Conservatives and Libertarians who claim freedom to be their most important foundational value either haven’t thought deeply about its social implications, or their self-serving ambitions cause them to lack the requisite capacity to care.
Humans are social animals by design. Much like a colony of ants or a congress of apes, homo sapiens rely on one another for survival. Over the past 70,000 years, we have learned as a species that we do better working together than going it alone. As a result, we have culturally evolved well beyond our primate cousins to claim dominion over our planet. Leveraging our unique ability to express ourselves through complex stories, we have created a world comprised of meaningful social constructs (“shared imagined realities”) that have produced our current sophisticated and intricate network of flexible cooperation that now spans the entire planet. And unless we decide to live off the land somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness, our survival depends on this social interdependence.
So how does this relate to our rights to freedom?
Freedom as a human right honors the universal moral principles found in nature that govern human behavior and their consequences — principles such as mindfulness, temperance, humility, frugality, respect, honesty, compassion and grace among others. Yet freedom itself is not a moral principle. Rather, it is an “imagined reality” we collectively accept and believe because it has utility in our society. We have adopted this social construct because it has proven over trillions of observations throughout history to improve our general well-being and minimize our suffering.
All moral principles promote human well-being, whether our own or the welfare of others. Those that improve our personal character are called “virtues”, while those that influence others are known as “morals”. When we interpret morality to serve our own well-being without concern for others, we oppose natural, universal moral principles, because the ultimate Moral Goal is to achieve the greatest common good.
“For the Greatest Common Good.”
This should be the placard hung in every household, corporation, and government office. It should be the sign on every street corner of our nation. It should be our motto, our mantra, and our anthem. This phrase should be raised in our social consciousness through education, media, and politics. And those who inspire us to achieve this most noble cause should be celebrated as our heroes.
If the ultimate goal of morality is to achieve the common good, it stands to reason that personal freedom alone is not the only factor that determines well-being. And since we live in a society with others, what may be personally considered “good” for us may not necessarily be best for someone else. Our personal freedoms may impinge on the welfare of others.
Every moral decision has two parts — the assessment of our Moral Will, and the practice of Moral Wisdom.
The assessment of Moral Will ensures our decisions are made for the right reasons. It answers the question, “Are my intentions pure (unselfish), or am I concerned how my actions may influence others?”
Moral Wisdom examines all alternative courses of action, their anticipated consequences, and chooses the option that most likely achieves the greatest common good. And as expected, the more we care about how our actions influence others, the greater our Moral Wisdom.
With this in mind, our rights to freedom depend on how our freedoms impact others. For example, we may have the right to free speech, but we don’t have the right to slander and cause harm to others with our speech. When our dishonest, untruthful words cause harm, our social values and civic laws should be aligned with moral principles in a manner that holds us accountable. We forfeit the right to free speech when we abuse that right. There should always be consequences for such negligent and self-serving actions.
Other freedoms to consider (and open the debate) include:
We may have the right to own guns. But we forfeit that right when our ownership of guns causes more harm than good.
We may have the right to profit through corporate ownership, but we forfeit that right when our concern for profit causes more harm than good.
We may have the right to build and maintain a strong national military, but we forfeit that right when our military decisions and actions cause more worldwide harm than good.
In summary, to believe personal freedom is our most precious value opposes natural, universal moral principles and is therefore selfish and ultimately destructive. Instead, we must abide by moral principles that promote our common good, and we must create a new compelling narrative that inspires us to see our world differently — a world where no right to freedom exists that takes precedence over our human and planetary welfare.