On the Meaning of Freedom?

Much gets said these days about liberty and freedom across the political spectrum. At the heart of talk about “inalienable rights” is usually the notion of freedom, and in the contemporary context, we find political systems often construed as protectors of personal rights. Yet when the foundation for the notion of justice and right is personal liberty, or “freedom,” problems arise.

Let me give an example. Freedoms can often be pitted against one another: the exercise of one person’s right to free speech can enable the defamation of another person, impinging upon their right to maintain an accurate depiction of their character and reputation. Similarly, my right to affordable food can impinge upon the right of another person to just working conditions in a distant land. Amidst these sorts of troubles, it remains unpopular to suggest that religious faith might offer some sort of a solution, and while this sentiment is deeply rooted in Western history, it is not necessarily productive.

With the rise of Protestantism, the medieval notion of authority came under threat. Long-held convictions regarding the subject of moral authority were questioned, leaving people wondering whether they owed allegiance to the pope, the prince, or neither. After over a century of bloody wars and conflict across Europe over the subject of religion, a treaty was struck and Christian doctrine was sidelined as a unifying factor for the political identities of the emerging European states, at the Peace of Westphalia. Leaders concluded that it would be best to sideline religion for the sake of social stability. Following a few generations after this legacy, the philosopher Immanuel Kant developed a new way of moral thinking that could respect the need for social order but leave faith conviction on the sidelines. The system he imagined has become one of the more enduring philosophical legacies for the succeeding centuries!

Fast-forward to the present day, and it has become clear that, though Kant offered a new sort of “objectivity,” there were losses as well. In order to grant coherence to the concept of duty in this newly secular modern world, objectivity became the new focal point of moral deliberation. And this objectivity comes at a cost, as Plato suggests: “If we are to have clear knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body” (Phaedo). Old theological notions such as justice, were replaced with new secular ones like “fairness” and “equality.” But this brave new world can be bleak at times, as the secular vision for the good life, which was to be achieved through science and engineering, has been frustrated in a wide variety of circumstances, including new wars, Nazi projects in human engineering, and fascist experiments in social engineering. To be fair, this new Scientific society has also brought us refrigeration and disposable toilet cleaners, but one is often left wondering… where is the idea of the “good life”?

In Kant’s vision, created particularities had to be left on the sidelines along with the creator. In privileging our rational faculties for the sake of objectively discerning our duties, Kant also left behind the role of our emotional lives and the unique contours and needs of the social life of neighbourhoods. 

I would argue much is to be gained with a re-affirmation that at the true center of freedom lies the notion that we are created, contingent creatures. In the wake of the creeping failure of the modern orientations for the moral life – progress, science, engineering – in some cases people have finally given up on orienting our societies to any sort of purpose at all. And, without an orientation, we are prone to wander. As Augustine observed in another age of violent conflict, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you [God]” (inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te). I think it is no accident that Augustine puts this in the plural as well. Not only are our personal lives prone to disorientation when we have nothing by which to order them, so too is our common life prone to wander restlessly searching for an orientation which can guide our life together.

Jeremy Kidwell

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4 responses to “On the Meaning of Freedom?

  1. What a mixed up essay by Jeremy Kidwell, blending heterogeneous items as if they were the same, drawing false distinctions, and, therefore (of course) arriving at nonsensical conclusions.

    Take for instance this false premise:

    …“[M]y right to affordable food can impinge upon the right of another person to just working conditions in a distant land. ”

    No one has a right to affordable food.
    No one has a right to just working conditions, just working conditions itself being a heterodox construction of dissimilar concepts.

    A right is something enjoyed by all at a cost to no one. No one has to pay anything to make it possible for me to speak. Freedom of speech is a right.

    “Affordable food” must be grown by someone (a cost in labor and time), transported, marketed, and so on. Then the price must be established by some standard-setting agency. This is an undertaking in an area that is not appropriately labeled a “right.” Since this essay is about rights (in part), the author, not recognizing what is an what isn’t a right is hard pressed to make his case.

