The Meaning of Freedom

Deneen says in his book that the greatest threat to the environment is that liberalism* transformed the meaning of freedom. From the original meaning of “cultivating oneself with the goal of not being enslaved by one’s appetites” freedom acquired the opposite meaning of “recognizing no constraints on the satisfaction of one’s boundless appetites.”

As students learn on the first day of class in Economics 101, human needs are endless and can never be satisfied. Humans will not stop wanting to consume more until they eat up the whole planet. Deneen says that the only thing that will help the environment is for people to accept that the greatest freedom is not to desire endlessly but to be free from the tyranny of unbounded desires.

* Obviously, he doesn’t mean liberalism in the narrow US sense of “whoever opposes the US Republicans” but in the wider sense of the great emancipatory project that began in the 18th century and that aimed to liberate humans from political tyranny (think modern democracy), tyranny of nature (think antibiotics, heating, the AC), tyranny of their their bodies (think birth control, modern dentistry, reproductive assistance), etc.

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18 thoughts on “The Meaning of Freedom”

  1. // From the original meaning of “cultivating oneself with the goal of not being enslaved by one’s appetites” freedom acquired the opposite meaning of “recognizing no constraints on the satisfaction of one’s boundless appetites.”

    The original meaning was either (depending on time and place) very philosophical one, shared only by the chosen few, or influenced by religion. Imo, the most important factor was not even religion but the practical impossibility of satisfying those appetites; the moment it became possible – religion had no chance.

    Also, it is easier to care about environment, if one lives in the first world country and is secure in one’s ability to enjoy a normal standard of living even if environmental protections are put in place. I read a non-fiction book about poor whites in America, and the interviewed people were against closing down (coal? oil?) industries despite suffering from pollution themselves since they were profitably employed in those industries (for working class people).

    The best current course of action is both to devise ways to raise standard of living all over the world, while minimizing environmental damage, and to create the illusion of limitless consumption once a certain standard of living is reached. We already have one working though problematic model of creating this illusion via virtual worlds and products. For instance, it costs practically nothing to make available electronic texts, books, games, etc.

    Imagine: you work on a web whether by programming or by writing a new academic article, earn money to be mainly spent on the web on all kinds of web products, etc. Some would call this dystopia, but it’s the only long-term alternative I see.

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    1. Of course, everything before the 18th century was religious. And religion needed to be removed to make way for the triumphant march of capitalism. The problem with capitalism is that it’s all about endless growth and planetary resources don’t allow for that. Capitalism doesn’t take into account that reality, so it’s not reality-based in that sense. But we are human, we have the power of reason and free will. A small percentage of people in highly industrialized countries is devouring most of the dwindling resources of the planet because it has convinced itself that this is where happiness and freedom are located. Without rethinking this philosophy and trying to find a different one, nothing can be done for the environment. And that’s what both Deneen and Bauman are saying. As I mentioned before, they are in opposite political camps yet they are saying identical things on this subject. I think it definitely makes sense to pay attention.

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      1. // Without rethinking this philosophy and trying to find a different one, nothing can be done for the environment. And that’s what both Deneen and Bauman are saying.

        In which book does Bauman say that? Btw, I have recently read and enjoyed “On Evil.” Thanks for the links. 🙂 Now want to check out those books.

        In a recent post you have written about the need to offer answers instead of merely listing complaints and doomsday scenarios. Do those thinkers offer anything? Do you have any ideas?

        You have written much bad about screens, but so far my only idea is connected to them, to virtual realities and products.

        \ A small percentage of people in highly industrialized countries is devouring most of the dwindling resources of the planet because it has convinced itself that this is where happiness and freedom are located.

        “A small percentage” sounds convenient, like the narrative of 1% vs 99% which you previously criticized. Is the percentage really that small? Does it include China, Japan, developing 2nd world + countries?

        What about environmental effects of warfare in the Middle East and Africa? I googled that phrase and saw many links.

        I do not want to say that high consumption in some countries is not a major problem, but can we ignore consumption, mismanagement and destruction of resources in other places?

        Saw those figures from 2016:

        // Europe and North America, which had annual per capita material footprints of 20 and 25 tons in 2010, are at the top of the table. China’s footprint was 14 tons and Brazil’s 13. The annual per-capita material footprint for Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean and West Asia was 9-10 tons, and Africa’s was below 3 tons.

