Freedom refers to the power to act and behave in ways of your own choosing, without undue influence from others.
The concept of individual freedoms that we enjoy today came to prominence during the Enlightenment when philosophers like Locke argued the case for individual liberty. The United States constitution is largely based upon these Enlightenment ideas.
We can think of freedom in two key types:
- Freedom From: This refers to protection from others performing actions upon us, such as freedom from undue imprisonment.
- Freedom To: This refers to the right to perform an action, such as the freedom to buy property.
While most liberal democracies aim to maximize individual freedoms in societies, there are also limits to our freedoms imposed as a condition of living in a society, often referred to as the social contract – for example, we may be restricted from behaving in ways that endanger others, or have freedoms restricted if we contravene the laws of society.
- Freedom of Speech: This is the liberty to express one’s thoughts and ideas openly without fear of censorship, retaliation, or otherwise being silenced. Importantly, this should include the right to criticize the government and voice unpopular opinions. Many societies do place limitations on this, such as when they create laws preventing so-called ‘hate speech’ and laws allowing libel and defamation laws against people who slander them.
- Freedom of Religion: This is the right to choose and practice any religion without persecution. This is one of the founding principles of the USA, where many pilgrims fled the UK because they were persecuted for not following state religion. This freedom generally also respects the freedom to practice no religion at all (i.e. agnosticism or atheism).
- Freedom of Assembly: This gives individuals the right to gather with anyone of their choice, and peacefully protest. This generally refers to the right to participate in marches, rallies, or any form of public gathering. However, it also refers to the freedom to form a workers’ union or political party. This freedom is curtailed when, for example, protesters are removed from public causeways due to their disruption of other people’s freedom of movement.
- Freedom of Movement: Freedom of movement permits people to travel within the borders of their country, or to leave and return to their country, at will. For example, in the EU, freedom of movement refers to the freedom to live and work within any country within the union. Free movement also tends to refer to people’s right to relocate to another country if they wish.
- Freedom of the Press: This freedom is often tied to freedom of speech, but refers specifically to disseminating information in textual or audiovisual form. It involves the right for individuals and companies to circulate their own opinions in print without censorship by the government. Journalists rely on this freedom to report news without persecution and, especially in the USA, to form news agencies that are politically biased and, even, promote untrue propaganda, without interference from the government.
- Economic Freedom: In socialist and communists countries, this freedom is heavily curtailed. In capitalist countries, this freedom tends to be allowed. Generally, it refers to the right for people to trade freely with others, start a business, charge their chosen rates for products, and own their own property and capital. Higher economic freedoms tend to lead to more productive economies, but also greater social inequality and exploitation of labor.
- Freedom of Information: This is the right to access information without hindrance. It can refer to freedom to access online information, but generally, is interpreted as freedom to access information held by the state and government organizations. It forces governments to be transparent. This freedom is regularly curtailed because governments can ‘classify’ information with relative impunity.
- Educational Freedom: Educational freedom refers to the right to pursue the level and quality of education you want. This is a right that’s often restricted to women, especially in fundamentally religious nations and cults. We may also see this concept arising in school choice arguments, such as in the public school vs charter school debate in the US.
- Freedom of Thought: This is the freedom to hold or consider a fact, viewpoint, or thought, even if it’s considered by mainstream society as incorrect or even conspiracy or pseudoscience. It is the precondition to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.
- Freedom of Association: This refers to the freedom to join or leave social groups, such as unions and political parties. This tends to be curtailed in authoritarian societies that tend to be threatened when contrarian groups come together to organize.
- Freedom from Slavery: The abolition of slavery across the globe represents a significant advancement in human rights. This freedom ensures that every person is recognized as a human being with inherent dignity. It affirms that no human can be the property of another human. This freedom from allows us all to have the right to personal agency and decision-making.
- Freedom from Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: This is a specific freedom that is recognized under international human rights law. It It involves the absolute prohibition of physical and mental torture and any form of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, irrespective of the situation. It is often referred to as a key right for prisoners of war.
- Freedom to Vote: Freedom to vote is a key concept in democracies, but obviously, not other forms of government. This freedom affirms that people have an equal say on how a democratic society should be established and governed. Some nations, such as Australia, affirm this freedom as a responsibility, and forces people to vote – which opens up debate about whether compulsory voting represents enhancement or restriction of freedoms!
