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.

While there is a real distinction between the positive and negative aspects of freedom, the different aspects can be thoroughly interrelated and intertwined. To concentrate only on one or the other is not only ethically incomplete, but can also be socially disjointed. The social commitment to individual freedom has to be concerned with both positive and negative freedoms, and with their extensive interconnections.

Famines and Freedoms

The interconnections between different aspects of freedom can sometimes take rather complex forms. Consider the large-scale failure, in a famine, of the elementary positive freedom to survive. The Bengal famine of 1943, to which I have referred earlier, was in fact the last substantial famine in India. There has been no famine since independence, despite momentous droughts, floods, and other catastrophes. What has brought about this difference? And, to go beyond that question, how can the persistence of terrible famines in the world (e.g., in sub-Saharan Africa) be brought to an end?

I mentioned earlier that the Bengal famine of 1943 took place without the supply of available food in Bengal being exceptionally low. This can be found in many other famines as well (e.g., in the Ethiopian famines of 1973 and of the early 1980s). Some famines have in fact occurred when the amount of food has been at a “peak” level (e.g., during the Bangladesh famine of 1974). In explaining famines, we have to look not primarily at the total food supply (though it is one influence among many), but at the “entitlements” of the vulnerable groups, i.e., the ownership rights over food that these groups can establish.3 We have to concentrate, therefore, on the economic and political changes that rob particular occupation groups of their ability to command food. For example, the development of extensive unemployment leading to widespread inability to earn an income, or a severe rise in food prices vis-à-vis wages, or a sharp fall in the price of the products that craftsmen make, can lead to widespread starvation.

In view of this diagnosis, it is not surprising that the policy of supplementing people’s incomes (e.g., through offering public employment, with wages being paid to the destitute people who seek work) can be one of the most effective ways of preventing famines. This is, in fact, how famines have been systematically prevented in India since independence. Whenever large occupational groups have lost their earning power (e.g., when agricultural workers have become unemployed because of a severe drought or a flood), the lost purchasing abilities of the affected population have been to a considerable extent regenerated through the provision of public employment at a wage. This has occurred again and again in various parts of India—in Bihar in 1967, in Maharashtra in 1973, in West Bengal in 1979, in Gujerat in 1987, and so on. The elimination of famines in India has been largely the result of public intervention in a systematic way.

As a matter of fact, the blueprint for such intervention was already very substantially drawn up in the period of British rule, particularly in the Famine Codes of 1880. While the procedures have been much refined, the basic strategy of regenerating income is much the same. Why then did famines continue to occur right up to 1943, but not after independence in 1947? The famine prevention procedures outlined in the Famine Codes do not, of course, do much to relieve a famine unless they are actually used, and used in good time. During the British period, the Famine Codes were often invoked quite late. Sometimes, as in the case of the Bengal famine of 1943, the Famine Codes were not invoked or used at all. In contrast, since independence, famine prevention measures have been used fairly promptly whenever a potential famine has threatened.

What explains this contrast? I have tried to argue elsewhere that the big difference has been made by the plural, democratic nature of post-independence India. With a relatively free press, with periodic elections, and with active opposition parties, no government can escape severe penalty if it delays preventive measures and permits a real famine to occur. That threat keeps governments on their toes. 4

The contrast is sharp, not only with pre-independence India, but also with many of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa in which the governments do not have to worry about threats from opposition parties and in which newspapers are far from free. The Chinese famine of 1958–1961, in which between twenty-three to thirty million people died, was partly caused by the continuation of disastrous government policies, and that in turn was possible because of the non-democratic nature of the Chinese polity. For three years, notwithstanding intense famine conditions, official policies were not essentially reversed. The government did not feel threatened; there were no opposition parties; no newspaper criticized the public policies. In fact, for the most part, the famine was not even mentioned at all in the controlled press, despite the carnage that was taking place across the country. Indeed, in the terrible history of famines in the world, it is hard to find a case in which a famine has occurred in a country with a free press and an active opposition within a democratic system.

If this analysis is accepted, then the diverse political freedoms that are available in a democratic state, including regular elections, free newspapers, and freedom of speech (without government prohibition or censorship), must be seen as the real force behind the elimination of famines. Here again, it appears that one set of freedoms—to criticize, to publish, to vote—are causally linked with other types of freedoms, such as the freedom to escape starvation and famine mortality. The negative freedoms of newspapers and opposition parties to criticize, publish, and agitate can be powerful in safeguarding the elementary positive freedoms of the vulnerable population.

