G.A. Cohen and Nicholas Vrousalis have suggested that we should distinguish between objective and subjective freedom:
- We are objectively free if there is no interference with our actions and if we have a real opportunity to act – in other words, if we have the capabilities and other means necessary for action and if afterwards no one stops us from acting. For example, I am free to speak f I have the education and money necessary for me to engage in meaningful speech and if no one censors my speech.
- We are subjectively free if we do something from reasons that are our own or that we do not mind acting from after due consideration of those reasons. I am free to be a janitor if I have my own, well-considered reasons for choosing this occupation (I may have a deep sense of service to others and strong feelings of humility), but not if I somehow convinced myself that there are, regrettably, no reasonable alternative occupations available to me – even though in reality there are (if there are no real alternatives, then I’m (also) objectively unfree rather than merely subjectively). In the latter case, my being a janitor is not something that I do not mind to be and is not something I do for my own reasons. For the same reasons, I am free to be a doctor if I have arrived at my reasons motivating me to be a doctor through my own sound and independent thinking, and not if I have convinced myself that in reality I have arrived at my reasons through parental influence and indoctrination. Similarly, I’m not subjectively free if I’m a drug or sex addict, if I wish to quit, and if I’ve convinced myself that I can’t quit (if I really can’t, I’m (also) objectively unfree).
Both objective and subjective freedom are important. Someone who is not interfered with and who has all the necessary means and capabilities can still be unfree if he thinks – probably incorrectly – that he is lived by others, that his reasons for doing things are other people’s reasons, that there is no free will and only determinism, or that there are no alternatives. The case of paranoia comes to mind. Vice versa, people may feel subjectively free even though they are objectively unfree, for example if they think that their reasons are their own even if that is objectively not the case. Think of the effects of advertising, beauty ideals or political indoctrination.
How does this distinction between objective and subjective freedom relate to human rights? Objective freedom is clearly dependent on human rights: these rights can stop interference and can offer the means and capabilities necessary to act (the latter is the case for the right to education and the right to a minimum living standard).
However, subjective freedom is in some instances also dependent on human rights. You can best arrive at your own well-considered reasons for your actions, and convince yourself that you have and that your reasons are really your own, when you are a member of a thriving public space where the relative merits of actions, goals and reasons are freely discussed and where the presence and feasibility of alternatives can be clearly seen.
More posts in this series are here.