Responsible Freedom

I’m a great believer in freedom of speech, and not just in the sense of vocalization: I include all forms of self expression. It is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

This right, like all other rights, comes with an unspoken duty: the duty to ensure to the best of my ability that anything I do express does not harm others. That it does not curtail the right of those others to live free from fear, oppression and abuse.

That is where my own sense of morality comes into play. I must judge for myself whether my words and actions are appropriate and in alignment with what I believe to be right. I must put myself in the position of those people affected by what I say and do, using my sense of empathy to imagine how they might feel.

I have a very strong aversion to conflict and confrontation, and I’m sure this plays a role in shaping my behavior towards others. But there is also compassion which causes me to feel hurt by others’ pain and anguish. This suggests there might well be a degree of self-interest involved in what I refer to as my morality, but I’d argue that this is no bad thing. It gives me an honesty of purpose to understand my own motivations rather than simply label my behavior as intangible belief.

Freedom as a concept is both shockingly simple and overwhelmingly complex. Simple in that it may be expressed in very few words and applies equally to all. Complex in the effects and ramifications of that simplicity. Freedom is not a license to do whatever you want. It is a contract between an individual and the society she lives in, a tacit acceptance of a framework of rights and responsibilities.

I believe any society, any situation involving two or more people living together, requires some set of rules governing behavior. I’m not necessarily referring to formal laws and such like. But complete, unfettered individual freedom inevitably conflicts with the well-being of the group as a whole. If one member of a group hoards all the food then it hurts all the rest, so a rule gets developed for fair distribution of resources. Those who don’t conform, who don’t live within the societal restrictions on their individual freedoms, are cast out of the group. What in former times were called “outlaws”: those who are outside the the set of rules and protections offered by the group.

Some use the idea of individual freedom to justify bullying and oppression: if I’m stronger than you and physically able to take from you then I’m free to do so. I want your land so I’ll force you out and take it. Freedom becomes associated with strength and aggression, with a lack of restraint.

Human rights are not the same as freedom. Accepting universal rights requires accepting restrictions on individual freedom, accepting that some actions are not acceptable behavior since they deny those same rights to others. It’s not about strength but empathy, compassion and respect.

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