Freedom and Responsibility


We have a problem, several problems, in fact: we want to be free, and we want to be part of a community – and the two don’t entirely go together. Also, while we are clear we want to be free, we struggle with the concept. Often, this does not matter – but sometimes, after fighting for freedom alongside others, we discover that we were fighting for two quite different and incompatible versions of freedom. That can hurt.

I Want to be Free

Freedom is a tricky concept. We generally think we know what it is, until we try to define it. We want a definition so we can agree on the meaning when we talk about it with other people, but any definition of freedom will tell us about some abstract thing and we only encounter freedom in specifics.

Some people desperately long for freedom. It may be a teenager irritated by their parents’ insistence that they are home by a certain time, a prisoner languishing in a cell, or an artist in a totalitarian state unable to express their ideas. Whenever we desire freedom, it is always a specific freedom we want – a freedom we are painfully aware that we lack. When the prisoner in a cell says, “I want to be free!”, we know exactly what they mean.

I want to be free, but I know that sometimes what I want is not good for me.  Sometimes I choose not to be free.  [See The Desire for Freedom]

Freedom: From and To

But we do not only care about having the freedom to do things: we also care about being free from the things which seek to control, threaten, limit, abuse, harm and hinder us. We want to be free from hunger, thirst, sickness, poverty, fear and surveillance.

When I look at it purely from my own perspective, this makes perfect sense: of course I desire to be free to do what I want and free from the things which get in the way of this. But I can’t look at it purely from my own perspective. I need other people, both to survive and to flourish, and these other people also have their own needs and desires.

If we can affect one another and I am free to do this, then you are not free from having this done. My freedom to limits your freedom from – and if you have the same freedom to, this also limits my own freedom from.  If I am free to shout aloud in the street, then you are not free to use the street without hearing someone shouting.  If I am free to write what I like about you in a newspaper, then you are not free from the risk of being slandered.

We choose as a society to limit our freedom to do certain things in order to give us freedom from the consequences; we limit some freedoms in order to give us other freedoms.  So, for example, we are not free to keep all the money we earn: we pay taxes so that (amongst other things) we will be free to travel along safely maintained roads; we limit travel to one side of the carriageway so that we are free to travel without running headlong into other road users. We prevent people from employing children so that all children are free to attend school - the children can be free from ignorance because employers are enot free to employ them.

Freedom and Balance

This is the basic reason why we cannot be free in some abstract, absolute sense: the more freedom we have of one type, the less freedom we have of another type.  How much (and in what areas) should people be free to do what they want, and how much should their behaviour be limited for the sake of others?  You always have to choose how to balance the various freedoms.  The USA and Scandinavia both value freedom, they just choose a different point of balance.  [See also Politics: Some Underlying Issues]

Of course, there is not just one point of balance – there are many distinct areas where this balance has to be found. What I can say about you is one thing, what I can say about the government is another; what I can do to you is one thing, what I can do to the environment is another.

One of the challenging and refreshing aspects of learning to live in a different country is the discovery that they do things differently here: it is not just the language and foods which are different, the way people treat each other is different: what is normal in one place is rude in another; you have to discover the correct, socially acceptable balance in many different areas of custom and behaviour.

Freedom and Culture

Talking of other countries: we need to remember that the past is another country – “they do things differently there”. We want to judge previous generations by today’s standards, because it is ‘obvious’ that today’s assumptions and expectations are morally correct.

I recently watched the film ‘Harriet’, which portrays one part of the life of Harriet Tubman, the famous abolitionist.  Harriet repeatedly risked her life to rescue slaves, taking them along the ‘underground railroad’.  The cinema audience is fully on Harriet’s side when she says, “God don’t mean people to own people,” and it seems to us to be self-evidently true, but - in the context of her day - this was a strange and implausible claim.

At the time when the film was set, slavery had been a fact of life since before history began. Almost everywhere you had established laws, it was regulated, as other aspects of trade were regulated: in some places at some times, there were many slaves, at other places and times there seems to have been few or no slaves.  When, occasionally, for a time, slavery had been prohibited, it was usually to protect the powerful - so, in Athens, Solon protected Athenian citizens from slavery, but most people living in Athens were not citizens and enjoyed no such protection.

At that point in history, some people had come to the conclusion that slavery as an institution was wrong, and in a few places this had been made law, but alongside the voices of the people advocating that slaves should be set free, you could hear the voices of the slave owners advocating that they should be free to do as they chose with their property, and the voices of the many investors in all the businesses which earned their profits (at least in part) from slavery.  A great many people probably disliked slavery but believed it would be impossible to operate a successful modern economy without it, and many believed that the state should not prevent them from making money in whatever way they chose.

