb.
What we do for income.
The spiritual beliefs we adopt.
Our political choices.
Whom to Love.
What house to live in.
Choices about family, children and pets.
What city and country we choose to live in.
What our self-expectations are.

The choices in the list above, when filled in, pretty much capture who I am as a person. Very few of these decisions have anything at all to do with politics, which helps to keep in perspective why dictators can last as long as they do. Yes, when you think of dictatorships like that in North Korea, you can see how the state presses in on many of those decisions above, but even in the worst known case of oppression we still get a list like this.

List B. The list of decisions in a totalitarian dictatorship.

How to spend our spare time.
Who our friends are.
Which cultural things we like: arts, entertainment and sports.
Whom to Love.
The spiritual beliefs we adopt.
Choices about family, children and pets.
What information we absorb.

There are still enough choices to make, enough parameters left to make a person special and distinct. And you could argue that the scarcity of our time and energy means that the number of important decisions we can make is limited anyway, we never take full advantage of the freedoms we have. Yesterday for example I purchased a three-pack of plain white t-shirts. I took one out of the package and wore one. Such a shirt says nothing about me at all, it scratches out the opportunity for me to make a choice of "what to wear". Fashionwise, it was the equivalent of a rabbit eating a carrot. In that moment, i might as well be in North Korea where everyone wears khaki. My ability to make use of my freedom is quite limited. Many freedoms are not much missed, because others can make up for it and we can still be happy. The darker side of tyrrany is that, due to propaganda, many people don't imagine that these other avenues of freedom even exist, but let us not forget that we live in the bubble of our own propaganda too.

Suppose there was a war to liberate the people of North Korea from their dictatorship. Suppose a magic weapon could just de-materialize the regime and all its infrastructure. The people of that country would not become "free" as we convieve it. They would just be stateless, and there would be chaos, and maybe there would be another dictator emerge that would create order in a way that North Koreans would recognize it. If freedom is the ability to make important decisions, the meta-decision of "which decisions do i focus on" is functionally the most important aspect of freedom. You simply can't impose this. Changing someone's opinion of what freedom means to them and what they shold focus on is no more or less difficult than changing their taste in music - to think that you can force it is absurd.

Some people in North Korea probably feel just as free as people in our country do - and some feel just as unfree. Everywhere, people often feel trapped, and to lack control over our lives. Look again at List A. Really - how much choice do you have? The range of all our choices is sharply limited by finances, social status, geography, cuture, tradition and laws. Each of us all have a default trajectory, there are default choices which are made for us, like the white t-shirt. To avoid the defaults, it takes energy time and resources to be free, and there are some things that no-one can change. See the list below.

List C. List of decisions we don't make.

Who our parents are.
The spiritual beliefs we are born into.
The culture that we were born into.
What city and country we are born in.
Our DNA.
Our looks and body type.
The prices of things.
What people expect of us.

These non-decided things form a powerful set of "default settings" for our life. They are like a river that is carrying us along to a default future, be that a waterfall, a swamp or a tropical beach. We are making decisions in that current, and whatever we do is swimming either with or against that tide. Fortunate indeed are those whose default future is attrative and inspiring, People like Mozart or Tiger Woods who achieved phenomenal sucesss because in part "they were born to do it" and then took these natural gifts and swam with them even faster. It is not only prodidgies that succeed of course, and so we must look to the other extreme, of people who were born into great adversity, and developed their strength swimming against the current of their life, and eventually became stronger than the current. This brings us to one of the paradoxes of freedom - to enjoy freedom, and the ability to choose we must at some point have the ability to choose denied to us. To become a freedom loving person, probably the best thing that can happen to you is to be denied that freedom, or as Neitzche put it "that which does not kill us makes us stronger."

From these thoughts i gather that, first of all, most of what freedom is and does has nothing to do with politics (and the less the better?). I would conclude that fighting for freedom should equate to giving more freedom, in other words empowering others, which is pretty much the opposite of

a) scaring or misleading people into followership and factions.
b) making banal feelgood statements and nuturing a cult of personality.

Unless of course they do such things so badly they encourage me to choose to oppose them and define a differnt path. Some would say that "freedom cannot be given it must be taken". This is perhaps a little bleak. Freedom cannot be given but it can be shared. Perhaps i can conclude that the only time a war can be "for freedom" is when a war will result in power being shared more widely, and the "for freedom" statement is not directed to "our freedom" either everyone on all sides becomes more free or it is not a war for freedom, but a "war for dominance".

Does freedom scale?

The last question i have about freedom is how it pertains to individuals and how it combines into groups. Normally i have used a general assumption in phiosophizing that things that are true about individuals can be "scaled up" to groups. I beleive that groups, even nations have personalities, and that a group can be "anthropomorhized" (given the qualities and characteristics of a person). I'm not sure how that rule of thumb applies to freedom, since a lot of the essence of freedom seems to be the ability and act of choosing differently.