Ask any person if he wants to be free and he will say yes. But do we really know what freedom is? And how free are we?

First of all, nobody is completely free to do anything he wants. Freedom is always limited in various ways.
  • I may decide that I would like to launch myself into the air, spread my arms and fly. I may have dreamed of doing so, but my physical body is, and always will be, incapable of unaided flight. To overcome that limitation, I must resort to technology.
  • I may wish to be a famous and highly talented artist, musician or gymnast, but my freedom is again limited. It may not be physically impossible for me to achieve these things, but it requires a sustained investment of training in order to develop natural ability. Therefore, my chances of achieving what I want are limited to the quality of training that I can acquire.
  • I may wish to take all the money in a bank, but I am likely to be arrested.

These are some examples of the way that freedom is limited, whether by physical law, natural ability, or legal and social constraint.

Freedom of will

There is an important dimension to freedom that is often forgotten: freedom of will. Although our freedom may be constrained and our choices limited, in the moment when we choose, we experience freedom. We understand that we could have made a different choice. But how free are we really?

If you decide to do something but then give up, are you free? If you find yourself doing something you know you shouldn’t do, and you know you will regret it later, but still you cannot stop yourself, are you free? Do you have the freedom to follow your conscience? Do you have the freedom to forgive someone, or do you sometimes say, “I cannot forgive that person”? Do you have the freedom to apologize?

True freedom is closely linked to self-control. Only a self-disciplined person can decide to do something and accomplish it. A person who cannot control his desires is blown all over the place by impulses, spurious thoughts and feelings. For example, is an alcoholic free? In one sense, yes, because no one is forcing him to drink, but in another sense he is a slave to his insatiable desire for alcohol. How about a person who wants to give up smoking but cannot? If we cannot redirect our desires, our will is not free.

A person who has freedom of will is naturally creative. He is always growing, creating and developing in every dimension. Such freedom can never be taken away.

True freedom is the freedom to follow one’s conscience and maintain one’s personal integrity. This is freedom of will. It sometimes involves struggle, and it takes a lot of courage. Yet it leads to more and more of a sense of liberation and fulfillment. The joy of freedom is not only to be able to choose, but to be able to choose well—to choose the right and the good.

Example: Viktor Frankl - A free man even in prison

Viktor Frankl was a brilliant psychiatrist who was Jewish. When Adolf Hitler came into power, he sent Jews to "concentration camps"--camps where Hitler's Nazis murdered, tortured and starved Jewish people to death. Viktor was sent to Auschwitz--the most infamous camp of all.

Conditions in the camp were horrible. Yet Frankl observed that even here, prisoners still had the freedom to choose how they would act in those terrible circumstances: some chose to be good and kind, some chose to be evil and mean. It was each man's choice and each man's responsibility.

Frankl said, "Everything can be taken from a man but...the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

When the United States Army liberated the camps in 1945, Viktor Frankl became a free man. He wrote over 30 books and started a new form of psychotherapy. (Source: Frankl, Viktor E., Man's Search for Meaning, Washington Square Press, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1963, p. 104.)

True freedom is not the freedom to do evil and be selfish. That is called license. For instance, one cannot defend being rude and doing whatever one wants without regard for others as an expression of true freedom. When we use freedom to make bad choices, the eventual result is less freedom, less joy. An example might be a person who engages in "free sex"—meaning that the person has sex with whomever the person wants to, whenever the person wants to.

This may seem like very liberated and free behavior—but that person will wind up less free when the consequences of such actions fall. An unwanted pregnancy, a serious infectious disease—and/or the psychological burden of uncommitted yet bonding relationships—will sooner or later make that person feel less free and joyful than someone who chose to behave within the limits of morality.

Freedom of action

Besides freedom of will, freedom also includes freedom of action. As social and political freedoms developed, the opportunity for free action was expanded. Often this was due to the efforts of people who wanted the freedom to worship God in their own way, to hold beliefs different from those of a powerful majority, to pursue truth and spread that truth though freedom of speech and the press. Freedom of will and freedom of action should go hand in hand.

However, when there is freedom but people do not follow their conscience--in other words, when they use their freedom of will to make the wrong choices--the result is crime, social collapse and anarchy. A free society in which people have few morals soon collapses. There cannot be a genuinely free society that is not at the same time a moral society, one made up of mature and responsible people.

