Liberty is a relatively recent invention. Modernity—everything that we associate with modern life, like free markets, democracy and the rule of law—is derived from this ill-defined expectation of individual freedom that we call liberty. In everything we do, we subconsciously assume that each individual, by virtue of being human and being alive, has the right and the ability to live freely, and to pursue his or her own needs, desires, interests, and forms of expression.
The notion of liberty arose originally in reaction to expressions of power by some groups over others. In the past, most human beings suffered under the yokes of tyranny, religious oppression, slavery, serfdom, and ostracism. They were often subjected by other individuals or groups to violence, theft, and coercion. The constraints of oppression and lawlessness meant that most people could not express themselves freely on the political, religious, or economic stage, that they lived in fear of reprisal and strife, and that they were unable to define and pursue their own destiny.
What prompted citizens of societies of the past to demand greater political and economic liberty from their sovereigns, and, at times, to risk their lives to do so? As a conceptual novelty, liberty owed its formulation to two seminal ideas that themselves came into being over the course of several centuries of western civilisation: (a) individualism, and (b) the assumption that human beings are endowed with free will.
In prehistoric times, individualism—the notion of a self distinct from one’s family, clan, caste, or class—was virtually unknown. The individual simply didn’t exist as an independent entity possessing needs and desires of his own, much less the ability to confer legitimacy to a polity. Instead, the subject was part of a socially constructed entity consisting of a powerful hierarchy of kinship, ethnic group and religious group. In such an environment, the notion of free will was also absent. When it came to explaining the unfolding of events, a simple determinism prevailed, focused on the arbitrary will of invisible gods.
Debate on the twin ideas of individualism and free will began in classical antiquity. Ancient philosophers, including Plato, attempted to reconcile human freedom with the law of cause and effect in order to hold man responsible for his actions. But it was Christianity that brought these two concepts into the mainstream of western intellectual debate. Jesus's message was intended for all those open to his words, irrespective of tribe or kinship group. Each and every person was treated as an individual capable of receiving divine grace. Every person, as one of God's created, could, through individual effort and renunciation of worldly concerns, render himself worthy. Thus, while Christian worship could be a communal exercise, and Christian belief could be the basis of social organisation, the ultimate purpose of Jesus’s sacrifice—salvation of the soul—was an individualistic affair (mediated, of course, by the increasingly complex machinery of the Church). Only the actions and intentions of the individual on earth could yield a passage to heaven. Only one’s own belief, commitment, and repentance could ensure salvation.
At the same time, Christianity taught its followers that they were endowed with the free will to choose between good and evil, between right and wrong, between faith and heresy, and that they were therefore fully in control of their spiritual fate. Theologians were vexed by the seeming incompatibility of this free will with the omniscience of God, but they continually found ways to explain the coexistence of both.
Luther’s reformative ideas greatly reinforced the centrality of the individual by suggesting that a faithful Christian was responsible directly and immediately to God, without the mediation of the Church. And while Luther himself did not believe in free will, the Reformation nevertheless taught, in the long run and perhaps beyond Luther’s intention, that individuals are free to pursue whatever spiritual practices they wish without being subject to the whims of traditions or institutions. This eventually crystallised in the work of John Locke, who proposed a vision of religion as a purely voluntary association that every individual was free to adopt or abandon.
Locke’s philosophical predecessor, Thomas Hobbes, ascribed to all individuals a natural liberty on the basis of which they were licensed to undertake whatever actions are necessary in order to preserve themselves from their fellow creatures. Locke, though disagreeing with Hobbes on much else, agreed with the postulation of naturally or divinely granted liberty of all individuals, understood in terms of the absolute right to preserve one's life and to lay claim to the goods one requires for survival. To accomplish this, each individual was endowed with physical and mental faculties, including reason and conscience. For Locke, then, the individual was the basic unit of social organisation.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed an increasingly central role for the individual. One aspect of the intensified interest in the individual was the rise of capitalism as an economic system that emphasised the individual both as the holder of self-interest and as the foundation of all legal and economic rights. Adam Smith famously argued that the welfare of society is best served when every person seeks his own, personal advantage without reference to any theory of goodness or justice.
The culmination of individualism may be found in the utilitarian doctrine, formulated most clearly by Jeremy Bentham, that social policy should promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It rested on the notion that all individual estimations of utility deserve equal treatment and respect in comparison with all others. Hence, no person could claim that his calculation of happiness counted for any more or less than another's. A fair society should treat the needs and wishes of each citizen with the same weight. Bentham thus applied Smith’s insight to the full range of social interactions. The myth of individualism, therefore, was well entrenched by the early nineteenth century, and today remains very much the principal component of legal theory and political organisation.
The concept of free will, on the other hand, has been subjected to insistent criticism since the seventeenth century. Hobbes noted that human beings are self-centred, and their actions are set in motion by impulses to satisfy their physical desires. Consequently, if individuals are behaving according to the dictates of self-gratification, then they have no genuine free will. What we think of as free will is, in fact, little more than instinct. David Hume further posited that while human will might well bring about actions, such willed actions are the inevitable consequences of prior causes and circumstances. Thus, human beings are very much part of a material world where every event has a cause with a determined outcome. Again, therefore, actions cannot be said to arise from an unencumbered willpower.
