Freedom, Liberty, Autonomy
di Frank van Dun
University of Ghent

Scarica l’articolo >

L’Autore, tra i maggiori esponenti mondiali del pensiero libertario, tenta di proporre una articolata ed originale disamina circa la distinzione teorica di alcuni dei termini fondamentali per la filosofia del diritto e la dottrina dello stato attuali: “Freedom, Liberty and Autonomy”.
Concetti che, partendo tutti dal paradigma dell’Autonomia, sempre caro al Prof. Gentile, solo in apparenza paiono similari, ma che in realtà esprimono diverse letture e, secondo l’Autore, anche diversi ambiti e discipline. E così, sulla base anche di analisi etimologiche e linguistico-comparative e ponendo in relazione questi diversi termini con la legge, lo stato e il diritto naturale, l’Autore riesce a giustificare che “freedom” indica qualcosa di naturale, “liberty” un concetto invece virtuale e “autonomy” qualche cosa di non definito sempre afferente alla natura umana, vera sorgente delle reazioni anche artificiali, e comunque in relazione alla società come un tutto.


‘Freedom’, ‘liberty’ and ‘autonomy’ are controversial, contested words, often used interchangeably, yet laden with radically different connotations. In this lecture, I shall use them as labels to distinguish three different concepts. Most European languages have only one word to translate both ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, e.g., ‘libertà’ (Italian), ‘liberté’ (French), ‘libertad’ (Spanish), ‘Freiheit’ (German), ‘frihet’ (Swedish), and ‘vrijheid’ (Dutch). Moreover, many English and American writers use ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ as if they were synonyms [1] .
Looking at the etymological references (which can be found in most good dictionaries) for these words, we find, however, that ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ point to different contexts of life and action. Understanding the differences between those contexts is the key to eliminating the terminological confusion often encountered in discussions of freedom and liberty.
My interest in this is that of a philosopher of law. However, the distinctions made in this lecture are relevant also for other disciplines concerned with cognition of the human world, most notably economics.


With slight variations, ‘freedom’ and ‘free’ occur in many Germanic languages. [2] The etymology of ‘free’ goes back to the old-Indian word ‘priya’, dear, loved. So do the etymologies of ‘friend’ (German ‘Freund’, Dutch ‘vriend’) and words meaning peace (German ‘Frieden’, Dutch ‘vrede’). [3] Significantly, ‘priya’ always implied a personal, even intimate relation of identity, kinship or friendship, or property — in short, a person’s “own sphere of life”. [4]In the Romanic languages, ‘priya’ seems to have survived by means of the Latin forms ‘privus’ (exceptional, standing apart, own), ‘privare’ (to set free), ‘privatus’ (belonging to an individual person, not belonging to a public office or institution), and the like. Thus, we have expressions such as ‘private property’, ‘private person’, and ‘private conversation’. Here the meaning is “closed, not accessible to others”, “not burdened with externally imposed obligations, not subject to external interferences” — in particular, “not public”, i.e., “not subject to regulation or interference by the state”. In his private sphere, a person is free.
There is an obvious link with the most common meaning of the word ‘free’ in modern English: pure, without defect or contamination, unburdened. Thus, we say, e.g., that a tablecloth is free of stains, a salad free of traces of pesticide, a dog free of worms, a published paper free of bias, a car free of defects, a person free of debt or free of infection. Except in ironic or sarcastic speech, we do not say that something is free of good things, e.g., that a person is free of health, free of love, or free of freedom.
A word of caution is in order with respect to expressions such as “a bachelor is free of marital obligations”, and “I am not free to go to the cinema tonight because I have other obligations”. An obligation may certainly be a burden, but it is not an impurity or imperfection. A person’s being free of obligations means primarily that he is free to undertake obligations. Although freely undertaken obligations are self-imposed restrictions, they are also an expression of one’s freedom. Here we have the difference between having obligations (or being obligated) and being obliged. Strictly speaking, one cannot be obligated by the actions of another; and one cannot be obliged by one’s own actions. One’s obligations always arise from one’s own acts or decisions; but one is obliged by the actions of others. E.g., one is obliged by another’s unilateral acts of kindness (“I am obliged by your hospitality”) but also by another’s acts of power, extortion, and the like (“I am obliged to pay taxes”). It would be a contradiction in terms to say that I am under an obligation to pay taxes, because a tax is, by definition, a burden imposed by others.

The only readily available translation of the Germanic words ‘freedom, ‘Freiheit’, etcetera, into French, Italian or Spanish is some form or other of the Latin ‘libertas’. ‘Libertas’ literally means “the status of a descendant” (from the Latin, liber, liberi, children, descendants). The descendants eventually accede to the social position of their parents and predecessors, with full rights and obligations of membership in their particular group, tribe or society. Thus, ‘libertas’ refers not to the human person as such, but to membership and status in an organized group. The members of the group enjoy its ‘libertas’, while others, servants (slaves) and visitors do not. In former times, even the wives of members were often denied the status of libertas.

