Since I was a child, I have long heard of the all-encompassing Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. My first thought is always that this is an imprecise translation of the great command of Christ, to love thy neighbor as thyself. The difference the word “love” makes in a classical Christian understanding is certainly a topic worthy of reflection. However, it was only this past week that I heard of the Platinum Rule: treat others as they want to be treated. At this, I shuddered. If the other desires death, should I give it to him? Where does this leave the formative process of parenting? Is my understanding of goodness so banal, that I can never be allowed to do something other than exactly what the other desires of me? In this manner of thinking, I have become merely an object, conforming to the expectations and desires of the other person, as opposed to a subject that can apply the pressure of another reality on my fellow man. Yet what better rule describes the moral dogma inherent to our modern society? Truly, the ethic is simple: everyone should be allowed the freedom to make whatever choices they choose, the only boundaries being to cause no harm, and to not constrain the same liberty of another. Increasingly, the first restraint begins in practice to look much more like the second. It has become commonplace and droll to see individuals rebel against the constructs of gender, sexual identity, traditional morality, and any other antiquated system against which they can prevail; they perceive a certain bravery and self-righteousness in rebelling against the heritage of their ancestors who have passed and can no longer defend themselves. All the while, they bow at the altar of the modern moment and believe themselves to be free thinkers. In all this, the recurring virtue is that of individual liberty, and the rights of the individual to identify and act as they so please. My purpose is to show that this blundering concept of freedom as individualist and unrestrained is both incoherent and untrue.
When people speak of a “free” country, I believe such a statement can only be reduced to the necessity of a free people, as in free individuals. Even if we think of a country with a powerful central government as determined by the people as free, all forms of freedom reduce down to the freedom of the individual to vote as he pleases. Therefore, one may conclude that the issue of the liberty of a nation is first the metaphysical problem of the freedom of a person. A “free people” first assumes that persons are actually free. In fact, the basic liberty of the individual is not simply assumed, but in our Western cultures declared a fundamental right. The timeless debate of course revolves around an overwhelming sense of free will against the painfully solid logic of determinism, or causation. In short, we have an unassailable intuition that we as individuals have a will free to ourselves guiding our thoughts and actions, yet, how can one deny the determinist logic, that the forces lying behind whatever one calls the will are not determined by ourselves, but rather by nature and nurture: a genealogy and circumstantial experience. I myself argue a compatibilist viewpoint of will and predetermination, that is there is a reality of both free will and determinism, and the truth of each lies in the tension of the causal agent or person. But in terms of the political reality, all one must realize is the existence of a “practical” free will; that is, even if one cannot make sense of free will, it is impossible for him to live without the actual sense of it. The basic precepts of Enlightenment political thinking (upon which the American governmental system is based) depend upon the rights and dignity of the autonomous individual, but these precepts are incomplete in themselves, for they forget or take for granted the determinist flank, that the individual is hardly autonomous, but necessarily contingent on preexisting structure.
Therefore, what one discovers is that the will (if we allow for it) is necessarily tied to a causal being, and significantly, this given being (the person) must precede all movements of the will. This brings the inquirer to consider the nature of identity. However one defines a personal identity, she must confirm the reality of an identity, at least if thinking is to proceed to a practical vision of politics (which necessitates multiple persons in interaction with one another). But why should one be tied to her given identity? Is it not the popular argument that one can overcome traditionalistic constructs of what a person is in order to discover and determine who she actually is? In fact, much commercialism and various political platforms depends upon just this instinct, that the individual can better himself or change himself to something more desirable to his sensibilities and should be able to do it. There is a reality to this idea of self-determination, even in the deepest senses, as seen in recent advances in the sciences of neuroplasticity and psychology (not to mention plastic surgery). However, any concept of self-change is still incomplete without a preceding “self” reacting both to itself and an external object. Our means of creation, to include self-recreation, depends first on knowledge of a different end-state, and any end-state that is completely produced by the self must first originate from the self, and thus still first exists as potential in the original self. Self-determination is thus wrongly named, for movement toward a change in identity is more akin to a call and a response, or growth towards a potential image. Self-redefinition might be a better term, but the “current self” is what decides to move towards a “new self,” and the “new self” is either found as a reaction or an idealization of what already exists outside the self as made possible in a potential within the “current self.” In other words, the concept of the autonomous individual, apart from any restraints, whether internal or external, remains nonsensical. Rather the individual only comes into true freedom through a deepening understanding of such constraints as essential to the identity from which liberty originates. To truly transcend the self, we must depend on something first from outside the self. What one finds is that to have any sense of self and its proceeding actions of the will, one must consider two things: identity and image; origin and direction. Liberty, if thought of outside of these two considerations of preceding structure, is chaos; and thus any sense of identity and change remain contingent. In short, individual freedom is utterly dependent on what already is.
