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The bottom line of morality: free or not

If you would decisively want to evaluate the concepts of ethics and morality from the ground up where would you start? What is that most fundamental moral layer on which all other moral layers build? This most fundamental bottom layer is the one which has to be considered before all others in a society, as without it, all other moral points are potentially compromised. This article argues that the fundamental moral layer is the "state of freedom" and hence the most fundamental moral question, the first one to ask, is how free is the society and its individuals.

There are many ways people define freedom and indeed freedom represents different things to different people. However, there is something that is common to all of these definitions and perceptions and can be summarized in one word: ability. To elaborate, the ability here means being able to exercise your moral rights. In other words, it means that there are no legal or deliberate practical constraints imposed by others to deny your ability to exercise your moral rights. For example, if it is moral for you to share a copy of software on your CD with your friend, you have to be free to do so. To be free in this sense, however, you have to be able to exercise this moral right which means that there should be no legal or other deliberate constraints designed by anyone else which would prevent you from exercising this right and sharing a copy of software on this CD with a friend. The act must be legal and possible to undertake.

Of course if constraints are not ones imposed by humans, but by physical reality then this constraint is not counted as a constraint on your ability to exercise freedom. You can't shout at nature for being immoral when it constraints you from doing certain things at a certain time. (Technically you could but it would be futile.)

So, a state of freedom is simply a state of being free to exercise your moral rights. If a state of freedom reigns in a whole society than every human being in this society has full ability to exercise his or her moral rights.

Not every right is considered to be moral. Indeed, there are no immoral rights to speak of when talking about morality, as that is simply senseless. Hence the state of freedom is not a state in which everybody does whatever they want no matter what. It is a state which allows only moral rights to be exercised as otherwise every immoral act essentially results in someones freedom being subverted. For a state of freedom to reign, not only should every person have the ensured ability to exercise moral rights, but every person should be restricted from imposing constraints to exercises of freedom through their immoral actions.

We can add a practical example illustrating this, although an extreme, but hence more vivid one. Everyone agrees that killing a person is immoral, and rightfully so. However, many overlook a simple fact that the major part of what makes this act immoral is the obstruction of freedom, in this case freedom to exercise a moral right to live. You could do a thought experiment where you would pick any immoral act you can think of and try to find what freedom is being restricted to exercise of which moral rights. You will find that in every case in which an immoral act is being perpetrated, the major, if not whole part of what makes it immoral is actually the fact that it deprived someone from their freedom.

It is only reasonable to conclude, hence, that freedom is a fundamental moral principle and that striving to keep your freedom and preserve the state of freedom in a society is actually an all encompassing moral cause. If you would describe yourself as a "freedom fighter", you do not necessarily need to think of yourself as alienated from the more specific causes whose link to the fundamental moral layer of freedom isn't as obvious, such as for example the much ridiculed (for its links to seventies I suppose) cause of world peace, better equity with the third world and even environmentalism.

Some of these causes may at first seem a bit unrelated to freedom. You could say that fighting for peace is fighting for not having people killed and resources destroyed, but when you would have to answer a question of why is war immoral you would have to cite examples in which there is a clear deprivation of freedom evident. Human rights imply freedom to exercise them. If these rights are infringed upon, the state of freedom is broken. Every war, no matter the motives behind, is resulting in humans losing their freedom to exercise certain rights, which they would have otherwise been able to exercise, due to deliberate human imposed constraints, including the ultimate constraint of death.

Environmental concerns may seem even more disconnected from the cause of freedom, but again if we ask what is immoral about pollution we can easily find examples of someones freedom being violated due to human imposed constraints. Examples are corporate induced pollution causing health risks forcing people out of their homes, essentially violating their freedom to live a normal life, to put it vaguely. It is true that it is not only corporations to blame for pollution, but ordinary people like you and me driving bad gas emitting cars and throwing garbage in inappropriate places without realizing that not only we are making the environment less friendly for ourselves, but others as well. If causing damage to oneself is not to be considered immoral, causing damage to others at the same time certainly is as it leads to constraints (indeed human induced ones) to the freedom, the ability to exercise certain moral rights. Simply breathing a clean air can be considered a moral right.

The issue of freedom is the most fundamental of all moral principles. It is embodied in every questioning of morality. Pretty much all of our descriptions of acts as immoral ones will include the "she was denied the right" kind of reasoning. His freedom was violated. She has the right to this or that, but they made it illegal or impossible. It is immoral. And so on.

Because of this, all moral causes have a base in the issue of freedom and therefore those who profess themselves as "freedom fighters" are actually fighting for the moral principle underlying all others. Richard Stallman, for example, may be a good candidate for the "freedom fighter" title and as such we are compelled to evaluate his overall stance on all moral issues. Does this mean that GNU GPL, the license he engineered, has to prohibit all uses which involve immoral acts because these are fundamentally freedom depriving? No. GPL is designed to protect only software related freedoms and this is its domain. If it were a license that would govern all possible human behaviour then we wouldn't call it a license. We would call it the law of the state.

Thank you


Would you say that if


Would you say that if something doesn't limits anyone's freedom, it can't be immoral?

Any examples of that? It

Any examples of that? It seems to me that the very condition we are using to determine what is moral or not is whether someones rights are violated or not. It's just that this isn't always so obvious to people.



Overall quite nice. However the beginning several paragraphs are worded kind of circularly.

I can't think of any good


I can't think of any good examples, but here's one: consensual incest may not limit anyones freedoms, but I think it is immoral.

a legal and philosophical definition


"your freedom stops where the freedom of others starts". This is usually the definition in freedom in democracy and I think it's a good one. But it leaves some grey zones, though.

Well, in case of consensual

Well, in case of consensual incests there's alot to argue about. For one, is it moral to break your own freedom, incancerate yourself, kill yourself etc. It's the same as asking if one can even deny freedom to oneself, or is the act of denying itself an exercise of freedom.

Charles, I too think that is a valid way to describe freedom. It pretty much says that state of freedom implies self preserving restrictions. Those restrictions are nothing else but ones ensuring that everybody in a society is free, not just one person. GPL is a legal example of this principle at work. Share in freedom, but share alike! Smiling

Interesting article. I find

Interesting article. I find it interesting how you have linked morality to freedom, and it seem that it makes sense.

In regard to tbuitenh's example of incest, one could say it denied the freedom of any child born of the situation to be free of genetic disease caused by the mixing of the similar DNA (This is pushing it a bit, and my knowlage of genetics is minimal).

Though I still find the best definition of freedom to be "Whatever floats your boat as long as it doesn't sink mine".

dylunio: it's possible to


dylunio: it's possible to prevent pregnancy, y'know. My point is that some things are widely considered immoral even though they don't harm anyone except those doing them.

I know it's possible to

I know it's possible to prevent pregnancy, though the fact I come from a plance with one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe one can be inclined to forget such methods exist. But I see your point tbuitenh.

I feel this article presumes that every one has the same view of morality. Maybe majorities do, I'm not sure, there are things such as abortion which are deemed immoral by some and not so by others, but these might just be me overcomplicating things.

I think it is quite clear


I think it is quite clear abortion can be seen as ending someone's freedom to live. If it actually is, is something else.

I wonder if this reasoning about morality and freedom is very useful. All freedoms are freedom from being harmed (harmed for a reason or without one). Yes, harming someone (except when not doing it would do more harm) is immoral, that's obvious!

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