Liberty and Doom
In my darker moments, I wonder sometimes whether being free is really worth it. I consider the vast swathe of my freedom that I do not use and cannot envision using. If it were gone, would I miss it? If I didn’t miss it, would it matter? As obsessed with liberty as we are, it sometimes seems as though its benefits are intangible or perhaps outweighed by its drawbacks.
Oh, and there are drawbacks. Freedom means carte blanche for any jackass to do any jackass thing they damned well please, more or less. Civil Society is essentially based on the idea that complete and total freedom is a fundamentally bad idea that achieves the opposite of it’s intended goal. As laid out by Rousseau in The Social Contract:
What man loses as a result of the Social Contract is his natural liberty and his unqualified right to lay hands on all that tempts him, provided only that he can compass its possession. What he gains is civil liberty and the ownership of all that belongs to him. That we may labor under no illusion concerning these compensations, it is well that we distinguish between natural liberty which the individual enjoys so long as he is strong enough to maintain it, and civil liberty which is curtailed by the general will.
It can be seen, then, that instances of natural liberty, rather than permitting one to do as they please, instead result in one being forced to guard what they have against others that would take it. The citizen is thusly deprived of ‘Moral Freedom’, in that they are unable to consider matters any higher than their own survival. In this loose philosophical framework we can see the historical provenance of anarchist societies, economic collapses, the opportunity for tyrants to rise, and a whole mess of horrible mayhem that results when everybody decides not to listen to rules set out for the common good and instead decide to see how much they can wring for themselves out of the system. This happens when the pressure is off, so to speak – when we are free to do as we please. If humans (and cultures) were perhaps wiser, kinder, and less selfish, then maybe we wouldn’t have these problems. They aren’t, though, so we do.
Of course, I always come back to the side of liberty. Being free to do as I please is better than the alternative if for the simple fact that there is no guarantee that the alternative will be a good fit for us collectively. It could be horrible – much worse than freedom sometimes is – even if it isn’t necessarily so.
Science Fiction has explored this conundrum often, and nowhere more potently than in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Where as Orwell was busy scaring the pants off of us with his 1984, Huxley’s dystopian tale is always there, in the background, seeming infinitely more terrifying. You see, whereas Orwell writes a horror story, Huxley makes a hypothetical argument. The argument goes like this: What if society made it so you were never bored, never sad, never hungry, never injured, never sick, never poor, and never lonely, and the only thing you had to give up was your ability to think for yourself?
Do you make that deal? If you’re the ruler of the world, do you force your people to take it?
Before you snort at the thought of giving up your precious liberty, think about it for a second. Think hard: an end to all suffering. ALL suffering. Are you able to fulfill your full potential and wow the world with your genius? Obviously not. But even if you are never ludicrously happy, you will never even be a little bit sad. Even if you never fall in love, you will never be alone. Even if you never believe in God or explore the depths of existential philosophy, you will never feel their lack, either. In a very real sense perhaps you won’t be human anymore, but would you care? Would any of us?
What makes Huxley terrifying is not the ‘wrongness’ of his world, it is the fact that it is all too easy to understand the rightness of it. When I feel depressed about the human race and about the (more-or-less) great society in which I live, I wonder whether we aren’t all just fooling ourselves into thinking we deserve to be free. Maybe this is what we get. Maybe, as Agent Smith points out in the Matrix, we couldn’t handle utopia anyway and we need to have suffering in the world in order to accept it as real. Maybe that’s what freedom is – feeling pain. Suffering for the benefits of liberty. It’s just that sometimes I’m tired of it; sometimes I just want somebody to come give me my dose of soma and make the world go away.