The end of freedom

It’s the final in my guest blogger’s series on Freedom.

We now come to the 6th & final instalment of the series on Freedom. There is obviously a lot of ground we haven’t been able to cover but if you’re still with me thank you for persevering. What I want to do is try and bring the series to a close by drawing lessons from the first five parts but also by giving you some further food for thought.

I hope you’ve seen that each of the areas we have looked at (musicartliteratureinternet) has its own problems with regard to freedom. However there will always be those who want more freedom than they have. What I’m about to say now may strike you as being a bit odd: total freedom equals total chaos! How so? Let’s look at a couple of examples from real life. Take the network of roads across whichever country you live in. Ask yourself what will happen if drivers have complete freedom? They can drive on whichever side of the road they want at whatever speed they want, they can ignore road signs and traffic lights particularly if they’re in a hurry and so on. What is the result? – Probably lots of accidents, no claims because everyone can do what they want so no-one is responsible, and therefore general mayhem. Roads & drivers, and indeed all road users (cyclists, pedestrians etc), need rules otherwise the system breaks down.

Now think of sports or athletics. In a game of football, baseball or whatever – what happens if you allow all the players to do whatever they want? What happens if runners on an athletics track can deliberately trip up other runners or ignore the lane they have been given to run in? – Once again chaos because there is no order to what is going on. Imagine watching a game or an athletics event with no rules! How long would you stay? Rules are needed for there to be a meaningful competition between opposing teams. It just doesn’t make sense to have no rules.

Try this one – Draw a circle or rectangle on a piece of paper. Put the point of your pen inside the line(s). Now move your pen wherever you want to within the boundary of the figure you drew. You can go wherever you want; you have complete freedom inside the lines, you could draw, sketch, paint, crayon or whatever. If I gave you a piece of canvas 77cm x 53cm (30in x 21in) what could you do? I would probably just have a mass of lines and colours not looking like much. (However, looking at some of the pictures in recent exhibitions featured in the news, I think I might have a chance!) Perhaps you would do better. Not many could produce a picture like the one of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo – (Mona Lisa, in case you were wondering.) Da Vinci, in the early 16th century, did. The painting had to have boundaries and within those boundaries he produced a fantastic piece of work.

Transfer these analogies to real life and let’s ask the question again. How can society function if everybody does whatever they want because they want the freedom to do that? They do not want you or me or some authority telling them what to do. They don’t want boundaries on their behaviour. Why should the idea of rules be any different for a society of human beings than for any other activity they engage in. We must have rules otherwise we and our society can’t function. The real problem arises when we try to specify what those rules are or should be. Who is going to make them up? Who is going to police them? And who is going to apprehend & prosecute those who do not obey them? In a democracy we give that responsibility to the elected government & its law enforcement agencies – they are the law makers and enforcers.

Do you think it’s best to live in a democracy because that gives the most or the fairest rights to those living under it? Most will agree it’s better than say a dictatorship. We tend to believe that democracy equals good, non-democracy equals “not as good” or even potentially bad. Would you consider the following example and seriously ask yourself if you still agree after reading it? Suppose you’re on a ship and the ship is sinking. The alarm goes out to “man the lifeboats” and the crew begins loading people in and lowering the boats into the water. Let’s say each boat is built for say 10 people and has emergency food rations for that number. Once the boat is launched and has been rowed or drifted away from the sinking ship you find that there are 11 people in the boat. The boat is unstable with 11 (6 one side, 5 on the other), it’s too low in the water and there are not enough rations to support 11. A vote is taken on who the people think should be thrown out of the boat. It’s democratic and it’s fair and YOU are picked. Are you still a big supporter of democracy? Or are you now frantically trying to state your case? – Why you should be kept in the boat and someone else, who in your estimation, is less worthy should be thrown out. Do you see the problem? Democracy is great until it’s you that has to leave or be sacrificed for the greater good. This is not a “balloon debate” – this is real life. What gives them the right to throw you out? Errr..Democracy actually!

