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Individual Freedom as a Social Commitment

The following address was given at the award ceremony in Turin for the second Senator Giovanni Agnelli International Prize.

I would like to examine the implications of seeing individual freedom as a social commitment. I am concerned here with a view of social ethics that sees individual freedom both (1) as a central value in any appraisal of society, and (2) as an integral product of social arrangements. For the analysis of contemporary society, this perspective has, I believe, some significant merits over other approaches—for example the utilitarian calculus of pleasure and desire that implicitly or explicitly underlies much social policy today. And it can have, I shall argue, far-reaching implications for the assessment of social institutions and public policy.

Abstract Ideas and Concrete Horrors

While I shall try to discuss the basic ideas underlying individual freedom seen as a social commitment, my primary concern in this paper is with the practical relevance of this view. I shall attempt to illustrate the implications of this view with problems drawn from real life. Many of the examples chosen will involve economic phenomena. This will be so not just because I happen to be primarily an economist by profession (though often taking the liberty of jumping into ethical debates), but also because I believe that economic analysis has something to contribute to substantive ethics in the world in which we live.

Some of the most distressing problems of social ethics are deeply economic in nature. Here perhaps I would be forgiven for indulging in some childhood reminiscences, which actually had a rather decisive impact on the directions of my interests and involvements later on. Of the two most disturbing events in my childhood, one was the experience of the Bengal famine of 1943, in which, it is now estimated, around three million people died. It was an ordeal of almost unbelievable ferocity that appeared with a suddenness I could not then at all understand. I was nine years old at that time, studying in a school in rural Bengal. Among the people I knew at the school and their families, there was no sign whatsoever of distress, and indeed as I found when I studied the famine more than three decades later, the majority of the population of Bengal experienced little hardship over the famine period. The famine was confined to some specific occupation groups (as almost all famines are), and for the rest of the people, things were basically just fine.

One morning a very skinny man appeared in our school compound behaving in a deranged way, which—as I would learn later—is a common sign of undergoing prolonged starvation. He had come in search of food from a distant village, wandering around hoping to get help. In the days that followed tens, then thousands, then a procession of countless people came through our village—emaciated, hollow-cheeked, with dazed eyes, often carrying in their arms children made of skin and bone. They were looking for charity from better-off families and from the government.

There was indeed some private charity, though this was pitifully inadequate to save the millions affected by the famine. But, for various reasons, the authorities in British India did not see their way to initiating any large-scale public relief for nearly six months after the famine had begun. It is hard to forget the sight of thousands of shriveled people—begging feebly, suffering atrociously, and dying quietly. The nature of the social failure must be seen to be all the more intolerable in view of later studies of the famine, which showed that the total food supply in Bengal was not particularly low during the famine period. Those who died lacked the means to obtain the food that was there. I shall come back to this general issue later on in this paper.

My other experience of horror was of a rather different kind. This happened when I was even younger—about eight I believe. I was at that time in Dhaka—then the second largest town in Bengal and now the capital city of Bangladesh. Some communal violence between Hindus and Muslims suddenly erupted, with insane killings of members of each community by thugs in the other community. Though the city was communally mixed, there was a concentration of Muslims in some regions and of Hindus in others. I came from a Hindu family and we lived in a largely Hindu middle-class area of Dhaka.

One afternoon, a man came through the gate screaming pitifully and bleeding profusely. He had been knifed in the back. He was a Muslim daily laborer, and his name, he said, was Kader Mian. He had come to deliver a load of wood to a neighboring house—for a tiny reward. As he was being taken to the hospital by my father, he went on repeating that his wife had told him not to go into a hostile area during the communal riots. But he had to go out in search of work because his family had nothing to eat. The penalty of that economic unfreedom turned out to be death; he died later on in the hospital.

It is possible to argue that painful memories from an impressionable age are not good subjects for serious analysis, and one must not claim that these experiences were more profound than they could have been. But I believe these cases have some relevance to the central points I am trying to make. I shall, therefore, take the liberty of coming back to these terrible events, but only after I have defined the terms of the general discussion more clearly.

