In these troubled times, with authoritarianism on the rise, it is well for those who value liberty to take stock of what freedoms they have and determine which they will keep. To that end, I have of late been pondering a question: what are the fundamental freedoms? By this I mean, what freedoms must a person at minimum enjoy to be considered free. Beyond the interesting philosophical implications of this question, it also has the practical purpose of revealing which freedoms ought to be fought the hardest for, and consequently which hills are worth dying on. I propose as answer to this question that there are three fundamental freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of defense, and freedom of religion. I believe that these three hold together as the bedrock upon which all other freedoms stand, and that they also correspond to securing freedom in the three primary aspects of person-hood: freedom of mind, freedom of body, and freedom of soul.
The first freedom, freedom of speech, protects the freedom of the mind. For a mind to be truly free, it must be free to consider all things: right and wrong, true and false, good and evil. To hem in a mind by removing topics from consideration is to reduce the person to whom the mind belongs, by depriving them of the ability to judge ideas themselves and make their own choices. For there is no freedom without the ability to choose, and there is no choice without options. Thus the maximum amount of freedom is secured when all options are available for consideration, and this is only possible if people are not limited in their speech. It is through speech that ideas are shared, refined, and judged, and to limit the ability of people to speak is to limit their ability to think.
The most common objection to this freedom is that some ideas are wrong, false, or evil, and that such ideas must be suppressed, for the benefit of the community as well as of the individual who will be spared being subjected to such harmful ideas. While it is indeed true that many ideas are wrong, false, or even evil, I would submit two rebuttals to the proposal that these must be suppressed. First, on philosophical grounds, depriving a person of the consideration of an idea limits the mind and diminishes the person, as previously stated. Second, on practical grounds, the very fact that people develop faulty ideas should make plain the folly of suppressing such ideas: that the list of faulty ideas may itself be faulty. If people can err in their ideas one way, they can just as easily err in their ideas the other, and so if the suppression of ideas is accepted it is inevitable that there will be right, true, and good ideas that are incorrectly labeled wrong, false, and evil, and thereafter suppressed. The harm in suppressing beneficial ideas I consider self evident, and so will not belabor this point.
Freedom of speech is also one of the two necessities for securing all other freedoms, for without the ability to plead one’s case one will be utterly unable to make any headway on the road to liberty. This is evidenced for time and time again throughout history, as before any positive change has been made it has been first spoken of. Without the ability to speak freely, people loose the ability to make positive change, as an idea must be shared before it can be accepted and acted upon.
The second freedom, freedom of defense, protects the freedom of the body. For a person to be in control of their own body, its labor, and the products thereof, a person must be allowed to defend themselves. If a person is deprived of the ability to defend themselves, they are at the mercy of those who are still able to wield force, and can at any time be coerced by the threat or action of violence to surrender control over their body, its labor, and the products thereof. In short, a person deprived of the freedom to defend themselves is a slave to all who are capable of aggression. To properly be able to exercise the freedom of defense, a person must be allowed to keep, bear, and as appropriate use weapons sufficient to enact this defense. As history has shown that malefactors bent on subjugating people come in many forms, from the solitary common criminal to armies of conquering soldiers, the freedom of defense requires the right to weapons that can meet a range of threats, up to and including weapons that some may consider solely weapons of war. But to deny a person the ability to meet the full range of threats is to subjugate that person to the threat which they are prevented from countering.
The most common objection to this freedom is that there are those who will misuse their weapons, using them not to exercise their right to defense but rather to offend against others. And while this is true, it is no justification to deprive people of their rights. From a philosophical perspective, it is unjust to deny a person of their rights as punishment for crimes they did not commit. From a practical perspective, no society of significant size has ever demonstrated the ability to remove all weapons, and in fact where weapons are most tightly controlled they tend to be most common among the criminally minded class of people, those most likely to abuse their weapons to harm others rather than use them to exercise their own freedom of defense. Thus the restriction of weapons has the effect of empowering those most likely to abuse the use of weapons while dis-empowering those most likely to use them responsibly. Rendering honest people defenseless in the face of dishonest people creates an unjust society, as it ensures that those of good intent will be subjugated by those of ill intent. And an unjust society is not only immoral, in practice it tends to descend into either authoritarianism or anarchy, as injustice inevitably erodes the order in any society.
Freedom of defense is the second of the two necessities for securing all other freedoms, for without the ability to defend oneself one will be open to intimidation or worse from those who wish to suppress efforts to advocate for the expansion of rights. It is all too common for those who find themselves unable to win an argument with words to resort to silencing the argument with weapons. With the freedom to defend oneself, one at least has a fighting chance to stand against oppression.
The third freedom, freedom of religion, protects the freedom of the soul. I hold what some may consider an expansive view of religion, as I define religion as the search for the fundamental truths of reality and the subsequent beliefs and practices that flow naturally from finding that truth. Under such a definition, religion can be seen to be of great importance to almost every person, for there is nothing more meaningful than finding the answers to life’s most important questions and choosing to align oneself with or against these answers. As such, depriving a person of the ability to find their deepest fulfillment is indeed the cruelest torture that can be inflicted upon a soul. Even if the answer they find is wrong, so long as they do not force their answer on others nor use their answer as an excuse to do violence to others, they should be allowed to persist in their folly, as it only harms themselves and every person has the right to do what they will with their own soul, as it is the most essential part of a person and therefor the part that most fully belongs to them. But the freedom of religion is not merely the freedom of belief, as that is already essentially covered by the freedom of speech. It is more: it includes the freedom of practice, for belief without practice is empty, as practice is the implementation, expression, and fulfillment of belief. So long as such practice does not infringe on the rights of others it must be tolerated as part and parcel of the freedom of religion. The correct way to counter the folly of false religion is through the exercise of freedom of speech and the respectful demonstration of right practice, for not only does this respect the rights of all but it is also the surest way to win over souls to the truth, for the soul of a person tends to respond more favorably to insight and example than to oppression.
While this freedom is unlike the previous two, in that it is not a necessity which enables one to strive for all other freedoms, it tends to be the most meaningful to individuals as well as the most beneficial to society. For any society that can bring itself to the toleration of competing religions is a society that can bring itself to the embrace of a wide array of freedoms. Once people accept that they can agree to disagree about the most important issues, finding the same tolerance for lesser issues becomes that much easier. And the inverse is true as well: a society that does not embrace a freedom in religion is a society that will be unable to embrace freedom in many other areas as well, as the accepted range of beliefs and practices will be very narrow, and thus the society will trend towards dogmatism and close-mindedness. Even those who find little use for religion even under my expansive definition should find that a more tolerant society is preferable to a less tolerant one, and therefor see the value in this freedom.
With these three freedoms secured to an individual, I believe that they can be accounted free, at least in the most basic and fundamental sense, as in the enjoyment of these freedoms they are afforded mastery over their own self. When deprived of any one or more of these freedoms, I do not think an individual can be accounted free, for at least one aspect of their person-hood has been taken from them without their consent and control of it put in the hands of others. There are, of course, many other freedoms besides these three, but they all either flow from or require the exercise of one of these three to fully enjoy. A person who has only these three may be otherwise oppressed, but they are at least free, as they have control over their own destiny and are empowered to fight for their further liberation. A person who has all other freedoms but not these three, while they may not be oppressed they are not free, for they neither control their destiny nor are empowered to defend the freedoms they do enjoy, and thus enjoy them not of their own accord but at the pleasure of others, who are their masters. Thus I hope I have demonstrated the importance of these three freedoms, and illustrated the necessity of protecting them at all costs.