Modern science, from Newtonian determinism (in which there are no spontaneous movements) to probabilistic models like thermodynamics and quantum theory, brought repeated blows to the idea of self-willed choice. Even more damaging has been the development of our understanding of the human psyche and the role of the unconscious. Today, most philosophers and cognitive scientists agree that free will is a delusion. Our actions, though seemingly free, rational and independent, are in fact largely conditioned by our subconscious, which is itself a complex agglomeration of inheritance, childhood experience, and the influence of family and other social groups. Indeed, the subconscious is the creation of the six elements that we first discussed in the page on consciousness: pre-birth conditions, evolutionary heritage, biological necessities, familial frameworks, social conditioning and one’s life experiences. Individuals who have not yet recognised the influence of the six elements of our context are usually controlled by them, and ruled by the subconscious patterns engendered by this context rather than by a free will arising from the application of “rational” thought. Free will, therefore, which we so often assume to be the backbone of liberty, is a mirage.
These, however, are just academic debates on the presence or absence of free will. In fact, most ordinary citizens in the First Dimension continue to believe that their choices are their own, and that we’re all capable of overcoming crude impulses through reason. The concept of free will is so firmly rooted in our cultural formula that almost everyone today continues to accept it, such that it continues to underpin many fundamental aspects of modern life, such as justice systems and economic markets.
The twin ideas of individualism and free will have been with us for centuries and have conditioned much of our thinking about our place in society. Liberty grew out of them. It took for granted the beliefs that the individual is the fundamental component of all social constructs, and that this individual, in his drive to maximise benefits to his own person, is acting according to a reasoned, rational and free sense of volition. Liberty is the ultimate entitlement of the individual acting on free will.
The modern idea of liberty has seeped into all aspects of life, replacing traditional forms of social organisation with a new ideology centred around satisfying individual needs. Love is understood as an event between two rational, utility-maximising individuals exercising their free will; consumption is the means to express an individual’s choices in the acquisition of goods and services; elections are mechanisms that transfer legitimacy from individuals to the state; art is an expression of an individual’s feelings or his reactions to the reality that surrounds him or her. Each of these ideas reinforced the others, creating a powerful justification for liberty.
The revolutionary notion of liberty was intensely attractive to individuals living under the yoke of theocratic states and feudal monarchies. Its central idea that freedom and pleasure were the prerogatives of each and every human being. So its allure lay in its single-minded emphasis on everyone’s right to pursue his or her own happiness.
The Shortcomings of Liberty
The first limitation of liberty, as defined above, is that it is incomplete. If we define liberty as the absence of coercion, is it enough to guarantee the fulfilment of man’s needs and desires? John Stuart Mill was perhaps the first thinker to suggest that the absence of coercion amounts only to a partial liberty, which was later labelled negative liberty. By itself, however, negative liberty is not enough. It may mean that an individual enjoys the protection of the law and may avail of certain rights in the political and civic arena, but if that same person is poor, malnourished, uneducated, and unemployed, then does he really have the opportunity to pursue his own goals and ambitions? The absence of coercion is, surely, the first step toward the full realisation of liberty, but to be truly free, an individual must also possess the opportunity and the means to do what he or she wants. In more recent debates on liberty, this has been labelled positive liberty, defined as the absence of deprivation.
Today, citizens of many industrialised societies may be said to possess both negative and positive liberty, in adequate measure. In many developing countries, however, large swathes of the population still live in poverty, deprived of basic amenities like nutrition, health care, hygiene, and with limited access to education. In such circumstances, the lack of coercion is relatively meaningless, because a citizen weighed down by the daily grind of survival cannot be said to live in liberty.
The second limitation of liberty is that it leads, inevitably, to the fragmentation of society into atomised individuals lacking any sense of identity or place. Social commentators were worried about this in the eighteenth century already. Edmund Burke, for example, presciently predicted that the spread of democratic equality would lead to the breakdown of the organic social order. He suggested that authoritarian forms of government would step into the breach and provide an artificial identity for individuals as a remedy for their extreme alienation—something that happened, with disastrous consequences, in the twentieth century.
The expectation of liberty in many modern-day societies has meant that citizens are increasingly free to pursue their individualistic ends with little or no regard for the welfare of their neighbours and community members. The individual has became solely responsible for his thoughts, preferences and actions. Ultimately, liberty has generated a sense of narcissism according to which the desires of the individual reign supreme. Satisfying these individual desires, needs and aspirations has became the primary endeavour of life in the First Dimension. This culture of self-absorption has seeped into all aspects of daily life, as if individuals existed in isolation from each other. The resultant loss of communal identity in the First Dimension has socially corrosive side-effects like rising levels of crime, political and social alienation, and unrestricted consumerism.
