Unfreedom too has its advantages

The painting entitled ’Liberty Leading the People’ by the French pai
The painting entitled ’Liberty Leading the People’ by the French painter Eugène Delacroix is an icon of the (French) freedom movement. It deals with the fights on the barricades in the 1830 July Revolution in Paris - a brief but intense and violent conflict between citizens and the authorities. © Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Why restrictions can make sense - a suggestion

The demonstrators in the former East Germany (GDR) protested in favour of it, the singer Marius Müller-Westernhagen sang about it, and former German President Joachim Gauck preaches it: freedom. According to the "Civil Society Atlas" published by the Organisation "Brot für die Welt" ("Bread for the World"), only 14 percent of the world’s population were living in freedom in 2023 - in other words, were able to express their opinions freely, enjoy right of assembly or fight against injustice. Freedom House, an NGO, comes to the conclusion in its report entitled "Freedom of the World 2022" that the degree of freedom worldwide has declined for the 17 time in a row. Reading the results of the surveys, it must be concluded that freedom is an endangered commodity. In view of these findings, is it advisable - or is it indecent - to write an article about the advantages of unfreedom? It is, admittedly, a difficult undertaking - tricky, even - especially writing as the citizen of a liberal country. However, this article does not advocate abolishing the 14 percent who are free. It is clear that the proportion of really free societies has to increase. But - despite everything - what value might restrictions on freedom have?

The organisers (at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research) of the Science Year 2024 give an indication when they write, for example, "What freedoms do we need - and where does freedom need limits? With regard to the ruling given on climate protection by the German Constitutional Court, how do we protect the freedom of future generations?" The reference to climate change implies that there are freedoms which exist at the expense of other people - for example, future generations. But in the present day too, freedom is unequally distributed in this world. However, reckoning up that by simply taking away some of the freedom which the minority has, things could be made better for the majority who are not free - that doesn’t help much. Or does it? Freedom can be expressed not only in political terms, but also in economic ones. If we understand a part of freedom as the freedom to do something, then the scope of that freedom increases with the level of affluence. The more affluent someone is, the more courses of action are open to him or her. This results in the fact that in affluent countries a lifestyle has established itself which is particularly resource-intensive - for example with a high level of food consumption, a large measure of mobility or an extensive per capita use of land.

But is it appropriate, in a free society, to restrict these freedoms in order to protect others? Yes, say sustainability researchers Carolin Bohn and political scientist Dr. Tobias Gumbert. In an essay on a new "green liberal freedom", the two researchers from the University of Münster write that there are, it is true, people who consider all restrictions to represent a loss of freedom and therefore reject them. "But against a background of mutually exclusive courses of action and finite natural resources," they say, "restrictions on individual freedom are necessary in some places in order to protect freedoms in other places." What is decisive, the researchers say, is a collective negotiation on what is deemed to be worthy of protection and which therefore permits restrictions on freedom. To this end, the two authors use the idea of the environment as a "provider of basic needs". Protecting this environment takes priority, they say, over the freedom to take possession of it.

Prof. Felix Ekardt is active as a lawyer, philosopher and sociologist in Leipzig, Berlin and Rostock, and in an article in the ZEIT newspaper he likewise - as regards climate change - advocates thinking about the freedoms of the individual and of society. What is important for him is that it should not simply be decreed, in a dictatorial manner, what constitutes a correct life, but that behaviour should be regulated "if it harms other people - i. e. adversely affects their freedoms and the conditions necessary for their freedom," he writes. In other words, when too much freedom for one person encroaches on the lawful freedom of another and possibly restricts it. This view of things aligns with the tradition going back to Immanual Kant and his very popular quotation that "the freedom of one individual ends where the freedom of another begins".

On the one side, then, we have the freedom to consume what the market provides, and on the other side the freedom to lead a healthy life in a healthy environment - both now and in the future. Carolin Bohn and Tobias Gumbert demand that we should repeatedly ask ourselves one question: "Where do we need to restrict our freedom for the sake of other people’s freedom"- Prof. Michael Quante, a philosopher at the University of Münster, also sees the necessity for restrictions on freedom, as "only the mutually conceded freedom of the other person, which at the same time restricts my own freedom, makes cooperation between us possible." This approach could also be observed during the Covid pandemic: it was only by giving up our own freedoms for the sake of other people’s well-being that we as individuals, and society as a whole, got through the crisis. But this also applies to traffic on the roads: freedoms are made possible as a result of restrictions placed on the individual, e.g. the freedom to enjoy low-risk or trouble-free mobility - in roundabouts, for example. Seen in this light, advocating a little more unfreedom can be understood as a call for the freedom not to do something, as "laying down restrictions in this sense are experienced subjectively as a gain in freedom," Bohn and Gumbert write.

Exhibition on the MS Wissenschaft

What is freedom? What are the conditions necessary to enable it to exist? What freedoms do we need, and where does freedom need limits? An exhibition on the MS Wissenschaft ship takes a look at these questions. From July 18 to 22, the science ship - which is touring around Germany as part of Science Year 2024 on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research - will be dropping anchor in Münster and, after that, in Lüdinghausen. The Innovation Office (AFO) at Münster University is again involved, inviting everyone interested to come to events with researchers from the University. Experts from the Institute of Philosophy will be discussing the notion of freedom with guests on deck. Münster academics will also be involved at an exhibit in the hands-on exhibition inside the floating science centre.

Science Year

For more than 20 years now, the Science Years have been the central activity of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research in the field of science communication. Every year there is a focus on a new, interdisciplinary topic of the future. In 2024, Germany’s Basic Law will be 75 years old, and it will be 35 years since the peaceful revolution in East Germany (the old GDR). These are two anniversaries which offer an opportunity to look at the topic of freedom in all its facets. What would research be without freedom? What would freedom be without responsibility? What would we be without freedom? Science Year offers a wide range of events and provides a framework for discussions across the generations on freedom, its value and its significance.