‘Autonomy’ is a composition’ of two Greek words (‘autos’ and ‘nomos’). The literal meaning is self-rule. Its antonym is ‘heteron¬omy’, living under the rule of another, or more generally, under a rule that is not of one’s own making. Nowadays, ‘autonomy’ is used primarily to refer to collectives. Regions, peoples, communities, nations, etcetera, demand and occasionally achieve autonomy, their own rule-making, legislative authority and government. Often, and somewhat remarkably, these demands for autonomy stop short of independence. An autonomous region in a state is still part of that state and subject to its authority in a number of vital matters, e.g., foreign policy, military defence, monetary policy, social security, public health. The state is independent (sovereign), but the region is only autonomous (and therefore not sovereign). In other words, in common usage today, ‘autonomy’ suggests at best partial autonomy, not full autonomy.

Human beings, natural and other persons
Although we use expressions such as “free as a bird”, “a free seat”, “a free society”, “an autonomous region”, “the autonomy of the courts”, and so on, we are primarily interested in our freedom, our liberty and our autonomy — the freedom, liberty and autonomy of human or natural persons. The proper subjects of studies
such as law, economics, ethics, education, and the like are human persons and their interpersonal relations.
Natural persons are people like you and me, capable of things only human persons are capable of. Examples are asking and answering questions, including questions about why they believe something and how they know something; making, listening to and understanding arguments, promises, jokes and stories; drawing conclusions from hypothetical and counterfactual premises; considering the relevance of purported evidence; lying and pretending. Other examples are being sarcastic, appreciating irony, understanding things that have no physical or phenomenological existence (e.g., mathematical structures), claiming and waiving rights, taking on obligations, acting out of a sense of duty or love (caritas). and the like. These things are comprehended under the traditional definition of man as a rational animal, i.e., a biologically animal being capable of acting purposefully on rational considerations. In this context, ‘rational’ means involving the intellectual faculties, especially speech (Greek: logos; Latin: ratio).
‘Rational’ certainly does not mean infallibly correct or even reasonable. People are fallible; they can be unreasonable — but only because they are rational beings. It would be a category mistake to discuss the reasonableness or unreasonableness of non-rational things like dogs, trees, rocks, clouds or storms, even foetuses, babies or people afflicted with severe forms of dementia. It would also be category mistake to talk about the rights, duties or obligations of such things, or to assume that they can be judges, claimants or defendants in disputes, buyers or sellers in the market place, or teachers or pupils. If babies had no future as persons, if people suffering from senile dementia had no personal history, there would be no reason to treat them differently from any other non-rational object. If we were not rational beings, questions about our reasonableness or unreasonableness, our rights, duties and obligations, would not arise at all. Who would ask them?
The word ‘person’ is used with many meanings, and “rational human being” is only one of them. For example, we often talk about supernatural persons (e.g., God, the Devil) and artificial persons. Among the latter, there are fictional characters (Hamlet, Don Quixote, Mickey Mouse) and legal persons (political and other corporations, their subdivisions, and official positions within them, e.g., the State, a Province, a Member of Parliament, a Citizen). When we discuss the rights and duties of the Prime Minister of the Government, we talk about artificial persons, not about the natural persons who happen to be “Prime Minister” or members of the “Government” in question. The rights and duties of artificial persons such as the “Prime Minister” and the “Government”, the “Chief Executive Officer” and the “Company”, the “Chief of Staff” and the “Army”, the “Pope” and the “Church”, etcetera, cannot be natural or real rights or natural duties. They are necessarily artificial, conventional, nominal things, as they have to be determined with reference to the appropriate statutory or constitutional texts; they may differ significantly from one artificial person to another.
We should not conclude from these speech habits that there are three species of the single genus “person”: natural, supernatural, artificial. While natural persons and supernatural persons exemplify the genus “person”, sharing the attribute of rationality but differing with respect to the attribute of being an animal, so-called artificial persons are neither rational nor animal. They are, in fact, not persons at all but means or tools of human action. They are therefore to be distinguished from other tools — not from other persons, whether natural or supernatural.
It stands to reason that we should pay close attention to these different notions of “person”, if we want to have a sensible discussion of personal freedom, liberty or autonomy. This is particularly important given that it usually (but not always) takes human persons to act the part of an artificial person. Especially in legal, political and economic discourse, the human actor is often confused (sometimes deliberately) with the part he plays in some game or organisation. For example, it is now quite common to talk about “the rights of citizens” as if they were “human rights” — a practice that makes it easy pretend that the legally (artificially) imposed burdens of citizenship are natural human obligations.


1 2 3 4 5