Giving the Chancellor Dunning Trust Lectures at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, in January, 1949, Professor John Macmurray (then of Edinburgh University) began with the following words:
"There can surely be no necessity, in any country of the British Commonwealth, to prove the importance of freedom, or to persuade men to a belief in freedom. At most we require, at times when we are distracted by special difficulties or when things are going too easily for our own good, to be reminded of the price that our fathers had to pay for the freedom that we enjoy, and of the duty that we owe to our children for its preservation and its increase. In a very special sense freedom has been the primary objective of our Western civilization from the days of the Renaissance. Little by little, and often desperately, freedom has been won and extended; built into habits of common life and buttressed by institutions. In the crowded history of our modern achievement there is a wealth of good things that we have made our own and made available to mankind for ever. Yet all of them have their roots in that freedom which is our most precious achievement; and if that soil loses its sweetness and its health, they too will wither and die. It is not our power whether of knowledge or of technique or of machinery which matters, either as the glory of our past or as the guarantee of our future, which now has become the future of mankind. It is our faith in freedom. If that faith is lost then all is lost; our power will turn to our destruction and, but for the grace of God, to the destruction of the whole world".
If John Macmurray were alive today, I'm sure he would recognise that much of the faith in freedom which existed in 1949 has been lost during a half century when things in the West went "too easily for our own good" and that its buttressing institutions have been allowed to fall into disrepair. Little by little, and often carelessly, we have allowed the freedoms won by our fathers to slip away. Now that we find ourselves "distracted by special difficulties", there is a great danger that unless those of us whose faith in freedom is undiminished exert ourselves to the uttermost in its defence, future generations (if, indeed, there are any) will have to commence the struggle all over again.
What we nowadays seem to lack, at least in the UK, is any clear idea of what it is to be free. I hope in this essay to spell out what freedom (or liberty) means and the principal conditions under which it may be maintained and extended.
Freedom is the capacity of the human individual to form an intention and seek to realise it. It is our ability to act to bring about what we believe to be desirable changes in the conditions which affect us. Such freedom is possible only for human beings because only the human species has been endowed by nature with the qualities of objective consciousness, imagination, and will-power which are essential pre-requisites for purposeful action. These qualities are principally what set us apart from, and in a significant sense above, the other creatures with which we share the planet.
It is important to note that these qualities which make liberty possible inhere in the individual person and not in any collective of persons. So when we talk of a "free" country, the only possible meaning is a country whose governmental and administrative institutions have as a primary aim the maintenance and extension of the liberty of the individual citizen or subject.
The above two paragraphs emphasise the absolute aspect of freedom which makes it desirable for all human beings to favour freedom as an ideal to aim at. But as with all ideals, practical difficulties arise which militate against its realisation.
In the lecture already quoted, John Macmurray went on to say: "We flatter ourselves too much when we imagine that we love freedom and strive wholeheartedly towards freedom. On the contrary; there are few things that we fear so much. No doubt we find the idea of freedom most attractive; but the reality is another matter. For to act freely is to take a decision and accept the consequences. The free man is the man who takes responsibility for his own life before God and his fellows. Is it any wonder that when we are faced with the challenge of freedom, our fear is usually more than a match for its attractiveness; and that we seek, for the most part, to escape the demand that it makes upon us?"
Is it not clear that far too many people in the West now lack the courage to be free and rest content to settle for mere existence under any conditions? We seek to avoid responsibility by taking refuge in anonymity, falsely claiming it to be a "civil liberty". We seek to mitigate the natural consequences of our actions by pressurising legislators to enact a grotesque web of "consumer protection" legislation, instead of freely accepting the time-honoured principle of caveat emptor let the buyer beware. We impose silly "employment" regulations upon the entrepreneurs without whom there would be little employment for those who lack the courage and determination to find their own work. We seek to guard against all sorts of hazards by taking out some form of "insurance", and resort to litigation in search of "compensation" for wrongs real or imagined. Members of governments and the boards of large corporations take refuge in the nonsensical idea of "collective" responsibility which in practice means that the individuals concerned escape the only responsibility that means anything. Only lawyers can possibly see any merit in the abstract notion of, for example, "corporate manslaughter".
We pay dearly for our lack of courage. At best, all these stratagems merely confer a false sense of security on the middle classes. In general, they benefit not mankind but only the legislators, lawyers, and executives of insurance companies. They make all our goods and services unnecessarily expensive and inefficient. At worst, they make us easy prey for terrorists whom we cannot fight effectively because our collective hands are tied by all sorts of ridiculous regulations.
These difficulties are psychological in origin. They arise from conflicting desires within the individual person and from conflicts between the selfish interests of different individuals or groups. Limitations on personal freedom may be necessary to protect individuals and social institutions from being harmed by the unrestrained actions of over-ambitious individuals and groups, whether malicious or merely careless. So from a practical point of view, freedom can only be relative, and a universally satisfactory balance must be struck between liberty and libertinism.
Ideally, individuals should be able to strike such a balance for themselves and become what I call "responsible" persons. If all the people in the world were responsible in that sense, there would be no need for any government or regulation except that already provided by Nature. Even though there is no immediate prospect of success, is that not a worthwhile ideal to aim at?
