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…

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