With Great Freedom Comes Great Responsibility

Posted on 19 January 2016

I’ve been watching news about the militia occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and am both saddened and bemused. The people who form the occupying militia like talking about how they are representing freedom. I don’t believe it.

I support Linux and the free software movement. At the Linux Users annual picnic this last Saturday, I was surprised to find myself chatting with a young fellow who felt the citizens of Australia should be “free” from certain government regulation such as that which prevents gun ownership. I have hippy friends who don’t like guns, but want the freedom to explore drugs and feel we would be better off with no government at all. I tried mentioning to one such friend, don’t you like indoor plumbing and clean water, and he didn’t get the point.

The point most people don’t understand is that how much personal freedom a society can afford to give to its individuals is dependent upon how responsible those individuals are. If giving some people certain sorts of freedom means they will use it to abridge other people’s freedoms and/or cause harm, then social action has to be taken to ensure the general welfare of the populace. Absolute freedom would mean we should open up all the prison doors and set every last criminal loose.

I can understand a desire to have the freedom to be responsible for yourself. We don’t want to be dominated by a parental substitute when we are capable of making decisions for ourselves. But far too often what various people are after is freedom from responsibility and without consequences.

“I should have the freedom to own automatic weapons” even if that means people are killed in mass shootings or these weapons are used to over-ride democratic decisions by force. “I should have the freedom to drive any type of car I like, in any sort of condition, in any way I like…including under the influence,” even if that means more people are killed in traffic accidents. “I should be able to have all the sex I want with all the women I want without using a condom,” even if that means spreading sexual disease and leaving behind women and children living below the poverty line.

I am boggled by left-wing friends who talk about “freedom” in their relationships, meaning they want the freedom to leave all household duties to one partner. They want the freedom to not talk about fairness. They want the freedom to find mistresses while calling it “love”, then leave their partner in charge of the children. “Sure, you can find a lover as well” they say, but the partner has their hands full and knows if the relationship falls apart, they and their children will be living below the poverty line. The one partner gets freedom, the other gets unfair imprisonment. Real love takes work and involves people who freely choose to commit to one another. It’s not just a warm feeling below the waistline.

We don’t give complete freedom to children, because they need time to understand consequences. They need us teaching them how to cooperate, how to be thoughtful, and how to take responsibility for themselves. Our culture is training people to seek indulgence above all else and thereby losing their capacity to understand the value of responsibility, much less act in a responsible manner.

The more responsible people are the more they can be trusted. With greater trustworthiness the wider the freedom that can be granted to them. For example people who pick up after themselves when they use a park are more likely to be welcomed back to freely use a space. If no one picks up after themselves, no one gets to use the park.

Of course in getting caught up in arguing about these sorts of freedoms, we are overlooking really critical types of freedom: Freedom of Thought, Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Choice, and Freedom of Being. When xenophobic sorts talk about stamping out religion, throwing out refugees, harrassing the gay community, removing equal rights laws, etc, it becomes clear that they are only about the freedom to dominate. We will be free when we learn how to responsibly care about each other and how to share with one another.

In peace and kindness,


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