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A Short Historical Sketch on the Idea of Freedom (An Introduction by James P. Young)


There are two basic types of moral argument, which are labeled "thick" and "thin".  

Philosophers often write about the problem of "universals" and "particulars." Are there any principles that are valid in all times and places, or are there only local circumstances that do not carry over from one time or culture to another? Michael Walzer suggests that there are two basic types of moral argument, which he labels "thick" and "thin." Thin arguments, like Cicero's ideal of universal reason, tend to be quite abstract. Of course, on some level we can always understand arguments of this type.

Declaration of Independence
As an example of a thin theory, Walzer cites the anti-Communist demonstrations in Prague in 1989. The marchers carried signs demanding "truth" and "justice," though they could just as well have demanded "freedom." While he knew little about Czech culture, Walzer had no trouble understanding what the signs meant. They were demanding "an end to arbitrary arrests, equal and impartial law enforcement, the abolition of the privileges and prerogatives of the party elite—common, garden variety justice." These goals appear to be of universal validity. At the same time, Walzer observes quite rightly that the marchers would have disagreed about the exact details of how a just, free society should be organized. It is equally certain that American citizens, when they debate freedom, advocate specific programs for achieving their goals that are quite different from those of their Czech counterparts. Different political systems with different political cultures and national histories will almost inevitably arrive at different understandings of the requirements of a free society.

Universal theories tend to be thin theories because they do not refer to a specific political system. Theories that grow out of a particular political culture are what Walzer calls thick theories. They are necessarily more detailed and less abstract than thin theories because they attempt to deal with the practical needs of a given society.

Thick theories are no less valid than thin theories, nor are they purely relativistic.  
Thick theories are no less valid than thin theories, nor are they purely relativistic. The scope of their potential utility may be debatable, but they cannot be dismissed with the old saw that all things are relative. They simply serve different functions from those of thin, abstract theories. The Federalist Papers, for example, were written to provide advice on the meaning of the newly drafted U.S. Constitution. Their authors no doubt thought that they were pursuing the universal goal of freedom, but they were doing so in a way adapted to what they perceived to be the needs of a new nation whose initial institutions were in need of change.

These two conceptions, thick and thin, of some of the key forms of moral argument in Western political thought, suggest something about the argument of this brief essay. The discussion began with ancient Greek democracy, moved to ancient Rome and the world of medieval feudalism, turned next to the development of the early modern European state, and then to developments in the United States, with a brief detour into the theories of the European thinkers Tocqueville and Mill. The Athenian theory of freedom provided a wonderful grounding for a high level of citizen participation. Although it was highly restrictive in practice, limited to but a small proportion of the population, today we can perceive the universal force of the Athenian ideal of participatory civic freedom. Similarly, the Magna Carta had immediate application only to the relationship between King John and his feudal barons, but it bore universal implications that were spelled out by later generations. In general terms this is the way the high ideals of the Western world have developed, moving from the particular to the general, from thick to thin. Universal theories tend to be abstracted from particular practices. The American Declaration of Independence represents one of the climactic moments in the long development of the idea of freedom and arguably achieves universality, despite having grown out of the specific revolutionary situation in the colonies. Yet throughout their history, Americans have argued about how the principles found in the Declaration should be applied.For example, does the right to life rule out the death penalty? And while there are some ways of pursuing happiness that are unacceptable to all, there is certainly room for debate over others. Or, to take an example from the Constitution, everyone supports the theory of free speech, but everyone would also accept Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's remark that the most stringent protection of free speech would not extend to someone who falsely shouts fire in a crowded theater. Thus even free speech is not absolute, and debate goes on interminably about what other limits might apply.

The Declaration of Independence represents one of the climactic moments in the long development of the idea of freedom.  
In any case, principles like those in the Declaration and the Constitution have historically provided the basis for Walzer's "connected criticism," a classic example being the use of the Jeffersonian ideal against slavery. And if we can and must debate within American culture about such issues, about what constitutes justice and what we are and are not free to do, then it is clear that there will be debate in other cultures over how the principles of the Declaration, or any other set of principles, should be applied in their particular circumstances. Still, international law includes prohibitions against slavery, genocide, murder, torture, arbitrary detention, and systematic racial discrimination—bans that are all necessary preconditions of freedom, though they are often violated in practice.

As stated in the introduction, freedom is an essentially contested concept on which there is some agreement at a general level, but which will be disputed when we move from the general to the particular. Many of the most important political issues throughout the world revolve around such contests, and we can be sure that the debates will continue as long as politics are free.