Humanistic Judaism, Vol 24, No 1-2, Winter_Spring 1996
Since the Enlightenment, personal freedom has become a primary value in Western culture. Before that, obedience to the will of God or to God’s deputies was regarded as the source of all virtue. Humility, not self-esteem, was the path to paradise. Indeed, the very name of one major religion, Islam, means “surrender” to the divine will.
The upheavals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries changed all that. The servant of God, the subject of the king, now became a free citizen. To be a free citizen was to acquire an array of rights: the right to choose your marriage partner, your work, and your place of residence; the right to say what you want to say; and the right to select your own religion — or no religion. All over the Western world, new democratic constitutions guaranteed these rights. The “age of enlightenment” had begun.
In time the new freedom found a philosophic foundation in the writing of classical and liberal philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill. Personal freedom became part of a broader notion called autonomy. To be autonomous is to be the master of your life. Without autonomy there is no dignity.
Personal freedom was enhanced by political, economic, and social change. Monarchies were overthrown. The authority of the clergy was undermined. The patriarchal family disintegrated in the face of urbanization. Science and industry were greater sources of power than military might. The mobile individual became the fundamental work unit of the new capitalism. Old, authoritarian structures crumbled, to be replaced by the new marketplace of goods and ideas. In recent years, personal freedom has expanded to include lifestyle and sexual orientation — even the right to burn the nation’s flag. The freedom wagon is on a roll.
Humanistic Judaism, for obvious reasons, rejected authoritarianism. Freedom and choice became bywords in humanistic discourse. The value of autonomy seemed so self-evident that any attempt to restrict it was viewed as reactionary.
But the worship of freedom poses dangers. The contemporary world gives testimony to that reality. Here are some of the problems of unrestricted freedom.
Many free people make good choices, choices that lead to happiness and personal fulfillment. But many free people make bad choices, choices that lead to unhappiness and self-destruction. Bad choices are made because people behave impulsively and compulsively, failing to understand the consequences of their behavior. Often a craving for instant gratification prevents people from achieving long-run goals; immediate pleasure becomes a prelude to pain and suffering. Smokers and fat people use their freedom badly. So do dropouts and “flakes.” And since the consequences of their bad choices fall not only on themselves but also on others — family, friends, co-workers, and people who pay insurance premiums — their behavior poses an ethical challenge to defenders of personal freedom. Society may grant individual citizens the right to choose, but that does not mean that they will make good choices.
Many free people are rational. But many free people are wildly irrational. In a democratic society, people tend to resist authority, no matter how legitimate or commonsensical. “It’s a matter of opinion” is how many conversations end. The implication is that all opinions are of equal value; to say that I am right and you are wrong is to impugn the equality of your freedom. In a totally free and equal society, there can be no objective truth. What is true for me may not be true for you; I am just as good as you are, and so my opinion is just as good as yours. Evidence is irrelevant. Facts are annoying intrusions. Knowledge is a function of uninformed free will. Anything can be true because I have chosen it to be true. If it makes me feel good, if it relieves the burden of my uncertainty, then who are you to tell me that it is false? Egalitarianism turns freedom into an instrument of ignorance.
Many free people are sensitive to the fact that they live in a community with competing agendas, where space and resources are limited. But many free people are narcissistic; they claim the absolute right to do what they want to do. In America, we are now confronted by irate libertarians who refuse to pay taxes, irate property owners who refuse all restrictions on how they can use their property, irate parents who refuse to provide child support, and irate rifle owners who reject government control. The claim to freedom becomes a form of grievance collection, in which the sacredness and supremacy of liberty are upheld regardless of social consequences. Indeed, society is often sidestepped by designating absolute personal freedom as “God-given.”
