Epistemology: What it is and Why it is Important.

This post has been a long time brewing. It is essentially a summarized primer on knowing, and knowing how one knows. It is foundational to the perspective arching throughout the various posts of this blog, but the same may be said for its relevance for individual point-of-view and socially-constructed realities.

First things first: definitions. “Epistemology” derives from the Greek, “episteme” and “logos” which translates as “knowledge” + “discourse.” The OED defines it as, “the theory or science of the method or grounds of knowledge.” Put in other words: “Epistemology” is the study of how (human) conscious beings know, properly speaking. But “epistemology” can also mean the specific method chosen to know, essentially a chosen framework for a point-of-view. To differentiate between these two definitions the former will be spelled with an “E” and the latter with an “e.”

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There are essentially five types of epistemologies, and each (often a combination of) type is taken as a practical system of knowledge.

  1. Experience: what an individual lives on a daily basis, informing their knowledge of what is known and real. Specifically, what an individual, or group, experiences.
  2. Folk Wisdom and Superstition: a “loose” collection of knowledge passed down through culture.
  3. Faith/Religion: a lot like folk wisdom and superstition except that this epistemology constitutes a more established doctrine and as such more pervasive, influential, and accepted.
  4. Empiricism/Science: a systematized body of laws, truths, and rules for understanding the world in a specific way.
  5. Reason, Logic, and Mathematics: like empiricism and science, these epistemologies are systematized but unlike the former, the latter uses solely thought to determine knowledge and each has its own variable effect upon reality.

There are strengths and weaknesses to each type of epistemology. What follows is a very brief summary:

Experience, for example, is often limited by the person who experiences their own personal reality. So a person who’s had bad experiences with a business, institution, etc will tend to generalize; while another person who has positive experiences will do the same. Who is right, who is wrong? Both and neither. But without some sort of system to investigate the phenomenon at large, and in more objective ways, it becomes difficult to make definitive conclusions about a particular phenomenon. Its simultaneous strength and weakness is that it is personal, and that it informs an individual on a visceral level, thus making it profoundly strong.

Folk Wisdom and Superstition incorporates the personal and turns it into the social. What has happened to an individual, a tribe, or even a (segment of) society becomes a generally accepted truth, .e.g. black cats are bad luck, mirrors on window-sills scare away demons, opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck, etc. Like personal experience, these epistemologies exert a strong influence, and similarly they are often limited in terms of being true.

Belief systems like Faith and Religion are also particularly susceptible to fault since what is often believed has no verifiable basis in reality. For example, the belief that there is life after death has no verifiable justification for that belief. It is simply something we cannot know since it involves an experience after life that cannot be neither confirmed nor denied. Despite the several accounts of life after death, the entire near-death experience can be explained in other ways, i.e. the experience of death itself as a common neurobiological process, like love. In other words: it amounts to a personal conviction – at best – and wishful thinking – at worst – much like the belief in Santa Claus, omens, or any other such phenomenon. Its strength is that beliefs are commonly shared and exert a strong influence, thus informing personal actions – in other words: they are powerful social guides.

Science and – the philosophy on which it is based – Empiricism have their shortcomings, too. They assume, for example, – because it cannot be proved; in other words, it believes – that the observable and testable world is an accurate representation of reality. It is also a fairly specialized epistemological system (despite its simplicity), requiring education to how the process by which it explains the world works. It is for this reason that science is often misunderstood (even by those who “believe” in it), and being fairly new in human history makes it weak to assault by other established epistemological systems, propaganda, and junk science. Despite these shortcomings, Empiricism/Science provide tangible results that we all enjoy today, like skyscrapers, cell phones, modern medicine and agriculture, space exploration… the list goes on. And this bountiful effect of its system demonstrates its practical value and its value as true.