    He says, “With the rise of Protestantism, the medieval notion of authority came under threat,” as if the notion of authority was just minding its own business until this upstart of Protestantism came along and intruded. But Papal authority was the interloper, and protestantism, protesting that this was legitimate authority, served to restore the way of things that the early church received in the Scriptures.

    And this was not a devolution, going from the better to the more undesirable, either.

    Then he says, “After over a century of bloody wars and conflict across Europe over the subject of religion, a treaty was struck and Christian doctrine was sidelined as a unifying factor for the political identities of the emerging European states, at the Peace of Westphalia.”

    Not giving dates for the phrase “After over a century,” I had to look up “Peace of Westphalia” to get a time reference point. that was 1648, so he is speaking of from about 1550, and before.

    The Peace of Westphalia established such things as

    Christians living in principalities where their denomination was NOT the established church were guaranteed the right to practice their faith in public during allotted hours and in private at their will.

    It appears that the Peace of Westphalia was instrumental in establishing the right of people to believe what it was that they believed RATHER THAN BEING COERCED BY THE AUTHORITIES.

    This is what Jeremy Kidwell calls “sidelining Christian doctrine” as a unifying factor for political identities, falsely implying that Christian doctrine itself was being sidelined. What was sidelined was the king proclaiming what was and what was not to be the doctrine that all subjects would believe.

    He says, “Leaders concluded that it would be best to sideline religion for the sake of social stability.” This is an outrageous falsehood, and they did no such thing. They agreed that people would not be jailed and tortured for believing differently from how the king or the Pope believed. That that is sidelining religion is without any support.

    Then he drags in Immanuel Kant, as if Kant were a universal feature. He was very influential on the “enlightenment (which was not a Christian movement in any sense), but he was not very influential on the Reformation, which was deeply Christian.

    Ignoring this line of demarcation, he eliminates any possibility of reaching an historically accurate conclusion.

    He says, “Fast-forward to the present day, and it has become clear that…”

    I beg your pardon?!? Fast forward past the American Revolution, and all of the vast upheavals and changes in Europe, the rise of Marxism, in a single sweep of the hand? You have GOT to be kidding me…

    Kidwell’s final point is that religion should be imposed by the leaders of society onto the people being led. Can you say “Inquisitions?” Because that exactly is the government agency that would have to be established to implement what Kidwell is talking about.

    • Hi Brian,

      Thanks for engaging deeply with my article, and for raising some important questions. I’ll respond to some of your more specific questions and very relevant points raised, but first wanted to explain a bit about the medium here at Wondering Fair. Our goal on this blog, at least as I’ve understood it, is to provide short thought-provoking articles directed at people with little or no experience of religious faith. As you may understand, 500 words isn’t much space, and I’m probably guilty as charged in terms of taking on too much in this article. I’m going to assume that anyone reading the comments for this post may have shared your frustration over reading my narrative, and perhaps also the same confusion over my purposes. In what follows, I’ll try and explain (in some detail as it turns out) a bit more of what I meant (with occasional recourse to better scholars than I) in hopes that you might better understand what exactly I was trying to commend to our readers. Since this is a fairly lengthy response, I’ve tried to organize it under thematic headings and also recount my arguments on occasion.

      Strategies for Responding to the Promotion of Secularism

      Firstly, I get the impression that one of your main concerns is in the very broad scope of history that I treat in the article, i.e. from Westphalia, to Kant, to the present day. As you rightly suggest, the approach I have taken in the article tends to blur certain contextual details and examine Western history from a very high vantage point:
      “blending heterogeneous items as if they were the same, drawing false distinctions, and, therefore (of course) arriving at nonsensical conclusions”

