Is irrational freedom truly freedom?
by Ken Myers
“In the consciousness of mankind today, freedom is largely regarded as the greatest good there is, after which all other good things have to take their place. In legislation, artistic freedom and freedom of speech take precedence over every other moral value. Values that conflict with freedom, that could lead to its being restricted, appear as shackles, as ‘taboos’, that is to say, as relics of archaic prohibitions and anxieties. Political action has to demonstrate that it furthers freedom. Even religion can make an impression only by depicting itself as a force for freedom for man and for mankind. In the scale of values with which man is concerned, to live a life worthy of humanity, freedom seems to be the truly fundamental value and to be the really basic human right of them all. The concept of truth, on the other hand, we greet rather with some suspicion: we recall how many opinions and systems have already laid claim to the concept of truth; how often the claim to truth in that way has been the means of limiting freedom. In addition there is the scepticism fostered by natural science regarding anything that cannot be precisely explained or demonstrated: that all seems in the final analysis to be just subjective judgment, which cannot claim to be obligatory for people in general. The modern attitude to truth shows itself most succinctly in Pilate’s words: What is truth? Anyone who claims to be serving truth with his life, and with his words and actions, must be prepared to be regarded as an enthusiast or a fanatic. For ‘Our line of sight to all above is blocked’; this quotation from Goethe’s Faust sums up the way we all feel about it.
“There is no doubt that we have reason enough, in the face of a sentimental and all-too-confident claim to truth, to ask: What is truth? Yet we have just as much reason to put the question: What is freedom? What do we actually mean when we praise freedom and set it on the highest level of our scale of values? I believe that the content generally associated with the demand for freedom is most accurately described in the words Karl Marx once used to express his dream of freedom. The state of affairs in the future Communist society will make it possible ‘to do one thing today, another tomorrow, to go shooting in the morning and fishing in the afternoon and in the evening look after the cattle, to indulge in criticism after dinner, just as the fancy takes me’. It is just in this way that the average attitude, without thinking about it, understands by ‘freedom’ the right, and the practical possibility, of doing everything we wish and not having to do anything we do not wish to do. Putting it another way, freedom would mean that our own will was the only criterion for our action and that this will would be able to want to do anything and also be able to put into practice anything it wanted. At this point the question arises, of course: How free in fact is our Will? And how rational is it? — And, is an irrational will truly a free will? Is irrational freedom truly freedom? Is it really a good thing? Does not the definition of freedom, as being able to decide to do anything and being able to do what we decide, have to be expanded to include the connection with reason, with mankind as a whole, in order to avoid becoming tyranny and unreason? And will not seeking for the common reason of all men, and thus the mutual compatibility of freedoms, be a part of the interplay of reason and the will? It is obvious that the question of truth is concealed within the question of the rationality of the will and its relation to reason.”
— from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (Ignatius Press, 2003)