Many free people take responsibility for their lives. They understand that the price of freedom is that there is no one else to blame for the choices they make. But many free people see their choices as limited by circumstance. They see themselves as victimized by abusive parents, abusive bosses, abusive neighbors, and abusive government. Only when these abuses are removed will they be free. Resentment replaces responsibility. The burden of making things work rests with others. For such people, freedom has more to do with rights and grievances than with taking personal control. Like children, they want to be free and to be taken care of at the same time. The two agendas are incompatible. We have become a society of endless litigation because the freedom to make a positive difference in an imperfect world is replaced by the freedom to complain.
Many free people turn their talents to good purpose and seek to fulfill their potential to be useful. They see freedom as an opportunity to study and to serve others in a meaningful way. But many free people are lazy. They neglect their talent. They never fulfill their potential. When confronted with their failure, they insist that they have a right to do with their lives whatever they want. They have no obligation to others. Their life is their life, just as their opinion is their opinion. Social utility is an illegitimate “guilt trip.” Either autonomy is complete or it is a sham. Against this peevish self-assertion, ethics vanishes into wilfulness.
Many free people choose to help neighbors and strangers. Even in anonymous urban settings, they choose to be kind and supportive. But many free people use urban anonymity as a screen for indifference. Shielded from the eyes of public opinion, they do only what pleases them. Walking, driving, listening to music, disposing of garbage, greeting people — all become opportunities for aggressive rudeness. Strangers in need become annoying intrusions on their freedom to pursue their own agendas. We are certainly free to be hostile. But what happens to a society in which no one cares what other people feel and think? The terror and chaos of such a society will ultimately lead to the reintroduction of authoritarian regimes with strict surveillance to secure law and order.
Freedom and autonomy cannot be ends in themselves. They are merely means to greater ends. Those greater ends have to do with long-run personal happiness and the welfare of communities. Personal freedom without personal discipline is a danger both to the individual and to society.
In order for freedom to have value, it needs ten important disciplines. These disciplines are as important to Humanistic Judaism as is freedom.
- Positive freedom needs the strength to face unpleasant facts and to live with them. All opinions are not of equal value. There is objective truth.
- Positive freedom needs the strength to live with uncertainty. Most questions concerning the nature and development of the universe cannot at present be definitively answered. Making up answers to relieve the anxiety of uncertainty is not a good long-run strategy for dealing with reality.
- Positive freedom needs the strength to respect legitimate authority. To be legitimate, authority must be rational. Rational authority is the voice of evidence. It is the voice of the consequences of behavior.
- Positive freedom needs the ability to postpone pleasure. Most worthwhile goals, especially health, require enormous discipline. If we cannot endure temporary pain and depression, our freedom is useless and dangerous.
- Positive freedom needs the ability to control emotions. If we are the victims of the relentless agendas of fear, anger, hate, and love, our freedom is illusory. We are the slaves of masters in combat with each other.
- Positive freedom needs the willingness to be useful to others. Freedom to waste our talents and to be parasitic is a very harmful form of autonomy. Training for useful work is a responsibility that should go with the freedom to choose work.
- Positive freedom needs the willingness to keep promises and the determination to pursue long-run commitments. Freedom to be irresponsible is no virtue.
- Positive freedom needs the willingness to see ourselves as a part of some greater societal whole. Every behavior, from talking to taking up space, has social consequences. No freedom is absolute. All freedom is limited by the presence of other people and their agendas.
- Positive freedom needs the ability to be caring when nobody we know, or nobody with power to punish, is watching us. Anonymous urban environments require personal discipline if they are to remain free of authoritarian intrusion.
- Positive freedom needs the willingness to take responsibility for the choices we make. A free society that works needs fewer professional kvetches and more people who are willing to help themselves and to help others, even when the fates have not been kind.
Freedom is an opportunity, not a virtue. Autonomy is an asset when it leads to long-run happiness, personal dignity, and social usefulness. Liberty is a liability when it does not. Free societies that are successful are made up of people who know how to take advantage of the opportunity of freedom while striving to be strong, realistic, and responsible.