Freedom and being free

What is freedom?

Freedom is an elusive concept because it means different things to different people. The fact that it can be interpreted differently is, ironically, down to the freedom we have over our own thoughts. For most people, the idea of freedom is best described as the ability to alter something – anything, in fact – freely. This is somewhat open-ended as a definition, however. As such, freedom tends to be referred to by contrasting it against its absence, in forms of social or economic control such as slavery, for example. When we are free of such constraints, we are said to be at liberty, that is the state in which we can act freely.

 How is freedom an expression of humanity?

Although people throughout history have striven to overturn oppression, their desire to be free should not be seen as defining their essential humanity. After all, even the lowliest of prisoner who has little freedom is still a human being. Likewise, a baby who cannot alter very much in the world under their own will is also still a member of humanity. That said, some of the fundamental human rights that have been set out by institutions like the United Nations have referred to such rights as 'freedoms'. Examples of this are the freedom from want or freedom of expression.  

Why is freedom of speech important?

In societies where freedom of speech is restricted, and certain statements can be punished, there tends to be little democracy. Therefore, these societies are often referred to as closed or repressive. Even in the liberal democracies of the world, however, certain restrictions on freedom of speech exist, usually an attempt to balance what can be said against wider societal protections. In most Western countries, therefore, there are libel laws and restrictions on what can be said in terms of hate speech, for example. Nevertheless, the concept remains important because Western democracies were often borne out of a reaction to repressive control in feudal times.

What is freedom of movement?

Freedom of movement is the ability to move from one place to another and settle there. In the United States, for example, citizens of Alaska have the right to move to Alabama, New York, California or Hawaii if they wish to do so. In principle, no restriction is placed on their right to move, work and access public services. In the European Union, a similar level of freedom of movement is possible for EU citizens. Respectively, the same right has existed for over a century between the UK and the Republic of Ireland under the so-called common travel area.

How can you feel freer in life?

Feeling freer can help you to stop being weighed down by responsibilities and societal or cultural restrictions. Meditating and focussing on what really counts in your life is a good first step since this will help you to avoid being trapped by material considerations so much. Making affirmative choices, such as taking up a new hobby or stopping doing something you no longer enjoy, is another good approach to consider.

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At their simplest, human rights are a number of social norms that are in place to protect individuals from one another and larger organisations, such as big businesses or the state. The idea behind them is that no one can take away another person's rights which are said to be inalienable. That means that they cannot be subject to change or altered at the whim of a government or a dictator, for example. The idea of inalienable rights took off after the calamity of the Second World War when many civilians died as well as combatants. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made under the auspices of the newly formed United Nations in 1948, and it still creates much of the legal basis for international monitoring.
The word equality has its root in the Latin term for knights – or equites – which meant propertied men who, unlike common foot soldiers, had sufficient wealth to ride into battle on a horse. They considered themselves to be equals among their peers but of a distinct social class from the common soldiery. As such, the modern concept of equality never really means a level playing field for all – such ideas are more associated with the concept of egalitarianism. Equality can, therefore, mean different things to different people and have unique meanings in different contexts around the world. Many people who campaign for greater equality want outcomes to be more equal and for people to have a fair chance in life rather than ensuring everyone has an exactly shared out amount of resource and wealth.
For some Western philosophers, notably Kant, enlightenment is a greater understanding of humanity derived from observations rather than superstitions. The Age of Enlightenment is often referred to as a flowering of scientific understanding in 17th and 18th-century Europe. That said, spiritual enlightenment has its roots in Buddhism and the teachings of established religions, especially, Hinduism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. Although related concepts – because they both really mean a deeper knowledge – the Western and Eastern versions should not be conflated with one another. Spiritual enlightenment is known as bodhi by Buddhists and moksha in Hinduism. These words roughly translate as either awakening or liberation. As such, spiritually enlightened thought should be considered to be as something akin to a revelation - what Christians might call an epiphany by way of comparison.
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