Liberty of Indifference
The surprising thing about this account of freedom, to the modern mind, is that it defines freedom in terms of purpose, and not in terms of choice. The modern conception of freedom was born when freedom to choose between alternatives was changed from a consequence of freedom to the essence of freedom, and separated from the notions of purpose and end. This happened in the middle ages, and was the work of William of Ockham and those who followed him. This conception of freedom is appropriately described as “liberty of indifference”. For Ockham, freedom is simply the power to choose between alternatives. Anything that would incline one towards one alternative or the other limits one’s freedom; perfect freedom is complete power to choose any alternative, and complete indifference towards these alternatives. Not all actions have to be done for the sake of good, because we are free to choose whether or not to seek the good. The good, in any case, does not mean what it meant in the previous conception of freedom. The good for man is not founded on the purpose of human existence, but simply and solely on God’s command. God, being perfectly free, can command whatever he wants. If he were to command murder, adultery, hatred of neighbour and of himself, these things would become good and their opposites would become evil.
The understanding of freedom as liberty of indifference has persisted from Ockham’s time up to the present day. The main innovation has been that his explanation of the good in terms of divine commands has been dropped, and our inclinations towards the good and reasons for action are understood on the model of physical desires. Physical desires, like a pang of lust or a thirsty feeling, are not true or false. Thus, statements about what it is good to do are not thought to be true or false. Nor can physical desires be mistaken, in the sense of being directed towards something that will not satisfy them. If you want food, you want food, and if you want sex, you want sex. Thus, it does not occur to people that a want could be mistaken, and that gratifying a want might not bring satisfaction or fulfilment. It does not make sense to them to hold that a desire for fame, or money, might not bring the satisfaction it promises. Freedom is thought of as something that has no essential link to the truth.