- Freedom of Choice: This encompasses an individual’s right to make decisions that affect their personal life. This freedom manifests in a myriad of ways, including the choice of a spouse, career, or lifestyle. But in contemporary debates, it is often manifest in the freedom to control what happens to your body – and especially women’s bodies – when it comes to reproductive healthcare. Thus freedom acknowledges that individuals are autonomous, agentic, and capable of making personal decisions.
- Freedom of Expression in Art and Culture: This freedom is about expressing oneself through various forms of art and culture without fear of censorship or punishment. We can see, for example, in France, where the freedom to draw pictures of religious prophets insults some religious people, but their right is still not curtailed – see the Charlie Hebdo controversy.
- Freedom of Conscience: This freedom allows individuals to hold their personal moral and ethical convictions. It protects people’s rights to have beliefs or principles that may differ from societal norms and to act according to these beliefs as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others. For example, this freedom is exercised by conscientious objectors who opt-out from conscription to wars.
- Academic Freedom: This refers to the liberty of scholars to teach, study, and pursue research agencers without unreasonable interference. It allows academics to study topics that might be controversial. The tenure system, where academics get a ‘job for life’ and cannot be fired, affirms this right to these academics. This freedom is crucial for intellectual progress in a free society. It allows for the free exchange of ideas, challenging conventional wisdom, and fostering critical thinking.
- Internet Freedom: In the digital age, internet freedom (i.e. freedom to publish online and access any and all websites) is increasingly important. It involves the right to access the internet freely, express oneself online, access information, and use digital resources without censorship, surveillance, or restrictions from governing bodies or corporations.
- Freedom to Protest: This freedom allows citizens to voice their opinions publicly and collectively, often against actions or policies of the government or other powerful entities. This can take many forms, from peaceful marches and demonstrations to strikes and sit-ins. It’s a crucial part of democratic societies that allows for public dissent and the promotion of social change.
- Freedom from Discrimination: This freedom protects individuals from unfair treatment based on characteristics such as race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, or any other characteristic. It promotes equal treatment and opportunities, providing a foundation for social justice and equality.
- Freedom to Marry: This freedom gives individuals the right to choose their spouse without restrictions based on race, nationality, religion, or gender, including the right for same-sex couples to marry.
- Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Detention: This means that individuals cannot be arrested or detained without just cause. It also includes the right to due process, such as a fair trial and legal representation.
- Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association: This encompasses the right of individuals to gather peacefully in public or private spaces, protest, express collective interests, and form or join associations or unions.
- Freedom to Work: This is the right of individuals to choose their occupation, to work in a safe and healthy environment, and to stop working. It includes the freedom from forced labor.
- Freedom of Privacy: This is the right to have a private personal life that is free from intrusion by the government, businesses, or other individuals. It includes privacy of personal data, family life, and personal communication.
- Freedom of Parental Rights: Parents have the right to raise their children according to their values and beliefs, including decisions about education, health care, and upbringing, as long as it does not harm the child.
- Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: This is the right to have basic needs met, including access to sufficient food and clean water. It is often associated with the broader concept of freedom from want.
- Freedom to Own Property: This is the right of individuals to own property either alone or in association with others. It also protects individuals from arbitrary confiscation of their property.
- Freedom from Fear: This is the right to live without fear of persecution, violence, or any form of physical or psychological harm.
- Freedom to Access Healthcare: This is the right of individuals to access medical care and essential medicines. This can include the right to choose one’s healthcare provider and make decisions about one’s health.
- Freedom to Fair Treatment by Laws and Judiciary: This is the right of all individuals to be treated equally under the law, with equal protection and benefit. It also includes the right to a fair trial and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.
- Freedom to Develop and Learn: This is the right to personal development and the acquisition of skills and knowledge, including the freedom to access information, learn new skills, and continue personal and professional growth throughout one’s lifetime.
- Digital Freedom: This is the right to use digital tools and electronic communication without unjustified restrictions or fear of surveillance. It includes access to digital resources, privacy, freedom of online expression, and protection of digital rights.
There are countless ways in which we can dissect and define freedoms, across a range of areas of social and economic life. But the most interesting touchstone here is when freedoms collide – such as when your freedoms intervene with another person’s freedoms. Overall, societies need to make collective decisions on how to both enhance and restrict freedoms in order to live in a harmonious and liberal society.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]