The more ephemeral epistemologies of Reason, Logic, and Math, too, share similarities to all the others. For example, Reason, is a process by which truths are arrived at by (oft, individually) thinking about a particular phenomenon, like reality, human nature, society, etc. Almost all the systems presented here involve a reasoning that justify their validity. But herein lies its weakness: not all reasoning is created equal, and the quality of the conclusion(s) reached depends in large part on the quality of the reasoning. Logic is an outgrowth of the reasoning process and was invented to limit the shortcomings of the process of undisciplined reasoning. By laying out concepts like premises and conclusions, Logic specialized reasoning in a strict way. In so doing, Logic has become a difficult system to learn and apply correctly, and it also suffers the shortcomings of such a closed system. Despite this shortcoming, it is still a very effective tool to knowing. Mathematics is an extension of reason and logic but utilizes a different set of symbols entirely: numbers. The effects of mathematics cannot be denied – it explains the physical world in ways that seem to make it the preeminent epistemology of all those that have been explored previously. However, it has a serious flaw. For example, there is an earnest debate as to whether or not Mathematics is a phenomenon intrinsically tied to the nature of realty or whether it is an invention of the human mind. In other words, mathematics may not reflect the nature of reality, but it can explain, in the greatest detail , the world by which human minds can conceive in ways only the human mind can conceive. To use a corollary: dogs sense the world primarily through their noses; humans through the eyes, and, especially, through their languages as a conscious function. Perhaps, this world that humans perceive to be true are as limited as the dogs’ sophisticated and sensitive understanding of the olfactory world. In fact, Emmanuel Kant argued just this: that the reality humans perceive is a function of the brain by which human consciousness is bound – to extrapolate that ultimate reality conforms to this perspective beyond human understanding is fallacious. Just as dogs are limited by their exquisite senses, so, too are humans, limited by theirs – and cannot be taken as a totality.

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Epistemology is a subject in which it is easy to get lost, and that is why I include this (Gettier) diagram: to ground the discussion as much as possible. As such, I think it important to the discussion to include some more definitions (as always, according to the OED).

Proposition – 3.a) the action of propounding something, or that which is propounded; the setting forth of something as a subject of discourse; something proposed for discussion, or as a basis of argument.

Belief – 3) the thing believed; the proposition or set of propositions held true.

Knowledge – 11) the fact of condition of being instructed, or having information acquired by study or research; acquaintance with ascertained truths, facts, or principles; information acquired by study; learning; erudition.

Truth – II.5.a) conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity; 7) genuineness, reality, actual existence; III) something that is true; 9.a) true statement or account; that which is in accordance with the fact; 12.a) the fact or facts; the actual state of the case; the matter or circumstances as it really is.

It is easy to get lost in definitions when discussing E(e)pistemology, so I will untangle this web in a more straightforward manner, one that accords with Gettier’s diagram.

First, a Proposition is simply an assertion – one that is subject to investigation and debate. Second, Belief is a simple acceptance of a proposition (or a set of propositions). Third, Poorly Justified Beliefs are those that can be justified in some sort of way, i.e. personal experiences, an ideology, or a methodological system that justifies those beliefs – they are true to an extent but aren’t necessarily (or precisely) a reflection of reality. Lastly, Truth represents those propositions, beliefs, and poorly justified beliefs that have stood the test of verification, and, thus, deserve not only human credulity but the esteemed category of that which is, in fact, true.

In this way, Gettier’s diagram demonstrates that not every proposition is true, not every belief is true, not every poorly justified belief is true, and that what is considered is “true” is actually true without some sort of methodology that can actually determine truth. Moreover – and most importantly – that to be able to determine truth depends on some other process, one that can sift through the data, and make a more accurate assessment of what the data means in accordance with reality. That process is a systemic and intense scrutinization of the experience, ideologies, and the presented/accepted account of things. In other words: despite the innumerable assertions regarding fact or fiction, true or untrue, reality or unreality, that those propositions that can withstand the tests of verification and justification are those that deserve an individual’s abeyance; everything else is hopeful fiction or worse.

