Individual Liberty and Collective Interest


Individual Liberty and Collective Interest


There is a general concept that to coerce a person is to deprive that person of his or her freedom.  But the question remains, freedom from what?  The liberal view is that one should be free to express one’s desires. But this is not as simple as it appears.

In so-called democratic countries, political freedom means voting rights, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom to accumulate property.  It is clear that this concept of freedom leads to socio-economic inequality. This has been a controversial question since the eighteenth century. The Marxist concept of social law is already well known.

Unlimited freedom in the physico-psychic sphere is illogical. In such a case, the liberty of one person will definitely encroach on the liberty of others.  The enjoyment of the liberty of accumulation by one person may interfere with the liberty of many to survive. This is why many philosophers argued that as human purposes and activities are not in harmony, and because they put a higher value on other goals, such as justice, happiness, culture, security and varying degrees of equality, they are prepared to curtail liberty.

These thinkers believed that human beings’ freedom of action must be limited by law. Otherwise, it is impossible to have any kind of association. Well defined social codes of discipline which restrict individual freedom for the collective interest, are essential to build a strong society.

Liberals like Locke, Mill in England, and Tocqueville in France, assumed that there ought to exist a minimum area of personal freedom, which on no account should be violated. Total interference by state authorities in personal freedom as is prevailing in totalitarian countries, is definitely defective and undesirable.

A line must be drawn between the areas of personal freedom and that of public authority. This is not a simple matter, and many arguments have been made about this topic over the last three centuries. There is a well known proverb, “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows”.  The liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others. A deeper insight is needed to solve this controversy.

It is a mockery to offer political rights to people who are half naked, illiterate, underfed and diseased. These people need food, shelter, medicine and education before they can understand the essence of their freedom in a political and social sense. A nineteenth century Russian radical writer declared that there are situations in which boots are superior to the works of Shakespeare.

Unlimited individual freedom is not everyone’s primary need.  Does it not trouble the conscience of Western liberals, that the minority who possess liberty have gained it by exploiting, or at least, by averting their gaze from the vast majority who do not have any liberty?

Without justice, the concept of liberal morality is a useless slogan. The Russian critic Belinsky declared that: “If my brothers and sisters are to remain in poverty, squalor and chains, then I do not want liberty for myself.  I reject it with both hands and infinitely prefer to share their fate. It is the freedom that I am giving up for the sake of justice or equality or the love of my fellow humans. If the liberty for myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of millions of other human beings, then the system which promotes it is unjust and immoral.”

It is well known to students of history that high-sounding slogans of liberty have echoed over the whole of Europe over the last three centuries, while Afro-Asian people faced ruthless oppression by those very European nations.  The cause of this hypocrisy is nationalism and geo-sentiment.

Another prevalent concept of personal freedom is that each individual wants to be his or her own master. Bhikhu Parekh writes, ”For a liberal, the individual is a ‘master’ or ‘mistress’ of himself or herself, owning his or her body and having proprietary rights over its constituents. As such, individual’s lives are their own to do what they like, and the products of their labour are theirs to enjoy as they please. Individuals relate to their thoughts, feelings, opinions, rights and so on in similarly proprietary terms and define liberty, equality, justice and obligations accordingly.1

Hence, liberals assert, ‘I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, and not on external forces of whatever kind’. Yet, this is another piece of ignorance about liberty, often to the detriment of the collective interest. Are human beings not slaves their nature, to their unbridled passions and weaknesses?  The metaphor of self-mastery must be clearly understood.  Those who have acquired self-awareness have realised that there is a higher nature of self which is real, ideal and autonomous – at its highest state of consciousness. Otherwise, irrational impulses, uncontrolled desires of one’s lower nature, the pursuit of immediate pleasures, and the empirical or fragmented  self, swept by every gust of desire and passion will dominate the individual.

There are plenty of instances in history where self-motivation, rather than the higher self, group interests, or a personal weakness of the propounder had been the motivating force to put forward a particular kind of philosophy.  For instance, although divorce laws and the system of multiple marriage in Islamic society is detrimental to the interests of women, religious leaders imposed this exploitative system on society. The freedom to accumulate and the free market economy have unfairly led to capitalist exploitation.  The freedom of the proletariat led to the massacres of millions of intellectuals, students, and peasants in Russia and Maoist China. In India, absolute freedom for the upper caste sealed the fate of women and the so called lower castes for thousands of years.

Freedom of expression sounds sweet to the ear, but is it not a fact that in all parts of the world the existing pseudo-culture, religious dogma and socio-economic dogmas are negatively influencing people’s minds? Mass-media, cultural and educational institutions are controlled by the ruling class and manipulated to influence social psychology.  Where is the scope for true freedom of thought?

In the modern era, in so-called free countries, many philosophies are evolving under the pretence of free expression.  Under a close scrutiny, these philosophies are seen to be purely materialistic and bodily-oriented.  In other words, sometimes, unchecked  passion and irrational impulses are the inspiration behind such self-motivated philosophies.  For example, pornography, drug habits, and the  propagation of pseudo values cannot be entertained under the pretence of freedom of expression.

Millions of innocent animals are killed every day for the enjoyment of humans, even though there is enough nutritious vegetarian food available. To justify this egocentric philosophy of life, those animals are forced to give up their desire and right to live. Homosexuality, especially homosexual marriage is another controversial matter which needs analysis, as some societies have started to legalise such marriages.  As homosexuals  claim to have the right to choose their sexual preference, others should also have the right to express their contradictory opinion and deny it. Unrestricted freedom of expression without analysing its psycho-social impact is contradictory to democracy.

Should our idea of freedom find its inspiration from our innate weaknesses and uncontrolled passion or from the strength of our true, strong and disciplined self? Should liberty lead to social disunity with its diversity of self-interest, or inspire us to form a universal society? Should liberty remain confined to the psycho-physical level, or should there be a collective effort to free our intellect?

Let us also accept that human weaknesses are inherent in us. Nobody should be condemned or declared an outcast for having weaknesses and expressing them, otherwise human compassion will lose its essence. Our progressive journey is from imperfection to perfection. However, in proposing a way of life, the guiding factor should be spiritual wisdom, instead of a materialistic or body oriented philosophy.

Considering the physico-psycho-spiritual characteristics of human beings, it can be said that on the physico-psychic level there are limitations, whereas on the psycho-spiritual level, there are not. “It is with the assembly of many individuals that a society comes into being. In such a society, although every individual wishes to move as per one’s own reactive momenta (psychological tendencies ) yet one cannot do a hundred percent. Individualism is possible in the subtle and causal spheres, but not in the sphere of this crude world”.2

Thus, in collective life there has to be some restriction on one’s individual expression, as it should not be allowed to affect collective interests. Expressions on the psychological level, even if undesirable, cannot be restricted by enacting laws through political institutions.  To remove the influence of religious dogma, geo-sentiment, socio and other sentiments, a total change in social psychology through cultural revolution is essential.

While defining the limits of  individual liberty the society must ensure that they are not:

  1. Detrimental to balanced distribution of wealth.
  2. Disturbing the stability and harmony of  the society.
  3. Detrimental to human unity.
  4. Aimed at creating violence and hatred.
  5. Encouraging the selfish aims of self-styled leaders

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