Freedom and Liberty in the American Mind

The concept of “freedom” has been well-known for a long time, even before the new era. In Europe, it acquired its philosophical status in the teachings of Socrates and works by Plato and Aristotle, Democritus and Epicurus. Stoics, as well as other ancient thinkers, speculated on freedom (Marcus Aurelius and Seneca). Gradually, a number of issues surrounding this amazing phenomenon of human existence have been formed. In the interpretation of freedom, historical, philosophical and social (including political and economic) aspects of the spiritual (ideological, moral) content were defined. Human freedom was closely associated with the development of productive forces and the social-class structure of society, type and form of government (democracy, authoritarian regime, or totalitarianism), evolution of the man’s relationship with nature, and the formation and development of the human personality (Laski 13). In these terms, a distinction between liberty and freedom appeared, forming two sides of the coin, personal and so-called “governmental” freedom, namely, liberty. The freedom to do what the individual wants and the liberty declared in the Declaration of Freedom by Thomas Jefferson are different things (Wolf 13). This paper seeks to explain the differences and research what freedom type is not vital for American society. 

In the mind of a modern American, freedom appears as a philosophical notion. A person is a social being, and, therefore, inevitably interacts with other people during his or her life, which leads in turn to the need to limit the arbitrariness of one’s desires. After all, this behavior is simply unreasonable and results to appropriate sanctions by society. However, social rights are a powerful counterbalance in the face of such basic needs as the desire for autonomy. In my opinion, this is a motivating force for many people, being more important than the social one. In this case, the concept of freedom is expressed as being free “from something” or independence. In ethical philosophy, such freedom is considered absolute control over arbitrariness, but is not a vertex. After all, in such independent autonomous existence, a positive creative component is not necessarily present. Therefore, this understanding of freedom in ethics is considered negative (which does not mean bad). Nevertheless, the development of one’s self inevitably passes through this autonomous stage. Thus, it is reasonable to ask the following question: how negative freedom becomes a positive one? Such freedom is manifested and realized through an opportunity, ability and the right of a man to choose something (and act accordingly) out of alternative goals and objectives. It is freedom of choice. Thus, in my view, the idea of free will is reduced to the freedom of man to choose. However, what influences a particular choice of a person? Here, one may conclude that in the psychological language, people select in accordance with what is called the core of a person, namely, the worldview of a particular person and his or her main life values. People with a high level of personal development are aware of their values more fully. Moreover, such persons accept them as an urgent need and act respectively being responsible for their actions. Another conclusion from this fact is that an individual perceiving freedom as independence confuses these two notions and, therefore, limits both.


Generally, in consciousness, freedom is associated with the absence of any pressure or constraints. This meaning is reflected, for example, in a wide variety of dictionaries all over the world with a similar definition of it being person’s own will, scope, opportunity to act own way, lack of restraints, bondage, and slavery (Polletta 15). However, this definition of freedom in essence makes it close to self-will in the meaning of arbitrary desires of the individual, which is fundamentally different from the governmental sense of the term. As one of the main manifestations of freedom in terms of politics, liberty is the one’s “sacred obligation to take the most serious possible steps and undergo the most serious kinds of personal risks in defense of this freedom that is your natural right” (Wolf 18). In fact, the declaration of freedom here is not perceived as a legal allowance to do what one wants, but the freedom to defend one’s own liberty on the way to do what one wishes. It is especially true in relation to the right to free speech and press. As mentioned in the article by Appelbaum, modern press is said to write and publish whatever the printing company wants (643). It is hard to image that such giants as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Yale University Press and GQ can be limited in their publishing abilities. However, remembering the recent explosions in Paris, at the Charlie Hebdo magazine, the reason for the existing limitations is clear. Publishers and media companies are simply afraid of telling something against the word of terroristic, autocratic and other totalitarian regimes (Appelbaum 642-3). This fear is clear and understandable, but here the issue of liberty is doubted. Why should an American company be afraid to print American authors in American magazines? Thus, in fact, big corporations, not mentioning similar smaller ones, have neither liberty since the governmentally declared right is violated, nor freedom since they cannot write whatever they want. Thus, not even a single word can be said about their freedom, as they do not have it.