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Why do these technicalities matter? For one: that to know truth is no easy task. Discerning truth from fiction is a much more complicated task than is led to believe. Second, that truth itself matters – not just from a philosophical perspective but from a profoundly practical one as well. And, third, in a “post-truth” society – one in which facts without context, propaganda posing as facts, and outright lies and mis/dis-communication are the norm – understanding what is true and what is not, is imperative, not only to informed human being but to the survival of the human species itself.

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To demonstrate this point I will give an example: Global Climate Change/Global Warming. So the epistemological question is: Is it a real/true phenomenon? and, how do we know?

Let us look at the question through the afore-mentioned epistemologies. First: Experience. While the experience of hotter temperatures everywhere globally may confirm to a person uncritical of the proposition would accept without verification of this phenomenon; an individual who is inclined to believe the opposite – that it is a hoax, or at least, not a result or man-made activities (because of snow in winter or severe winter-storms) – would be as justified in denying it. Partly, the confusion is based on the ignorance of the difference between weather and climate. Without a deeper level of understanding or investigation, it is impossible to justify one proposition or the other.

Second: Folk Wisdom/Superstition: fairly limited in areas that aren’t immediately affected by the effects of these phenomenon, since this epistemology is also mediated by experience.

Third: Faith/Religion: also fairly limited since, in this example at least, global climate change/global warming is not mentioned in scripture or doctrine (unless one considers related scriptural passages like Genesis 2:15, Proverbs 12:10, Revelations 11:18, Numbers 35:33, and Leviticus 25:23, to name a few).

A necessary caveat here would be ideology. Specifically, there are political ideologies, i.e. Republican and Democrat, that make supportive pronouncements about the verity of Global Climate Change. These caveats are important because political ideology now function in ways similar to religion/faith.

The Republican platform, for example, is one that believes that Global Warming is a hoax (at worst) or not caused by human activity (at best). The Democratic platform takes the opposite position, namely: that global warming is real, and that it is caused by human activity. As such, these parties advocate for policies based on those propositions. But why do they believe those propositions? What methodology/epistemology are they using to inform their beliefs? In a word: Science… which leads us to our fourth epistemology.

Science/Empiricism: the single most important epistemology that can answer this question. For it is this epistemology that has even brought the subject to the attention of humans world-wide. So, let’s briefly discuss how science works. First, Science observes the physical world. Next, it makes a hypothesis about what is happening, i.e., that the Earth, as a whole, is warming and that this warming has an impact on climates globally. Then, Science seeks to test that hypothesis by collecting data and subjecting it through rigorous experimentation. So, for example, scientists will look at the amount of CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) in the atmosphere, land temperatures, sea temperatures, extreme weather fluctuations and natural disasters, sea-land level rises, and glacial melting (to name only a few) relative to past levels. The data of these examples is fairly conclusive – if one were so inclined to research/look – but suffice it to say: the levels of these indicators is on the rise, and has been since the beginnings of the industrial revolution.

The other half of the hypothesis is: what is causing these conditions? Again, investigators/scientists looking into the phenomena have determined that fossil-fuel use is the culprit. The data show that CO2, the by-product of burning – literally burning – fossils fuels releases the by-product, CO2, into the atmosphere which traps the solar energy from our sun in our biosphere, which in turn keeps the planet warmer than it should be. It’s exactly like wearing a coat in summer. In order to cool off, one needs to remove the coat. The CO2 acts as that coat of human activity; and the human activity (of burning fossil fuels) not only prevents the removal of that coat but raises the temperature that the jacketed individual experiences by adding layers to that jacket.

Does the warming phenomenon negate weather like snow or winter storms? The answer is “No.” What Global Warming argues is that there is a change in the climates themselves, the patterns of weather any region may experience. And this says nothing of the average-breaking heat-waves, temperatures, and increase in natural disasters like floods, droughts, and fires that go on recorded continuously.

What part is left of Reason/Logic/Mathematics to play in this debate? Quite frankly: it depends. As mentioned previously: the quality of the conclusion depends on the quality of the reasoning. If the reasoning is tethered to a particular ideology, then it is highly suspect. If, however, the reasoning is based on a systematic approach to understanding the world, then it is more credible.

