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The Changing Meaning of Freedom: From Conscience to Coercion

I intend in this essay to put forth the view that by ‘freedom’ Western culture has meant different and at times conflicting things, and that there has been a progression from one view to another.  While ‘freedom’ has been at least one of the cardinal values, if not the primary value, it is actually a wax nose on the face of Western culture.  I am particularly interested here in the present change to the notion of ‘freedom’ in what I would call a post-postmodern culture.  The word itself may march on, but what meaning fills it changes over time.  In this metamorphosis, the developing notion of freedom has come to contradict what started the entire process in the first place.

Freedom of Conscience

In a previous essay, I explored the roots of Western culture’s interest in ‘freedom’.[1]  My argument there was that the concern in the West for freedom arose from a concern to protect conscience and permit the voluntary (rather than enforced) dynamic of ‘faith.’  Faith can hardly be faith if it is enforced and, if so, the freedom of conscience must be protected.  This was a hard-fought battle in so-called ‘Christian’ circles, for enormous ecclesiastical and governmental structures had been erected around faith over the centuries with the result that faith was enforced in many sectors of Christendom.  But it was Christians who finally broke through to the view in the 17th century that conscience was important, that it required an allowance for dissent, and therefore that it needed to affirm freedom—a freedom of conscience, that is.

Freedom from Constraints

If a freedom of conscience was needed to fight against coercion by religious or governmental authorities in the 16th and 17th centuries, then such freedom could also be further understood as a freedom from certain constraints—from tyrannies and injustices.  To articulate this development, freedom in the late 18th century was now defined in terms of ‘rights’—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as Thomas Jefferson put it in the US Declaration of Independence; or liberty, fraternity, and equality, as the French Revolution put it.  This version of freedom marched on right through the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, fighting against tyranny, slavery, chauvinism, despotism (Fascism, Communism), economic injustice, and civil constraints based on ethnicity.  Yet freedom from constraints was not the same as freedom of conscience, and the former increasingly saw religion as yet another constraint to be opposed.  Indeed, already in the 18th century Voltaire began the attack on faith.

Freedom of Choice

One might see how ‘freedom of conscience’ and ‘freedom from constraints’ easily slip into a very different understanding of freedom—a ‘freedom of choice.’  This occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. While the civil rights movement was still about removing constraints and the natural rights of all human beings, other issues in the 1960s created the situation necessary for a new perspective on freedom to evolve.  One formative event in Western history was the Vietnam War, with very young people having to decide matters of conscience and resist the constraints of law, not least in opposition to the draft.  Yet the same generation was faced with another matter of freedom that did not have to do with their consciences or coercion but with their desires: the sexual revolution.  As this second concern came into focus, ‘freedom’ became less a matter of defending conscience and more a matter of securing the right to choose—whatever the choice.  This was focused even more sharply in 1973 when the US Supreme Court determined in favour of a freedom of choice in the termination of a pregnancy (abortion).  To do so, it had to deny the moral value of unborn children: one can hardly defend someone’s freedom to choose if another’s life will place constraints on that choice.  Society attached the notion of freedom as a ‘right’ (women’s rights) to the notion of freedom as a ‘choice’.  Also, if freedom was to be understood as an individual’s choice, then the consciences of others were of no consequence.  The notion of ‘freedom’ as a ‘choice’ had come into its own.

The shift from freedom of conscience and freedom from constraints to freedom of choice marked the shift to postmodernity.  Whether one approached rationality from the perspective of faith and tradition or reason and science (the latter being the modernist, Enlightenment paradigm), some notion of objectivity was kept alive.  Postmodernity, shifting the domination of the university from the science department seeking foundational and objective truths to the literature department entertaining a plethora of perspectives, accepted no objective rules for enquiry, only subjective interpretations.  This was the context in which freedom of choice flourished.  One could construct any variation of truth one desired.

The roots of freedom as ‘choice’ lay well back in the 19th century.  Soren Kierkegaard had argued for faith against rationality by speaking of a ‘leap of faith’—a choice without rational grounds.  Arthur Schopenhauer argued for ‘will,’ not reason, to explain the irrationality of life.  Friedrich Nietzsche altered Schopenhauer’s philosophy by replacing ‘will’ with ‘power.’  Choice, then, was not only freed from the constraints of others or reason, it was an exercise of power—a ‘right’ in a developed sense from the days of Locke or Jefferson.  In a postmodern context, this meant that all constructions of ‘truth’ were local and functional rather than universal and objective.

At first, the shift to ‘freedom of choice’ opened up a new frontier of freedom for faiths.  One no longer had to prove one’s faith, and a seat in the public arena could be reserved for any set of convictions.  Nothing was excludable, since everything was a mere construction.

Coercive Freedom

If all truth is constructed, then the postmodern person might give renewed attention to whatever had been excluded during the age of modernity.  The postmodern age increasingly took on an interest in the marginalized constructions of culture and—yes—identity.  What had been a deconstructive process guided by the multitude of meaning for the literature department became a political exercise guided by the sociology department of the university.  Now, attention was not given to the diversity of interpretation of the novel but the politically correct interpretation of a particular tribal group—or groups.[2]  Whatever one once might have claimed as ‘natural’ was simply constructed, and therefore the ‘unnatural’ was equally valid.  In this way, freedom of choice has come to involve a protection of the obscure, marginalized, and unnatural against the assumed tyranny of the normal, dominant, and natural.  This protective freedom has required coercion, so that the 2% of society wishing to construct its own identities has become the centre of society.  Championing the margins has meant coercing the centre to accept the margins as equally central, and this coercion has meant denying freedom of conscience to persons of religious faith.


The pursuit of freedom in different shades had come full circle, from being a freedom of conscience against tyranny to being a tyranny against conscience.  Examples should not be necessary—they appear in the news every single day.  This past month’s news, e.g., has included the latest laws in Massachusetts to coerce the rest of society to accept assumed (rather than biological) identities of persons in all public contexts (including dinners offered to the public by churches—communities of conscience).[3]

[1] See my blog, ‘Conscience and Freedom,’ (8 April, 2016); online:
[2] Cf. the critical linguistics developed by Roger Fowler—a social or cultural theory of language that focusses on the socially constructed and politically powerful world of language.  In the post-postmodern world, language must be controlled because it has power to shape ideas and society, but since there are no fixed identities and only what people choose to invent, language must now be used that affirms others’ choices.  So, e.g., the male student or employee choosing a female identity must be called by ‘her’ chosen identity, not biological sex.  In this way, freedom of choice has become coercive freedom.