Personally, I consider it worth noting that the realization of freedom as doing what one wants is usually inherent in adolescent consciousness so that everyone, in one way or another, goes through such an understanding of freedom on the way of development. Nevertheless, in the American mind, the concept of freedom exists only in this underdeveloped adolescent state. I agree with Wolf who indicates the challenge to scrutinize the Declaration of Independence and to translate into the modern English (14). Despite Polletta is saying that Americans are free since the Declaration states it, I consider it wrong (183). In fact, Americans can say whatever they want, but they should be aware of being sued for expressing own thoughts and beliefs since it violates the freedom of other people. In line with this, the issue of liberty comes to my mind. The American people have the freedom to express themselves, but they have no liberty to do it since the government will not defend them in their free will (Laski 175). Therefore, there is indeed a necessity to look through the Declaration of Independence and identify that freedom is a constant fight for liberty, no matter how absurd it seems to be. 

The Constitution of 1787 (with amendments) provides personal freedom not in a common form, but in a concretized one. In addition, except emergent cases, it prohibits suspending habeas corpus rules, entitles a jury to deal with all cases of crimes, and prohibits the laws of attainder (punishment without a trial) and retroactive laws. The Constitution prohibits the deprivation of civil rights of families of those persons who have been convicted for high treason and precludes judging a person based on one’s religious beliefs as a condition of employment for any public office (Polletta 26-54).

The Bill of Rights is also based on the concept of natural rights. Therefore, its formulation is prohibitive that restricts the rights and freedoms that are summarized. It applies to political rights. The Bill provides that the Congress shall make no laws restricting the freedom of speech, press, assemblies (peaceful and without weapons), right of people to carry and store weapons, and the right to petition the government. The Bill of Rights ensures the freedom of conscience, protection of individual securities (documents, correspondence, and others), property, providing a jury not only in criminal cases, but also in a certain category of civil cases, defendant’s right to a defense, and the right to refuse to testify against oneself. A double punishment for the same offense, big collateral for court cases, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishments are not allowed (Laski 17-23).

In addition to the Bill of Rights, about Ten Amendments relating to human rights and freedoms were subsequently adopted. However, overall, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and its Amendments do not contain a list of rights and freedoms in line with international standards set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948, and the International Covenants on Human Rights, which came into force in 1976. As noted above, though not completely, but these shortcomings are present in constitutions of individual states, federal laws, and judicial precedents (Laski 30-48).

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The documents mentioned above are said to declare and secure both the freedom and liberty of the American citizen. The authors claiming that Americans are as free as they can be always refer to these documents together with the doubted Declaration of Independence (Wolf 15). However, scrutinizing these documents, one can find a plenty of limitations, shortcomings and other boundaries that serve as solid evidence of the actual absence of freedom, as well as the absence of liberty. One of the brightest examples of limitations is the necessity to be aware of violating someone’s freedom. The controversy is obvious, namely, how one can be free to express oneself if he/she should refer to other’s freedom of expression. This fact is confirmed in terms of the freedom of press by Applebaum. The author proves this statement in terms of fear against totalitarian and terroristic regimes. I totally agree with Applebaum’s explanations and examples. The individual, company or the government afraid of somebody’s reaction is not free and has no liberty.

Therefore, an individual personally violates his or her natural and legal right to physical and mental freedom non-intentionally. Being afraid to use a natural right in fact limits this very right. Talking about the concept of liberty in these terms, the necessity of a constant fight for freedom, pursue of happiness and independence also limits the natural right for liberty as well as violates it. The example of Charlie Hebdo is a good way to illustrate this point. Giglietto and Lee said Charlie Hebdo was free to express its opinion on Muslims (the magazine printed a commix illustrating absurd traditions of the Muslims) (33-34). These authors are completely right. However, what is the situation now? The magazine is definitely not free, but has its liberty. By printing the content mentioned above, it expressed the freedom of press as a legally declared liberty. On the other side, terrorists also expressed their freedom (not liberty) of committing a terroristic act at their publishing house. The result is that all publishers similar to Charlie Hebdo are now afraid to say a word against Muslims and, in fact, have lost their freedom. However, they still have a liberty of writing whatever they want. They are now afraid and limit their natural right. Additionally, Charlie Hebdo owners claim that they will not stop writing about Muslims and other delicate topics (Giglietto and Lee 36). It limits their liberty as well since they have to fight for it.

To conclude, one can say that all freedoms, liberties, and independence declared in the existing documents are in fact limited by fear. It may be a fear of terrorism, foreign governments, and violating someone’s freedom. The deduction is simple, namely, that freedom is limited and there is a necessity to scrutinize the issue to come to this conclusion. In addition, the problem is accompanied by the confusion of the notions of freedom, independence and liberty in the Americans’ minds. No one mentions the difference and notices it.

Jul 10, 2019 in Communications
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