What is freedom? Philosophers have commonly distinguished between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. John Stuart Mill famously said: “your right to your knife ends at my chest,” and while many take this to be a re-formulation of his famous Harm Principle (namely that morality only applies to areas of the human condition that impede — harm — others), that interpretation often focuses solely on the ‘freedom from’ aspect of the quote. Mill is also pointing to a ‘freedom to’ in the quote, as there is no problem with owning a knife, so long as you do not use it to harm others.
But who decides, in real life cases that do not involve harm in the most immediate sense of Mill’s case, when to invoke a ‘freedom from’ principle? Or, in language that has appeared frequently in the mainstream press recently: why has Obama decided to intervene in Libya, but not in other countries? Mill did not say that, if you approached two other people, one holding a knife to the others’ throat, that you can produce your own knife and choose sides. It is truly naive to expect that individuals, not to mention individuals acting on behalf of sovereign states, will act with anything but their own interest at the forefront of their minds. How do we formulate rules of intervention that are moral and will ultimately achieve the desired result, namely minimizing the needless suffering and loss of life that one would expect out of benevolent acts of intervention?
Another, related way in which the issue of ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ is playing out in current events is in the West’s appraisal of various democracy movements that are in different stages of realization in the Middle East. If the West holds democracy — and the freedom and equality that it supposedly brings — in the highest regard, is it possible to turn around and claim that “all democracies are equal, but some are more equal than others” (a la Animal Farm)? There is something logical in the idea that, were Canada to turn into a dictatorship as a result of our May election, Obama would be rightly concerned and would probably intervene in some way. But if, instead, the results of the upcoming election produced a majority for a party whose views Obama did not agree with, while Canada maintained its democratic character, what right would Obama have to intervene? Why does this argument not seem to apply once the parties in question expressly avow particular religious practices?
To avoid valid claims of (moral) imperialism, the West would do well to heed Mill’s credo. So long as a knife is not being pointed at your chest, it seems quite reasonable to allow another to keep it. Just as knives can be used in non-harmful ways, so too, one would hope, the West believes that democracy can. And if that is so, a little more trust in humanity is called for.