What is this moral freedom business?

Some notes, in four parts


Part 1

I referred to moral freedom in the recent post on Ai Fen, the Wuhan doctor who first told her colleagues about the coronavirus.  She was threatened severely for releasing information.  Under threat, she said no more, until her moral sense overcame her decades of prior training to do as she was told by leaders. See Moral Freedom.

Several people have asked for clarification on moral freedom. The term means what?

We idolize freedom in America.  We justify nearly any thought or action as being permitted by freedom.  Freedom is the singular American value.  The idea of freedom has not remained constant, however, over the last three hundred years. The notion of freedom has transformed, from the “we” of a social contract – as in, We, the People - to the “I” of today, in which it seems each of us must have an individual social contract with government and each other.  More individual freedom, some think, is always better.

Is freedom the ultimate good?

We don’t stop to ask why we want so much freedom, however interpreted.  Ci Jiwei, professor of philosophy at Chinese University of Hong Kong, has an extraordinary discussion of freedom in his 2014 book, Moral China in the Age of Reform.  He begins with a simple question – in the US, we speak constantly of freedom and its importance.  We treat freedom as an important value.  And every society, even an authoritarian one, has to allow people some measure of freedom. We can ask, as Ci Jiwei does, what is freedom a value for?  Is freedom alone the ultimate good?

Ci Jiwei.  Moral China in the Age of Reform.  Cambridge University Press, 2014.


Ancient and modern philosophy tells us the answer is no.  We cannot think of freedom, however defined, as the ultimate good.  An ultimate good, Aristotle tells us, is a good desired for itself, and not accessory to any other good. But freedom must be constrained in living with others, and there cannot be a meaningful definition of freedom that does not involve relation with others.  Even John Stuart Mill would agree with that.  Flourishing, or happiness, a life well lived, union with God – these can be achieved without our acting as a constraint on others.  Freedom is a lesser value than flourishing or happiness.  So, again, what is freedom a value for?

Ci answers that that freedom is in support of human dignity, an internationally recognized core value.  The exercise of freedom is one way to secure dignity and provide meaning to life. That makes some sense; but how is it that freedom accomplishes this task? 


Freedom as a means of agency

Ci explains that freedom is one way to use agency, the ability to depend upon others in daily life. We exercise power to accomplish tasks we cannot do for ourselves. We use agents all the time. Sometimes these things are trivial, like getting the groceries delivered.  Other times, they are quite meaningful, as in representing us in political affairs.  Agency* is ascribing power to others, and is a part of autonomy in any social world. We feel autonomous not only when we do for ourselves, but when we can cause others to respond to our wishes. Freedom is in deciding for ourselves who will be our agents, and what they should do for us on our behalf.  Freedom, Ci argues, is one way of using agency to secure dignity.  We can, of course, do some things in life for ourselves.  In this agency model, we can act as agents for ourselves. 


*This notion expressed by Ci is distinct from moral_agency, which is “an individual's ability to make moral judgments based on some notion of right and wrong and to be held accountable for these actions. A moral agent is a being who is capable of acting with reference to right and wrong.”   For our purposes here, we define moral agency as autonomy.  There is overlap of moral agency and agency as Ci uses the term, but that discussion will have to wait for Part 3 of this series. 


Kinds of freedom

Some moral philosophers define two kinds of freedom, which can be termed personal and moral.  We can use agents to secure items of personal freedom – delivering our groceries - but we don’t consider there is any moral component to that action.  Actions using personal freedom are often easy to change, and not costly to reverse.

There is another kind of freedom, moral freedom, that is more descriptive of us as autonomous individuals. Actions using moral freedom are those with the most significant importance to us – what to read, what to think, what to write, what to say, who to represent us in government.  We do use agents to help us secure those goods – we publish our ideas, speak our minds on social media, vote and protest.  It should go without saying that we cannot have moral freedom if those actions meet too many restrictions. 


Freedom and dignity

Ci Jiwei argues that both personal freedom and moral freedom are fundamentally in support of dignity. Dignity is an understanding of self that is self-approving, willing to engage with the world, and does not seek to dominate.  Dignity is sought by all persons, and is the value referenced in international documents like the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Democracies give individuals agency through freedom – we learn that dignity is expressed by making our own choices about which agents to use, and we are free to make our own moral choices – what is right and wrong, good and bad, true and false.  We end up making those choices all the time, for moral issues  great and small. This moral freedom is the freedom valued the Enlightenment and in the Constitution.  The freedom to buy and sell in a marketplace is quite an inferior version of freedom.  Necessary, but not sufficient for dignity.

The individual who has moral freedom makes his own choices about how to live a good life.   But agency through freedom is not the only path to dignity.  Part 2 discusses another kind of agency, agency through identification.  And there is more to this agency as freedom idea than simply being free to do what one wants.  That needs to wait until Part 4.


part 2


Part 3


Part 4