Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Freedom is not perfect

I speak of freedom in all its grand imperfection, constrained by many variables, including our genomic inheritance, our early environment, how we were indoctrinated, traumatic experiences we have suffered, the weight of our habits.

And we are hedged in by constraints of available means. We must exercise our freedom in the places we occupy (or in other places to which we have the means to move). A rich man in America (where rich men are becoming richer and poor men are becoming poorer) has more latitude to exercise his freedom than a poor man has.

Or he seems to. For when I speak of freedom, I am mindful of the context of the responsibility it entails. Another “actual constraint of means” is the array of consequences that may follow from our acts. Clearly, when we act consciously and with as much knowledge as we can bring to bear, we must take into account what is likely to flow from acting (or from not acting). And we are responsible for consequences. In fact, if we aren’t responsible for consequences, what could the “responsibility of freedom” even mean?

A rich man can cause a lot more havoc than a poor man can. (This is also true of rich nations in relation to poor. The United States and Western Europe contribute about two-thirds of the Earth’s greenhouse emissions. The poor people of Africa, who will be among those most affected by the disastrous results of atmospheric warming, contribute only about three percent.) The rich therefore have more responsibility for using their freedom wisely.

I do not mean this observation as an apologia for inequality of wealth in American (or in the world). I deplore the widening divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.” In fact, one reason the divide between rich and poor is widening seems to be that many of the rich, rather than live up to their responsibility, are instead greedily exploiting their economic advantage (for short-term gain and long-term catastrophe). And the rich includes us who choose to drive when we could walk or take a bus.

Nevertheless, I speak of freedom as a fact, however constrained it may be by means (including consequences) and the various contributing causes (congenital, environmental, educational, habitual). For if freedom isn’t even possible in this time/space continuum, then what are we even talking about here? And why are we talking at all? And how could you choose to walk today?

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