Defining Freedom

What is freedom? If you ask your neighbor, he or she may have a slightly different response than you but it likely boils down to the same conclusion: we do not want anyone abridging our freedom.

A lot of the political rhetoric surrounding our national conversation on what it means to be free seems to indicate a more complete, absolute form of freedom. But understanding what freedom may really mean is not as clear or easy as saying the word itself. Consider just these few definitions of freedom as outlined by Merriam-Webster: the quality or state of being free, the absence of necessity or coercion in choice or action, liberation from the power of another, a political right. Along these lines, The Synonym Finder provides additional points of reflection with some equivalent words: liberty, autonomy, sovereignty, independence, self-determination.

What is freedom in the United States as we know it today? To what degree do we see ourselves as free citizens of what many in this country see as the best nation in the world? If we do an honest analysis, we will see that the United States provides a great deal of freedoms not afforded to citizens of other nations. This is not to say that other countries have not surpassed the U.S. in providing freedoms to their citizens, though, and the context under which these other nations provide freedoms have evolved.

Freedom is defined within the contexts of the society in which it exists.

As far as we know, there is no nation or community where absolute freedom exists. This complete form of freedom has never existed in the United States, being yet another nation built upon the blood of men and women of numerous ethnic and racial backgrounds. And, yes, we always are reminded that "freedom isn't free" (there are many variations of this phrase). But, for just a moment, consider the complexities of how freedom is defined. We have determined that, in a civilized society, we must take precautions to minimize the trampling of some individual rights over others. For instance, you likely will be severely punished should you murder another human. It has been determined that you do not have the right to do that and if you do then you typically pay with stringent consequences.

On the other hand, if your neighbor drives a Ford F-350 with two smoke stacks sticking out of the bed of his/her truck with black exhaust pouring out of them when s/he take off from the stop light, then that is his/her right despite polluting your breathing air. Breathing clean air, considered by many to be a basic human right, is not as fully supported in such an instance. The right of one individual trumps your right. Your freedom is hindered, potentially providing you with some sort of physical discomfort.

Unfortunately, it would be too difficult and cumbersome to develop, implement, and enforce policy to stop your neighbor from installing this exhaust system. Doing so also would restrict your neighbor's freedom, which may make us uncomfortable because one of our freedoms may be next. This editorial is not designed, though, to argue one set point but instead is written to spark a conversation about the meaning of freedom. In the end, as is the case with much of life, we give some and we take some. It's all about balance.