On Freedom & Social Responsibility

You don’t have to wait very long to find some group lobbying or protesting under the guise of seeking “freedom.” By definition this freedom is freedom from something or someone, not a imperative to do something. Whether it is a countries’ war for independence of rule from an imperial magistrate, a people group’s struggle for equal protection and benefits under the law, or an individual’s case for independence from an oppressive force, all of these situations have in common that there is an external force of will being imposed on a person or persons from whom those people seek to disengage. However, it cannot go unnoticed that this appeal to freedom is contingent on their appeal to be bound equally under the law to some other force. Is that “freedom” or is it something else entirely? What’s the difference? What does it matter? Let’s explore together.

What we call “freedom” in a political sense is not freedom. It is more of a synonym for a communally agreed upon guarantee of safety of conduct and movement. Indeed, the very sense of the word denotes that if someone is not guaranteed safety of movement and conduct that there will be consequences. Imposed by whom? Depending on any societies system of governance the answer will differ but the LCD is that the community (i.e. those who benefit from the arrangement) is responsible for safety and maintenance of the collective. In the western world this means government. “To provide for the common defense and establish domestic tranquility” was the stated purpose of the Constitution of the United States. While this may sound good on the surface there is an underlying principle that is oft neglected: a common defense means a common responsibility. In other words, the state may exist to protect it’s citizens but it’s citizens are therefore beholden to the state in payment of that service. Therefore, freedom is by necessity curtailed by the responsibility of social maintenance. 

Not being free is a much safer existence. Freedom requires movement and space; safety requires rations and preparation. Social maintenance requires mechanisms and structures of development that are not conducive to freedom. If a large contingent of humans are going to stay in one place then certain conditions must be met: They must farm which means they must destroy the habitat of other species; They must have access to clean water which means they will use that water source for other purposes (washing, dumping, travel, etc.); They must build shelters by first tearing down their surroundings; And they must engage in the civil politic in one form or another. In other words, the creation and maintenance of the communal living space requires a necessary abdication of personal freedom in the interest of the communal good (e.g. safety and security). In other words, society was not built for freedom; it was built for security by definition.

Is this bad? That depends…

Civilization made it possible to establish parameters for morality that keep the human race growing: cutting edge medical care, supply chains for delivering food, and transportation innovation, among others. Whereas with our ancestors their relatively small human population was maintained by keeping harmony with the Biosphere, now our numbers are booming at alarming rates due to the destruction and cultivation of the planet necessary to maintain our ever growing presence and needs. The safety that comes from a civilized society is counterbalanced with the extinction of myriad species of non-human life. So, while human life may flourish and grow uninhibited in this system, other forms of life must suffer. After all, ecosystems persist in balance, not for the sole consumption of one species. Security for some means the loss of freedom for many.

So what is freedom then?

What is it like to be free? We can ask our ancestors walking and wandering through the plains of Africa and the Americas searching for food and water, communing with each other and their environment, worshipping their gods… 

It was not safe. 

They were not sheltered. They lived from one day to the next hungry, thirsty, and searching. Life was not routine for the early human; it was struggle. Yet, for generations upon generations, enough to evolve entirely new species, humans endured by finding joy and happiness in their struggle as they slept under fiery galaxies, made love to the rustle of the wind and the howl of the moon, and roamed naked and unashamed through the paradise of Eden free… but it was not easy or capable of sustaining human life in the numbers we now count. 

Have you ever tried to live outside the confines of society? Ever tried to be truly free? Try to live as a natural being roaming the beautiful landscape in search of food, water, and joy. Use only what you have fashioned from your surroundings with your own hands. Eat only what you yourself produce, kill, or forage. Such are the qualifications of freedom. Do you want that life? Makes freedom sound a little less attractive, eh?

So, is freedom desirable?

Personally, I see the advantage of the curtailment of freedom. The fact that I have a roof over my head, a myriad of foods on my table, clothes on my back, access to universal human knowledge, education, and safety from predators is a bargain when weighed against my unconditional freedom to live and die (young) as nature would see fit apart from human intervention.

There is a mile of difference between freedom and freedom. The cause of freedom, as a movement would define it, will never be obtained unless it is specified what exactly these movements are seeking. Is it equal rights under the law? Is the ability to move to and fro safely and without injury? Is equality of opportunity? From what I have gathered from learning about freedom movements over the centuries it seems to me that instead of freedom what these movements seek is equal access to the benefits of societies’  laws and opportunities and protection provided by the state if those rights are infringed upon. Communal protection of socially established rights are a very different concept from freedom because freedom is based on the natural order whereas social responsibility is a function of moral frameworks and the exertion of force. Freedom is not safe. As a matter of fact it is the opposite of safe. Freedom is very dangerous because nothing is guaranteed. Not food, not water, not mobility, not health, and everything from plants to predators are trying to kill you. While there are distinct advantages to living a free life such as the natural joy of living in harmony with the Biosphere, lack of responsibility, and equal access to the natural world and it’s fruits, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find such a life even if one wanted to. Indeed, with the exception of venturing into the wild with a guide book about what can and can’t be foraged it very well may be impossible. Humans have too long forgotten how to live free. We have become too dependent on civilization for freedom. What we desire is security. The plus side is that at least we’re safe enough to talk about the difference. 

I think we as citizens in the 21st century are missing opportunities by being vague in our movements. We don’t want to be free. We want to be safe, secure, and prosperous. Now, as I mentioned above whether that “growth” of the human civilization project is “good” or not I will save for another paper but suffice it to say that if your values are propagation of the species, the superiority of humanity, and the spreading of civilization (at the expense of the equilibrium of the Biosphere) then what you want is not freedom, it is security.