Friday, January 28, 2011

Defining Liberty

To follow up on our discussion in class, I’d like to try and solidify out definition of liberty. Ryley discussed Bentham’s treatment of liberty and criticized the lack of continuity among the authors we read last week. While just about all the authors talked about liberty, I’d like to focus on Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant’s descriptions.

Hobbes defines liberty as, “the absence of opposition; by opposition, I mean external impediments of motion; and may be applied no less to irrational and inanimate creatures than to rational” (67). Hobbes is coming from a position of determinism. He takes a very mechanistic view of the world. For Hobbes, the only thing that can be free is something that can move in space. He argues that when we use the terms ‘free’ or ‘liberty’ for anything but bodies, we are using them incorrectly. As long as one is not physically coerced, Hobbes would argue that you have liberty. He focuses on external constraint. He argues that as long as nothing is stopping us from doing something, we are free or at liberty to do it.

Kant’s definition is slightly different. He says, “…everyone is entitled to seek his own happiness in the way that seems to him best, if it does not infringe the liberty of others in striving after a similar end for themselves when their liberty is capable of consisting with the right of liberty in all others according to possible universal laws” (111). Kant acknowledges the Hobbesian definition of the absence of opposition, but also adds to it. Kant adds the stipulation that our liberty cannot infringe on the liberty of others to strive after ends for themselves. He also stipulates that such liberty must conform to universal laws. Kant discusses some of these universal laws in another text of his, The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (which you can find here). In this he argues that we have a will that is free in that it is not only free from constraint (the Hobbesian definition), but also free to choose its own actions.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that every ‘member of the human family’ has a kind of freedom. The preamble states that it comes from the ‘recognition of the inherent dignity’ each human being possesses. The idea of inherent dignity possibly comes from Kant’s notion of absolute human worth. Kant argues that because each of us is an end in his (or her) self and not a mere means, each of us has absolute worth. This dignity within each of us is the reason we cannot take away the rights of others. This might suggest that the UDHR is suggesting a Kantian definition of freedom and liberty. However, most of the articles seem to guarantee rights that have to do with not being coerced. It is only in the preamble that we see this idea of inherent dignity.

Which form of liberty/freedom did the authors of the UDHR have in mind? Is this the kind of liberty/freedom that we actually have? Are there perhaps any other better definitions we should consider?

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