Apart from identity as the origins of liberty, I feel there is also need to discuss the nature of individual liberty itself as a valuable thing. The premise is that individual liberty is an inherently valuable and desirable reality and right. Consider the actual purpose of individual liberty as making a choice. First, if the ability to make one’s own decisions is valuable, it means the actual decisions and actions hold meaning and value at some level. However, if this is true, the concept of liberty as escape from all restraint is again self-referentially absurd, for making a choice immediately denies the individual the ability to make any other choices. To choose is the same as to deny all other choices at that moment. If freedom is worthless unless one makes an actual choice, every choice demands then the death of freedom, for all other options that could have been, or might have been, are forever lost. Freedom for the sake of freedom is both self-defeating and delusional; it is a right that can never be exercised. True freedom finds its purpose not in itself, but in its responsible use.
On the other hand, one might say that to import such a responsibility on decisions is incorrect, for all decisions are valuable simply as a matter of the exercising of liberty itself. The choice itself does not so much matter as the fact that the individual made the choice. However, freedom without any value placed on purpose or demand similarly destroys itself, for if all choices are equivalent, then how can any meaning in choosing one choice over another exist? If that liberty was somehow denied or restructured, the ability to make a choice would not then matter, and thus choosing itself cannot hold value. Of course, actions yield consequences, some seen and some unseen, and if one is to deem any set of consequences as better than another, then it follows that specific decisions are better or worse than others. This leads into a discussion of ethics that I will not enter here, but suffice it to say, if there is a discussion of ethics, one must yield that there exists a better or worse in decision-making. It is exactly this ability to produce meaningful effects that grants weight and value to individual decision-making.
As a final note on practical free will, there is no choice in making a choice, for even not making a choice is a choice. Therefore, as beings who are inherently and (practically speaking) inescapably free, if we consider our ability to make choices as valuable, then we cannot escape the fact that our very existence is valuable and meaningful, for we cannot escape our own freedom. As already seen in the discussion of identity, individual liberty itself defined as unrestrained license is nonsensical, but rather is dependent, almost paradoxically, on denying the self its limitless choices by making choices. Naturally, these observations lead into the natural understanding that what choices are made matter, and thus, there must be a responsibility in making decisions for decisions to be valuable. Again, for liberty to be valuable, it must be restrained by the reality of a morality, or a guiding direction. Moreover, due to the contingency of identity, the nature of liberty comes full circle, for every person has a great and terrible responsibility to every other. Thus it must be that the origin and directive of individual liberty can never be solely individualistic, but also communal at its heart.
At this point, there are two usual directions one can take. The first is the relativist position, meaning that there is no means to discover objectivity or an absolute truth in terms of identity, morality, or purpose. A person cannot escape her own psychology; therefore, she can only ever hope to find her identity through self-determination and her purpose and ethical beliefs through personal appraisals. Any attempt by others or circumstances to convince her of any structure of reality or “ought” otherwise is necessarily infringing upon her given liberty. However, once she realizes that she can never be an autonomous individual (for the person is necessarily contingent), she discovers the defeat of freedom. All actions of the will become meaningless, for the person can never escape that which is given; they are trapped by the inherent structure of existence. To exercise liberty becomes to deny liberty. If liberty is merely the escape from restraint, then it is numb, for it is impossible. If objectivity is lost in this utter existential loneliness, then there can be no true metaphysical liberty, and also no guarantee to the right of individual liberty (however one defines it in a political structure). The right and value of individual liberty is lost both for a lack of an objective means of determining a right and for the concept of individual liberty becoming self-referentially absurd.
The second direction available recognizes that truth not only exists, but can be apprehended. In other words, there is a means to better discover what the individual truly is as well as what the individual truly should be and do. The first consideration is an optimistic view of ontology (the study of being), and the second is the concern of universal ethics. In other words, a meaningful freedom and any right to liberty must first find foundation in truth, in a real sense of what is and what should be. This gives liberty a purpose and a bite. It means liberty can be determined as inherently a right, and that an objective value can be assigned to any given action of the will. Only in this structure can liberty find meaning. Only in this structure can liberty find the value which Western society has placed upon it. The existence of a free people depends first on an objective understanding of what man is as an inherently free being and that his freedom matters enough to be considered right or wrong, wise or foolish and thus effectual in relation to the whole of reality around him. Ultimately, the responsibility of self-governance must first depend on the responsibility of governing the self.
However, this second direction still leaves the question open as to who should determine the objective truths. Yet, the utterly individualistic approach of determining an objective identity and direction is not only untrue in practice, but as I hopefully have shown, incoherent. Objective identity and ethics can only be realized in cultural and communal constructs, for we not only learn these categories, but we also learn our methodologies of thinking from such constructs, either as accepting them or reacting to them. Previous and complementary to any established traditions of identity and ethics, a people can only discover and complement their constructs by means of a revelation of experience as understood through reason. If one is to doubt these, then there can be no basis for knowledge and therefore no basis to a right or value of liberty. To individualize liberty is to forsake true liberty. To break down the cultural edifices of morality and identity is to tear apart the very vanguards of liberty established by Western heritage, and the metaphysical position of the unrealistically autonomous individual and the nebulous “no harm” principle will continually prove anemic in replacing them.
