When we Become Slaves to an Idea of Freedom

There is a subtle difference between decriminalization of a moral behavior that is socially contested and the legalization of it. Earlier I had argued that the Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code should not criminalize homosexual behavior as it was a question pertaining to freedom of conscience that did not significantly affect public order among the citizens. (a case to the converse may be legitimately made about health and morality). However, it would be shortsighted to conclude that our personal freedom always overrides all other social compulsions.

An inevitable part of the social evolution in democratic contexts is the demand for greater personal freedoms– demand for legalization of prostitution or homosexual marriages or legal access to mind altering drugs, abortion rights, etc. The push seems to be towards greater personal freedoms– to do whatever one wishes with oneself so long as it does not affect other individuals. Such a push is loaded with problematic anthropological assumptions, that needs to be historically situated. It instances human social propensity to run into larger subsequent problems in the effort to escape a visible problem. Undoubtedly, a democratic society would have to uphold individual freedoms simply because the very idea of democracy is undergirded by a strong notion of individual freedom. That is, if there is no personal freedom, there is no democracy.

However, there is another side to this story: recognition of an equally important polarity on the other side of the spectrum that people in a society should honor—the question of corporate responsibility. It may be unfashionable to say anything that even remotely competes with the notion of individual freedom and the assumption that personal autonomy overrides all other compulsions. However, as “autonomy/autos-nomos” indicates self-governance; when applied to individuals, it has the potential to degenerate to where one becomes a law unto oneself.

Our notion of personal freedom is often derived from within a framework of a) defining who we are as humans and b) what it means to be individuals in the world. These are two equally important factors: 1. Individuality— which emphasizes personal freedoms, allow us to believe, say, and do what we want. 2. Being in the world emphasizes the reality that we share the world with others and are, therefore, accountable to communities. Every society (not just the land of the free and home of the brave!), is moving from being communities to being autonomous individuals—thanks to the ever-dominant influence of modernity! But when a culture is obsessed with personal freedom where each and every question is raised, argued and defended from a certain notion of freedom, that notion of freedom may have very well enslaved the culture. It has become common to demand personal freedom at any cost, often forgetting that each individual also carries a corporal responsibility.

While the earlier emphasis on communal life often constricted individuals into social conformity, modern autonomy frees us to the opposite extreme—self-obsessed, cloisters with no social connections or obligations. Both are problematic! Likewise, an emphasis on freedom at the expense of communal accountability and the emphasis on communality at the expense of personal freedom—both enslave us and the society will pay for it sooner or later. It is crucial therefore to keep the balance. Let our idea of freedom then be tempered by the idea of communal accountability.

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2 thoughts on “When we Become Slaves to an Idea of Freedom

  1. After reading and understanding your points, I suggest that you use the word ‘social/societal’ instead of ‘communal’ where Man’s social nature and responsibility is concerned. I believe communal has now received a negative connotation and people may misunderstand communal accountability as responsibility towards the ‘traditions of a community’ or to be community-centered like Jains, Gujjus, Sindhis etc.

    Please don’t post this comment if you don’t wish to for its but a suggestion.

    • Hello Rickson. My use of “communal” is in its generic sense and so includes “community”, but is not ristricted to it. But your point is well taken. I agree that the word has taken negative connotation. I think the term “social” has a slightly different nuance to it, so i suppose “communitarian” perhaps may suit what i’m trying to say better than “communal”? 🙂 thanks.

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