      However, my purpose in the article wasn’t to establish with historical soundness the continuity between these historical moments – if that was, it would have been a 100,000 word essay with footnotes, references, and a much tighter historical focus. Instead, I wanted to reflect a bit on the meaning (indeed coherence) of “liberty” in the present secular context.
      My purpose in invoking those not entirely disparate historical moments was to paint a brief narrative as to why religious faith, and particularly Christianity, has been branded as divisive and antithetical to construals in political philosophy of the common good. I think that I’m not overreaching when I suggest that one diagnosis of the 30 years war in the early modern period, and the present day was that mixing religion and politics was the disease and that secularism was the antidote to Europe’s problems. I want to be clear that I am not endorsing either of these two suggestions, though I think it is fair to say that they are often almost taken for granted in present academic political philosophy. In fact, I mean to argue against the reliability of both proposals. One way to do so, as you suggest, is with some tighter historical analysis, which reveals that much more was at play than just disagreement over religion. Another approach, which I attempt to take in this article, is to suggest that this “disease and antidote” approach has led us into a secular political ethics that has not proven reliable in bringing about the “good life”. If there are some books or articles which make or refute this case on a historical level (the former approach) which you’d recommend, I’m sure both I and some of our readers would benefit from your sharing them.

      On Defining Rights and Seeking Their Foundation?

      Similarly, my purpose wasn’t to deconstruct rights language in a philosophically rigorous sense. You’re right that under a certain classical conception of “rights”:

      “No one has a right to affordable food. No one has a right to just working conditions, just working conditions itself being a heterodox construction of dissimilar concepts”

      There are a number of very helpful ways of looking at rights and for readers who are interested in pursuing this topic more significantly, Nicholas Wolterstorff has recently published “Justice: Rights and Wrongs” (2007) in which he examines the notion of rights with relation to classic construals of justice. You’ll find good counter-proposals by several prominent ethical scholars in a recent issue of the Journal of Religious Ethics (Volume 37, Issue 2) as well. For academically oriented readers, you can find a good introduction in Oliver O’Donovan’s article, “The Language Of Rights And Conceptual History” (DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9795.2009.00382.x). Esther D. Reed also provides thought-provoking (and slightly less academic) reflection in The Ethics of Human Rights : Contested Doctrinal and Moral Issues (Baylor Univ. Press, 2007). Also of some interest is the collection of essays in Does Human Rights Need God? (Eerdmans, 2005).

      All these authors seek to substantiate (or in some cases refute) the notion of “rights” on theological grounds. My answer to the question posed by that final book title is, yes, “human rights” (and even further, “liberty”!) are in fact meaningless without God. However the current discussion of rights has a long secular provenance, and it is with these a-religious accounts which I am concerned.

      Rights have often been treated as a companion to theories of liberty in moral philosophy, as famously defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” as positive and negative liberty [in Liberty : Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty, Ed. Henry Hardy (Oxford: OUP, 2007), 166-217]. Even in repeating Berlin’s now classic categories, it bears mention, as contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor notes, “there is quite a gamut of views in each category. And this is worth bearing in mind, because it is too easy in the course of polemic to fix on the extreme, almost caricatural variants of each family” [Philosophy and the human sciences (CUP, 1985), 211]. There is indeed a wide spectrum of philosophies of liberalism, including among many others Hobbes, Marx, Mill, Rousseau, Kant, and Rawls, and proper deference to the wideness of each tradition would exceed any reasonable blog posting. Rather than try and enter with such caution into the rights discourse, I will just pause to suggest that what I had in mind in this article is perhaps best illustrated in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html). Article 23 affirms one of my suggestions which you contest above:

      Article 23.
      (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
      (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
      (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
      (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

      Article 24.
      Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

      Part of the reason that I didn’t get into particular examples, such as this one, is that I find much to commend about the declaration, in spite of my fundamental problems with its structure. You’re right that proponents of what Berlin calls “negative liberty,” a position I think you’re meaning to argue for, would reject these articles as incoherent (or at least impractical) representations of rights because, as you suggest “A right is something enjoyed by all at a cost to no one.” But this is hardly an uncontested definition of rights even in non-religious political theory. There isn’t space here to accurately represent the arguments – but the Charles Taylor article I quote above would be a good place to start [Charles Taylor, "What's Wrong with Negative Liberty," in Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2 (Cambridge: CUP, 1985), 211-229].

