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If you’re from the West, chances are you’ve heard someone say that you live in a free country. Yet no one can just do what he or she wants here. Then can we really call ourselves free people? Does something like limited freedom exist? Would unlimited freedom for each individual help society go forward or would it just be harmful? Do we even possess free will? In other words, are we free?
As much as we would like to get away from it, as members of our society we are obliged to comply with the law. We must for instance pay taxes once we dispose of a secure income, we have to adhere to the orders of the authorities and we can’t just practice any profession without the required diploma. We are so used to those rules by now that most people don’t have a problem with them. They do limit our freedom, however.
People realise that those rules are necessary to keep our society running, though. That’s why they don’t mind adhering to them at the cost of their own personal freedom. But certain other rules limit the individual’s freedom to do things that wouldn’t be harmful for society. Drugs for purely personal use, for instance, only harms the user. You could claim that that person could react unpredictably to the effects of the drug and as a consequence would form a threat to the people in his surroundings, but that’s the case with alcohol as well. Though a minimum legal drinking age exists, when that age has been surpassed, you can drink as much of the harmful and addictive drink as you please. If the police catches you with no more than a milligram of drugs on the other hand – you don’t even have to have used any of it – you’ll end up in court. This is an example of limitation of freedom without society‑related factors.
Now you are probably thinking: ‘Yeah, sure, but we also have rights that protect our freedom, don’t we?’ That’s definitely true: we have the right to express our opinion, to vote for a political party that best represents our personal way of thinking, to practice a religion or have no religion at all … So in some ways we are surely free to do what we want. Sometimes there are laws that violate one of those rights, though. Because of the Belgian Holocaust denial law, for example, it’s forbidden here to justify the Holocaust or deny that it has ever taken place. Denying or approving of such a catastrophe is definitely cowardly, but prohibiting it is a violation of the right to free speech. So even in a democratic and pretty progressive country like Belgium such rights aren’t always respected.
So you could say that we are free to a certain extent, but can you actually say that? Does something like limited freedom exist? That sounds pretty contradictory. To be free means that you can do whatever you wish. If something limits that freedom, however, it’s no longer possible to do what you wish and that definition of freedom becomes inapplicable. Freedom itself is actually a paradox as well: to be free to do whatever one pleases must apply to any other person too. Otherwise there’s that problem of ‘limited freedom’ again, because then that freedom would only be applicable to yourself. If that definition of freedom applies to everyone, though, other people must also have the freedom to make sure you cannot do whatever you wish anymore. So once again there is no actual freedom, because that freedom could be taken away from you at any given moment.
It’s also possible that we are the opposite of free and that the decisions we make turn out not to be our own choices at all. I personally do not believe in fate, but it’s impossible to fully preclude its existence. After all no one knows whether everything has been decided beforehand. So although I am convinced that everything happens coincidentally, it is possible that fate exists and therefore free will doesn’t. If that is the case, we are all puppets being controlled by a higher power that decides what our past, present and future life looks like.
So are we free? That’s difficult to say. We’re not completely free, limited freedom doesn’t exist and we will never know if we’re the opposite of free or not. Well, we will never know if we’re being controlled by fate or not, that is. In our society it’s clear however what we can and cannot do. So you could in fact conclude that we are the opposite of free: the law decides completely what you must, may and mustn’t do. You have never had the freedom to choose any of those things, so your limitations and possibilities had been decided for you beforehand. The law can however adapt and give the people more freedom. That’s how women received the right to vote and that’s also how members of the LGBTQ+‑community are now allowed to marry someone of the same sex. So in a sense you do have control over your own freedom, as long as enough people are willing to stand up for the same right.