Logic would dictate that if global climate change is real – and, that if it is a result of human activity – and that the goal of human activity is to enhance human survival, then something must be done to counteract the effects of man-made climate change. Mathematically: the data must be evaluated and decisions must be based on the data.

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So… how does an individual know whether or not Global Climate Change is a real phenomenon – that it is occurring? and that whether or not is the result of human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels?

The short answer is epistemology. How does an individual ascertain truth? The basic methods have been presented and all have their strengths and weakness, but in matters of the physical world the best epistemologies use some strict method of investigation – in other words: Science. Science is the best method to answer this question since it is intended to investigate and answer questions such as these. But another caveat is warranted: what “Science?”

There are, now, effectively two types of science. The former is a method of investigation and the body of knowledge resulting from that method described above. In science, there are necessarily debates, uncertainty, and the application of different methods of measurement. This is natural and embodies the spirit of science. An idea – a description and explanation of (Newtonian) gravity, for example – is discovered and evidence looks to disprove it (the principal of falsifiability); if it is unable to, then that idea is held on to as a functional truth. Then, eventually, a new description and explanation – Einstein’s gravity, for example – is developed (based on data) and does a better job than the previous idea at explaining the phenomenon. This is the natural progression of the body of knowledge based on science, and the falsifiability of ideas is not only legitimate to progress of knowledge, but absolutely necessitates it.

However, there is another “science” – one that uses the poor understanding of the scientific method, particularly falsifiability, as a propaganda weapon to manipulate people’s knowledge, often at their expense. This is commonly referred to as “junk science” and it takes many shapes and forms. Some major examples of junk science are the “data” presented in public and political discourse arguing that leaded gasoline is not poisonous to people; that cigarette smoking has no relation to cancer and is safe for consumption; and, that global climate change is not real, and that it is not caused by human activity. All these examples include the testimony and evidence of “experts” to make their claim, sometimes convincingly – almost all hired by interest groups to advocate for the cause of those interest groups. However, it is only convincing to a point, namely when it comes into contact with reality. Eventually, the truth does emerge but the time it takes depends on the quality of epistemologies, epistemologists, and the efficacy of those experts who fight for the truth and the good; and, in many cases, the time that goes by has a deleterious effect on people and the planet – and this is certainly the case with the current “debate” surrounding Global Climate Change.

And, yet, this is just one example of a subject that requires people’s critical attention. Mis- and disinformation are occurring on a sweeping scale in areas as diverse as economics, politics, international relations, intelligence, and culture. And they deserve both intense scrutinization and a disciplined epistemology.

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In closing, this author hopes that the meaning and importance of epistemology has been communicated. For it is not an easy subject, and proper knowing is no easy task. But it is an important subject and practice because living well requires knowing how to, and this requires knowing our world and the phenomena in it. Otherwise, we run the risk of unhappiness, or worse: death.

Liberty’s Folly, Part I

liberty ashamed

Now it must be granted that folly is a disease of the soul, and of folly there are two kinds: one is madness, the other stupidity. So when anyone suffers at all from either of these, it must be termed disease; and pleasure and pains that are excessive must be set down as the greatest of diseases of the soul. For when a human is overjoyed or suffers in a contrary way from pain, and hastens inappropriately to seize the one while fleeing the other, he can neither see nor hear anything correctly, and he goes crazy and at those times is least able to partake in reason. – Timaeus (86B-C)

This post is the continuation of the previous “What is Liberty Without Duty?” post. It begins from the conception of liberty as civil liberty, also articulated in the previous post. For sake of clarity, the definition of liberty is reasserted here, quoting John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government:

“…freedom is not, as we are told, liberty for every man to do what he lists: but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowances of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.

