Toddlers often develop a very annoying habit once they have learned the word “no.”  They can’t seem to stop using it, and often at times that make little sense.  Sure, we can understand their “no” when they are asked to put away their toys or eat vegetables.  But much to the consternation of their parents, toddlers frequently say “no” when they are are asked to engage in activities they usually like.  (Do you want to play with your favorite ball now, Johnny? No!)

There is some wisdom, or at least preparation for later life, in this behavior.  Being able to resist the will of others by saying “no” is one way we assert our freedom as adults.  But something is not quite right when freedom is seen primarily in terms saying “no,” of resisting others.

Too often Americans appear to equate freedom with the choice to say “no” to the powers that be:  Don’t Tread on Me.  Live Free or Die, etc.  Notice that I said choice to say “no,” because many Americans see freedom not only in terms of resisting authority.  They also equate it with the idea of choosing, that is, they equate freedom with choice.

Philosophers have talked about freedom in terms of choice.  Rousseau, for example, equates choice and freedom when he describes the state of nature, a hypothetical time before civilization and societies, when human beings lived alone.*  They were free to do whatever they wanted, when they wanted.   There were no societal constraints.  They were free to choose.

However, when he got a bit older, Rousseau developed a different understanding of freedom.  He argued that the notion of freedom as choice, which can be called “natural liberty,” should be replaced by “moral liberty.”  Moral liberty is necessary for a successful and free modern society.  One of the major problems with natural liberty is that human beings are often driven by appetites and desires.  They appear to be free when they choose, but they are actually being driven by unexamined desires or by those over which they have little control.  An extreme example of this would be the addict who “chooses” to keep shooting up.  Is this person free in any meaningful sense?  Certainly not.

What is missing from the understanding of “freedom as choice” is the idea that choices need to be informed ones in order for human beings to be self-determining, to lead the kind of lives that they wish to lead, ones in which they are not just driven by appetites and impulses.  How do we make this possible?  We stop thinking of freedom solely in terms of choice, and start thinking about it also in terms of laws or rules that we give to ourselves.  In Rousseau’s words, “the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.”**

I am truly free when I have given some thought to what will allow me to maximize control over my life, not when I choose to do whatever I want, at any moment that I want to do it.  I might love to eat chocolate all hours of the day.  However, if I am overweight or a diabetic, and I also would like to live longer, then self-determination here would involve giving myself some kind of rule, for example, I will eat only three pieces of chocolate a day.  Yes, choice is still involved, but it is very different from choices that are driven by mere appetite or thoughtlessness.

It is beneficial for me as an individual to appreciate this more sophisticated notion of freedom, but it is also beneficial for society.  Imagine a society in which people fail to make thoughtful decisions and instead continuously make reckless ones.  This is a recipe for disaster.  It would produce a society in which individuals can’t be self-determining, because their well-being and welfare are threatened by others, who are making half-baked and dangerous choices.  Living under threat, under siege, in this way subverts our opportunities to take control of our lives in a meaningful way, to become self-determining.

If we lived in a state of nature, no harm, no foul, regarding my decisions or those of others.  But we don’t live in state of nature.   We cannot avoid the reality that our choices can affect others.  Once we recognize this it makes sense to distinguish activities that only involve ourselves from those that affect other people.  For activities that don’t affect others, adults should be allowed to engage in them, even if they may be harmful.  If I want to smoke or drink, even if it will make me ill, it’s my business.  Hands off.  Don’t Tread on Me.  Society can cajole and try to persuade me not to engage in these activities, as in anti-cigarette-smoking ads, but it shouldn’t be permitted to stop me.  In these cases we can pretend that we are living in a state of nature.

But society has a right, an obligation, to step in if my actions are going to injure others.  Here is how John Stuart Mill draws the line between my rights and those of others in On Liberty:

The only end for which people are entitled, individually or collectively, to interfere with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection.  The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.***

Even Mill, a dogged spokesperson for individual liberty, recognizes that societies have a right to constrain individuals if their actions are going to harm others.  At one level this is too obvious for words.  We don’t allow criminals to commit crimes, even though stopping them could be seen as infringing on their freedom or liberty.  As long as we live with other people, my capacity for self-determination is wrapped up with preventing those others from harming me.  (Of course, in practice it’s not always easy to draw the line.  Cigarettes don’t only affect their smokers, because there is secondhand smoke, and healthcare costs for society, etc.  But Mill is speaking here of a principle that should generally prevail.)

