First and Second Order Freedom

September 1st, 2013

While driving around one day, a church sign caught my eye. Here’s what it said:

True freedom lies within boundaries.
Church sign

In just five words, the creator of this message states something extremely complicated. It implies that there is a right and wrong way of thinking about freedom. This right way, it says, is only found within a set of restrictions (the Christian doctrines).

At first glance, and even upon further reflection, this statement about freedom can sound extremely convincing. However, there is nothing of much value in it alone. But, it does lead to an interesting discussion about what freedom means within certain contexts.

Language allows us to communicate, but it isn’t perfect. The usage of the word “freedom” can be described within two contexts, which I will call first and second order freedoms. By understanding the context in which freedom is being discussed, we can, hopefully, reduce the chance of miscommunication.

First order freedom

Certain restrictions are placed on us due to our natural circumstances. For example, if I trained for it, I could run a mile in 6 minutes. However, it doesn’t matter how much I train, I will never be able to run a mile in 6 seconds. This is due to our natural predicament, something which is outside of our control, or tied to the definition of a term.

This is our first order of freedom: We are necessarily free to do whatever is possible for us to accomplish.1

Second order freedom

Due to their current assumptions about the world, people restrict themselves on what they can and can’t do. For example, a person who believes that eating meat is wrong will not eat meat. In this sense, they are not free to eat meat. This second order of freedom relates to our beliefs about the world and how we ought to act in accordance with it.

This is our second order of freedom: We are contingently free to do whatever is possible given our beliefs about the world.2

In Conclusion

It is unnecessary to think about freedom as either only based on restrictions, or totally free. Instead, we should view freedom with the idea that it comes in first and second orders.


  1. While all humans might be free to perform a certain action, other restrictions of our freedom may only apply to a group of us, or individually. For example, it is impossible for a woman to be a bachelor, given the definition of one as an unmarried man. This would still be considered a first order freedom.
  2. Second order freedoms aren’t necessary, but from the perspective of the individual they trump first order freedoms. For example, I might truly believe I can fly. However, it is impossible for me to do so (due to a first order freedom), and it impedes me to believe otherwise.

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