If we define freedom in its purest form as

The right to do whatever you want.

then this is clearly a very psychopathic concept. The right to do whatever you want? So if you want to kill, you have that right? If you want to rape, you have that right? Certainly no sane person would support such a concept of freedom.

Clearly, there is a need for balancing this definition with some sense of moral responsibility. Thus, we may redefine freedom as

The right to do whatever you want, as long as you adhere to certain moral principles and responsibilities.

However, the notion of moral principles and responsibilities is well known to be subjective. I am not saying objective morality does not exist - it may very well exist. But humans are factually known to offer different candidates for such an objective morality, and therefore, from the perspective of humans at least, there is no one universally accepted moral codecs.

Therefore, this definition of freedom is entirely subjective, as it depends on whatever ethical framework you subscribe to.

Hence, I ask .... is the notion of freedom entirely subjective in its weaker form and entirely psychopathic in its strong, pure form? And if so, why does that word play such a large role in politics, philosophy, and all other kinds of social discourse, when seemingly it is entirely useless?

  • 1
    See positive and negative freedom. May 30, 2018 at 12:55
  • See also Freedom as a Triadic Relation : "MacCallum defines the basic concept of freedom — the concept on which everyone agrees — as follows: a subject, or agent, is free from certain constraints, or preventing conditions, to do or become certain things. Freedom is therefore a triadic relation — that is, a relation between three things: an agent, certain preventing conditions, and certain doings or becomings of the agent." May 30, 2018 at 12:56
  • What is Freud's take on this general issue? "Civilization and its Discontents". So this is one thinker's view. Secondary literature, e.g.: Title: Civilization and its discontents : an anthropology for the future? Author: Parisi, Thomas. Publisher:Twayne Publishers,Pub date:c1999.Pages:xx, 158 p. :ISBN:0805779345
    – Gordon
    May 30, 2018 at 17:00
  • It is exactly the subjectivity of morality that made societies develop legal systems (or more broadly systems of public norms, some written into laws, some unwritten but commonly observed and enforced by social pressure) that are "objective", or more precisely intersubjective. So legal freedom can be defined by the English constitutional maxim, "everything which is not forbidden is allowed" (under the law), one can do whatever one wants, as long as it is legal.
    – Conifold
    May 30, 2018 at 17:11
  • "So if you want to kill, you have that right?" 1) Particularly I do not want to kill someone (unless there is a good reason). 2) That's why this concept of freedom is useless. I prefer the concept of self-freedom.
    – rus9384
    May 30, 2018 at 19:15

5 Answers 5


Freedom is not subjective at all : it is the contact point between individual and society.

In principle, modern democracies grant to each individual belonging to that society a full control over individual existence.

But that control needs a correct "operation" of society : government, law, etc.

In order to operate correctly, the governed society needs that individuals give away at part their autonomy.

This implies a certain amount of shared goals, objevtives, values, behaviour.

In other words, the "individual space" of pure freedom (a sort of social monad) must interact with the external world, and this means to limit it.

Thus, we have a tension that sometime, somewhere generates a crisis in the democratic societies: see the current Populist trend in Western world.


Freedom is not a quality of individuals; that's a mistake made in certain misinterpretations of classical Liberalism. Freedom is a quality that people grant to each other (or not) within the context of a community. Without a community there is no freedom; there is merely the the constant stream of subsistence labor required to maintain life.

Most of the people who talk about 'freedom' in this solipsistic sense are not actually interested in the concept of freedom. They are interested in power, or the ability to impose their will on others without responsibility or consequence.


Freedom is a language construct.

It is used for conviction. E.g. when some social groups say their freedom is violated, it means they are dissatisfied with current status and want something to be changed. Of course, in order to be more persuasive, they ought to use thick moral concepts. One of such concepts is freedom.

Therefore, what really freedom is varies on context pretty well. Sometimes it can mean your first definition, sometimes second. Sometimes it can even mean omnipotence and omniscience.

Now answering on your other questions, one by one.

is the notion of freedom entirely subjective in its weaker form and entirely psychopatic in its strong, pure form?

Yes and no. As you said, there are many ethical theories, therefore, morality is subjective. But your arguments about psychopathy is not sound. Well, I assume that, at least for me freedom is first definition. Then the question: why am I not killing or raping others? The answer: I simply don't want to. So, putting me and people who are like me together and accepting first definition of freedom won't result in incoherency.

I am not trying to say, of course, the murderers should not be punished. But I don't agree that definition of freedom is entirely psychopathic. It is, when it is used by a psychopath (and not always, as some psychopaths are not immoral), but not in other cases.

why does that word play such a large role in politics... and all other kinds of social discourse...

In politics and other kinds of social discourse it allows to change people attitudes.