Liberty, then, is the ability to do what one wishes within and according to the laws established by society, and applicable to all within it. For freedom from the arbitrary will of others necessarily entails the establishment of civil society which itself entails collective subjection to the rule of law. Natural liberty – the freedom to do whatever one will – is appropriate in the lawless state of nature, what Locke also calls the state of war; in society, then, natural liberty is exchanged for civil liberty and the rule of law. Where in the former, men were subjected to a chaotic state of nature, men in the latter condition are subjected to lawful government. It is ironic in a sense that men are always subject to some necessity “higher” than himself – so be it – but man is able to choose under which he will live. Man’s nature is such that civil society is best for him.

Locke also says, “We are born free, as we are born rational;” however, this freedom is conditional – for he continues, “not that we have actually the exercise of either: age, that brings one, brings with it the other too.” Locke goes on to describe childhood and the inappropriateness of giving children the freedom that is proper to adults. He states:

The freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will. To turn him loose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him, is not the allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free; but to thrust him out amongst the brutes, and abandon him to a state as wretched and as much beneath that of man, as theirs.

Locke is in agreement with Plato. There is a necessary precondition that must be met before an individual can become free. For both philosophers, exercising reason (in the philosophical sense: Reason) is this requisite. Locke thinks that childhood (and madness) disqualifies one from properly exercising reason and freedom; Plato thinks it is folly (madness or stupidity) and excesses (of pleasure and pain).

It is easy to understand why children cannot exercise reason and, thus, cannot be considered at liberty. Madness, too, people understand – and in a court of law, those who are insane are not responsible for their actions and are dealt with accordingly. However, “excesses” are much more difficult to understand, at first.

Plato, in the quote earlier from Timaeus, states that the excesses of pleasure and pain reduce one’s ability to be reasonable; and without reason, one cannot be free. That said, is it enough to simply be able to reason that makes one free? Can not a reasonable man justify immoral actions? Can the selfsame man not make immoral laws? – laws which do not infringe upon the liberty and property of others directly, but which reduce over time (or even immediately) in a justifiable manner one or all of the assets of a civil society, as Locke describes it: “comfort, safety, peaceable living one against another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it?”

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As mentioned in the previous post, Jean-Jacques Rosseau, in his Social Contract added another element to the social contract and the civil liberties that derive from it. Namely, moral liberty. For him, the state of nature, where man is free to indulge in any action, no matter how obscene, is comparable to indulgence – doing whatever one feels, submitting to appetite and desire at the expense of restraint and virtue. He writes, “the mere impulse of appetite is slavery; while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.” Again, restraint – for the common good (and in this instance the individual good) – is liberty; yes, it is a restraint, but liberty is an ironic restraint: an exchange of total freedom and chaotic-anarchy for civil liberty and legal order. So the same for moral liberty, which Rosseau, and many other prominent philosophers would argue, is the real foundation for meaningful liberty, and a liberty that ultimately protects civil liberties and social order.

Aristotle, too, talks of excess and virtue. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that virtue is, like reason and liberty: “… by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity.” For Aristotle the mean is virtue; and excess (or deficiency) is vice. So, for example, courage is a virtue – the mean between the vices of cowardice and rashness. Cowardice was a defect of courage and rashness was an excess – either extreme negates the virtue courage. He writes:

First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); exercise either excessive or defective destroys the strength and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate to both produces and increases and preserves it. So too it is, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, become in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

While the excesses of pain and pleasure make one unreasonable because Reason is overwhelmed by either emotion, the excesses (or defects) of virtue, i.e. moral liberty, make one incapable of exercising that liberty because moderation, which is the means to virtue, is “destroyed.” This ethical failure, as a result, disqualifies one from moral freedom and liberty – the true foundation of a civil society.

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Part II of this post will give some examples of using reason to infringe upon liberty according to an a-ethical conception of the social contract so as to illustrate the necessity of ethics as part of the social contract and civil liberties. Further, it will give some of the problems of excess and how they negatively impact civil society, and will ask some difficult questions. Lastly, it will address potential remedies for the excesses of and deficits of Western civil society.




