221. Power and Freedom

I recently had a conversation with someone who maintained power and freedom are incompatible. He was thinking of power in the negative sense in which it is unfortunately all too often experienced, that is, as illegitimate, manipulative, immoral, and so on. But power need not be construed along these lines and can, in some forms, be inseparable from freedom.

First, consider freedom and power in the context of politics. In this context we might think of freedom as liberty to act and the capability to act as the power to achieve a desired effect. So we have a clear connection. And this connection becomes clearer when we see how rights regulate this context of action and, in doing so, refer to power. For example, people have freedom or liberty to act in various ways as long as they are recognizing negative rights which curtail their power (e.g., don’t murder others, don’t steal, don’t violate due process, etc.). And we also have positive rights which, for example, obligate the government to utilize its power to act in such a way that provides right-holders with certain goods (education, protection, etc.). So I think this political context allows us to see plausible connections between freedom and power that can help us critically assess people’s actions in relation to whether or not they are violating negative rights, to what extent they have positive rights, etc. 

Second, freedom can mean more than political liberty and the exercise of power in relation to other people in a political context marked by rights. It can also mean free will or the ability to choose from among real alternatives. This would be the opposite of determinism or the view that, given the laws of nature and the initial conditions, there is only one way action can unfold. Now, if one has free will then one needs to have the ability to act and thus power to enact change, generate an effect, and so on. So we have our connection: the reality of free will is inseparable from the reality of the power to act. Without free will it is hard to see how we can morally praise and blame others. And so this connection between freedom and power is a necessary condition of our assessment of moral issues in the just deserts sense.  

Third, we can turn to the theological traditions which have portrayed God as all powerful and therefore completely free. All created beings are contingent and so are not capable of complete freedom: we have limits to our power to act and so are marked by passive potentials (to become sick, to be injured, to die, etc.). But God is a necessarily existing being and so lacks all passive potentials. Indeed, God lacks positive potentials as well. For if God was a mix of actuality and potentiality then we would have to ask how this mix came about and what conditions would be required to actualize the potentials – two things that would show we don’t have an ultimate and necessarily existing being but rather a being that is contingent on external causes. So God is pure act and can do whatever is logically possible. Thus at this level of metaphysical analysis freedom as pure act is ontologically inseparable from power as omnipotence.

And fourth, there is the related point that the more power one has the more one can make others free. In a journal entry, Soren Kierkegaard observes: “But if one reflects on omnipotence it will be seen that it, of all things, must also be qualified by the ability, in an expression of omnipotence, to revoke itself so as to let what has been brought about by omnipotence be independent….Only omnipotence can revoke itself while giving, and it is just this circumstance that forms the recipient’s independence….Only a wretched and mundane conception of the dialectic of power holds that it increases in proportion to its ability to compel and to make dependent. No, Socrates knew better, that the art of power lies precisely in making free.” So we might think of the ways in which true power, unlike the “wretched” forms of control that all too often pass for it, enhances the freedom of others rather than undermining it. And this enhancement of other people’s freedom for their own sake is one plausible way to think about love.

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