What are freedom and liberty?

People and birds against a silhouette

In search of a satisfying definition…

We talk about freedom and liberty all the time and tend to embrace these notions. Freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom of information etc. But what do these two terms mean exactly? Finding a satisfying and suitable definition is not as easy as it might seem at first.

First of all, let us look at official definitions. Liberty is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “The state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behaviour, or political views.”, while freedom is defined as “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.”. These two concepts evidently seem to go hand in hand and overarchingly mean being unconstrainted – not restricted, forced and bound to obligations implied by authorities and hierarchies. But as you might notice the definition is very vague.

The complexity of these two terms is presumably explained by the fact that they do not mean the same for any two people – the conception of freedom and liberty is highly personal and affected by many different factors including nurture, education, culture, religion etc. Freedom and liberty, therefore, have to imply that different beliefs and perceptions coexist and that they are justified. At the same time a free environment would assure that opinions can be expressed, and actions performed by any individual without the fear to be stigmatised or judged. But is that circumstance really always desired? Do you, for example, accept racism? Or would you accept violence? Are there not situations where we should impinge on the freedom of others?

To explain this, we have to dive even deeper into the concept of freedom and liberty. It is true that freedom and liberty mean being able to express one’s own opinions and respecting and accepting the rights and opinions of others, but it does not mean that we always have to see eye to eye. Especially as the definitions for freedom and liberty mean something different for every individual these concepts also comprise polarisation, discussions and conflict. Here it is important to understand that conflict is not always bad. Conflict linked to a good discussion culture can provide the opportunity to exchange ideas, perceptions and perspectives – it is enriching and broadens horizons. Freedom for me is also the interdisciplinary collaboration to develop concepts, solutions and compromises to problems and contemporary situations. But there is one condition to freedom and liberty that many people often seem to forget; it is always legitimate as long as it does not harm the general wellbeing of others. To ensure this there have to be certain rules and regulations in general social interactions. Freedom needs guidance. A society and government have the responsibility to support its inhabitants in the formation of skills and opportunities to live in freedom.

In my opinion, the concepts of freedom and liberty are what makes us moral human beings. They include individual capacities to think, reason, choose and value different situations. It also means taking individual responsibility for ourselves, our decisions and actions. It includes self-governance and self-determination in combination with critical thinking, respect, transparency and tolerance. We should let no stone unturned in the attempt to reach a state of full freedom and liberty, even if it seems unrealistic and utopic.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space lies all our freedom.” – Viktor Fankl