      In part because there is such current disagreements over the meaning of “liberty” and “rights,” I chose not to try and provide extended definitions in the article. Further, I have some doubts as to how influential these technical definitions actually are in contemporary non-scholarly conversations over rights, and I’ve had enough of these conversations to vouch for the issue as a hot one for many non-philosophers. A common strategy that I’ve run into is what I’ll call the “fuzzy rights approach,” Rights in this conception tend to get assigned to any things that a given person thinks is essential to securing their (or societal) liberty. In this approach rights might include, as I suggested in my article, reasonable food prices, or other things like a strong military, freedom of speech, habeas corpus, the separation of church and state, and so forth. I’m agreed with your suggestion that careful definition of rights is an important preliminary step to having a conversation about justice or liberty, so it is important to understand that my point wasn’t to suggest that I think that there is an inalienable right to “Affordable food,” but rather than many people may think that this belongs under the banner of acceptable rights. I think it is fair to say, more broadly, that a pretty wide variety of “rights” get thrown around in conversations today, whether in the media, blogs, or lunchtime conversations. This has, at least, been my own experience.

      So, perhaps because I didn’t put it clearly enough in the article (and upon a second reading, I can see how you came to that conclusion), you’ve ended up arguing my main point for me – that things contemporary people often claim as rights are, as you suggest “a heterodox construction of dissimilar concepts.” To that, (including your classification of my examples) I say, “amen” and would add the stipulation that almost all assertions of liberty and rights begin to look like such a heterodox construction without a theistic grounding.

      So, to pause and regroup briefly. I don’t want to argue against the concepts of “rights” or “liberty” per se, but rather to suggest that they just don’t make any sense without bringing God into the picture. In essence, the “modern solution” just doesn’t work, and many scholars are starting to suggest that it’s also unnecessary. This mention of the “modern solution” to which I’ve briefly alluded above brings me to clarifying another point…

      Westphalia to Kant?

      You may be right to suggest that one can’t draw a line between the content of the Peace of Westphalia and Kant’s non-religious approach to the ground of moral reasoning. As you suggest,

      “the Peace of Westphalia was instrumental in establishing the right of people to believe what it was that they believed rather than being coerced by the authorities.” (I hope you don’t mind my removing the all-caps)

      But let me first explain a bit more particularly why and how I made this connection. In an essay discussing the merits of the evangelical Protestant approach to church structure, Bruce Hindmarsh (a scholar familiar to many readers and writers on this blog) provides a helpful background and interpretation to Westphalia:

      “For the sake of a beguiling clarity, let us assume that the conditions for this sort of evangelical ecclesial consciousness first appeared on October 24, 1648–three and a half centuries ago, give or take a few years. That was the date of the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the savage Thirty Years’ War in Europe. And that was the day the ideal of Christendom–one people, under one ruler, observing one religion–died. After the Thirty Years’ War, the Holy Roman Empire was divided into roughly three hundred principalities, bishoprics, and free cities, and the great dream of a medieval, Christian kingdom was in tatters. The loss of life during the war had been staggering, and economic decline and plague had taken an additional toll. The morale of Europe had been shattered.

      What was so appalling was that ecclesiology was one of the causes of the war. As Reginald Ward has observed, this war and its aftermath were the closest Europe ever came to confessional Armageddon. How did this situation arise? In the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, a sort of détente had been achieved in 1555 by the peace of Augsburg, which allowed princes to determine the religion (Catholic or Protestant) of their own regions and permitted subjects free passage if they wanted to emigrate to a region more sympathetic to their beliefs. In 1618, a group of Protestants in Bohemia broke up a meeting of Catholic rulers in Prague and threw two councilors out a high window. With that aggravation, a war began that gradually drew most of Europe into its circle, pitting Protestant against Catholic, Lutheran against Calvinist, Christian against Christian. There seemed no hope of outright victory and no hope of peace. The ideal of Christendom went up in flames all across Europe. After years of fighting, sheer exhaustion finally led to a negotiated settlement, the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

