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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Real freedom means transcending choice

Consider this definition of freedom: a condition in which what we must do, should do, can do and want to do all cohere.

This definition won’t be found in dictionaries, which prioritize absence of constraint and freedom of choice, because this one seems to emphasize constraint. In essence, however, it doesn’t.

Put yourself into the following scenario: You’re on a sidewalk in downtown Ashland and have something to discard — a used tissue, say, or a food wrapper. If my assumptions about you are correct, you’re not going to think to yourself, “I could toss it in the gutter or keep it with me until I reach a trash receptacle.” You’re not then going to think, “But if I toss it in the gutter, I might get a citation for littering.” And you’re certainly not going to conclude, “I’ll throw it in the gutter anyway just to prove to myself that I’m free to choose.” The situation won’t present itself as a choice at all; you settled all those matters long ago. You’re just going to do the right thing because, in this instance at least, you’re free.

You’re free because you live in a polity that has used its coercive power to promote a sanitary and attractive environment for you and everyone else. You’re free because you affirm that this is a proper use of the city’s coercive power. You’re free because you can get to a trash receptacle. And you’re free because that’s what you want to do and you would feel quite frustrated if you couldn’t.

Teenagers would have a hard time understanding what I’ve just written. To them, freedom presents itself as the escape from constraint, doing whatever they want. What they want to do, however, is largely unsettled, because their selves are largely unsettled and thus their will for those selves is unfixed. Hopefully, their experiments in escaping constraint abet their growth of purpose and self-control, but they may result in the internal bondage of addiction or the external bondage of prison.

Autonomy, the ability to live by rules we choose for ourselves, is a fine understanding of freedom, and we would have a far more decent society were we to inculcate that understanding in all our children. My dissatisfaction with it is that it can be understood as “doing my own thing.”

Now, the “thing” one is doing may be admirable. Self-actualization takes myriad forms, and so some of the rules one chooses for oneself, such as daily meditation, will be specifically but not uniformly appropriate and thus shouldn’t be mandated. What’s missing, though, is the obligation to create a just polity and thus a universal freedom.

The law is a potent instructor. What we internalize as proper is largely what we’ve been told is proper. Even if some individuals can rise above the baleful instruction of an unjust polity, it opposes what we must do to what we should do or what we rightly want to do. In the first instance, it may require us to make war on people who’ve done us no harm. In the second instance, it may forbid us to love erotically a person of the same gender. Such a polity might not directly curtail our own autonomy (I was never drafted, and I’m straight), but it curtails that of others and thus, indirectly, mine.

I’m encouraged that nothing significant in my life now presents itself as a choice. I take that as a sign of my freedom.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.