Freedom and responsibility

People like freedom because it gives them a sense of mastery over things and people. They dislike responsibility because it constrains them from satisfying their desires. Yet they do not understand the relationship between freedom and responsibility. The two go hand-in-hand. Everyone wants to be free, but there are times when we are terrified by the responsibility freedom brings. We feel relieved (or at least part of us does) when someone else takes responsibility and makes a decision or when circumstances decide for us. In these situations, we try to escape from freedom. Then, if something goes wrong, we can blame someone else.

Yet freedom cannot be separated from responsibility. When we are young, we have little freedom, and thus little responsibility. As we become more responsible, we gain more freedom and can make more and more of the decisions that affect our lives. We also need the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them. If a person interferes with our responsibility, we feel violated, because it is freedom and responsibility that make us human. This means, however, that we have not only the opportunity to make choices, but also that we bear the consequences of our actions, both good and bad. We can choose what we do—we have that freedom. Yet we cannot choose the consequences of what we do. They are set in natural and moral law. Therefore, we do well to make responsible choices.

Viktor Frankl once proposed that in addition to the Statue of Liberty on the east coast, the United States erect a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast.

We are answerable not just for the things we do but also for the kind of people we become. Every thought, word and deed in our lives shapes our character. We create our own character through the decisions we make. If we establish the habit of making the right choices in given situations, we create the foundation for a good character. Poor choices, on the other hand, lay the groundwork for developing bad character. In this way, we determine to a great degree our destiny through the quality of character we develop. As the philosopher Heraclitus said, "Character is destiny."

Freedom and law

Obviously, in many ways our freedom is limited by laws. Many people think that since human beings are meant to be free, they should not be restricted by any laws or norms. However, if everyone could do whatever he pleased without law and order, the inevitable result would be that the strongest would rule and the weakest would be oppressed or destroyed. In reality, freedom cannot be maintained without law. These laws should apply in the same way to everyone, regardless of who they are. Freedom and equality are thus related.

Freedom exists only within a framework of rules. Imagine playing a game of chess. Are you free to move the chessmen wherever and however you want? Is it possible to play a game with no rules? Rules prevent any arbitrary moves by either player. They establish a common understanding by which everyone plays.

How about society? If there are laws against stealing or murder that apply to everyone, we all can feel safe. Without such laws, no one is safe, and no one has the freedom to walk the streets without fear. So the purpose of laws is to protect people's freedom. A train, as long as it remains on its tracks, can run rapidly or move slowly, go forward or move backward. In other words, the train has freedom only insofar as it remains on the tracks. If it is derailed, it will be damaged and may also cause damage to people and property.

Hence, a human being's conscience and moral law restrict freedom, but they also work to protect people from going in a self-destructive and evil direction. They do not restrict or disturb us in the development of our goodness. We are free to be as good as we can be.

Only by following the way of love and goodness can we become truly free.

Questions for discussion

1. Have you ever made a decision that was entirely your own? Describe it.


2. Is freedom necessary to live a good life in a good society?

3. How free are you? What are the chief restraints on your freedom?


4. What is the difference between freedom and anarchy? Freedom and license?


5. Are there any freedoms that you are willing to die for? If so, what are they?


6. At what point do people become responsible for their actions?


Exercise: “Freedom and responsibility”


  • Comment on the following statement: “As we get older we naturally desire more freedom. With that freedom comes greater responsibility. However, many people want freedom without the responsibility.”

  • Now make three columns in your notebook. In the first column write the decisions you were able to make as a small child. In the second column write the decisions you are presently able to make. Finally, in the third column, write decisions which you plan to be able to make as an independent adult.

  • To be truly free means to be completely responsible for your life. You determine the outcome of your life--no one else. If someone else takes responsibility for you, to that degree you are not free. Discuss the following statement with another student and prepare a response to the class: “Freedom and responsibility are tied together. A truly free person makes his own decisions and accepts the results of those decisions, whether good or bad. A person who is not free allows someone else to make the decisions that will shape his life and is bound by those decisions.”

Reflection exercise: “Inner freedom”

Imagine that you are unjustly accused of a serious crime and put into prison. You have no one to talk to and your freedom is restricted to your cell. How could you make yourself free within the space of your own mind?



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