What is Freedom?

Glen T. Martin

June 2021

The cosmos has produced a creature both characterized by freedom and longing for freedom. We long to be free.  We are characterized by freedom because we find an astonishing quality within ourselves. The world as we find it appears to contain no freedom. It is a world conditioned by implacable laws of gravity, entropy, and causality. The other creatures inhabiting the world operative out of instinct, and they lack the self-awareness that appears requisite for freedom.

Only human beings have the self-conscious feeling of making choices between alternatives. Only human beings can envision a goal and set a course of action to achieve that goal. Only human beings can feel the laws of gravity, entropy, and causality as an impediment, a threat to freedom and imagine ways that these laws can be turned to the service of freedom. Only human beings can imagine degrees of freedom pointing toward the possibility of a higher, ultimate freedom.

Numerous thinkers and institutions have linked our intrinsic freedom with our infinite human dignity, from Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, to the profound declaration of Vatican II entitled Dignitatis Humanae Personae, to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights that begins with the ringing words “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” There is something about being human that carries a special, non-quantifiable, not commodifiable quality that sets us apart from all other creatures.

Each human being is a locus of personal freedom, but each human being is also interdependent with nature and with other human beings. The two go together in mysterious ways. In addition, many thinkers and traditional religions have seen human life as a path or journey to the realization of ever-greater freedom. Can we be free as persons while at the same time being part of these integral networks?  We appear caught in the nexus of natural forces through our bodies and we appear as a mere knot in the net of social relationships that help constitute what and who we are. The problem of freedom embraces all of these dimensions.

As we emerge from childhood into adulthood, we experience a growing freedom from the child’s state of being the victim of emotions and impulses over which the child has little conscious control.  Yet we grow into a more conscious adult state within which we appear to be able to make real decisions. This is one reason why the legal framework of society holds adults to a higher standard of responsibility for their actions than it does children. The very structure of law assumes human freedom.

But as young adults we also see that freedom is not only an ontic condition allowing personal choices, but is also perhaps the very goal and meaning of one’s life-project. We see that life is about liberation, salvation, fulfillment, self-realization.  We feel that a higher freedom and even ultimate freedom are both possible as both a framework for the human quest and for my personal quest.

Traditional sages and religious traditions around the world have laid out stages, signposts, practices, and paths to enable our pilgrimages toward human perfection and the highest freedom. A human being is both characterized by ontic freedom and a pilgrim on a journey to realization of ever-greater freedom, a freedom that transcends even the necessary laws that govern our bodies and the conditioning of our social networks to which we belong. We realize as well that both these sources of unfreedom can be transformed to varying degrees to enhance our freedom. Modern technology has learned to manipulate the necessary conditions of existence to make access to food, water, shelter, and energy extraordinarily easy (for those who can afford these), freeing us in many ways to pursue our existential destiny that strives for ever-greater freedom.

Similarly, we realize that economic and political conditions of society can enhance or restrict freedom, that negative forms of institutionalization can suppress freedom and better forms can provide economic, social, and political well-being that frees us to pursue the dream of ever-greater freedom. We see that today, these social, economic, and political conditions are different. Vast political systems linked to multi-national sovereign nation-states and international struggles condition lives lived locally everywhere on our planet. The global inextricably links with the local raising the question of human freedom to our entire planet.

In today’s world we find that the technology that has enhanced our freedom has also produced weapons of mass-destruction placing our quest for freedom under the dark cloud of uncertainty and pending apocalypse. We also find that the social institutions of militarized sovereign nation-states constricts our freedom in multiple ways, from having to pay war taxes, to having to fight in their wars, to limitations on our freedom to travel through a visa system, to brutal blockades, sanctions, and other mechanisms used by one “free” portion of humanity to destroy the freedom and dignity of some other portion of the human family.

The quest for freedom that characterizes the nature of every human being and constitutes the dignity of every human being is undermined and destroyed today by global economics and political systems that place over a billion people in the slavery of extreme poverty and that fragment our planet into a hell of endless conflict and denial of freedom. That is why the Constitution for the Federation of Earth is the key to continuing our common human quest for freedom. It ends both he war-system and the poverty-system for all humanity.

Our common human quest for ever-greater freedom and ever-enhanced dignity, that is, for the true fulfillment of our ontological vocation, cannot continue until we have established the unity in diversity of our common human project. Our common human project is about freedom. It requires uniting humanity in the recognition that the world is one family (as the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, quoted above, declares). Our human destiny includes a deep coherence and synergy with one another globally so that the institutional frameworks of our lives enhance our ontological vocation rather than defeat it.

Lawlessness is not freedom, operating out of impulses, greed, blind instincts, or power-lust is not freedom but inner slavery.  Lawfulness needs to be imposed upon not only our personal lusts and impulses but on civilization as a whole. Beyond the level of nation-states there is little lawfulness. It is democratic laws, empowering everyone equally and justly, that bring civilizational freedom. Power-struggles are immature, childlike drives and impulses. That is why children are not held responsible to the law.  The nation-states on the international level are like children confusing their drives, their irrational impulses for power, competition, and domination, with lawful freedom.

The Earth Constitution not only unites humanity under the rule of democratic laws empowering the freedom of everyone, it prohibits the uses of technology for destructive purposes, demilitarizes the world, and directs all institutions toward the use of technology to protect the environment and enhance the quality of every human life. Those today who happen to live in favorable circumstances who pursue their personal liberation in isolation from the revolutionary imperative to transform our planetary institutions to serve everyone on the Earth thereby betray our common humanity and our common human destiny.

Our common human quest for perfect freedom finds that the individual human drive for freedom is inextricably bound up with our common humanity, our common ontological vocation, and with the cosmos as a whole. Perfect freedom, as all the great traditional religious paths have confirmed both transcends and completes our individual selves. We become free when we transcend our immature egoisms and ascend to transpersonal levels of conscious and intuitive relationship with others and with the whole of existence. We experience both freedom-from suffering, as Buddhism emphasizes, and freedom-for a positive relationship with the ground of being, with the very foundations of existence. At this level we realize the profound truth that the world is one family, and that “nothing and no one is a stranger to me.”

We cannot realize this higher level of freedom within today’s world of fragmentation and incoherence. Revolutionary solidarity in the name of human freedom and dignity is the only legitimate moral response to the horror of our current world disorder. Those who make personal liberation central to their life-activity apart from the rest abdicate their responsibility and betray our common humanity. Ratification of the Earth Constitution is the single great moral imperative of our day.

This imperative involves revolutionary solidarity in the service of human freedom and dignity. Freedom and the struggle for freedom are not two different things. The path embodies the goal and the goal encompasses the path. Ends and means cannot be separated. All human beings are pilgrims in the quest for freedom. Let us work together to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.


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Martin, Glen T. (2008). Ascent to Freedom: Practical and Philosophical Implications of Democratic World Law. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

Martin, Glen T.(2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation. London: Cambridge Scholars.

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