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Defend which freedom?

Mary Midgley wants us to get our liberties into an order of priority

Why can't different freedoms settle down together and live happily ever after? Why do they have to keep on squabbling in a way that makes the search for freedom-as-such so difficult?

It is well known that my freedom to swing my arms has to stop short of your face on account of your face's freedom not to have holes made in it. Well, we might manage to live with that. But again, my freedom to party all night gets across your freedom to sleep, and your freedom to drive ecstatically at 200mph on the motorway is liable to disturb my freedom to stay alive.

Yet again, the Jews' freedom to live in the land of their ancestors and rule it as they please gets across the freedom of resident Arabs to do that very same hallowed thing. And in Northern Ireland the Orangemen's freedom to celebrate their sacred traditions by marching through alien areas carrying banners painted with a load of traditional insults crashes into other people's freedom to breathe normal, insult-free air.

This last one is interesting because the people involved are so clearly mystified at being challenged. They make the libertarian defence with such astonished conviction. They ask, 'Are we to be silenced? Are we denied freedom of assembly? May we not express our opinions?'. This plea lights up one of the really awkward corners on the map of freedom.

When we think about cases like the Orangemen it turns out that, unluckily, actions can't be quite as free as speech and (worse still) there are some kinds of speech - such as insults - which really do amount to action. If we call noisy and offensive meetings on our neighbours' doorsteps when there are plenty of other places available we are not just practising free assembly. We are directly attacking them. Even if we don't then smash their windows - which of course we rather easily may - our offensive noises are infringing their freedom to live in peace. And most of us, after further thought, are liable to conclude that being free to live in peace is a more important freedom than freedom to get every ounce of hostility off one's chest, however satisfying that last freedom may be. Moreover, the simple freedom to follow bad tradition - to go on doing an odious thing just because you have done it before and have got into the habit of doing it - is actually not an important freedom at all.

This is all rather disturbing. After all, freedom to follow tradition is genuinely a kind of freedom, and people who are denied it may feel genuinely oppressed and frustrated. Yet we shall sometimes think they have got to put up with that because they are injuring other people. Are there, then, class distinctions among freedoms? Are some of them privileged over others?

We would like to think not. Yet in fact when we call for freedom we always have in mind some particular context, some particular oppression or enslavement which is troubling us. And it is not at all easy at that time to work out what the next kind of trouble will be if we manage to get the current one removed.

For instance, pioneers of libertarian thinking, such as Mill, largely saw marriage as an intolerable restriction, an arbitrary barrier to natural human freedom which should simply be removed. Living in a society where marriage was almost unbreakable they were surrounded with examples of the misery it could cause - especially to women - so they saw this point as perfectly clear. Yet today, now that most people can escape from marriage, the advice columns of the papers are full of distressed complaints from people whose escape from it has landed them in some other servitude - servitude to the market, or to unsatisfactory partners, or to intolerable positions with regard to their children. A host of counsellors, therapists and mediators has been called into being to deal with these problems. But it doesn't look as if they are going to find any universal and triumphant solution to them.

Of course this doesn't show that it wasn't right to loosen the marriage laws. It was, and it is often right to loosen other restrictions. But this loosening has, unluckily, been part of a general fluidifying of our society - a huge increase in social mobility stemming from the industrial revolution which whisks people around like a vast food processor and sometimes makes it so hard for them to know where they are that they'll settle for anything that looks relatively solid. Nationalism in general, and particularly the increased influence of racist political parties in Europe, seems to be largely a reaction to this confusion - a misguided attempt to return to a condition where people think they know who they are.

In this jumble, it seems to me important to be discriminating among our freedoms - to get them into some kind of order of priority. We need to pick out the most important ones to shout for. And in order to do that, we need some kind of a mental map of freedom - an idea of the way in which different freedoms relate. There isn't only one kind of freedom any more than there is only one kind of happiness. There are a number, and we are free to take our pick among them - only doing so needs thought.

Perhaps, after all, freedom to do some thinking may be the most important one of all.

Mary Midgley is the author of Beast and Man, The Ethical Primate and Utopias, Dolphins and Computers, both published by Routledge

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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