The Meaning of Liberty
The Meaning of Liberty
Ask yourself: what aspect of your life do you value most? When I ask myself this question, I think of family, friends, health, wealth, country, and more; but the aspect that is essential to all, for me, is liberty. The Declaration of Independence emphasizes man’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. For me, without liberty, life would not be desirable and the pursuit of happiness would not be possible.
So, let us ask: what is liberty?
It is obvious that we don’t all think of this in the same way. How can liberty, for someone who has always been free, be the same as for someone who has just been freed from slavery or captivity? How can liberty for a person steeped in the dictates of Catholicism, or Islam, or so-called fundamental Christianity of any denomination, be the same as for someone who has never been made to feel guilty for being alive?
It is obvious that the founders of the US, those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and/or the Constitution, did not all see liberty as meaning what most Americans today mean. After all, only white males were guaranteed the right to vote when the first ten amendments were adopted in 1791. It was not until the adoption of the 15th Amendment in 1870 that the right to vote could no longer be denied to anyone because of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” It was still another 50 years before the 19th Amendment was passed prohibiting the denial of the right to vote on the basis of sex. It took us all these years to reach the awareness that we were not living up to our declared intention that all men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights.
For me, liberty means the freedom to live life as I please with the only limitation being that my actions do not deny or infringe upon anyone else’s right to do the same. It means freedom to choose my behavior and comes with the obligation to be responsible for any consequences. Thus my moral values are determined by how my actions affect others both far and near. Liberty, in the setting of one’s city, state and nation, means freedom from oppression and from all limitations by law other than those laws needed to protect the rights of all others to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Some people believe that they have the right to protect others from themselves, e.g. laws requiring seat belts or helmets. Some also believe that government should legislate morality, e.g. laws making it a crime to possess drugs or for prostitution or for terminating a pregnancy. To me, this is not compatible with liberty. Even if I favored this way of thinking, I would not know how to choose those who would decide what morals to legislate. I am much more comfortable with this being left up to the individual to decide for himself.
When we say, “This is a free country”, we imply that there is freedom for everyone. But is this really true? We all claim our right, given by the Constitution, to practice our choice of whatever religion appeals to us. There is a mutual respect between believers in all the Judeo-Christian denominations which derives from an understanding that all insiders have a common belief in a single deity. “We are all God-fearing.” But what happens when we encounter those others who believe in multiple deities (e.g. Hindus) or those who have no God-belief? When a non-believer makes himself known, he/she often becomes an object of contempt and exclusion. His/her freedom begins to be jeopardized.
The US Constitution guarantees for every person freedom of, and from, religion (one can't have one without the other), and freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. It guarantees there will be no government sponsored religion, which implies no government favored religion (otherwise the freedom of all religion is compromised). This seems clear until we find ourselves in those situations where one person’s exercise of liberty infringes on the rights of others. In these areas it is obvious that there must be some limits on how one exercises his/her rights. The right to freedom of speech, for example, cannot go so far as to allow the shouting of “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, nor so far as to allow slander or false accusations. The right to privacy does not go so far as to allow the withholding of information which could prove another’s guilt or innocence.
With liberty comes obligation. Liberty without obligation is license--the freedom to do as you please without regard for consequences--the realm of tyrants.
When legislators take it upon themselves to decide what limits to impose on individual liberty, they are often carried away by their sense of power and the ego satisfaction they get out of assuming the role of parent. They become patriarchs/matriarchs eager to control others.
I like this quotation attributed to Judge Learned Hand: The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women”.