November Topic: Freedom and Equality

Every month we center on a particular theme which we discuss twice a month, once in an open group where anyone and everyone can join, and once in a closed group, which allows for a limited number of participants and is for group members only. I’ve decided – at the suggestion of some of the members – to start a blog which will include notes I developed prior to the discussions, as well as questions and problems that arose regarding the particular topic (not about the discussions themselves, which are going really well), as well as any pertinent points or problems or questions which were brought up during the discussion.

This month’s topic: freedom and equality

In particular political/social freedom and equality, although there are certainly legal, philosophical, moral and perhaps even metaphysical ties. The questions discussed were these:

What is political freedom? What are negative and positive freedom/liberties and are they compatible? Which is closer to an accurate definition of freedom?

What is equality? What are equalities of opportunity and outcome? How is it different, synonymous or related to freedom? What type of equality should we strive for?

In a broad sense, freedom is defined as having agency over one’s person. Agency is the capacity to act in accordance with one’s voluntary choices. It is to be free from coercion, interference or restraint, to be able to make one’s own choices. It is being allowed to say, do or think as one wishes (to an extent, discussed a bit later).

Freedom in any “true” or “real” sense is impossible; we cannot achieve freedom to, for example, breathe in outer space without apparatus or to grow wings. To this end, we are not going to discuss freedom in any metaphysical or philosophical sense today, but rather a political or social extent.

Even so, this, of course, is still not practical enough because there are certain actions which you may take which may inhibit my freedom, and we live in a society where we must get along. For this reason there are necessarily limitations on political/social freedom. In this regard, freedom can be broken down into two different concepts:
A. Freedom as autonomy/independence.
B. Freedom as the capacity to initiate new beginnings.

Liberty can be basically divided into two types: negative and positive.

Negative liberty is basically the idea that one should be free FROM outside coercion. It is the idea that one is completely responsible for one’s own actions. It is an opportunity concept, asking to be allowed any opportunity equally with others. It is freedom from artificial restraints, not natural ones (ex: from someone telling me I can’t get on a plane because I’m black, not nature preventing me from growing wings to fly). Negative liberty obliges inaction (do not act against me).

Positive liberty is the idea that one should be free TO fulfill one’s potential, free from internal constraints (fear, addiction, weakness, ignorance, etc). It is an exercise concept, asking to be free to fulfill one’s wishes equally with everyone else. It is the idea that one has the right to possess the necessary power or resources in pursuit of one’s dreams. It is freedom from poverty, starvation, treatable disease, oppression, etc. Positive liberty obliges action (act to enhance my freedom).

In essence, negative liberty is freedom FROM while positive liberty is freedom TO. A proponent of negative liberty might say “I am a slave to no man” while a proponent of positive liberty might say “I am my own master.”

Potential problems:

1. If we work to enact type A (freedom as autonomy/independence), couldn’t type B – albeit not immediately actual – be an inevitably potentially consequence of it? However, if we prioritize type B, wouldn’t that necessarily inhibit type A? In other words, doesn’t the achievement of negative liberty potentially allow for positive liberty? However, how can you enact positive liberty without infringing on negative liberty? For instance, if I want the freedom to have time off from work, how am I to achieve this? By asking others to provide it for me. For example, if I am a drug addict and I want to be free from my addiction (an example of positive liberty), how can I achieve it? By requiring others to labor (an infringement on their negative liberty) to teach me how and to provide the funds to go through the process, etc.

2. Is it possible to be unaware of liberties that you have, and thus be unaware that they are being infringed upon? For example, if you grew up in an environment where you were religiously indoctrinated and had no basis for comparison via which you could assess information or ideas, would you be aware that your positive liberty is being infringed upon?

Some interesting conclusions we reached based on this:

1. Perfect liberty, negative or positive is not achievable. After all, I must be inhibited FROM taking another person’s life in order to ensure that the other person is free FROM my taking of his life. So the question is one of degree, not which one is the perfect ideal. Perfect positive liberty seems to necessarily lead to a totalitarian state, on the other hand.

2. While certain negative liberties may seem ideal, are they practical or beneficial to society as a whole? After all, if I am free from being forced to pay taxes, who is going to take care of the institutions and infrastructure we enjoy today?

Equality ties into freedom. It seems to be overall beneficial for society: According to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Prichett in their book “The Spirit Level”, egalitarian nations have fewer societal problems (ex: mental illness, homicide, teen pregnancy, obesity, incarceration, etc.) and better social goods (life expectancy, educational performance, trust, women status, social mobility, patents issued, etc).Equality is also divided into two types: Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.

1. Equality of opportunity: a state where everyone starts at the same point. The stipulation that all people should be treated similarly, uninhibited by artificial barriers, prejudices or preferences in pursuit of goals. It means offering all an equal chance to compete within established and agreed-upon rules. It means applying fairness to the selection process.

2. Equality of outcome: a state in which people have equal wealth or economic conditions. It entails reducing or eliminating material inequality between individuals and/or households. It involves transferring or redistributing wealth. Ideally, this would reflect the necessary interdependence of citizens. It seems to lead to increased social cohesion and reduced jealousy.

Having said that, there are two types of equality of opportunity:

1. Formal equality of opportunity: this dictates that the “starting point” is the application for a desired position. An evaluation process subsequently commences for all applicants related to their qualifications, not on arbitrary or irrelevant criterion. There are three “stages”:
1. Open call: The application should be available to all potential applicants and all applications should be accepted.
2. Fair evaluation process: The applicants should be judged on their merits, following a set procedure in order to evaluate who is the best qualified.
3. The selection itself.

2. Fair equality of opportunity: this dictates that the starting point is prior to the application process. It examines whether or not applicants have equal abilities or talents before they venture to compete and deems that authorities should take steps to remedy any inequalities.

The core problems are these: Striving for equal outcome may require discriminating between certain groups (against the wealthy for the poor, against whites for other races, against men for women, etc). However, striving for equal opportunity leads to unequal results.

When discussing fairness, we came to the conclusion that equality has to do with quantifiable or qualitative states, and fairness has to do with the rules or processes through which we reach these states. For example, while the outcome of a basketball game may not be equal, the process through which the results are achieved should follow a set of rules that applies to everyone in order to make it a “fair” game.

Problems with equality of outcome:

1. How is it possible to bring about equality of outcome without coercion or interference? In other words, Do the ends really justify the means?

2. Even if equality of outcome is helpful, how do we go about transforming society?

3. How do we determine equal outcomes? After all, isn’t it unrealistic to expect, for example, a six-year-old to have equal outcomes with a 70-year-old? How about a 30-year-old with no children and a 30-year-old with four children?

Problems with equality of opportunity:

1. How do you measure it? Outcome is easier to measure than opportunity and is often used as a measure of opportunity or equality in general. That being said, many factors can potentially contribute to outcome, so it is not necessarily a reliable measure of opportunity.

2. How do we ensure that all children start at an equal starting point? Is providing equal distribution of material wealth sufficient, or should government also control the distribution of immaterial wealth, like knowledge or expertise or advice? What about an individual’s innate or genetic abilities? How do we “equalize” that?

Other problems in relation to equality in general:

1. Proving unequal treatment is difficult. How do we overcome the interpretative and methodological difficulties inherent in the problem?

2. As mentioned above, measuring equality seems problematic. How do we determine levels of equality? For example, should everyone be paid equally, no matter what job they do? What if certain individuals put in more risk, effort or time? What if certain individuals’ work results in greater benefits than others?


2 thoughts on “November Topic: Freedom and Equality

  1. Thank you very fuch for your intensive work. Let me read through (obvously need sometime)

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