Freedom of choice is more than just picking options

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Dr Klaus Vieweg Image: Jan-Peter Kasper (University of Jena)

Dr Klaus Vieweg Image: Jan-Peter Kasper (University of Jena)

Philosopher and Hegel expert Klaus Vieweg on a misunderstood concept of freedom in the corona crisis

Philosopher and Hegel expert Klaus Vieweg perceives a misunderstood concept of freedom behind the debate on the restriction of civil rights in order to contain the coronavirus pandemic. He references Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who was born 250 years ago this year. According to Hegel, freedom is inextricably linked to reason. The current contact bans cannot be considered severe restrictions of freedom, but rather a temporary limitation of certain rights, proportional to the present emergency situation. After all, having one’s health safeguarded is a fundamental civil right of every citizen.

You call Hegel the philosopher of freedom, but currently freedoms are being severely restricted. Do you also feel this personally?

The notion of freedom as a core concept of philosophy is difficult to explain so briefly. The claim that the state is restricting the freedom of individuals is also a result of the prevalent misinterpretation of freedom. No precise distinction is being made between freedom and the selection of alternative actions. The incorrect opinion prevails that freedom is the ability to do what one wants. Rational measures being taken by the state against the coronavirus pandemic, such as restricting social contacts and freedom of movement, are by no means simply a restriction of freedom, but instead serve to support the extensive efforts to keep people healthy.

They represent an intervention in an otherwise existing legal structure that is appropriate to a state of emergency. This has the aim of securing and guaranteeing the right to life and health as a fundamental civil right of all citizens. Inhumane actions or crimes, although they are based on the choice of possible behaviours, simply cannot be understood as the ability to act freely. The difference between simply choosing and freely deciding should be clear - the importance of reflection, the alignment of free will to what is rational. People who attend ’corona parties’ are not exercising their right to act freely; they are just acting arbitrarily and fundamentally violating freedom and human rights.

Of course I would like to visit my granddaughter and grandson right now, or I would have liked to have given the two scheduled lectures at the Sorbonne in Paris last week.

Would Hegel have shown understanding for the restrictions on the everyday lives of citizens and the widespread economic shutdown?

In Hegel’s philosophy, such an event is seen as a state of emergency or an exceptional situation, in which changes must be made to what is "normal" (natural disasters, wars, epidemics). A simple example: the monopoly on power of the state and therefore the exclusion of vigilante justice is of great value to us. In the case of self-defence, that is to say a dangerous situation which threatens my health or even my life, this principle can be temporarily and proportionately suspended - I am allowed to defend myself physically against a physical attack. Afterwards, the state’s monopoly on power must be restored. A pandemic is also such an exceptional situation, which justifies a proportionate and temporary expansion of quarantine regulations. Hardly anyone will deny that this brings painful restrictions to daily life and immense consequential damage.

Incidentally: I do not see any restrictions on substantive rights such as freedom of opinion or scientific freedom.

The concept of freedom seems to change over time; what or who determines it?

Insofar as philosophy sees itself as a science, determining the concept of freedom is one of its core tasks. In my view, the most important voice in this debate to this day is Hegel, with his combination of reason and freedom: free will can only be spoken of when the decision and choice of action is based on rational thinking - "he who rejects reason and speaks of freedom, does not know of what he speaks".

When we - as white Europeans - speak of freedom, is it possible that we mean something different from a seamstress in a textile factory in Bangladesh or a builder in a stadium in Qatar. Is there any universal concept of freedom? What basis would it use to orientate itself?

Philosophy in the modern age must think in cosmopolitan terms (Kant) and avoid unspeakable cultural relativism. The definition of the human per se belongs at the very top of modern constitutions - the first sentence of the constitution expresses this: human dignity is inviolable, eternal, universal. In Hegel’s words: "Man matters because he is human, not because he is a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant, a German, an Italian, etc."; humans matter not because they are female or male, white or black, old or young, Asian or European, seamstress from Bangladesh or guest worker in Qatar. For Hegel, this consciousness based on thought has "infinite importance". The human as rational self-awareness is entitled to freedom; therein lies the equality of the rights of all people. That is the foundation of universality, for which, incidentally, Hegel was violently attacked by the Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg.

Can we be sure that the restrictions on our freedom that were imposed under the corona crisis will be completely removed when the pandemic is over? What was it like in Hegel’s time, for example when there was an epidemic? Which authority then declared a state of emergency and which authority ended it?

Yes, in a functioning democratic community, this is something we should put our faith in. However, should this not be the case, there is the unconditional right to resist - also a fundamental civil liberty in an emergency or exceptional situation. In Hegel’s time, the rights of citizens were indeed very limited. However, today we should not speak of severe restrictions on freedom, but of the temporary limitation of certain rights in accordance with the emergency situation.

Let us return to everyday life in the corona crisis: do you recommend that our readers use their free time to read the "Phenomenology of Spirit" at last, or is reading crime fiction more appropriate?

In both cases, "crime stories" are involved. I am happy to recommend Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers or Rex Stout, and especially the Jena-based detective novel "Mr. Spock und der malerische Doppelmord zu Königsleben" ("Mr Spock and the scenic double murder in Königsleben"). We will soon be in urgent need of investigative and philosophical flair to solve this extreme, global crisis and emergency situation. But to achieve that, we have to stay as healthy as possible!

Klaus Vieweg writes more about life and work of the important philosopher in his new book "Hegel. Der Philosoph der Freiheit" (ISBN 978-3-406-74235-4).

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