Freedom vs. Liberty

Stephen Yearwood
Feb 27 · 4 min read

only the former makes sense for society

Photo by tito pixel on Unsplash

In the U.S. more than any other nation on the planet, ‘liberty’ is proclaimed as the ultimate goal of human existence. Even self-proclaimed Christians talk about liberty way more than they talk about ‘loving one another’. Anyone who wants to participate in the political discourse of this nation must acknowledge the primal place of liberty in our society. I do it, too.

‘Freedom’ is taken to be a slightly weaker synonym for liberty. It is a somehow slightly more tepid way of saying the same thing.

I think there is, however, a very meaningful difference between those two words. In this article I’ll argue that, as an organizing principle, liberty is incompatible with the existence of a society, but freedom is not.

The analogy I like to use to describe the practical difference between freedom and liberty is sailors on a ship. When on the ship they have freedom: they can roam about (except for prohibited areas) and do whatever they want that isn’t ‘against regulations’. When on the ship, though, they have freedom but very little privacy: someone always knows where any sailor is and (pretty much) what that sailor is doing. When in port sailors might be allowed to leave the ship. That is called being ‘given liberty’. Of course, wherever the ship is in port the sailors are expected to abide by the laws, etc., and for that matter are still subject to regulations. Relative to the ship, however, they are ‘at liberty’: they can obtain complete privacy in the sense that no one from the ship knows exactly where they are or what they are doing. As a practical matter, then, the difference between freedom and liberty is the presence (or degree) of privacy.

Given people’s large — and increasing — concerns these days about privacy, that is a hugely important distinction. I’m certainly not going to argue that privacy is a bad thing. I am saying, though, that it can be over-emphasized.

The primacy of liberty comes straight outta Locke: John Locke [Two Treatises, published in 1689]. The most famous passages from our Declaration of Independence basically plagiarize him.

In that book Locke claimed that liberty is a Natural Right. He also argued that, since injustice is “being subject to the arbitrary will” of any other person(s), and since the opposite of that is liberty and the opposite of injustice is justice, justice is liberty.

Voila! So the goal of a just society must be to maximize people’s liberty.

Formally, liberty means the absence of any constraints, no matter what: there are no constraints on what a person might to do (ex ante constraints) and there are no constraints in the sense of concern for what might follow from any action (ex post constraints).

Obviously, liberty that ‘pure’ cannot exist in the real world. John Locke called the closest humans could get to that a “State of Nature”, in which people would exist as isolated individuals: there would be no society of any kind, not even the ‘simple’ societies of non-civilized people. Even then, though, a person would face both constraints limiting what they might do and constraints in the form of consequences following from actions: they would be constrained by their talents, abilities, etc., and if someone did something to which some other person took exception, that someone might get conked on the head with a club. For that matter, even with no other person involved, in material existence we can be constrained by the prospect of negative consequences for ourselves. For instance, we might physically injure ourselves by attempting to do something we should not have tried to do.

[About a century after Locke, Immanuel Kant tried to reconcile ‘pure’ liberty (which he termed “autonomy”) with liberty as we commonly use that term and ended up in what he called the “noumenal” realm — which, logically, might as well be ‘Heaven’. ‘Liberal’ philosophy has been trying ever since to extricate ‘liberty’ from that metaphysical space while keeping it viable as a concept.]

So for human beings living in material existence there can be no such thing as ‘pure’ liberty. Even so, that is what that word invokes. To use it is to suggest something that simply isn’t possible, yet would in some way be the ultimate in human existence. How can that be good for people living alongside one another in a society, especially the large, complex societies of today that we call nation-states? It can’t help but keep us unsettled, can it not?

Freedom, on the other hand, is compatible with the reality of human beings living together in societies within material existence. It is a grant to act without specific permission — being free to do anything that isn’t against the law — while acknowledging the existence of all manner of constraints.

Those constraints can include being observed in public, whether directly, by other people, or indirectly, via cameras. The only danger such observation poses would be for it to become a political weapon. It is easy to imagine various ways that could happen. On the other hand, laws and constitutional protections against such abuses are also available.

As with sailors on a ship, then, freedom can exist with limited privacy. The only privacy required is to be free from observation within our abodes. In public, it is no threat to freedom to be observed at any time by any means — so long as such observation does not become a political weapon.

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Stephen Yearwood

Written by

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid, academically trained philosopher and political economist


A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (

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