This post is a long time coming, and a desideratum in today’s political dialogue. As usual, we begin with (OED) definitions.

First, Liberty:

  1. exemption or release from captivity, bondage, or slavery
  2. exemption or freedom from arbitrary, despotic or autocratic rule
  3. natural liberty: the state in which everyone is free to act as he thinks fit, subject only to the laws of nature. civil liberty: natural liberty so far restricted by established law as is expedient or necessary for the good of the community
  4. the condition of being able to act in any desired way without hinderance or restraint; faculty or power to do as one likes
  5. (philosophical) the condition of being free from the control of fate or necessity
  6. unrestrained action, conduct, or expression; freedom of behaviour or speech, beyond what is granted or recognized as proper; license
  7. privileges, immunities, or rights enjoyed by prescription or by grant

As is evident, liberty is varied in meaning. I think it safe to say, however, that most understand liberty according to the first definition – the most basic form of liberty: freedom from objectification, the reduction of a rational subject to an thing of ownership.

The second definition, too, is well understood; however, this definition poses problems for a few reasons. First, the key words, arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic – these words indicate that not all rule denies people their liberty, or at least a specific kind of it. Only arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic governments can be considered liberty-denying. Other forms of government, as definition three infers, can restrict some liberty without being guilty of any of these three qualities.

The second problem stems from the first in that – human perception being subjective – some people will contend that government, despite its legitimacy – especially the form(s) with which they do not agree or like – is arbitrary, despotic, and/or autocratic. This is most evident in some forms of anarchism, in which all government, no matter how well-regulated by the rule of law and the people it can be, will always be: despotic (perhaps the phrase, tyranny of the majority encapsulates these extreme anarchist views). However, there are many political factions within the U.S. political system today that seem to stretch this conception of “despotic” and promise greater liberty in order to curry support for their agendas.

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The third definition is based on much enlightenment political theory. In fact, these definitions can almost be taken verbatim out of Rousseau’s Social Contract:

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man.

Let us draw up the whole account in terms easily commensurable. What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. If we are to avoid mistake in weighing one against the other, we must clearly distinguish natural liberty, which is bounded only by the strength of the individual, from civil liberty, which is limited by the general will; and possession, which is merely the effect of force or the right of the first occupier, from property, which can be founded only on a positive title.

We might, over and above all this, add, to what man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty. (Book I, chapter viii)

According to this, man, in the state of nature is free to do what he wills, whenever he wills it, however he wills it because there is no legitimate restrictions upon his liberty. However, when man enters society, he forfeits some of his liberty to a legitimate government in exchange for safety, social well-being, and civil liberties; he concedes that he has bears responsibility for his actions and society – this is what is known as the social contract.

However, there is another element to liberty that Rosseau articulates that often goes unmentioned, and that takes precedence over political/civil liberty: moral liberty. For Rosseau, and many pre-enlightenment thinkers, too, it is moral liberty that made one a free, enlightened individual. Indeed, very few today would consider an addict to be free in any meaningful sense (although, and strangely enough, [s]he may have been free to choose to try the drug the first few instances – which calls attention to the process of moving from liberty to servitude); and indeed an addict is not free because the addict is at the mercy of his/her addiction, incapable of choosing not to use – they are in bondage to the drug, a slave to it. And the same can be said of addictions beyond the realm of illegal drugs – think: food, alcohol, cigarettes, etc; compulsions, obsessions, and impulses, too, rob an individual of his/her agency. This is why many holy men, monks, priests, etc practiced lives of self-denial. And it is no wonder that this hard-earned liberty is attained by so few – usually the spiritual leaders of great renown.

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The fourth definition begins from the natural liberty of the third definition and leads into the sixth. Simply put, according to this meaning: liberty is acting in an way one chooses for their self.

The fifth definition shares some of the same meaning as the previous discussion on moral liberty.

