Any useful definition of freedom takes into account not just whether we are able to act on our desires, but what desires we end up having. One way of doing this that has been put forth a number of times, by, for example, some of the existentialists, is freedom as independence, the state in which a person’s values form in a way that is somehow unconstrained, or at least not fully determined, by society’s norms. This is unsatisfactory to me because it requires us to make an unclear distinction in the case of the person who does
conform. Does she do so by choice? This question is not only impossible to formulate in concrete terms, it’s altogether meaningless unless we believe that some aspects of the self are fixed with respect to social influence. To imagine the self as a homunculus
who runs around and rearranges the ideas in the brain is a fallacy; a person choosing their own values
is like a committee being convened to determine who is on the committee. A choice of values must be based on a higher order of values if it is other than random, and we would need to take these higher-order values as in some way immune to manipulation in order to avoid regress. Choice is not the only concept in terms of which we can define independence, but I can’t see any other way to do it that doesn’t encounter some variant of this problem. If a person conforms, they conform, and there’s nothing more we can say without either speaking for them with regards to what they “really” want or claiming that this or that is their “authentic voice,” a black hole of a concept if I’ve ever seen one. My inclination is that these problems arise when we try to talk about freedom in terms of discrete individuals rather than asking whether a society as a whole is free. We can do this, I think, by examining the range of value systems by which a randomly-chosen person could potentially live well in a given society, without reference to whether any particular value system is “theirs.” In the process we would likely end up representing society as more homogeneous than it really is, but that’s okay because I’m not after a final answer to the question of how free a society is. What I’m after is a framework in which we can talk about freedom productively.