      The treaties that made up the Westphalia settlement declared that toleration be shown to certain religious minorities, even if members of these groups lived under a ruler who professed differently. In other words, if you were Lutheran but your prince was Catholic, you no longer had to pack your bags and move somewhere else. After the Peace of Westphalia, some churches were even divided in half between Catholics and Protestants or used at different hours by different congregations. The Westphalia settlement did not cover all regions, and the peace it was supposed to secure would be tested at many points. But the settlement was still an apt symbol of the death of Christendom and the beginning of a new world with new ecclesiastical ideals. Moreover, although ancien régime states continued and the idea of the confessional state and the territorial church persisted in various forms, the tumult and violence of religious war had led to a number of new departures. Not only were there experiments in radical religion both within and without the established churches, but there were also new construals in politics and political philosophy that would have far-ranging implications–not least for ecclesiology…

      …The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the Act of Toleration in Britain in 1689 each represented a new political arrangement for religion that can be called modern. The recognition of minority religious rights in these legislative programs was limited and was described paternalistically at the time as “toleration,” but was can see the cloud the size of a man’s fist on the horizon and call it “pluralism.” This was the beginning of the establishment of a state of affairs that is taken for granted in all Western democracies and that provides constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. These new arrangements were embodied in legislative programs and written about in works of political philosophy, such as John Locke’s Letters Concerning Toleration (1689-93). Again it should be stressed that this was just a beginning and that religious tensions remained. The Peace of Westphalia recognized only Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed churches. The Act of Toleration provided guarantees only for trinitarian Protestants. Many minorities remained outside the protection of these agreements. Even under the advanced liberties of the English constitution, legally tolerated Dissenters still suffered significant political and social disabilities. Yet notwithstanding these limitations, and enormously important sea change had occurred. To come to maturity in John Locke’s world of relative constitutional liberty, as the early evangelicals did, was to do eclesiology under new conditions of possibility.”

      Bruce Hindmarsh “Is Evangelical Ecclesiology an Oxymoron: A Historical Perspective” in Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion ed. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (Baker Academic, 2003), 19-22.

      As Hindmarsh carefully observes, what ended in the Peace of Westphalia was an “ideal” — one where philosophers (in many cases the beneficiaries of much privilege) could write about political theory in explicitly Christian terms. This sort of theologically saturated political deliberation was quite a startling contrast to what often serves as a strict “separation of church and state” today. I do not mean to unqualifiedly commend the medieval system, I only want to observe the contrast. The reality on the ground was in many cases, as you suggest, less than ideal, as dissenting religious groups were persecuted, often brutally, for their non-conformity. But the solution led to, as Hindmarsh suggests, “new construals in politics and political philosophy” and a chief feature of these new construals was the gradual edging out of religious faith. This need not have necessarily been the result which drove European peace, but in any case, religious toleration was a primary factor in the new political reality of Europe. Similarly, European-style religious toleration did not necessarily have to evolve into the present situation of a-religious political reflection, but this did end up being the consequence, and pluralism is now the reality that most Western (and particularly European) political philosophers have to grapple with in the present moment.

      I chose to include Kant in my narrative, as I think he is a fair representative of this further transition from toleration to the more complete marginalization of religion in moral philosophy. You’re right to suggest that under Westphalia “What was sidelined was the king proclaiming what was and what was not to be the doctrine that all subjects would believe.” But, as Hindmarsh suggests, and other historians with him, the way in which religious toleration enabled religious liberty for subjects of the king in this new political reality was only very temporarily a distinctively Christian settlement. This new settlement did not determine the eventual transition into a more plural arrangement, but it is hard to deny that it enabled it. This is what I mean, when I suggest that Christian doctrine was sidelined as a unifying factor for political identities. This sidelining happened in a partial way at first and then this was formalized much more systematically by thinkers well-represented by Kant. I think your suggestion that this is “an outrageous falsehood” is perhaps a bit overstated.

