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Philosopher Pieter Boele van Hensbroek: ‘Freedom needs partisans.’

04 May 2010

In our western society, freedom is seen as the summum bonum. But although we may feel freer than ever before, all is not what is seems, claims philosopher Pieter Boele van Hensbroek. The pressures of modern life, security measures and our own indifference on the subject are compromising the very notion of freedom. In Boele’s own words, ‘Our freedom is slipping away from us.’

It is a contradictory trend, argues Boele, a specialist in non-western political thinking. Although people increasingly appreciate the fact that they are able to shape their own lives, at the same time, their personal freedom is being eroded at every level. The philosopher cites the current fast pace of western life as the primary cause: ‘Not only the workplace is becoming more strictly disciplined, our entire lives are. Organizations revolve around rationalization; everything takes place according to strict protocols, schools are judged solely by grades and performance and even the academic world is starting to resemble a production company. Consider the US, the land of the free, a country where people are granted a high level of freedom but practically no holidays. The course of their lives is largely dictated by their work situation.’

In line

Boele sees proof of his assertion that life as a whole is becoming increasingly regulated in the lack of unconventional people living unorthodox lives; the birds of paradise. ‘How often do you encounter this kind of person these days? Both the social system and people’s minds seem to have been conditioned by something that makes it difficult to deviate from the norm.’ Boele refers to his own experiences in this respect. He spent time living in Sri Lanka and Zambia: ‘Although we consider individualism to be a hot item in our society, the people in those countries are actually far more individualistic than we are. The system there is much less authoritative and so you see far more people living on the fringes of society.’
‘At the end of the nineteenth century, the philosopher John Stuart Mill identified two huge threats to our freedom: a dominant government and public opinion. I would say that both these factors are now helping to keep us firmly in line.’ This is a great pity, thinks Boele, as deviating from the norm is the force that fuels innovation in both individual organizations and society as a whole. Efficiency aimed at enabling progress is paralyzing the innovation we so sorely need.


Another important aspect is the value we put on freedom, claims Boele. ‘We as a society seem more than willing to sacrifice our freedom in the name of security, or perhaps it would be better to say for a sense of security. We simply accept telephone taps on a massive scale and absurd security checks at airports. The argument that we are sacrificing individual freedom for the sake of collective freedom simply does not hold water.’
We are even happy to give up our freedom on an individual level, contends Boele. ‘How much do we actually object to being spied on by cameras, to our internet use being monitored and our personal data being kept in a medical databank? These are issues that the majority of people accept without batting an eyelid.’
This is why freedom is slipping away from us, claims Boele. ‘We should be more concerned about this. Freedom needs defenders; partisans from the ranks of private individuals as well as politicians. What does this latter group stand for when it comes down to it, prosperity, security, or freedom?”

Creating choices

We can learn a lot about freedom from non-western countries, continues Boele. People there often have a completely different notion of freedom. By taking an objective look at what we call freedom, you can come to very different conclusions in other countries. Boele: ‘They force us to see that although our liberal capitalist societies are good at guaranteeing the rights that protect us from government and a number of civil liberties like the right to participation and democracy, we tend to forget the more material liberties such as freedom in work, housing, education and food.’
Boele cites Amartya Sen, the Indian economist and Nobel Prizewinner for economics. ‘Sen has a very concrete understanding of the notion of freedom; he sees it as the opportunity to realize choices in your life. This makes freedom enormously relevant, particularly to people who have little opportunity to realize their ambitions, people in underdeveloped or oppressive situations. The concept of freedom is what it is really all about: development means putting an end to a lack of freedom, it means creating realistic opportunities for people to make choices.’

Curriculum vitae

Dr Pieter Boele van Hensbroek works as a philosopher in the practical philosophy department of the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen. Boele van Hensbroek is specialized in African philosophy and non-western political thinking. He is also employed by the Centre for Development Studies.

Note for the press

More information: Pieter Boele van Hensbroek

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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