Freedom, Liberty, Autonomy
di Frank van Dun
University of Ghent
This explains Rousseau’s so-called paradox of freedom: it is right for the state “to force people to be free”, i.e., to comply with the legal rules of the state. By such coercive action, the state forces people to rid themselves of their own, natural humanity, which is an obstacle to their artificial personality as citizens. The idea is that, to the extent that you remain a natural person, you will be inclined to resent and resist the duties and obligations imposed on you by the legal authority of the state — you will experience the state as an obstacle. So, to get rid of that experience, you need to forget that you are human and instead identify fully with the state itself — indeed, you should consider yourself the author of everything the state does. If you do so consider yourself, your life in the state will be autonomous; you will live under laws you have imposed on yourself. However, as the state is mostly other people, the tyrannical aspect of political rule will disappear only if you are confident that all your fellow citizens also identify with the state. Thus, the legitimacy of the state requires the collectivisation of a multitude of people, who should consider themselves creatures of the same collective, general will. That is why the legitimate state, as a collective of “autonomous citizens”, is really a utopian concept, and why Rousseau himself eventually came to consider it a fanciful dream, an illusion.
 Autonomous man
People with a leftist, “progressive”, especially Marxist orientation, take this idea of autonomy-through-collectivisation of natural persons a giant step further.  They do not want identification with a particular state but with “humanity” as a whole, and beyond that, with Nature itself. This is the Marxist idea of man as “species being”, and of every man as a “universal individual” (as opposed to a “particular individual”).
Man will not be truly free, according Marx, unless he defines the conditions of his own existence. This ideal has also been referred to as the ideal of the autonomous or unconditioned life — a life with no strings attached. All your needs are provided for, while you can fulfil every desire or fancy that strikes you. As Marx famously put it, you can do what you want, while society takes care of general production.
 Note that we are not supposed to read this as “You can do what you want, while others take care of general production.” That would be an old-order motto of privileged aristocrats living at the expense of their serfs. No, we have to understand it in a way that makes sense only if the distinction between oneself and others does not make sense — if all of us are, so to speak, the same, if we identify with society and ultimately with the human species as a whole. For if all men identify with the same thing, they all identify with each other. If that condition were realized, no man could have rights against any other, for exactly the same reason that a man cannot have rights against himself. Of course, the condition cannot be realized. In practice, communism and production are an odd couple. Instructed by his friend, the industrialist Friedrich Engels, Marx came to realize this. In an often-overlooked essay, “On Authority”, they argued that, on entering a factory, one should abandon every hope of autonomy and submit to the rigours of the forces of production — even in a communist society. Considering, the wide range of social, economic and cultural phenomena covered by the label “forces of production”, that leaves little room for autonomy.
Perhaps the most familiar instantiation of this radical concept of autonomy is the modern doctrine of “human rights”, which in effect states that everyone has right to all desirable things (property, freedom, voting rights, healthcare, education, culture, decent housing, paid holidays, tourism, and what not). However, as most of these are rights to scarce things, the practical implementation of the doctrine amounts to invasive political regulation and rationing of goods, subsidies and privileges to particular groups by Western-style democratic welfare states.
The free person versus the autonomous person
“Radical autonomy” may promise to make one the master of one’s conditions of existence, but it does not deliver on that promise. Instead, it puts everybody in opposition to unfathomable abstractions like “society”, “humanity” or “Nature”. The paradoxes of this concept of autonomy should not surprise us. What else could we expect from an idea that turns on the identification of a physically well-defined natural individual with a non-physical, ill-defined collective whole – the identification of the finite and the infinite? Because the radical concept of personal autonomy is antithetical to there being a “given law” that binds a person regardless of his consent or agreement, one person’s autonomy cannot be not limited by any other person’s autonomy, or indeed, any other autonomous force (whether Society, Nature, the Cosmos, or God). Hence, personal autonomy, in this strong sense of the word, is conceptually possible only if every person is presumed to be identical with every other person, or even with everything else. Because that relation of identity does not and cannot exist among real persons, autonomy is a practical impossibility, a chimera. Radical personal autonomy collapses ultimately in antinomy.
Freedom, in contrast, is a real, actual property of every natural person. To respect one’s own and every other person’s freedom — to respect the natural law of persons — is, therefore, an implication of every person’s rational obligation to respect and recognize the truth.