Currently, this reality of individual freedom is the hidden elephant in the room at the foundation of our cultural wars. If the basic right of liberty depends upon the license of every individual to self-identify and self-direct, then it becomes the state’s priority to ensure that any form of contingency in relationship be overcome. Of course, to do so requires devaluing the choices of the individual by allowing them no effect outside themselves, at once stealing the inherent meaningfulness away from liberty and robbing the community of any direction. Furthermore, it would require that rights become “alienable,” since the individual’s right to make decisions about herself now trumps any other consideration that would follow from an inherent dignity. Thus individual rights can be denied by the self as an individual right, somewhat circularly. What is left is a group of self-defined individuals who can have no power to challenge or influence the constructs to which each other binds himself. The once laudable virtue of tolerance formerly sprouted from a responsibility to love thy neighbor because it considered thy neighbor to be objectively and dogmatically worthy of love in spite of any difference of belief, practice, or appearance. Now a degraded tolerance has taken its place that bases itself in disconnection and a grand epistemic uncertainty. This is a “love” that believes the greatest choice is to leave the other alone or adhere to their construct. Therefore, the preeminence of the Platinum Rule. The community then loses identity and direction due to the endless varieties of existential grasping manifested in pursuit of a pure individualism, and the duty of the state becomes to manage the chaos in the most efficient manner possible. However, the best guarantor of such a liberty would be by a centralized head of power, lest others who disagree with such a doctrine of freedom should continue to resist it and impose their wills upon others. The concept of individuals choosing a communal direction which would by necessity become binding on others is sinful from this point of view. The “sinner” must be silenced—anaesthetized with the rest of the population. Let them have the vote, just let it not be effective. Freedom becomes both politically and metaphysically a lovable illusion, and its restrictions and purpose will continue to shift under the benevolent hand of an unrestrained government. When the jolly prophet once spoke, “Once abolish the God, then the government becomes the god,” this is what he foresaw. Liberty will be guaranteed as long as it doesn’t matter.
Fortunately, liberty as autonomous and individual has been demonstrated as absurd, despite our intuitive sense of it. No matter how much one attempts to make it so, the reality is humans can never escape themselves until they destroy themselves. The structures and beliefs of society that act as bulwarks of liberty are often imperfect, but come to existence naturally in nearly every community. The family, father, mother, and child, must be the basis of all liberty, for here we have the two separate sides of humanity come together to create the new. In all cases, these individuals are dependent upon one another, both for the ability to create and for the structure of the new person who is created. Here more than anywhere else is the basis of humanity found in striking defiance of the individualistic mindset. The continuance of humanity (if we value such a thing) depends on connection. Here freedom is tested in its responsibility. A holistic conversation on the values of the family would require more space than I intend to use here, but other structures of liberty exist as well. Education is simply the traditions of knowledge and truth that we choose to pass down to following generations, to include the methodologies we attempt to utilize in that pursuit. As long as education can be tempered by the convictions of the previous generations (as opposed to being dominated by a select few in academia or in governance), it may always be imperfect, but it would be free. Religion of course is necessary for giving the people narrative and objectivity in their self-understanding and purpose. Religion in its Western formation offers a direct and continual challenge to changing currents of thought and principles in an increasingly secular society. The West would be remiss to forget that many of its values and morals found origin in Judaism and Christianity, most essentially the inherent dignity of man, though they have attempted to trade a religious foundation for an anthropological one. The Church and State may be separate, but never should religion be disengaged from the public forum. Following this is localized governance, where the politicians are one’s neighbors, friends, and family. In this context, those who lead the community are most closely tied to the people and directly responsible to the people, with the threat of more immediate consequences for disservice. Of course, all these institutions are latent with flaws, yet they are free. Freedom requires the opportunity for wise and unwise choices. It requires the ability to do wrong as well as right. The liberty of man is not impeccably intended to appear efficient, pleasurable, or tidy, but it is beautiful and inescapable.
In conclusion, if we do not believe we can or should come to a dogmatic and objective agreement on the nature of human identity and freedom, then we must deny liberty as a value and a right. We must trade it, for freedom only leads to chaos, inefficiency, and pain. Either rise as a self-avowed mastermind of a utopian or trans-human ideal, or waste away in the agonizing numbness of your own existence, but do not speak of liberty, for liberty unfounded on truth is tyranny. The more we become convinced of the language of liberty as indistinct from the unrestrained individual, the more we tear down the societal restrictions that defend its mystical virtue and veracity, which even the ever rational Jefferson felt right to invoke the divine to ensure. Man must either be herded to whatever end by whatever means, for he is but another animal, or there must be a faith behind his dignity and his liberty. Such rights derived from an objective understanding of what man is, as inherently dignified, and most powerfully expressed as the very image of God. The continuation of democratic liberty of our nation was dependent upon two things which go hand-in-hand: a well-educated and moral people. Education allows for a sharpness of mind to see through the lie of the tyrant; whereas the morality is the very structure adhered to by the people to preserve the people, specifically to both maintain their freedom and guide them in it. The beauty of our system is that it is based on dogmas and a creed, considered self-evident, that all men are created equal, that their rights are inalienable, and that government leads only at their consent. But a people is not simply a collection of individuals; they are bound together. And it is only together, unified in love and truth, that they may be free.