Der Apriorist - Abstracts 09. Dec. 2011

Freedom, Liberty, Autonomy

by Frank van Dun

Tags: political philosophy, freedom
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Frank van Dun. Freedom, Liberty, Autonomy. May 2010. A lecture given at the University of Padua (Treviso).

Conclusion: Although the words ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and ‘autonomy’ are often used interchangeably, we should not overlook 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.

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