      You were unhappy that I fast-forwarded past the successive and regionally differentiated developments in the 19-20th centuries, and I’d agree that attention to much more in the historical scope would add better nuance to my account. As you suggest, Marx offers a much more violent rejection of religious faith, and perhaps a less benevolent sidelining than Kant with his materialism. The rise of Marxism represents a newly intense appropriation of a-religious (perhaps better put as “anti-religious”) political deliberation. Absolutely, the present political situation carries its own uniquely inflected appreciations and rejections of pluralism. I’m sure both I and other readers would be edified with some greater detail as to what you mean by “the American Revolution, and all of the vast upheavals and changes in Europe, the rise of Marxism.” Do you mean to suggest that there were developments in the intervening period in political philosophy that persistently (that is, bear some influence on the present day) reaffirmed the notion of Christendom as a unifying factor for political life or the relevance of theological reflection to political philosophy? I’d be interested to hear more about this, as there is much more to discuss here.

      Continuing the Discussion

      Having hopefully clarified some of my intentions in my albeit brief narration in the blog post, I still need to clarify how exactly I meant affirm the relevance of God in the positive sense for notions of right and liberty in the present day.

      I certainly don’t want to commend a theocratic approach to government. But, as you ask me to more sensitively interpret modern history, it is important also to hold out the same standards for the medieval period. Whether a violent, persecuting theocracy was actually the persistent reality on the ground in the pre-modern period would be difficult to maintain. I’m not sure that it would be accurate to suggest that the universal European sentiment before Westphalia was that “religion should be imposed by the leaders of society onto the people being led.” Nor should we fool ourselves into thinking that the imposition of religion is exclusively a medieval Christian domain. Violent religious persecution was a regular feature of Roman governance and perhaps one of the reasons that the contrasting Christian moral reasoning became so convincing in its early context. But even if this were an accurate rendering of the political situation before the 17th century, I would certainly not wish to commend it now. What I am arguing for is something much more minimal, and perhaps much more distinctively Christian. I want to suggest not that religious faith should be imposed, but that theological reflection should be accepted as a reasonable part of the discourse in political philosophy. I do not mean to suggest that such a reality should be deployed by an exercise of power, as that would indeed be directly contradictory to the way of Christ, and the very nature of the God I am talking about here (as was the political coercion and the brutal torture that occurred in the inquisition). An exercise of coercive power in the way that you ascribe to my article is simply not an option available to me. So you can understand if I’d be concerned that you’d somehow think I was reaching that conclusion.

      I don’t want to understate my proposal here though. If I understand your reply correctly, you seem to be suggesting that rights can be construed negatively, and that this sort of concept can be coherent in a secular discourse. What I was trying to suggest in my brief article was that this simply isn’t so, and that the fracturing of liberal political theory attests to the degree to which notions of liberty need a coherent foundation which often isn’t an available resource in the present conversation in political theory. I would argue that the best theoretical foundation for our notions of liberty, as Martin Luther and many other Christian political thinkers before him suggests, is that freedom is given to us by our creator and that the character of the One doing the giving, and the way in which we have been given freedom provides the most coherent and politically sensible contours to our exercise of liberty. Freedom has after all, as defined in the negative secular sense, allowed torture, genocide, and innumerable other abrogations of basic human justice over the past two centuries.

      The reason I address my article to a diverse international group of blog readers, who are most likely ordinary citizens such as myself, and not to princes, ministers, or presidents, is because I firmly believe that the Christian approach to liberty can only be commended and not imposed. For this reason, I do not expect to see universal acceptance of this approach in my lifetime. I hope, but I do not expect. However, I will continue to commend a theologically particular approach to liberty, rights, and justice, in spheres of discourse both secular and religious, because I am convinced that the way of the cross is the most reasonable, and indeed, most beautiful approach to political philosophy.

      I hope this lamentably long comment will clarify my intentions in the article a bit better for you, and I will look forward to further clarifying questions and suggestions.

  2. Pingback: Another Wondering Fair Post – “On the Meaning of Freedom” « Domesticated Theology·

  3. Brian and Jeremy,
    Great to see your interactions! I’m indeed glad that our tight article format also enables further discussion too.
    We’d to hear your thoughts to Jeremy’s response, Brian! Cheers,
    René

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