Although the words ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and ‘autonomy’ are often used interchangeably, we should not neglect the very real differences between the concepts of freedom, liberty and autonomy that I have tried to clarify in this lecture. Let me summarize the main differences in the following definitions.
Freedom is a natural property of human beings — the property that makes them persons as distinct from specimens of just another animal species. Within the domain of human persons, it is an objective universal, on a par with speech and the intellectual faculties. It defines the natural-law condition of freedom among likes.
Liberty, in contrast, is the legal status of a member of an organised group or society. It is not a property of a natural person but of a position in a group or society. It applies not to natural but to artificial persons (e.g., citizens). Consequently, it is a relative notion in the same sense that citizenship is a relative concept.
Autonomy, taken in the literal sense, is not something a real, natural, finite person can have. It makes sense only as a form of liberty, but it does not simply require identification with one’s position in society. It requires identification with society (or even with humanity or with the cosmos) as a whole.
Because the social sciences deal, for the most part, with artificial entities (societies and the social positions they define) on the assumption that they constitute a reality (“social reality”), they are often biased in their insistence on socializing human, natural persons. Against this tendency, it is necessary to oppose the natural-law view and its insistence on humanising social constructs. That means giving priority to the universal natural law over and above all particular “social laws”. Societies come and go; so do social theories and ideologies. The one constant is human nature. In the nature of things, human freedom trumps any legislated liberty as much as it trumps the chimera of radical autonomy. While claiming that Man is the measure of all things may sound down-to-earth, the reality is that this can only mean that some men presume to be the measure of everybody else.
1 Nevertheless, more or less subtle differences should be noted. There is no adjective that corresponds to ‘liberty’ as ‘free’ corresponds to ‘freedom’: a liberal person is not the same as a free person. Being free is different from being at liberty or having the liberty. I may be free to vote because I have no obligations that would make it impossible for me to go to the ballot, but even so, I may not be at liberty to vote either because voting is compulsory or because I am not registered as a voter.
2 E.g., German (‘Freiheit’, ‘frei’), Dutch (‘vrijheid’, ‘vrij’) and Swedish (‘frihet’, ‘fri’).
3 The English ‘peace’ derives from the Latin ‘pax’ (cf. verbs pacisci, pacere, participle pactum), which identifies a condition of non-belligerence with particular methods of bringing it about: non-aggression agreement, treaty, subjection (e.g., “Caesar brought peace to Gallia”), effective deterrence (e.g., “The walls of our city ensure our peace”). Thus, according to this etymology, ‘peace’ does not denote a condition of friendliness, let alone love; it primarily denotes a cessation of hostilities and hostile threats.
4 In Dutch, the verb ‘vrijen’ (same stem as ‘vrij’, free) means to make love, to be engaged to marry.
5 Cf. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in Paris in 1948.
6 Unfortunately, not all human beings are human persons; not all human beings have free will. Some are incapable of functioning as persons because of some genetic defect, an accident, a medical intervention that went wrong, or a wilfully damaging act (torture, poisoning, exposure to radiation, and the like) that destroyed all or most of their natural endowment of rational faculties.
7 Already in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the point is made that the defining characteristic of man is his ability to question and disobey the authority of God. Man is, in an admittedly imperfect way “like God”, a rational, thinking, questioning person. Moreover, as soon as this characteristic manifested itself, it became imperative for God to redefine his relationship to man: he expelled him from his house, thereby releasing him from his subjection to God’s direct rule, and gave him the world, on the understanding that both sides would honour the other’s rights to his domain. Thus, the Biblical religion is a religion of covenants or mutual respect between two parties, equal under the law yet definitely unequal with respect to the degree of perfection of their personal qualities. This model of interpersonal relations is of the greatest significance for the Western ideas of law and justice. Short of manifest incapacity to function as a person, one human being’s superiority or inferiority relative to another’s skills, talents or social position makes no difference in law — even if it makes a huge moral, social or economic difference. That is why the Biblical religion of the Jews and Christians is called a religion of the Law. It is a law that pertains essentially to human persons, yet is not made by any human person. It is a logical consequence the coexistence of self-consciously rational persons.