Freedom: Negative and Positive

As a concept, individual freedom is far from unambiguous. The first recipient of the Agnelli Prize, Sir Isaiah Berlin, has made an important and influential distinction between “negative” and “positive” conceptions of freedom.1 That distinction can be interpreted in several different ways. One way of seeing it relates to the part that interferences by others play in a making a person “unfree” to do something.2

In this view, freedom seen in “positive” terms involves what, everything considered, a person can or cannot achieve. It is not particularly concerned with the causal factors underlying this, e.g., whether a person’s inability to achieve something is due to the fact that he or she is prevented from doing it by the restraints imposed by someone else, or by the government. In contrast, the “negative” view of freedom concentrates precisely on the absence of a class of restraints that one person may exercise over another (or the state or other institutions may exercise over individuals). To illustrate, if I am unable to walk freely in the park because I am disabled, then that is a failure of my positive freedom to take that walk, but there is nothing here to suggest a violation of my negative freedom. On the other hand, if I am unable to walk in that park not because I am disabled, but because some thugs would beat me up if I were to visit the park, then that is a violation of my negative freedom (and not just of my freedom in the positive sense).

In this interpretation, which is a little different from Berlin’s classic dichotomy, a violation of negative freedom must also be a failure of positive freedom, but the converse does not hold. In the traditional “libertarian” literature, it is the negative view of freedom that has tended to receive much of the attention, and some have, in fact, argued in favor of reserving the term “freedom” for its negative interpretation only. On the other hand, many writers (from Aristotle to Karl Marx, from Mahatma Gandhi to Franklin Roosevelt) have been much concerned with positive freedoms in general, and not just with the absence of restraints.

It is arguable that if we think it important that a person should be able to lead the life that he or she would choose, then it is the general category of positive freedom with which we have to be concerned. If being “free to choose” is momentous, then positive freedom must be significant. But this argument in favor of positive freedom must not be taken to imply that negative freedom should not receive some special attention. For example, it may be, in general, bad for a society if a person is unable to walk in the park, but consistently with that diagnosis, it may be thought to be particularly objectionable from the point of view of social arrangements if that inability is the result of hindrance or threat by others. Interference of others in one’s personal life has offensive—perhaps intolerable—features going well beyond the resulting failure of positive freedom.

If this is accepted, then there isn’t much point in arguing whether a positive or a negative view of freedom should be taken. An adequate view of freedom would have to be both positive and negative, since both are important (though for different reasons).

Indeed, given the interrelations of social features, the two aspects may be interconnected in many ways. Consider the case of Kader Mian, the murdered laborer I earlier mentioned. His death robbed him of the basic positive freedom to continue to live (as he would have chosen to do). That is bad enough, but what makes the tragedy much more terrible is the fact that this failure of positive freedom to continue to live was brought about by an offensive act of an assailant, not by the natural forces of age or disease. He did not only die; he was murdered. That dreadful aspect of this event takes us from the positive to the negative conception. Furthermore, had Kader Mian listened to his wife and—threatened by the communalist thugs—not taken up the gainful employment he was being offered, then that too would have been a loss of negative freedom: the loss of freedom to accept employment because of interference (in this case, murderous interference) by others.

But there is a further feature of the interconnection of positive and negative freedoms. Kader Mian had to take the risk of being killed by the thugs because he was poor and his family was hungry. Poverty is not in itself a violation of negative freedom. A person in extreme poverty is not free to do many things (e.g., feeding his family well, staying home when riots threaten his life), but the poverty and the consequent failure of positive freedom may not be due to interference by others. On the other hand, it was precisely this failure of positive freedom that had forced Kader Mian to go looking for a little income in a hostile territory and that in turn made him the subject of the violent act of the thugs. His murder may have been the ultimate violation of his negative freedom, but he was forced into that extremely vulnerable territory in the first place by his poverty and the corresponding lack of positive freedom.

  1. 1

    Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford University Press, 1969).

  2. 2

    On this see Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Harvard University Press, 1977), Essay 12; Amartya Sen, “Rights and Agency,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 11 (Winter 1982), reprinted in Samuel Scheffler, ed., Consequentialism and Its Critics (Oxford University Press, 1988).

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