Freedom and Responsibility - Ethical Choices
“It is not true that the recognition of the freedom of others limits my own freedom: to be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom. I am oppressed if I am thrown into prison, but not if I am kept from throwing my neighbour into prison.” - Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity
I was initially exploring the concept of freedom in order to discuss my choice and my responsibility with regards to the restraints recommended by the World Health Organisation regarding the COVID19 pandemic. Just now, however, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul (my home for most of my 20s) are burning with fire and outrage, and these thoughts could apply to that as well.
What follows here is a discussion of my own thoughts on freedom and responsibility, which is the starting point for ethical decisions I take action on, such as my decision to not reopen my practice quite yet, my decision to wear masks and maintain social distance, my decision to support the Black Lives Matter campaign, and my decision to march in solidarity (among many others). This essay will not go into the details of those individual decisions, but will instead focus on the philosophical background for them.
Freedom without responsibility isn’t freedom.
As children, we are very limited. We are taught about choice and freedom through the constraints placed on us by our parents and other authorities, as well as our own undeveloped bodies and minds. At a certain point, however, we can become aware of our own freedom. We make choices and act on them. We define and expand our own existence. Not everyone does this, or can do it due to various reasons (institutionalised oppression, for example), or perhaps they take it to different extents, but at a certain point in most of our lives, we consider ourselves independent and self-actualising. Many of us then rebel against the authority at hand. Later, we may choose the same paths but for our own reasons, and that is freedom too.
Sometimes we later subjugate our freedom of choice into that of another authority, letting the powers that be make the decisions for us. And so long as we remember that their actions are our actions, perhaps that’s fine - if we remember we empower them, and they are making OUR choices. We must take away that empowerment when they don’t.
If we relinquish our responsibility unto an “authority,” we revert to the “freedom” of a child. Freedom without responsibility isn’t really freedom. It is naive at best and selfish at worst.
Choosing my independence makes me the author of my own existence. That means that I choose my life and in so doing, I take responsibility for my choices, even when they backfire. The world around me is the way it is because of choices I make. However, sometimes things happen to me that I didn’t specifically choose, and I therefore have to recognise that I am not the only author.
My existence and subjective reality empower me, but make me only an object in your existence and subjective reality. Recognising that I can be both simultaneously forces me to recognise that you are as equally real and independent. We share this experience of being unique, independent actors each upon our own reality. I have responsibility for my reality because I have chosen it. You have responsibility for yours in the same way. They are intertwined, because we each act on each other’s, and that interaction creates a responsibility to each other.
Wanting freedom for myself is the same as wanting freedom for others.
As I want to be free and independent, I want you to be free and independent. I have to recognise that some of my actions might inhibit your ability to be free and independent. If you are not free and independent, you are no longer co-author of this reality, I have turned you into only an object.
One reality is not separate from the others, nor am I alone in my actions. I do them for me, but in so doing, I am also doing them to you. In choosing selfish action for myself that denies your equal reality, I would be denying your existence, thus denying our shared existence, and not being responsible to myself either. Wanting freedom for myself is the same thing as wanting freedom for others, because it contributes to the world of all of us.
The future is as yet unwritten, so let’s choose how we shape it.
In order to be free, we must recognise that we are freely establishing the value of our future, determining for ourselves the values and the goals. We have to take responsibility. We have to act, to allow action, to take responsibility for our lack of action. We have to remember our freedom to act. To choose. We have to want that freedom for others. Individually and collectively, we are in a situation that requires us to disclose our new existence, find our freedom, find our choices, and make new goals. And it sucks. Freedom is responsibility.
The difficulty of deciding to help others be free is that sometimes it becomes a matter of choosing which of your own petty freedoms you will negate in order to make that so. I try to imagine the subjective reality of the people most separated from their realisation of freedom. If I am acting freely and seeking freedom for them, I must behave conscientiously in a way that allows them to pursue their aims.
To finish as I started, I present another quote from Simone de Beauvoir:
“One must not expect that this goal be justified as a point of departure of a new future… we must not expect anything of that time for which we have worked; other men will have to live its joys and sorrows. As for us, the goal must be considered as an end; we have to justify it on the basis of our freedom which has projected it, by the ensemble of the movement which ends in its fulfilment. The tasks we have set up for ourselves and which, though exceeding the limits of our lives, are ours, must find their meaning in themselves and not in a mythical Historical end.”