Can a Preference-Based Conception of Freedom Make Sense?
“Being able to do what one wants” seems to be a common intuitive formulation of what it means to be free. However, this definition faces at least two serious difficulties. First, it cannot recognise that one can be free or unfree to do things that one does not desire, which is counterintuitive. Second, it has potentially dangerous consequences because it means that individuals can increase their freedom by changing their desires in accordance with their abilities. Thus, as Berlin pointed out, a slave can be free by wanting to be a slave. These difficulties have lead many to think that freedom should be defined without referring to individuals’ wants. Yet freedom does not seem to function that well as a normative ideal when it is completely independent from individuals’ wants, desires or preferences. It is thus worth trying to formulate a preference-based conception of freedom that can avoid the difficulties presented above. It can be achieved in two steps. First, I introduce two features of the concept of freedom: (1) freedom is a triadic relation between agents, constraints and objects; and (2) the general freedom of an agent is a composition of her particular freedoms, which have a specific object. Consequently, in a preference-based conception of freedom, preferences can concern constraints on freedom and intervene at its general level. This allows me to recognise that one may have or lack an undesired particular freedom, even though her general freedom is not necessarily affected by it. Secondly, to avoid situations similar to the “contented slave” example, we must be able to exclude adaptive preferences from the aggregating process. We can achieve this by adopting a weak criterion of authenticity that states that preferences formed under environmental pressures are not adequate for this process. This is how a preference-based conception of freedom can make sense.