This should all be pretty obvious to most people living in society, and this would include most every human being.  But we’ve seen Americans react violently when they’re told to wear a mask, social distance, or stay home during a pandemic.  The reasons they give for their resistance aren’t confined to the belief that these measures are irrelevant, don’t work, or threaten the economy.  No, what you often hear is something like: I have a right not to wear a mask.   It’s my choice.  Leave me alone.  This is a free country.  Don’t Tread on Me.

This sort of response confuses activities that only affect ourselves with those that may have dramatic repercussions for others, including death.  And while we have seen this in other countries, many Americans appear to have a deep affinity for this view of things, and they often respond in extreme ways, such as not wearing masks as they protest in a state capitol, some with guns.****  In doing so they risk the spreading of the virus, thereby harming others.

This view of freedom, which hearkens back to a simplistic notion of choice—one which involves being able to resist, to say “no”—certainly has more than one root in US culture, including our history as a nation born in rebellion.  But there is one factor that plays an especially crucial role in this limited understanding of freedom in contemporary America.

It’s hard to escape the language of the “free market” in America, which presents freedom as involving choices about buying things.  Think about how ads are often framed: your choice, two red ones for a dollar or three blue ones for dollar.  People constantly invoke choice when talking about the market.  Advertisers and marketers don’t want you to think about your decisions.  They would much prefer you to react spontaneously, driven by your desires (which they often help to create), so that you buy more.  This is freedom as natural liberty, and subject to the same problem that Rousseau highlighted, that is, we can become veritable slaves to our desires, undermining our capacity for self-determination.  In other words, the market wants us to think about freedom in terms of a simplistic notion of choice, and not in terms of richer idea of self-determination.

Capitalist enterprises have a lot invested in promoting a notion that freedom comes down to choice.  It keeps us focused on our own individual desires, as opposed to the needs of society.  It makes us think less about what a flourishing society would look like, one that allows us the greatest opportunities for self-determination, and more about our own personal transitory cravings.  It tries to make us believe that we are living in Rousseau’s state of nature, in which I am alone and my choices are all that matter.  In fact, the situation we confront is actually more insidious than this, because organizations that promote the welfare of corporations actively support politicians who espouse this limited and oftentimes adolescent notion of freedom.  Our politicians become megaphones for platitudes about freedom that just happen to benefit the bottom lines of their corporate sponsors.

If there is one good thing that may come from the pandemic, it may be that more Americans see through the vacuousness of a notion of freedom that has been sold to them over the years.  Yes, freedom involves choice, but if it is seen as only involving spontaneous preferences and desires, if it is seen in terms of deifying personal choice—I, me, mine—we risk not only our individual well-being and that of others, but the richer possibilities of an idea of freedom that incorporates the idea of self-determination.


*Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, 1755.

**Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I, Chapter VIII.

What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. . . .We might, over and above all this, add, to what man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.

***John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, “Introduction.”

**** “During that gathering, demonstrators entered the Capitol and chanted: ‘Our House’ and ‘Let Us In’ outside of the House chamber against a line of Michigan State Police.  Many protesters didn’t wear masks or follow social distancing.  Some armed demonstrators entered the Senate gallery and stood above lawmakers.  At least one lawmaker donned a bulletproof vest.” “Heavily Armed Protesters Gather Again At Michigan Capitol To Decry Stay-At-Home Order” NPR, May 14, 2020.  Here’s another article, “People With Guns (and No Masks) Swarmed the Michigan State Capitol to Protest the Coronavirus Lockdown,” Vice, April 30, 2020.

There is evidence that anti-lockdown protests may have spread the virus.  “US lockdown protests may have spread virus widely, cellphone data suggests,”  The Guardian, May 18, 2020.


Illustration: Lower caption reads, “Prepared In Cooperation With Elementary Teachers For Grades 4, 5, and 6.  General Mills, Minneapolis.”  (1952)

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