What is the United States of America if not the land of the free? “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty….”
Liberty is most certainly a central operating principle of American life, deeply embedded in the American psyche. The Declaration of Independence speaks of the unalienable rights of all, but singles out among them “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” One can travel to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell, which I have had the honor to do more than once. Patrick Henry is said to have boldly proclaimed on March 23, 1775, “GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH!” The flag is said to represent “liberty and justice for all.”
These words are a noteworthy pairing, for in the absence of justice for all there can be no true liberty for all.
One must admit that this abstract principle is an aspiration and an ideal to which we have frequently fallen short in the quest to build a “more perfect union.” Many have been deprived of their liberty in our very founding, growth, and development. Despite our own failures throughout our history as a nation to live up to the principle, one cannot reasonably deny that liberty for all is a worthy aim. Liberty (and by implication the rights necessary to exercise that liberty) is a good.
Yet there is a great deal of myopia in our public discourse on the subject, especially around the Covid-19 pandemic. Any talk of rights or liberties suffers if these are not situated wisely among the other elements of a civil society.
Among the general public, we hear a great deal of talk about “my rights” or “freedoms” or “liberties.” We hear considerably less about “my responsibilities” or “duties” or “obligations.” Liberty has become an isolated, autonomous value that is absolute.
I recall seeing on the news in the earlier days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when establishments were just beginning to partially open back up, a video clip of a man at Costco who was told he was required to wear a mask to shop in the store. The man yelled, “I thought I woke up in a free country this morning!”
This man’s concept of liberty is that he can go where he wants, when he wants, and not be forced to do anything he does not want to do (even something as simple as wearing a mask during a global health crisis). He can exercise his liberty without regard to any other responsibilities or obligations to others with whom he shares a common space.
Back in mid-April, Rep. Jim Jordan, with raised voice, pressed Dr. Anthony Fauci, asking when we get our freedoms back and lamented that we had a year of “lost liberties.” Jordan’s framing of the pandemic is that restrictions enacted to protect public health took away our freedoms and demanded to know when we would get them back. This view of freedom and liberty is like that of the man at Costco. We should be able to go where we want, when we want, and do what we want when we get there without regard for others.
These are just two examples. Many more could be cited. Just a couple of nights ago (as of the time of this writing), I watched a news anchor say to a doctor who was suggesting the possible necessity of restricting travel, “Oh, so you just think you can restrict people’s Constitutional rights?”
Of course, there are those who do not actually believe that Covid-19 is the danger that it is and that it is just an excuse to strip citizens of their liberty. Yet there are many who would not deny the danger of Covid-19 but believe that individual liberty should not be compromised despite that danger.
THE STATE OF NATURE
The skewed view of liberty that many Americans seem to have today, what I am describing as myopic, is one that looks more like what political philosophers have called a “state of nature.” The “state of nature” or our “natural condition” is something that exists prior to civil society wherein we organize together in a community.
While there are variances in how this is conceived, the general idea is that each individual human being comes into this world with the absolute right to do as she or he pleases. Locke said it this way, that every human being is in
“…a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.”
The problem with the state of nature is that things are pretty much every person for themselves. Hobbes referred to this as the “condition of war” in which no one’s liberty is secure. Consequently, we should willingly seek peace, which involves restricting our own liberties in the absolute sense. No one should do to another what she or he would allow to be done to oneself.
For Hume, the state of nature is an imaginary state that has never truly existed. He referred to it as a “philosophical fiction.” It is, nonetheless, a useful fiction to reason about civil society. Like Hobbes, Hume spoke of the need for stability and peace among the members of a social order.
Referring to a supposed state of nature, he wrote that it is “utterly impossible” that human beings “remain any considerable time in that savage condition which precedes society” and that our true first “state and situation may justly be esteemed as social.” Stability and peace cannot be obtained in any supposed state of nature that precedes society.
Hume further went on to say that some imaginary state prior to human being organizing themselves in a social order could have neither justice nor injustice. The idea of justice, we can conclude, is implicitly and intrinsically a function of sociality. If one is alone in the world, one can conduct oneself as one pleases. Your liberty is absolute. But from that very moment that anyone shares space with another, how you exercise your liberty can be deemed just or unjust depending on how it affects others.
What each of these philosophers have in common, to boil it down, is that the good of liberty is restricted for the sake of the liberty of all, and that the exercise of liberty in a social order is balanced with other responsibilities necessary for sustaining peace and stability.
The contemporary discourse in public spheres we are witnessing about rights and liberty are more in line with that “savage condition” that precedes a civil society. Yes, liberty is a good and a constituent part of human existence, but it must be exercised with the obligations and responsibilities that go with living in a social order.
Consider the opening lines of the United States Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The discourse in America today is hyper-focused on a single thing—liberty—to the exclusion of these other goods.
I am not a constitutional scholar, but what strikes me about this wording is that before we get to securing the “Blessings of Liberty” for all, we establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, and promote “the general Welfare.” I am not suggesting that there is necessarily any kind of hierarchy here. What is clear is that the logic and vision of the Constitution is that each of these elements must co-exist.
Is liberty a central operating principle of American life as I said at the beginning of this post?
Liberty in Context
I have no doubt that it is. But “liberty” must be interpreted in the context of justice, peace, and the general welfare. The liberty of the state of nature that might exist prior to the establishment of a social order is not the liberty which is conceived of in a civil society. Any rights that we have in order to exercise and realize liberty must be tempered with the responsibilities of living with others.
In his essay, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill provided a strong definition of liberty. The individual where it concerns her or his own self, body, and mind, Mill said, is “sovereign.” This strong definition notwithstanding, Mill said that
“…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
The exercise of rights and liberty in a “civilized community” can be restricted, even against one’s will, in the interest of preventing harm. If Mill and the other philosophers I have cited are correct, any use of liberty that would deprive another of their liberty does not belong in a social order.
Thus, the current fixation with liberty and the way it is expressed by some politicians and news outlets, and which fills public discourse in restaurants, bars, and other establishments across this land, is not the mature liberty of a “civilized community.” It is the liberty of the savage condition of the state of nature in the individual.
I am also reminded here of Paul Ricoeur’s definition of the “ethical aim” found in his book, Oneself as Another: “to live with and for others in just institutions.”
Essentially, asking individuals to wear a mask or distance in social situations and to be vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus is asking them to live ethically. It is not about rights and liberties. It is about ethics. Liberty without ethics is little more than savage.
About the Author
Dr. David Utsler is a Philosophy Instructor for North Central Texas College. He specializes in philosophical hermeneutics, critical theory, and environmental philosophy. David lives in the suburbs of north Dallas with his wife, Ali, their two dogs, and four cats. You can find him on Twitter at @DavidUtsler.