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Two concepts of freedom
Two concepts of freedom

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1 Introducing the concept of freedom

What are the limits of individual freedom in a civilised society? Should we tolerate unlimited freedom of speech, no matter how offensive the views expressed? Can the state ever be justified in interfering with what consenting adults choose to do in private? When, if ever, is coercion acceptable? Are all laws obstacles to freedom, or are they the very condition of achieving it? Should we sometimes force people to be free, or is that a contradiction in terms? These are serious questions. They're not merely abstract puzzles for philosophers to ponder in comfortable armchairs. They are the sorts of issues that people are prepared to die for.

Even if you choose to ignore them, the way other people answer these questions will impinge on your life. Philosophers at least since Plato's time have put forward answers to them. Here we'll be examining the arguments some of them have used. However, this won't just be a survey of some interesting thoughts on the subject. The point is to engage with the arguments: to examine their structure and content to see if they really support their conclusions. You needn't agree with these conclusions. As long as you think critically about the concept of freedom and are capable of arguing your case rather than simply stating your prejudices, you will be reading in the spirit in which they are intended.

To live in a society requires all kinds of co-operation. Usually this means curbing some of our more selfish desires in order to accommodate other people's interests. That is an element of the human situation. Given that our desires often conflict, it would be impossible for us to live in a society which imposed no limits whatsoever on what we do. It would be absurd to argue that we should all have complete licence to do whatever takes our fancy no matter who is affected by our actions. I shouldn't be allowed to walk into your house and help myself to your stereo and television. Hardly anyone would argue that I should be free to steal your possessions simply because I want them; but deciding where to set the limits on individual freedom in less extreme cases is no easy task.