... philosophy...

In philosophy there is a concept of moral objectivity, so, your reasoning does not work in philosophy, as there can be potentially objective definition of freedom. In the end you came here to discuss it, thus you already accepted it's not philosophically useless concept.


There are many philosophic roots for freedom that extend into the social and political connections and become centered on the idea of autonomy.

Autonomy, psychology dictionary n. refers to the state of independence and self- determination in an individual, a group, or a society.

Freedom as a action, is distinguished by the ability to cause/create/respond/react, and not a lack of consequences that may follow those actions. While the examples you use limit the distinction to the subjective, psychopathic, moral and ethical notions of Freedom, as cited in your question, what Freedom signifies in an individual and society is much broader in definition.

  • Freedom is not an action. It's state or possibility to act[ not being punished].
    – rus9384
    May 31, 2018 at 12:09
  • @rus9384 Freedom is only found in action. One of my favorite writer's stated, “You are free to do whatever you like. You need only face the consequences.” Sheldon B. Kopp. Freedom is confined to being deliberate, thoughtful, and clear choices. All social statuses are connections based. If you buy a historic house, you agree to abide by the historical commissions standards. It is freely agreed to and understood. The connections are actions you align with to retain your place in that group. If you act outside of those agreements it is your 'actions' that will put you on the outside. Jun 1, 2018 at 19:53
  • Freedom is about actions, I agree. But it itself is not an action. Actions can't be free either. A subject can be free, be in the state of freedom.
    – rus9384
    Jun 1, 2018 at 20:06

I think few would define or understand 'freedom' as 'the right to do whatever you want'. What if what you want is physically impossible, such as travelling faster than the speed of light or jumping unaided over the Empire State building ?

But let's get closer to a philosophical analysis.

Freedom as non-constraint or absence of impediment

For one thing, freedom is a state of the individual person or group in relation to certain constraints or impediments. A free person has definitionally certain options and capacities for action. I am free if I can get out of the room in which I am locked, say, because there are no intervening constraints or impediments that actually prevent me. This has nothing to do directly with my right - my moral entitlement - to get out of the room. Perhaps I have no such right or entitlement because e.g. I am serving a just punishment or have promised to remain in the room and not to try to exit.

Freedom and human agency

This is a wide construction of 'freedom'. Usually when we talk of freedom the relevant constraints or impediments are those imposed or removable by human agency. I am not free to cross the road if you physically and intentionally block my way or put me under coercive threat or in the original situation if you know that I am unwillingly locked in a room and will not let me out. You reduce my freedom by what you do (on the road) or don't do (unlock the door).

Freedom and rights

We are as yet nowhere near the idea of freedom as a moral right. (I set aside legal rights since moral rights seem most relevant to your question.) It is only in the context of respect for autonomy - for a person's human dignity as an agent - or of a doctrine of human rights that freedom acquires any linkage with the notion of entitlement to act.

In such a moralised context freedom as a right is limited by the rights of others. Not only do I have human rights - you do, too. If I have the right to cross the road without constraint or impediment, so do you: and therefore freedom, at the point the argument has reached, can never be pared down to 'the right to do whatever you want' in the sense of what you merely plan or prefer intentionally to do. The parameters of my rights to freedom of action are your rights, and vice versa. There is no suggestion here of a psychopathic freedom in which nobody else but the agent counts.

Freedom, rights, and harm

The danger is, of course, that you can nullify my freedom because for every right I have, you may have a counter-right or a right that may collide with mine. I have the right to cross the road at point X and time t1. But so have you.

I favour a position such as John Stuart Mill's in which a harm principle applies to freedom (Mill, On Liberty, 1859, Introduction). I am free to act - I have that moral entitlement - only if in exercising my right I cause you no harm or cannot reasonably foresee harm. (The concept of harm needs tightening but the basic idea is intuitively clear.)

The subjectivity of morals

You still have an opening for reply. For you hold that: 'the notion of moral principles and responsibilities is well known to be subjective.'

The subjectivity of moral principles and responsibilities is, whatever else it may be, not known to be subjective. The question whether morality is subjective (for the record, in what sense precisely?) or objective so that some moral principles are known to be true as moral realists hold or, with Kantian objectivists, such principles are deliverances of reason, is an open question. I'm not going to try to close it here but you cannot lay down as axiomatic or an evident truth that (to repeat your phrase) 'the notion of moral principles and responsibilities is well known to be subjective.' Any such conclusion can be reached, if at all, only at the end of far more philosophical argument than you offer. In fact, you don't argue but only state. I don't want to sound too heavy but that lacuna in your question has to be pointed out.

Interesting question, though; if it hadn't been, I wouldn't have answered it. I look forward to your next appearance on PSE.

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