Is Freedom Always Good ?


One of the most basic learning members of a democratic world internalize, through socialization and learning, is the concept of freedom. Freedom in itself is a complex notion, consisting of several personal, social, economic and political definitions, on the basis of the perspective. However, one agreed upon principle is that freedom is a desirable thing, and that we require it for our well-being; we require the capability to choose for ourselves, without any external source of hindrance.

But the undesirable aspects within this widely accepted notion of freedom are seldom considered–Situations when we do not want autonomy, and come to resent it?  When we would much rather have no choice?

Consider a situation where there are numerous choices given to a person about taking a particular decision.

Nevertheless, this does not imply that the person wants these choices. She might prefer a peaceful and unbothered life where choices are not presented at every trivial juncture. Technically, then, freedom becomes a benefit as well as a burden in such a scenario, where a person can make choices, but at the same time, also has to make choices. Thus, the availability of freedom actually poses the loss of an option, that of leading a hassle-free life in situations where choices are obligatory.

In a much serious sense however, freedom can often not have a necessary positive impact on our well-being.

Amartya Sen posits the presence of two fundamental kinds of freedoms- well-being, and agency. Well-being freedom refers to the freedom we want for our personal maintenance. For instance, monetary freedom so as to fulfill our own basic needs such as health and nutrition. On the other hand, agency freedom is the realization of larger goals and values one has to pursue. For instance, one’s freedom to subsist in a socially safe environment. Our agency freedom need not necessarily be directly exercised by us, it can also be achieved if other social or political machinery help in promoting it. Corresponding to the ideas of agency freedom and well-being freedom, are the ideas of agency achievement and well-being achievement, that are understandably what one achieves after exercising their agency or well-being freedom.

Keeping this distinction in mind, there can be several instances when increased freedom may not always be in our best personal interest. For instance, consider a situation where you witness a person robbing another man. This situation presents you with a chance to exercise your agency freedom of ensuring social safety. However, getting involved might put you at risk on a personal level, even if you succeed in helping the victim, you might suffer wounds. In this scenario, the increased freedom of agency definitively comes into conflict with our personal well-being. Of course, you also have the freedom to walk away, prioritizing on your well-being, but then this will result in a personal guilt at the inability to help in the agency achievement- i.e. helping another person, thereby promoting a degree of social safety. In both scenarios we do not have the best alternative for ourselves, we either risk serious physical injuries, or an internal conflict that leaves us mentally unsettled.

Let us reflect on another scenario, where even the expansion of our well-being freedom can minimize our well-being achievement. A teacher aspires to go to the far-reaching underdeveloped sections in the country and educate the children there, but does not have the resources to do so. She receives an increment after a considerable passage of time, and thereby has an increase in her well-being freedom. If she wants, she can use to money on herself, buy herself a TV, or repaint her apartment. However, she chooses to exercise her agency freedom and teach underprivileged kids. While this is a voluntary decision, she nevertheless actively forsakes her chance to contribute to her own well-being. It is essential to extricate the moral aspect when examining the scenario objectively. As members of a civil society, we all appreciate working for the greater good rather than splurging on ourselves, however, if technically observed, this does compromise on direction of resources that could have caused our personal well-being.

Freedom is a cherished value among everyone, and this is no attempt to flout the innate value of freedom that is considered elementary of humanity in general. It is, nevertheless, interesting to conceptually examine situations where the absolute desirability attributed to freedom falls short- to realize often freedom takes away the freedom of not having freedom, and freedom sometimes exposes us to dangerous situations that jeopardize our personal well-being. Yet more interestingly, we often voluntarily use our freedom to forsake our own well-being for larger causes.

-Contributed by Tinka Dubey

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