Another quite serious example from the TV last Sunday – would you or your town/area want nuclear waste dumped underground there (in safe containers of course)? In the area of Cumbria, where the Sellafield Nuclear Plant is located, in a survey, 68% of people (just over two-thirds) agreed with the proposal to use their area. A democratic result but those who oppose it simply won’t accept that. In other words, in a democracy when a vote is taken, you want (and probably have) the right to object to it. So a democracy which produces a majority decision must allow those in the minority to oppose that decision which means a democracy may not produce a democratic outcome. Or at least only a democratic outcome in certain areas because some people don’t like the result of the democratic vote. Hmmm….

Bring it, literally, nearer home – suppose the people in your street decide they don’t like you and don’t want you living in their street. You have to move. What gives them the right to force you to move on? Democracy again. It’s not as easy as you thought is it?

This is not a new problem. Almost 2,400 years ago Plato was considering exactly the same sort of issues in his work The Republic. Philosophers and thinkers down the ages have wrestled with the same problem. Plato believed the best way for a just society to function was to divide everyone into one of the following groups: producers (those who literally make stuff: food, objects, etc), auxiliaries (warriors or upholders of rulers wishes and making producers obey) and guardians or philosopher kings (rulers). (Social mobility is not allowed; once you’re in one group or class you stay there because that is your function. Seems like a precursor of the caste system perhaps? Also with the restriction of medical care to certain classes we see a worryingly early form of eugenics. Not a freedom, I hope, any would espouse. You might be surprised at some of the supporters of “The First International Congress of Eugenics” in 1912 which included our own Prime Minister at the time!) When the three groups, in The Republic are in the right relationships with each other, and the people in them understand and perform their functions, everything will be fine. Interestingly, personal freedom isn’t considered important and is subject to the good of society which comes first. He also believes poets need to be banished from this proposed ideal society (Book X). If you want to know why and the answer to other questions you might have but don’t fancy reading the whole treatise there is an excellent summary on the Sparknotes Website at:

http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/republic/summary.html

So we can say quite clearly freedom has to have boundaries, has to have limits beyond which we cannot go. What that means is that you can do whatever you want within the boundaries – in a sport for example that’s where we can see the skill of a player. One person can do things another person can’t because they don’t have that ability. Look at footballers with their ball-controlling skills, watch them as they dribble around other players in a match because of their superior skill and applaud the goal or home run or whatever is achieved within the rules. A referee decides on penalties for those breaking the rules. The admiration comes from recognising their abilities working within the rules of whatever sport is involved. And so it is with society. It is just a fact that things will work better and people will feel safer if there are rules and people keep to them. Those who want to push the boundaries have a big problem – how far? And who says how far? And once one boundary is pushed are we then waiting for the next person to come along and push even further? Again, I have to ask, “but how far?” Each new level simply proves that people are never satisfied because they want always to push a little harder, to go one step further. (In the newspapers, a couple of days ago, we read of the fastest selling paperback since records began (beating Harry Potter & the DaVinci Code!). It is described as an explicit novel and last week alone sold over 100,000 copies. Another boundary pushed! I hope you can see the inevitable consequences of this pushing. They’re actually all around us in the state of our societies.

Plato had an idea that the values a society needs to live by could come from someone or somewhere outside the people living in that society. Now there’s a thought – what happens if we don’t really know best? Who’s going to admit that – musicians, artists, writers, bloggers? What happens if freedom really does exist only within the rules not outside of them?

That’s the end of our look at Freedom in various fields and in society as a whole. Whilst it has only been brief I do hope you’ve asked yourself some important questions and perhaps found some answers or at least the road to some. I’d like to finish with the proposition of Democritus who said that a life of contentment cannot be achieved through either idleness or pursuing worldly pleasures but only by being satisfied with what you have, giving little thought to envy or admiration. So there you have it – the freedom to be content! Or not? It’s up to you. More to it than you thought? Of course there is!

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, 1881-1938, the first president of Turkey.) In a previous blog, 20.6.12 (The end of freedom) I mentioned Plato’s The Republic in which he wrote about the way society would function better […]

    Reply

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