The sixth definition is probably the second-most important definition (behind the third) in terms of political implications. For it lays out that – and we must deduce that this is the case only in a civil society where civil liberties are granted in exchange for natural liberties – that there is such a thing as too much libertytoo much freedom. In the state of nature, theft is acceptable (in fact, it doesn’t even exist because “theft” is a moral, civil liberty construction) because there was no legitimate authority to reasonably stop it; however, in society, as a result of the social contract, theft is against the law because it violates the liberty (specifically the property rights) of another. The freedom that is acceptable in a state of nature is no longer acceptable in the civil state, and exercising this former-natural liberty is an excess within the legitimate confines of civil liberty. This excess of freedom is known as license.

A prime example of the seventh definition (as well as the first, second, third, and sixth) is most-easily identified in arguments laid out in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Constitution of the United States. Unalienable rights which are self-evidently true are granted to us as rational, civil agents – and these documents confirm these privileges.

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Second, Freedom:

  1. exemption or release from slavery or imprisonment; personal liberty
  2. exemption from arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic control; independence; civil liberty

The rest of the definitions of freedom are almost as exactly as identical to those as liberty. I think it fair to say that freedom, for the political-theoretical purposes of this post, is synonymous with liberty. And enough has already been said about liberty.

Third, License:

  1. excessive liberty; abuse of freedom; disregard of law and propriety

There are other definitions of the word license; however, they are of little use to this discussion. This one definition here gets to the heart of the matter concerning this discussion: that liberty exists, that it is legitimate, but that it also, in a civil society, needs limitations to protect the individual (in more or less ways, depending) but, especially, the rest of society, of which the individual is a part. Embedded within the social contract, within civil liberties, is the stipulation – an obligation – that an individual be responsible with their freedom.

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The foundations for liberty are well established, and now clarified; what is left to do is debate and engage in order to create the kind of civil society we as a people want to have. What remains are a few thoughts for consideration.

First, whenever someone talks about “liberty” in a political, economic, or social sense, it is imperative to ask, “Which do you mean?” The necessity for this is obvious now: for there are so many conceptions, and they’re not always mutual exclusive or inclusive; and this is to say nothing of the new meanings being created by modern context. Furthermore, it is standard operating procedure for politicians, pundits, and other opinion makers to double speak and otherwise confuse the meaning of their words so as to fool people into agreeing with them. We must be very wary of this practice, especially today.

Second, the conception of civil liberty – those which contemporary societies laud – emphasize the community over the individual by nature and definition. Being part of society and community is so good (and some say: inherent to our natures) that the individual is subservient to it. Indeed, the social contract is nothing but an articulation of this dynamic. Yes, the individual is important (to varying degrees, depending) but not so much more important that one can benefit at the expense of the whole. In fact, the individual has a duty to society: not to harm but protect it. Crime is a violation of this contract; although, it is important to remember that laws don’t always suffice in articulating moral or civil transgressions or enforcing the individual’s obligation to the group.

Today, the conception of “liberty” and “freedom” inverts the social contract; it raises the individual above the whole, glorifies him/her, deifies him/her; it seems to dismiss that the individual is but a part of the whole, is molded by it, and benefits greatly from it (with its public schools, infrastructure, legal and penal systems, etc, etc). Perhaps this is part of why society is “breaking down:” too many people are more concerned with themselves than they are the communities which raised them like their own parents, allowing them to survive and flourish.

Third, what do we do about the excess? the too much freedom/liberty: the license? and what about, as contemporary thinkers are wont to describe it, the negative externalities? What do we do with individuals, as a society, who cannot or will not restrain their destructive, often immoral, yet perfectly legal, behaviors? This important and controversial question will be the subject of a subsequent post, as this one is already too long. Instead, I leave off with the apropos musings of John Milton; a few lines from his sonnet, On the Same:

That bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,

And still revolt when truth would set them free.

Licence they mean when they cry liberty;

For who loves that must first be wise and good;

But from that mark how far they rove we see

For all this waste of wealth, and loss of blood.