When Freedom is not Free

We’ve been talking a lot about freedom, whether or not freedom exists, the freedom to exercise one’s autonomy, and to be free from paternalistic influences. I’ve argued in the past that generally speaking individuals should be able to choose the way their lives go, even if others don’t agree with their choices, and even if their choices are outside the norm.

But what about when the freedom to choose actually limits our ability to make free and autonomous?

Coercive Contexts

Something that I think is important to note, and which I have tried to emphasize throughout all these discussions of ethics is that our actions do not exist in a vaccuum, and neither should our ethical theories. The fact that we live in a capitalistic, mysoginistic, racist, homophobic society, is incredibly important to understanding what actions are right, fair, and just, and what we should be permitted or forbidden from engaging in.

Understanding context is key to the practice of ethics, and to understanding the idea that increasing the range of actions available to us- which on the surface looks a whole lot like freedom, may not always be a good thing.

Maximal Choice

In “Conceptions of Autonomy and Conceptions of the Body in Bioethics”, Catriona Mackenzie critiques what she calls the “maximal choice” view of autonomy. We can understand the maximal choice view of autonomy as follows

Maximal Choice View: The maximal conception of autonomy also holds as one of its tenets a Libertarian view, which supports free markets and individual decision making. The maximal choice views holds that in all cases one can do with one’s body as one pleases, and the more options relating to one’s control over one’s body, the better.

Maximal choice arguments work by constructing our bodies as something that we have ownership over.  This view takes the idea that we have a right to bodily security (and therefore the right to be free from interference by others), and extends it into a positive right to bodily self-determination. (Whether or not we can actually meaningfully distinguish the difference between negative and positive rights is a nut to be cracked on another day). In any case, the maximal choice view construes our bodies as something we have ownership over, as opposed to a vehicle through which we experience the world.

The idea of having ownership, in a capitalistic sense over our bodies in turn, allows us to objectify and commodify them.

Assumptions of the Maximal Choice View

The maximal choice view assumes that ownership of our bodies, and in particular, the ability to dispose of our bodies, or parts of our bodies as we choose automatically enhances our autonomy. It also treats all decisions made about our bodies as equally moral and beneficial for our autonomy.

You may remember, that one of the key questions we need to ask when paternalism enters the debate is “does my action influence my future autonomy?” In the cases of commodifying bodies, many actions you can take will influence future autonomy especially in extreme causes such as organ selling.

Imperfect Protections

Regulatory schemes that reject the maximal choice view, such as those we have in Canada which prohibit actions such as selling organs, eggs, or services as a surrogate mother are in some ways prohibitive. Even I have been mildly annoyed that I can’t pay off my student debt with reproductive features of my body that I will never use- but I respect why these prohibitions are in place.

We live in a capitalistic society where literally everything can be bought for enough money. Luckily, there are very few people who have that level of financial power, and regulatory schemes such as those we have in Canada protect certain goods from being brought to market. This is an imperfect protection, but it does have an impact.

Regulatory schemes that protect individuals bodies from commodification, especially explicit commodification of body parts (not commodification of bodily labor such as mining or sex work), protects individuals most at risk for economic exploitation from additional exploitation of their bodies.

Obviously, individuals may still have their bodies exploited by social assistance schemes that don’t recognize their hunger, their need for contraception, or their healthcare needs- but the ability for them to gain economic subsistence through the sale of their bodies does not improve these outcomes, rather, it highlights the need for adequate social assistance programs so that individuals will not feel the need to sell their bodies in this way in the first place.

Closing Remarks

In conclusion, there are times when increasing the range of actions available to us which superficially looks like increasing opportunities for freedom and autonomy, merely increases the risk of exploitation.


You are you because of the body that you live in, you have a favourite food because your tongue likes the taste of it best. You were formed in small part by the people that touched you, actually touched. You do not own your body, you are your body, and policies that recognize and affirm this recognize and affirm you.

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