William Wallace (Mel Gibson) rallies Scottish troops during the First War of Scottish Independence with a famous rousing speech in Braveheart (1995): 'I am William Wallace, and I see a whole army of my countrymen, here, in defiance of Tyranny. You've come to fight as free men, and free men you are. What will you do without freedom? Will you fight? … [W]ould you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance—just one chance—to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they'll never take our freedom!'

It’s time for some political philosophy—specifically, to discuss political freedom. In our personal lives freedom is associated with opportunity and control: a means to meet our own ends. Because of this we fight for it on a political scale. But what actually are people fighting for?

While political freedom is broadly seen as something we should be promoting, the idea that we sing from the same hymn sheet on it is an illusion: we sing completely different tunes! There are multiple ways of defining freedom that are dialectally diverse. For example, to name but a few examples of freedom’s role in ideology: liberalism is a doctrine which seeks to promote and enhance personal freedoms; anarchism represents a fight towards the abolition of overarching governmental powers; and capitalism, particularly laissez-faire economics, describes the distribution of goods and services through free-for-all private ownership.

There are freedoms, we can agree, worth protecting and fighting for. For instance, we usually concur that freedom of thought should be enshrined as a human right for as many people as possible to exercise. However, these are pragmatic agreements, not analytic convergences on what freedom actually is.

Traditionally, there are three opposed camps for this:

  • Negative freedom: The absence and removal of obstacles which inhibit liberty. (Famous supporter: Thomas Hobbes. Example laws: A lack of border controls, physical barriers, or 'unjust' laws.)
  • Positive freedom: Self-governance and autonomy of choice. (Famous supporter: Immanuel Kant. Example laws: Self-determination of gender or sovereignty.)
  • Republicanism: Not being subjected to the arbitrary rule of somebody or something else. (Famous supporter: Machiavelli. Example laws: Rules for preventing powerful and wealthy individuals from putting out influential media which favours their private agenda.)

Philosophers continue to disagree (naturally). Our own notions tend to be fuzzy and incoherent and based on individual ideology. We sum up the parts we each favour, stirring up endless debate about which freedoms take precedent. [eye-roll]