Liberty in the Higher Dimensions
Liberty in higher dimensions is no longer to be understood merely as freedom from oppression and coercion, from violence and uncertainty, but rather as liberation from the constraints of our physical and mental contexts. This means, first of all, release from the stultifying everyday worry over nourishment and shelter, safety and health. A supportive, well-structured and appropriately sized community ought to be able to guarantee all the necessities of life to each citizen. (And indeed, a very few advanced countries can claim to have nearly achieved this already.) This can only happen if these necessities become synonymous with essential rights and freedoms and are enshrined in the proper legal and constitutional framework, as we will discuss in the next topic page. In the course of the Second Dimension, the citizen will be freed from these constraints and will be able to participate fully in all the new society’s functions, including active engagement to further its goals. He or she will also be able to turn to higher pursuits, such as the development of consciousness—pursuits that will be actively supported by the community in the Third Dimension. The new liberty, therefore, can be interpreted as the commitment of a society to help its citizens to transition to higher levels of consciousness.
Second, graduating to the Second Dimension implies recognition of a fundamental truth, namely, that we live in, and are conditioned by, a densely interwoven world in which we are unable to function properly as isolated individuals. Thus, the myths and narratives of individualism and free will that have given rise to the First Dimension understanding of liberty must be set aside. Indeed, we must recognise that they are both fallacies.
Man is a social animal, not a solitary one. He has sought out the company and cooperation of others since prehistoric times. In all civilisations and ages, he has formed deep social bonds with those around him, ranging from simple kinship groups to complex, stratified societies numbering in the millions. He cannot be separated from his community, not in a physical nor a psychological nor a legal sense. Therefore, the rights and aspirations of communities should be at least equal to those of individuals. This does not mean that we must throw out the hallowed concept of liberty to which we adhere currently, or its attendant framework of individual rights and freedoms, or the judicial systems to uphold them, but rather that civic rights and freedoms must be rewritten in a manner that accurately reflects man’s role in social groups and in the natural world. The new rights and freedoms will emphasise not individualistic needs and desires, but rather the hopes and wishes that can be expressed by communities.
The objective of our communitarian movement is to shift away from the transactional and self-referential world of the First Dimension by bringing back the context that naturally belongs to every individual, i.e., family (both biological and of choice), community, and nature, and the idea that everyone is an interdependent part of these larger entities. This conscious acceptance of interdependence will transform our ideas of responsibility, freedom, and choice. Here, “interdependence” means multiple things. First, it represents the recognition that human beings, as social beings, are interdependent. It makes no sense to separate the needs and aspirations of one individual from those of the community he lives in. Doing so may satisfy his personal cravings in the short run, but eventually alienates him from his fellow citizens. And it relegates community—once the fundamental constituent of organised society—to a peripheral role in the lives of most people.
Second, interdependence means that all aspects of our lives—from the way we engage in commerce to the way we think about governance; from personal relationships to health; from how we educate our children to the way we plan our cities—are profoundly interconnected. It is counterproductive, in the long run, to plan and develop these various aspects of civilised coexistence in isolation from each other.
In the next Idea page, we’ll see how our notion of liberty has led to a canonical list of human rights and civic freedoms that underpin our assumptions of what civilised coexistence ought to be. But in the First Dimension these fundamental rights and freedoms have been formulated in such a way that they ignore each other. The right to life, for example, is quite limited in its significance if it is not accompanied by equally valued rights to all the things that make life itself worth living, like the right to clean environments, the right to adequate nutrition, the right to free and efficacious healthcare, and so forth. Building a new framework of rights and freedoms, as we shall see shortly, is necessary to transition to a higher concept of human cooperation, and it starts with the understanding that all our endeavours and needs are linked and must be addressed holistically.
As for free will, most cognitive psychologists and moral philosophers now agree that it does not exist, at least when operating within the First Dimension paradigm. Various experiments have suggested that our decisions to undertake certain actions are often disconnected from a rational, conscious and verifiable volition. While the accuracy and reliability of such experiments may, of course, be called into question, there has been enough research in the area of neuroscience to show that the origins of intentions and actions is an exceedingly complex subject. Sam Harris, in his succinct essay Free Will, aptly concedes that, “the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process.” Thoughts and intentions, he writes, “emerge from background cases of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.” We are all complex products of a variety of factors—genetic, familial, societal, environmental. This nexus of influences coalesces in our subconscious, which inexorably determines our choices and actions in the First Dimension.
“Consider what it would take to actually have free will,” writes Harris. “You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.” While complete control may be an unattainable target, awareness is not.
Free will is not possible while we are controlled by the six elements of our context, which are working away in our subconscious. Recognising and accepting them is the first step toward overcoming them. Once we are able to see the complex forces that have shaped us, we may work towards transcending our biological and social conditioning. Only by overcoming our conditioned identities can we attain true consciousness, breaking free of the programming of the six elements of our context. And only when we have gained true consciousness will we finally be able to express a genuinely free will—the ability to look dispassionately at our motivations and subject them to reason, compassion and resolve. From this can arise true liberty.