Being at liberty: what do we really mean by "freedom"?

Updated: May 11, 2021

Liberty has been in the spotlight lately. Mask-wearing seemingly divides us between those who see masks as devices of state control and those who see them as tools of the freedom to have some semblance of normal public life.

As developmental coaches we may speak about supporting our clients to be 'free'. My lovely colleague in the UK, Justin Wise, says coaching 'frees people to bring humanity and dignity to life'. I often feel that developmental coaching is partnering with someone or a team or organisation to unravel some of the tangles that they have become stuck in, to become free from what is holding them back.

In an essay, British philosopher and political theorist Isaiah Berlin used this distinction between negative liberty i.e. 'freedom from' and positive liberty i.e. 'freedom to'. His distinction ignited a discussion in political theory about rights. In that arena the formula most democratic and 'developed' countries have adopted is to maximise freedom from in order to also maximise freedom to. The law usually protects an individuals freedom from constraint up to the point where lack of constraint impinges on someone else's freedom to live peacefully in accordance with their own rights. So for example we enshrine freedom from constraint on our expression through speech or writing except when exercising that freedom might demonstrably negatively impact others severely. In such countries, the idea of minimising constraints is rarely challenged and the political debate centres only on 'which rights?' and 'whose?'

Yet IS being able to maximise freedom from constraint the best way for to protect freedom to express ourselves fully? Does being able to do and say what we want really equate to being 'free' - or is there another way of thinking about freedom that supports individuals or societies to grow, flourish and mature?

In his moral philosophy, Immanuel Kant argues that moral rightness and wrongness can apply only to free agents and that if we can't be said to exercise choice free of both external and internal 'controls', we are not really acting freely. The law tends to agree: think about someone compelled to an act under duress or due to diminished mental capacity. We don't hold him or her fully responsible for it because we understand that they didn't really choose to act as they did.

However, Kant argued that even without duress or severely diminished capacity, we are largely not making truly free choices. Our choices are shaped by our maxims. These can be understood as the principles by which we live but they are largely implicit and unexamined 'rules for living' formed by our less mature selves. In some types of coaching these are labelled 'self limiting' beliefs. These beliefs and value systems are woven together into stories about the way we are and the way the world is and become our hidden 'operating systems'. If we believe we are worthy only when we are being 'productive', 'agreeable' or 'smart' we will be compelled to be 'productive', 'agreeable' or 'smart' according to the ideas we have of what that means and so when situations arise which do not fit with that story , we become tangled.

The internal stories we tell ourselves about what would make us happy, whole and more secure determine our behaviour. But these stories were often placed in the cupboards of our psyche long ago and now sit lurking at the back unexamined, until we reach in, pull them out and examine whether they are past their 'use by' dates.

It's not enough to do the psychic equivalent of an occasional 'spring clean' though. The shelves of our inner cupboard are constantly being filled. We need to examine and let go of the old and outdated but also be discerning of stocking our shelves with new and shinier story jars.

In developmental coaching we try to help our clients find the reflections and practices that will allow them to more fully express who they are. The paradox at the heart of this in an era of digital distraction and cult of busyness is that meaningful freedom requires us to exercise conscious constraint to protect our time, attention and energy.

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