        Global material use has rapidly accelerated since 2000, the report says, as emerging economies such as China undergo industrial and urban transformation that requires unprecedented amounts of iron, steel, cement, energy and building materials.

        https://www.ecowatch.com/humans-consumption-of-earths-natural-resources-tripled-in-40-years-1943126747.html

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        1. There is a famous statistic on how few people consume most of resources. It’s like 5% or something, it’s really crazy. I believe that everything begins with a change in mentality. If this mentality led us to this place, then we need to drop it and soon. It’s weird that so many people say they are uncomfortable with capitalism and don’t believe in market freedom as the highest good yet begin to scream bloody murder at any suggestion that freedom of trade might be curtailed.

          In environmentalism, the desire to point fingers at somebody else has been a constant problem. Yes, but what about China? Yes, but what about Africa? Yes but, yes but.

          It’s time to start doing something for ourselves and stop waiting for somebody else to begin.

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        2. Bauman’s Consuming Life and Liquid Love are really great. They read very easily and are amazing. On Evil is actually one of his weakest books, in my opinion. So if you got a lot of value out of that, you’ll love the stronger ones.

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          1. Wait, “On Evil” and “The Meaning of Life” I read were by Terry Eagleton, not Bauman. Haven’t read Bauman yet.

            Really loved Eagleton’s sense of humor. Which books of his should one read the most? I looked at “Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics,” but was frightened away because I have not read any sources he analyzes, so it is too advanced for me, I guess.

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              1. Do you mean “Literary Theory: An Introduction Paperback – September, 1983” by Terry Eagleton ? He also wrote “After Theory”, I see.

                Has he written something good on ‘Liquid’ / social topics you keep discussing on the blog like nation states, individualism, etc?

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  2. Forgot to ask the most important question: what is meant in practice by Americans and Europeans stopping their locust-like “devouring most of the dwindling resources of the planet” ? Are Deneen and Bauman too afraid to touch upon this point? Does it mean living without even one car in a family, in a flat instead of a house, like poor people in FSU used to?

    You have written much about the topic, but how much would you be ready to sacrifice for the environment and for future generations?

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    1. “You have written much about the topic, but how much would you be ready to sacrifice for the environment and for future generations?”

      • Thing is, it’s not going to be a sacrifice once your (or mine or anybody else’s) worldview changes. I once wanted to buy an object online but it couldn’t be delivered in under two weeks. I got really antsy while I waited for it. It wasn’t something that I really needed in any way. But the feelings of deprivation and even anxiety were very real. This is not a normal reaction. This is a learned response. Instant gratification of impulses delivers happiness-producing chemicals to the brain. I felt deprived not because I was really deprived but because I had trained myself into this feeling.

      It’s like a smoker who feels extremely deprived and miserable in the first months after quitting but feels nothing of the kind once she’s truly weaned herself off the poison.

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      1. I’ve gotten my driving below 5000 miles per year. When I walk or bike on a busy street without a sidewalk, I wonder if risking my life is worth it, and it feels like a sacrifice. Mindset can only go so far when the physical infrastructure is built for a consuming lifestyle.


        https://polldaddy.com/js/rating/rating.js

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        1. It’s absolutely true. Yet one can still choose to get a good used car and drive it for 10 years (with environmental safety checks, of course) or lease a new Toyota Tundra every two years, like somebody I know.

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  3. “As students learn on the first day of class in Economics 101, human needs are endless and can never be satisfied.”

    This is utter bullshit, but since many Econ 101 textbooks vomit this bullcrap, I don’t blame you for it.

    What the economic science tells about it, and what I tell my students about it, is the following:

    1) Human NEEDS are limited.

    2) Human DESIRES are unlimited, but the satisfaction of those desires is limited by many constraints, like consumer budget constraints, how much stuff firms are able to produce, profitability for the firms, resources availability, etc..

    Although we focus more in Econ 101 about firms and consumer budget constraints, there’s many things that limit the satisfaction of desires.

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  4. So this is a fairly obvious Plato pull. Thing is, that’s where the distinction between freedom as “cultivating oneself with the goal of not being enslaved by one’s appetites” and freedom as “recognizing no constraints on the satisfaction of one’s boundless appetites” got its conceptual start. The latter is very much the original position that the cultivating freedom had to establish itself against.

    At the very least, this shift is not a particularly modern phenomenon (which could be good! Means we just need to look at how we dealt with it last time); or the reason behind the modern world being the way it is doesn’t quite map to these particular tectonics of the soul; or the freedom-as-cultivation thing was indeed successfully implemented prior to modernity rolling around, but then to what degree does anyone really have a principled reason to go back – if that’s even at all possible.

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