Responsibility: Freedoms carry with them the consequences of our choices
“I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.”
– Bob Dylan (1941 – ), American Singer-Songwriter, Musician, and Poet
Every 4th of July, Americans gather together to do what we do best: drink beer, eat too much and blow stuff up. We do this on this particular day to celebrate our nation’s birth, the day we declared our liberation from the rule of the distant King of England…and embraced responsibility.
But, even though the 4th of July is the day we became a free nation, we don’t call that holiday “Freedom Day.” We, instead, call it “Independence Day.” And the reason why is significant.
Freedom and Its Requirements
When we declared our independence from England, we declared our willingness to make our own choices, to chart our own course as a nation, and to live with the consequences of our decisions. In essence, we declared our national adulthood.
Responsibility Owed to Freedom
We didn’t cast off our bonds to England simply to live in total freedom, absolved of responsibility for our fellow Americans or for the destiny of our nation. Instead, we broke with the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth to establish a new system of governance that placed more responsibility for self-rule on the people, themselves.
With self-rule came the understanding that all Americans were responsible for nurturing and growing our republic. We weren’t seeking the freedom to do as we pleased without reflection on the consequences of our actions or a sense of responsibility to one another. We weren’t creating a nation built upon the childish freedom of me-first irresponsibility, to do whatever we wanted without accepting the burdens that came with independence.
Liberty and Its Consequences
The liberty to do as one wishes without consequence, to make a mess of things and leave them to others to clean up, is the freedom of a child. To act without concern for others, to behave in ways that are destructive or disruptive without facing the consequences of one’s actions is not the way an adult behaves. And a society that tolerates or promotes that sort of irresponsible freedom is doomed to failure and collapse.
Independence, on the other hand, is to be ruled by oneself, to make the right and responsible choices simply because they are right and responsible. Independent people put their shopping carts back where they belong, those who are not, who need rules to govern them, leave their carts in the parking lot for someone else to clean up.
A Current Example
We see this playing out in modern America where the COVID-19 virus has killed more Americans than have died in every war since World War Two combined. People across the country, as the virus surges, refuse to follow the Centers for Disease Control guidelines to wear a mask and maintain six feet of social distancing because they view such rules as a violation of their personal liberty, rather than as a part of their responsibility as members of an independent and self-governing country.
What they don’t understand is freedom doesn’t exist without responsibility. Without a social compact, one where members of a society agree willingly to do what is right in the interest of that society, government must step in to impose order. Think of it this way: we have speed limits on highways because some members of society would drive at reckless speeds that would endanger others who are driving responsibly. If all people drove at responsible speeds, if they were all self-governing, there would be no need for speed limits.
An Essay on Freedom
American philosopher John Dewey discussed this in his 1908 essay on responsibility and freedom.
“The more comprehensive and diversified the social order, the greater the responsibility and the freedom of the individual. His freedom is the greater, because the more numerous are the effective stimuli to action, and the more varied and the more certain the ways in which he may fulfill his powers. His responsibility is greater because there are more demands for considering the consequences of his acts; and more agencies for bringing home to him the recognition of consequences which affect not merely more persons individually, but which also influence the more remote and hidden social ties.”
He explains that no one in a free society is exempt from being held accountable for his actions, that responsible conduct is part of the social compact to which all members of a free society must agree for that society to survive and thrive.
Those who understand this relationship between freedom and responsibility will “recognize the justice of the community interest” in their behavior and will hold themselves responsible for their actions. They are self-governing and responsible people.
Those, in Mr. Dewey’s view, who believe they should be free to do as they please, regardless of the harm they may do to society, “will note his liability only as an evil to which he is exposed, and will take it into consideration only to see how to escape or evade it.”
In other words, those who believe freedom comes without responsibility to the well-being of the community, will refuse to be held accountable for their choices and will, instead, vilify the institutions and others who hold them accountable for their behavior as being corrupt and oppressive.
But, as The Freedoms Foundation points out, freedom and responsibility are co-dependent.
Freedom and responsibility are mutual and inseparable; we can ensure enjoyment of the one only by exercising the other. Freedom for all of us depends on responsibility by each of us. To secure and expand our liberties, therefore, we accept these responsibilities as individual members of a free society.
With a Bill of Rights, therefore, says the Freedoms Foundation, comes a Bill of Responsibilities:
- To be fully responsible for our own actions and for the consequences of those actions. Freedom to choose carries with it the responsibility for our choices.
- To respect the rights and beliefs of others. In a free society, diversity flourishes. Courtesy and consideration toward others are measures of a civilized society.
- To give sympathy, understanding, and help to others. As we hope others will help us when we are in need, we should help others when they are in need.
- To do our best to meet our own and our families’ needs. There is no personal freedom without economic freedom. By helping ourselves and those closest to us to become productive members of society, we contribute to the strength of the nation.
- To respect and obey the laws. Laws are mutually accepted rules by which, together, we maintain a free society. Liberty itself is built on the foundation of law. That foundation provides an orderly process for changing laws. It also depends on our obeying laws once they have been freely adopted.
- To respect the property of others, both private and public. No one has a right to what is not his or hers. The right to enjoy what is ours depends on our respecting the right of others to enjoy what is theirs.
- To share with others our appreciation of the benefits and obligations of freedom. Freedom shared is freedom strengthened.
- To participate constructively in the nation’s political life. Liberty depends on an active citizenry. It depends equally on an informed citizenry.
- To help freedom survive by assuming personal responsibility for its defense. Our nation cannot survive unless we defend it. Its security rests on the individual determination of each of us to help preserve it.
- To respect the rights and to meet the responsibilities on which our liberty rests and our republic depends. This is the essence of freedom. Maintaining it requires our common effort, all together and each individually.
The Declaration of Independence’s Call to Duty
William Bennett’s work, “Our Sacred Honor”, observes that while we frequently cite the first line of the Declaration of Independence — “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness” — we pay minimal attention to that last line which reads, “… we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
– William Bennett (1943- ), American author, political theorist, politician, Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan 1985-1988, Director of Office of National Drug Control Policy under George H. W. Bush and political pundit
To preserve our freedoms, it is inherent upon us all to accept and understand that we have a responsibility to one another and that we ought to exercise that responsibility without government enforcement, that if we demand freedom without responsibility, the freedom of a child, we will force government to force upon us the discipline of an adult. Avoiding that is, for example, as simple as wearing a mask during a pandemic for the sole reason it is the right and responsible thing to do.