The notion of freedom is clearly paradoxical. If everyone is free to do whatever they want, they are free to restrict other people's freedom, and hence those people are not free. If this is not allowed, then nobody is truly free after all.

So we take a step back and change the definition of freedom to something like

to be free means to be free to do whatever one wants -- except that which affects other people's freedom

But now the definition is too general to be of any use, since anything can be interpreted as affecting other people's freedom. I mean, if you breathe air, you breathe in oxygen that I might need. YOU ARE AFFECTING MY FREEDOM BY EXISTING!


So is the notion of freedom nonsensical?

  • 1
    Would you have a reference to someone who takes a similar position to yours? That would help provide context for an answer. Aug 15, 2018 at 21:00
  • 1
    I think you're mixing absolute freedom with absolute power.
    – adamaero
    Aug 15, 2018 at 21:32
  • There are different notions of freedom. Some people associate it with independence. In this case there is no paradox. Absolute independence is impossible however.
    – rus9384
    Aug 15, 2018 at 22:23
  • Our usual notion of freedom is fine in everyday life but it becomes incoherent as a metaphysical or fundamental phenomenon. If you read some Zen or 'mystical' texts this is much discussed. The universe would be law-governed at all times, places and levels.
    – user20253
    Aug 17, 2018 at 15:26

6 Answers 6


It might be instructive to be more specific about the freedom -- freedom to ..., of ..., from ... Then we can examine a specific freedom -- say, freedom of speech. Generally speaking, A's freedom of speech does not impede B's. (It maybe does affect B's; for example, B would not know certain things without A telling B about them, so A is affecting what B can say. But I think there's a problem only if A's actions impede B's freedom.) There is an exception, which is if A uses speech to incite violence against B, thereby preventing B from speaking. Indeed, there are commonly exceptions to free speech regarding incitement of violence. But I don't think this makes the notion of freedom of speech nonsensical.


The notion of freedom is clearly paradoxical.

Only the notion of total freedom is paradoxical for the reasons you stated.

But the notion of freedom itself is a useful concept because even given constraints of physics and human laws, many agents (people and many animals) do have a great deal of opportunities to act based on their internal machinations--as opposed to being compelled by force. The state of having at least some such opportunities is commonly called "having freedom", and one can have more or less of it depending on how many opportunities one has.

Subtleties enter the discussion if we evaluate this point in terms of determinism vs. free will, but I'm just using the everyday notion of freedom and not freedom in the sense of libertarian free will.


No, because your definition is flawed

You say:

To be free means to be free to do whatever one wants -- except that which affects other people's freedom

This is not how we defined freedom, you are missing one part:

To be free means to be allowed to do whatever one wants -- except that which affects other people's freedom in an unacceptable manner

All ethical debate concerns that last part; to figure out what are unacceptable ways to behave against other people.

  • I think that measure, i.e. the "other people's freedom", was introduced when people's freedom was easier evaluated. For example, when there were some landlords (with bigger freedom) and many peasants (with not that much freedom). The "acceptable manner" is also another flaw at your concept. Acceptable by whom, how, and why?
    – Xxxo
    Aug 19, 2018 at 10:12
  • This response does not attempt to answer the "paradox" part of the question, in that this definition of freedom is recursive. Nov 20, 2018 at 1:26
  • @CarlMasens There is no paradox because we do not define "freedom" in the way that the questioner claims. I will not attempt to solve a paradox for something non-existent.
    – MichaelK
    Nov 20, 2018 at 6:38
  • @MichaelK So your definition of freedom, "to be allowed to do whatever one wants -- except that which affects other people's freedom in an unacceptable manner," doesn't contain the word freedom? Nice. Nov 21, 2018 at 1:34
  • @CarlMasens Hold the snark. A definition that talks about itself is not a paradox just because it is recursive. And having a recursive definition works as long as there are practical end conditions / termination conditions. The flawed definition OP's stated does not work because it does not have a practical end condition. I showed that our actual definition of "freedom" has that end condition, and with that the definition of freedom works in practice. So your snark and -1 vote are unwarranted.
    – MichaelK
    Nov 21, 2018 at 11:50

Freedom in itself is nonsensical, yes. However, when people say about freedom, they typically just omitting some words, because they think it's so obvious in itself what they mean. In fact, I don't expect people have universal understanding of freedom or universal definition of freedom they agree with. But I can expect that most commonly people just assume under freedom ability not to be forced to action or inaction through coercion or deception.

There, indeed, are other notions, less political and more metaphysical, like ability not to be tied to a specific place, body, etc. In short it means independence or lesser dependence on the world. But it's less popular in common speech, however, a topic in philosophy. Nevertheless, it's a worn-out topic.


I think the flaw in such problem definitions is that the whole argument belongs to some kind of fallacy.

The current statement of the problem disregards the most basic factor, which is the social contract between a individual and an organized society.

If somebody goes and stays at the Amazon forest, he/she will be free to do whatever he/she wants. Like, literally whatever he/she wants. Nobody, but really nobody, can restrict this.

But, since this somebody conforms to and accepts the social contract of living in an organized society, he/she must evaluate and respect what is the "license agreement".

Sure, in an organized society you are free to do many things. Naturally though, you are forbidden to do things that the organized society (with some procedures) decided that are harmful. This has nothing to do with the concept of freedom. Freedom exists, not as a paradox, outside of the above agreement (i.e. contract), because the above is exactly an agreement!

You, and you alone, are free to deny any social contract and go and live in a remote place, all by your self. There you can do literally anything you want. Be totally and truly free. But, you have to invent the wheel, again.

Or, you and you alone, can accept the social contract of organized societies and live with them. There you will not be able to do literally anything you want. But the wheel has already been invented some thousands year ago.


This question is more-or-less answered in my paper:

Taking Freedom Seriously: A Pre-Legal Model of Freedom, Interferences, Rights and Duties.

The key problem with this question is that it is using freedom in two senses: (1) a particular freedom and (2) all freedoms. Every particular freedom creates an unfreedom through interference. There is essentially a conservation of particular freedoms.

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