If we are to make further progress towards the ideal, we must learn how to co-operate with Nature. Like all other species, the human race is part of Nature, and must obey Natural Laws if it is to survive as a species. One of the most obvious things we can observe in Nature, if only through the medium of television, is that she favours the survival of the species rather than the individual. In most species, the chance of an individual seed or fertilised egg surviving to adulthood is almost vanishingly small. As Tennyson put it:
Yet despite this attrition, including the extinction of many species, the planet is still home to a countless variety of forms of life. It seems obvious that the supreme object of Nature is to keep creating more and more varieties of life of ever-increasing quality, regardless of the numbers of individuals which fall by the wayside. In order to achieve this aim, Nature has inspired each individual with a fierce determination to live against all the odds. The few successes are more than adequate compensation for the innumerable heroic failures.
In this respect, the human individual has been especially favoured. By giving individuals the gift of objective consciousness, Nature has made us capable of learning about our own rôle in the world in a way that has hitherto been denied to all other species. This has enabled us to take collective action to exempt ourselves to a considerable extent from the statistical rate of attrition to which other species are prone; and this has in turn enabled us to increase the quality of the individual life to a hitherto unimaginable degree. But these advantages have been won by co-operation, not conflict. We are still not exempt from Natural Law. That is why some few individuals, through natural talent allied to determination and effort, achieve a quality of living which far exceeds that of the majority of their less purposeful and less energetic contemporaries while others fail to achieve even minimal viability. And that is why truly enlightened individuals must accept responsibility not only for raising their own quality of living but also for contributing to increasing the quality of living for the whole human race. But unless we are collectively careful, our unprecedented power of will allied to imagination may lead to our undoing through sheer selfishness.
In giving us objective consciousness, free will, and imagination, Nature also built in certain safeguards against their abuse. One of these is conscience, an awareness of wrong-doing. Because some individuals are less sensitive to conscience, and therefore less "human", than others, social and religious institutions have been developed down the years to restrict the socially damaging activities of individuals who are careless of the effects of their actions on other people. General principles of good behaviour are summarised in maxims such as "Do as you would be done by" and "Do what you like as long as you harm no-one else". It is to our shame that such principles no longer seem to get the emphasis they need in the typical Western home or the general run of Western educational institution. If they did, there might be less exploitation of other people and of natural resources by irresponsible individuals who win through to positions of power in industry, commerce, politics, religion, and other "professions".
At a still deeper level, Nature provided us with an incentive not only to refrain from doing harm, but to endeavour to do positive good. This takes the form of a feeling of satisfaction when one is aware of having "done a good turn" without any consideration of personal gain or advantage. This feeling is sometimes known as the "Helper's High". Is it not a pity that so many present-day Western societies have allowed the State to establish a virtual monopoly over many of the fields that in former times would have given individuals an opportunity of discovering this feeling for themselves? The routine pay-packet is but a poor substitute for the sense of achievement and the motivation to further effort that the Helper's High confers.
Doing "good turns" for each other enables both parties to experience a further "good" feeling that of gratitude. Gratitude promotes mutual trust and confidence between individuals, and its expression, even if it's only a nod and a smile in exchange for a small act of courtesy, makes the other person feel appreciated and worth while.
People who are fortunate enough to get into the habit of doing "good turns" are invariably optimistic, confident, and appreciated because they inspire trust and confidence in others. But not everybody is like that and we have to seek reasons why. In most cases, it is fear, of which I have written elsewhere.
The gift of imagination is what enables us to visualise some of the probable results of our actions and to weigh up some of the consequences. This expansion to "prophecy" can be valuable if we have good judgment and a proper understanding of the Natural Laws which apply; and it can help us avoid mistakes which might harm ourselves, our neighbours, or our common environment. But given free rein, the undisciplined imagination can give rise to all sorts of "vague fears and horrible imaginings" and so prevent us from doing all sorts of things we could and should be doing for our own and the common good. We become unduly "security conscious" and anxious to avoid any risk, whether real or imaginary. Yet it would do no harm to bear in mind that the birth of any individual of any species is invariably followed by its death, and that the human individual has no special immunity. It is clearly more important to live well and happily, which means generously, than merely to live long. While obsessive caution may extend the length of life in a chronological sense, its indulgence is to miss the point of being alive at all. The cost of such pointless selfishness falls upon the human race as a whole and thus diminishes freedom instead of extending it.
If too many individuals adopt the false hubristic perspective that the human individual is more important than the human race as a whole, it is difficult to see how we can escape mutual self-destruction. Yet this is clearly the direction in which we are heading. What else can we understand from the ever-increasing emphasis placed on the utterly fallacious concept of "human rights" as applying to individuals? If there is one Natural Law that stands out more clearly than most, it is the Law of Karma which states, broadly, that as a human individual you are free to do what you like, but you are not free to escape the natural consequences of what you do. That Human Rights legislation is able to masquerade as freedom-enhancing is the clearest possible indication that too many of us in the West have lost any conception of the meaning of freedom and what it could do for us and the other people in the world.
It is selfishness on the part of fearful vested interests that motivates the sort of legislation and regulation which purports to give some people "rights" that simply do not exist in Nature. The short-term material benefits to selfish lawyers and politicians are obvious. But unless we can give up this folly, the resultant long-term impoverishment of the human race as a whole will become apparent in time. Perhaps we should view the current "special difficulties" as the manifestation of Karma.