What is freedom? The answer, superficially, depends on whom you are talking to. To an African teenager/child/comrade, freedon is beiing away from their parents and their (inane) rules. To a prisoner, it is getting out of jail, never to go back. To a tenant, it is not having to worry about their landlord. To a loud person, it is the space to say and do whatever they want without the government trying to make them its guest for ball massage sessions. To mama mbogas, it is the ability to ply their trade by the roadside without kanjo trying to break chains over their backs.
If you look closely, then, human beings have come up with a general definition for what freedom is: the ability to perform desired actions - including talking and thinking - without external influence or interferance. This autonomy is exercised at will regardless of time and is naturally constrained by resources such as enthusiasm, money, willingness and strength. These constraints may influence the definition of freedom but are also dependent variables.Can you see the mechanics of that? No? Too bad. I am already moving on.
The above paragraph outlines the general definition of freedom. However, it is accurate without being precise. To make that definition more precise, we will need to add one word: law. Thus, freedom is the autonomy to perform desired actions - including talking and thinking - without external or internal influence or interferance.1 Where is the law here?
First, the law is a set of (im)mutable rules that dictate human behaviour in a given jurisdiction which is enforceable by specific formal institutions or authorities. With respect to national laws, it is mutable. With respect to most religious laws, it is immutable. With respect to conscience, it is immutable but some people want to debate with it 2.
Therefore, the law is both an external and internal influence which also happens to be a conditionally independent variable depending on the nature of the law you are referring to. The existence of the law therefore implies the existence of limits to our freedom or an enforcing mechanism for its completeness. This naturally leads to the following questions: can there be true freedom with limits? Isn't freedom supposed to be unfettered? Why should limits to this freedom exist?
Limits to freedom are generally understood to be imposed and adhered to to avoid introducing undeserved and unexppected discomfort and/or pain to another person or to yourself in case the law slaps you for something you did. As an example, you can (to some extent) abuse the president of Kenya but if you call for his death, KDF, DCI, NIS, AP, NYS, NCIC and their cousins and mama mboga may have to marinate your nuts with heavy pliers and make you someone's wife in Kamiti if you are lucky.
In our human experience, there are two types of laws: bad laws and good laws. Bad laws generally tend to have a negative impact on our experience and value as human beings while good laws tend to protect us from our fellow human beings and vice-versa.3
But what is the impact of the law?
The law imposes a burden on us; the burden may be that of care or consequence, that is, care to not violate the law and the consequences of obeying or violating it. If you obey a bad law, you impose a burden on yourself that restricts your freedom. If you disobey it, while your conscience may be free, you may have to endure other burdens such as a date with coplo Kipruto's loving hands at the basement of Nyayo House. This applies even if it is the government enforcing the said law.If you obey a good law, you remove the burden of consequences of disobeying it and the burden of conscience if you share its moral underpinnings. You are therefore free to do whatever you want without having extra burdens imposed upon you physically, mentally or materially by the law.
As a result, true freedom can be defined as the existence of room a human (or other sentient) being has to do whatever they want - including talking and thinking - without burdensome limits and/or having to endure burdens which may restrict their enjoyment of the human experience.4
1. This sounds a lot like the definition of agency, coming to think of it.
2. Conscience is what forms the basic framework of what most people call "society" nowadays. When enough people share a common set of internal laws, they tend to enforce it amongst themselves in their larger social group. People who violate this code are often shamed, shunned or punished in any number of ways.
4. This definition needs a bit more work to make it clearer. I will probably not do it.
3. As an aside, while you may try to argue about the applicability of the definitions of bad and good, even in a completely amoral society, people tend to be miserable because there is no reasonable expectation of undue interferance from their fellows. We can therefore say that the definition I am aiming at here is clear-cut. Bad is bad. Good is good.