Beings of Freedom Where the Humans Live

A pennant garland with the inscription "I want the future".
“Freedom always needs also to look ahead to the future – the bigger picture encompasses not only everyone alive today, but also everyone who will be alive in the future,” writes Eric Grabow with regard to the German Federal Constitutional Court's decision on the Climate Protection Act. | Photo (detail): Georgios Kefala © picture alliance/Keystone

The concept of freedom has always referred among other things to a vision that extends into, affects and seeks to shape the future – as we will have to relearn in this era of ecological crisis. Eric Grabow explores the relationship between freedom and sustainability from a philosophical perspective. 

By Eric Grabow

We are all familiar with the human urge for freedom, the need to be free of constraints and to be able to pursue our own interests and goals. We humans are characterized by our ability to be autonomous and by feeling a compulsion to be free. As a philosopher, I would say that humans are beings of freedom, that freedom is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human. However, humans can be subjected to circumstances that run counter to their freedom, they can be unfree despite always wishing to remain free. When our actual lives do not entail the freedom we are due or feel entitled to, this frequently gives rise to indignation. And this indignation is at the same time an indication that we do not wish merely to assert our freedom in this or that particular moment, but that every aspect of our entire human existence should measure up to our standards of freedom. Yet how such a life can be guaranteed and what this is supposed to enable humans to do with it is something that has been discussed for centuries.

Freedom as a Human Being

These initial ponderings already make it clear that the question of freedom is ultimately synonymous with what it means to be human and to lead a human life. Our idea of being human influences our idea of freedom and vice versa; our vision of freedom paints a particular picture of the world inhabited by humans. Let us pick out three aspects that will gradually reveal this picture to us: 

Humans are social beings. The basic structure of the way we think, feel and act shows that we always presuppose the presence of other humans, and that everything about us has always been influenced by others. We are brought up by our fellow humans, surround ourselves by our fellow humans, and participate in a society whose products – just like this society itself – can only come about through cooperation, not through the actions of an individual.

Humans are beings of needs. We want to avoid negative sensations (such as pain, hunger or loneliness) and bring about positive ones (such as desire, satiation or a sense of community). We are completely in need of protection and wish to keep ourselves and our environment safe from harm. We often need the help of others because we are unable to fully protect ourselves, provide for ourselves or develop on our own. 

Humans are creatures of nature. We are a natural body interacting with a natural environment, engaged in metabolism with one all-encompassing nature. Everything that surrounds us is nature. Everything from our food and clothing to our furniture, medical drugs, cars, computers and the internet – in all cases we rely on one and the same nature.

Spheres of Freedom

Let us now put these pieces of the puzzle together: humans live in communities that create their own spheres of life in the midst and with the help of nature – spheres that are suitable for human needs and function only as humans dictate. Freedom presupposes that humans have at their disposal a world in which to live, a world that is designed by humans for humans, in accordance with human standards and for human purposes – though this does not guarantee in itself that humans will automatically enjoy full freedom within it. The world to be created must meet many conditions if it is genuinely to be a place of freedom. One of these conditions is fundamental equality: these spheres will be home to free humans only if all humans are entitled to the same freedom; they all have the same right to it because, despite all their differences, they are all humans ‘to the same extent’. And because it must be available to everyone, freedom can only be achieved by community cooperation. That is why it is a sign of true freedom when all the members of a community are free at the same time and in the same way. Freedom cannot exist for only a part of the whole.

A Little Slice of Freedom (for Myself)

Humans have needs and desires and take decisions that can be independent of and indeed conflict with those of other humans. The idea of freedom is thus inextricably linked to another idea. Although freedom can exist only in a community and only through this community, it is nonetheless always the freedom of an individual. Nobody but me can exercise my freedom, just as nobody else can live my life. The world we have built together is not really free therefore if individuals cannot claim some exclusive space for themselves within it – individual free spaces are an integral element of the idea of freedom. However, they always remain just a part of the bigger picture – and only this bigger picture can preserve freedom because this is the world that has been jointly created. Humans can override neither their social nature nor their individuality, as both are interwoven within them. When everyone is able to enjoy their own free spaces at the same time, and nobody can threaten the freedom of others or the bigger picture, freedom can then be regarded as genuine and fair.

Give the Future What It Is Due 

The vision of freedom requires us to learn how to approach and deal with the future in a new way. The world we live in, as created by humans for humans, has always been geared towards the future, towards passing freedom on, as it must also serve as a world for coming generations – especially for the young people who are already alive today. And these people will be just as reliant on nature as we are, for technological advances achieved by humankind change only the way we deal with nature, not our need to do so – the fact that we use natural resources to build the world we live in. Nature remains a permanent prerequisite for human freedom. “Sustainability” must therefore mean nothing less than the certainty that future humans will have at their disposal the same prerequisites for the freedom that we enjoy ourselves. Without effective sustainability, without sustainable freedom, we knowingly create injustice, as it is just as wrong to reserve freedom for certain generations as it is to make freedom possible for only part of the community and to restrict the freedom of others for the sake of my individual freedom. To put it another way, if we violate the imperative of equality, we also compromise our own freedom. If therefore we should find ourselves behaving unfairly and thereby counteracting our own freedom, we need to ask ourselves whether we have failed to recognize our freedom, perhaps mistaking it for something else such as egoism or personal whim.
In March 2021, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court criticized just such an injustice in a verdict that attracted considerable attention. The German government’s Climate Change Act, it found, imposes more restrictions on future generations than on present generations in its desire to mitigate climate change, thereby encroaching on their freedom to a greater extent than on ours. As a result of this intergenerational imbalance, the need emphasized by the court to “guarantee freedom over time and across generations” runs contrary to the idea of freedom. This is because freedom always needs also to look ahead to the future – the bigger picture encompasses not only everyone alive today, but also everyone who will be alive in the future. Those who live in freedom pave the way for future generations to be free, handing down to them a place to live and a culture of freedom. However, nature is a prerequisite for this freedom, which can therefore only be guaranteed if we preserve nature, protecting it from damage to the extent that it can serve as a home and basis for the freedom of all future humans. Our present is an important learning process that will teach us to take this realization for granted and view it as an obligation – a more binding obligation than at any previous time in human history.