Our culture tends to assume that freedom is good, but you have to look at the details: freedom for who to do what, when and how? When someone says, “I want to be free,” we tend to applaud – but what if they are saying “I want to be free to own slaves”? Or “I want to be free to release toxic chemicals into my local river”?

When we talk about freedom, we generally think we know what we are talking about – it seems obvious that some freedoms are more important than others, and the important freedoms (the freedoms which we feel are obviously important) are mainly determined by our culture.  So we should have some humility when judging the failings of other cultures in their understanding and implementation of freedom: it seems likely that, with the benefit of hindsight, people in the future will look at us today and be dismayed by the ways we deny and limit important freedoms.

Freedom and Ability

Are you free to do something if you are not able to do it? Depending on the context of the discussion and the assumptions being made, the answer may be ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Political parties may promise to deliver freedom from some kind of discrimination, by passing a law when they get into power – but if they pass the law, and people still discriminate, have they actually delivered the promised freedom?

The relationship between freedom and ability is complicated, because there are various kinds of ability. You may be able to do something because nothing is physically preventing you, because you are not being threatened, because the law permits it, because it is socially acceptable, or because it doesn’t conflict with promises or commitments you have made. And, conversely, you may not be able to do it for any of those reasons.

Are you free to break the speed limit or rob a bank? Depending on the type of ability you have in mind, the answer is obviously ‘no’ because the law says you can’t, or ‘yes’ because nothing is stopping you: you are free to do it, and the state is free to punish you for doing it – if they can catch you.

There is an old joke: a patient asks their surgeon, “Will I be able to play the piano after my operation?” “Of course,” says the surgeon. “That’s wonderful!” comes the reply, “I never could before.”

I am free to run a four-minute mile: it is legal and socially acceptable, but I’m not physically able to do it. I am free to walk naked down our high street: it is legal and I am physically able to do it, but it’s not socially acceptable. I am considered to be free, or not free, to do these things, depending on the context of the discussion and the kinds of freedom and ability we are considering.

Freedom and Responsibility

To recap: freedom is a difficult concept. You can’t have complete freedom, and you would not want it anyway: you want some freedoms to be restricted, so that you can enjoy other freedoms. Some freedoms should be restricted to avoid harm – to avoid harming other people, or avoid harming the planet. And some freedoms exist – or not – depending on the context of the discussion and the assumptions being made.

So talking about freedom, outside a specific context, is generally unhelpful. We need to talk about how to balance freedom in different areas: how free should the employer be to make as much profit as possible; how free should the employee be to earn a living wage and work in a safe environment?

The practical question is: how do we have useful conversations about these important questions? My suggestion is that we move away from talking about freedom, and focus more on the other side of the coin: responsibility.

Many people have noted that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, but with all power – with all freedom – comes responsibility. My actions, and my freedoms, have an impact on others.

When we talk about freedom, our focus is on the actor: the person with (or the person seeking) freedom. But when we talk about responsibility, our focus is on the consequences, on the people and the environment being affected by this freedom.

‘Responsibility’ is another difficult word: it is not that we have to take responsibility for the people and places affected by the exercise of our freedom, but we should take responsibility for the effect we have on them. My choices about Fairtrade affect communities in the developing world; my choices about using plastic affect the global ecosystem.

I am not responsible for global warming – I did not cause it, and I am not capable of solving it; I am not even responsible for a large part of my contribution to global warming – there were no electric cars available on the market when I last bought one, and a hybrid was far beyond my price range; but I am responsible now for doing what I can to combat it.

My responsibility extends as far as the consequences of my actions and my inactions, both of which are an expression of my many freedoms. I am most responsible for those immediately affected by my choices, but I also share responsibility for the actions of my country – both the direct actions and the indirect: the unjust trade deals we helped to negotiate, the crippling economic policies we helped to enforce. Future generations will hold us responsible for how we used our freedom, so we may as well get used to considering these issues.

We are keen to talk about freedom, to explore and possibly extend the boundaries of what we are able to do, but from an ethical perspective all the talk of freedom needs to be balanced with an equal emphasis on the consequences – the likely consequences and the possible consequences – of using that freedom. We need to give equal weight to our responsibilities.

Rights and Obligations

One reason why we struggle with the concept of freedom, and the various tensions within the concept, lies in our insistence on considering matters from the individual perspective – our default position in the West. But, despite what some have claimed, there is such a thing as society – and it matters. A lot. We have other terminology available to us, terminology where the default perspective is that of the community: the language of rights and obligations – but that is the subject of another article.

[See also Freedom, The Desire for Freedom and Rights and Obligations]


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