Implications 5: Freedom

Nathan Richardson

In a previous post, “Astronauts without Planets,” I described two competing paradigms about the nature of self and autonomy or agency. The first paradigm, Self-interest, assumes that selves are inherently separate, and thus free will or autonomy consists of the capacity to choose while being free of any other influence. The second paradigm, Other-interest, assumes that selves are inherently connected, and that this inherent relatedness is what creates the influences and possibilities from which we choose. Without that relatedness, there can be no meaningful power of choice.

This rejection or acceptance of intrinsic connection has implications in how we define freedom. There are more than two ways to conceive of freedom, of course, but here I will describe two broad currents in modern thought that differ in fundamental ways. (The following discussion relies in part on a thesis by Renée Beckwith,1 and I am indebted to her for her insights.)

Self-interest. In the first paradigm, autonomy and freedom are often viewed as being virtually the same thing. Self-governance can only exist in a state of detachment and separation, with no obligations. Freedom is seen as being autonomous—unattached or unbound to other things or selves which might constrain it through expectations or influence. Once a person becomes connected, she has simultaneously lost freedom and autonomy. She cannot govern herself because her attachments determine her choices for her. Thus, freedom is “independence from the other.”1

Other-interest. In the second paradigm, since relatedness is inherent and inevitable to existence, freedom is seen, not as independence from the other, but as a way of being within that relationship. “Freedom is not seen as an individual quality or characteristic, but as an activity—a way of being in relation to others.”2

There are at least two ways this way of being can be conceived of. One way is to conceive of freedom as the quantity of relationships formed—the number of options available. As options increase, freedom increases (such as having more career possibilities by getting a degree). A decrease in options is a decrease in freedom (such as a reduced range of motion from being put in chains).

Another way is to conceive of freedom as the quality of relationships formed. Freedom is defined as perceiving and interacting truthfully—acknowledging our connections and honoring our mutual obligations, not avoiding or negating those connections and obligations. Richard Williams has suggested that “the notion of freedom as choice from among alternatives is conceptually flawed. A conception of freedom as ‘having the world truthfully’ is presented as an alternative to freedom conceived as choice.”2

A metaphor. For example, a story is told of a father and son flying a kite. The boy was amazed at how high the kite went, and continued letting out the string to see how high it could go. When he ran out of string and felt the kite tugging at his hand, it seemed like the kite wanted to go higher but was constrained by the string. He begged his dad to cut the string so the kite would be free to go even higher. His dad complied, and the boy was surprised to see the kite fall to the ground instead of soar into space.

Both paradigms begin with the fact that the kite is aloft. Both assume that staying aloft and rising higher are desirable outcomes. In the first paradigm, self-interest, the space between the kite and the ground is what makes the kite autonomous; otherwise the kite would be laying on the ground and not free to move about in the air. The string binding the kite to the boy is a limitation on the kite’s autonomy and freedom. Cutting the string is the only way the kite can truly rise independently.

In the second paradigm, other-interest, the string binding the kite is a fact that holds the kite aloft (in a state of autonomy, able to move around, as opposed to an inert state on the ground). The way to make the kite rise higher is not to cut the string, but to lengthen it and strengthen it (so that it can endure the tensions caused by lengthening). It must acknowledging and use its connection to the boy. That is, its relationship is what makes it autonomous, and strengthening and fulfilling that relationship increases its freedom.

Another way to increase freedom of movement is to add strings. If a kite has two, three, or more strings, the number and quality of possible maneuvers increase. A loss of freedom would involve weakening or severing the cords that bind it to the Other. The sad thing about the first paradigm is that, even if the string is never cut and the kite is at its apex, the first paradigm causes resentment and dissatisfaction in the midst of genuine freedom and fulfillment.

One implication of distinguishing between freedom and autonomy (agency or self-governance) is that one can be diminished while the other is retained. That is, even if a stunt kite loses one or two strings and thus loses maneuverability, it can still be kept aloft. Indeed, modern prophets and apostles sometimes point out the difference, often distinguishing between the terms agency and freedom. When defining agency, Bruce R. McConkie listed four ingredients, one of which was freedom; clearly he drew a distinction.3 Likewise, Dallin H. Oaks said,

Interferences with our freedom do not deprive us of our free agency. … When Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple, he interfered with their freedom to engage in a particular activity at a particular time in a particular place, but he did not take away their free agency. … D&C 101:78 … shows the distinction between agency (the power of choice), which is God-given, and freedom, the right to act upon our choices, which is protected by the … laws of the land. … A loss of our free agency … is impossible under our doctrine.4

An accurate understanding of the nature of agency and freedom can help us wisely choose among and honor the influences in our lives, rather than trying to excise all influences so that we can choose “freely.” Otherwise we might end up like the man who fell overboard in a storm and was being carried away by the waves. When someone tossed him a life ring on a rope and said, “Grab on,” he replied, “No, I want to be free to move about however I want.”



Notes

1. Renée Beckwith, “Exploring Maternal Ambivalence: Comparing Findings with Two Opposing Paradigms of Intent,” master’s thesis (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2003).
2. Richard N. Williams, “The Human Context of Agency, “ American Psychologist 47 (1992), p. 752–760.
3. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (1966), p. 26; quoted in “The Fulness of the Gospel: Agency,” Ensign, Mar. 2006, p. 18–19.
4. Dallin H. Oaks, “Free Agency and Freedom,” BYU devotional, 11 Oct. 1987, speeches.byu.edu, accessed 29 Jul. 2008.