There have been, in recent times, several blatant attempts to allow oppressive conduct in the name of “freedom.” The most outrageous of these was the legislation passed by the legislature in Arizona that would allow a business to refuse service to a particular individual if serving that person violated the business owner (or, presumably, emploee) on the basis of a “sincere religious belief.” It would be, under such legislation, permissible for a restaurant to refuse service to a gay or lesbian customer. The limit of this is unclear, but we could, of course, imagine that a member of the Church of Christ White Man refusing to serve a customer of color or a Church of Our Lord of the One True and Only Christian Faith Outside of Which There is No Hope refusing to serve a Jewish customer.
Hmmm. Sound familiar? I am not sufficiently versed in philosophical subtleties to distinguish such conduct from anti-Semitism, race bigotry, and gender discrimination. The proponents of such legislation, however, do see a difference. They call it “freedom of religion.” So, in the free exercise of my religious beliefs, I can refuse the ability of others to eat at my restaurant, buy goods from my store, get medical treatment at my hospital. Presumably, if I am a local government, I could also refuse to provide governmental services to groups offensive to my “sincere religious beliefs.” Seems to me I saw all this in a history book.
Okay, I’ve had my fun. Such legislation, and such thinking, is the stuff of Hitlerism, Stalinism, the Inquisition and all the other oppressive isms that stain the pages of human history. The question is: how can such rank oppression ever be cloaked with the word “freedom”? And the answer is: you can do it if you redefine freedom.
There are, therefore, two fundamentally, radically different meanings to the word “freedom”. The first meaning, the one that is used to justify oppression, is license. Its sense is essentially negative. Freedom in this sense is the lack of restraint of any kind. Freedom as license is the ability to do anything the agent chooses to do without limitation. In this root sense, freedom is anarchy. In such a world, the only restraint on freedom is power. You can do whatever you want, and so can I, and when your doing whatever you want interferes with my doing whatever I want, I get to shoot you. This is the freedom that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as the natural state of man, that of war of one against the other, a quote which he finished with the famous phrase, “and the life of a man nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short.”
There is, thankfully, a second definition of freedom. It is the recognition of my inherent rights as a human being, rights that, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, are inalienable. The difference between this sense of freedom and the definition of feedom as license is that, if I accept my freedom based on my humanity, then I am required, in order to honor my own freedom, to honor the freedom of each and every other human being. To push this a little bit, I achieve my freedom only by recognizing that freedom in each and every other human being. Freedom, in other words, is based on a fundamental obligation to honor the rights of my fellow human.
If we were to use that definition of freedom to critique the conduct of certain interest groups and certain legislation, I think we might find ourselves a bit embarrassed. Cutting taxes, cutting education, cutting medical care, cutting voting rights — do all of these things serve American freedom? Well, if you are into anarchy they do.
I prefer the Declaration of Independence. I also fear the fruits of anarchy. See, for instance, Crimea.