The Utilitarian Calculus versus Freedom

The concentration on freedom—negative or positive—as the basis of social evaluation can be contrasted with other approaches, such as utilitarianism. The emphasis of the utilitarian tradition is not on the freedom to achieve, but on the achieved results. Furthermore, it evaluates these results in terms of some mental characteristic, such as pleasure or desire (“utility”). There are, in fact, substantial differences within the general utilitarian perspective. For example, judging the importance of an achievement by the extent to which pleasures are generated may yield different conclusions from judging it by the intensity of the desires it satisfies. Behind the different types of strategy there is a common strategy, including (1) concentration on results, and (2) valuation according to some mental characteristics (e.g., pleasure or desire) of the persons affected.

The utilitarian tradition—developed by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and others—has had considerable practical social impact in making the evaluation of competing policies systematic and orderly. The implications of utilitarian reasoning have been powerfully investigated and applied by economists, social analysts, and public officials. Some of the social changes brought about by the utilitarian tradition (beginning with early prison reforms in Britain, with which Bentham himself was much concerned) have not only reduced suffering and increased happiness, but have also, among other effects, tended to enhance the freedoms that people have. On the other hand, these expansions of freedom, when they have occurred, have only been incidental results of utilitarian advocacy, since freedom as such is not valued in the utilitarian calculus. On other occasions, utilitarian prescriptions have tended to clash with the demands of individual freedom. These conflicts arise for many reasons, including the element of paternalism that may be involved in organizing society in such a way that people are led to utility-maximizing results, rather than being left with more freedom, including the freedom to make mistakes.

A different type of difficulty concerns the distortions brought about when the mental characteristics of pleasure or desire adjust to situations of persistent inequality. In circumstances of long-standing disparity and inequity, the underdogs may come to regard their fate as fairly inescapable, to be borne with placidity and calm. They learn to adjust their desires and pleasures accordingly, since it makes little sense to go on pining for what does not seem feasible, the prospects of which they have typically not had much reason to consider carefully. In the case of the chronically deprived who lack the courage to desire much more than they have and who take whatever joy they can from small mercies, the utilitarian calculus is deeply biased, since their deprivations look less acute in the distorted yardstick of pleasures and desires. The measure of utility may insulate social ethics from appreciating the intensity of the deprivation of the precariously placed hireling, the chronically unemployed, the overworked coolie, or the thoroughly subjugated housewife, who have all learned to keep their desires in check and to make the most of whatever tiny experiences of relief come their way.

Though this issue goes to the very roots of the utilitarian calculus, the problem is not just a theoretical one and has some serious practical consequences. Let me illustrate by referring to two of the major social failures in my own country, India. One concerns gender inequality—the disparity between women and men. The disadvantages of women are not, of course, unique to India, and there is much evidence of extensive gender-based inequality even in the elementary matters of health care and nutrition in many regions across the world (e.g., in most of the countries in the broad belt stretching from West Asia to China). But fairly detailed comparisons of mortality rates, morbidity rates, hospital care, nutritional attention, etc. have been made in India (I have taken part in making some of these comparisons5 ), and despite variations between regions within India, they clearly confirm a fairly decisive picture of women being systematically deprived vis-à-vis men in much of the country, especially rural India.

This diagnosis of significant gender inequality and of the need for change has, however, also been forcefully disputed. It has been pointed out—plausibly enough—that rural Indian women typically do not suffer from envy of the position of men, do not see their situation as one of painful inequality, and do not pine for reform. Even though the politicizing of the rural population is altering this inert picture slowly (a change in which the newly developing women’s movements are beginning to play an important part), nevertheless that empirical observation is largely correct as a description of the present situation in rural India. It would be hard to claim that there is, at this moment, wide-spread dissatisfaction with gender inequality, or a fulminating desire for radical change, among rural Indian women. The real question concerns the interpretation and significance of this empirical observation.

In an objective sense, women in rural India are indeed less free to do various things than men are, and there is nothing in the history of the world to indicate that women will not value more freedom when they actually come to experience it (rather than taking it to be “unfeasible” or “unnatural”). The absence of present discontent or felt radical desires cannot wipe out the moral significance of this inequality if individual freedom—including the freedom to assess one’s situation and the possibilities of changing it—is accepted as a major value. While the defenders of the status quo can get comfort and support from at least some versions of the utilitarian calculus, that defense cannot survive if individual freedom is indeed a social commitment. Since persistent inequality and exploitation often thrive by making passive allies out of the mistreated and the exploited, the divergence between utility-based reasoning and freedom-centered reasoning can be both sharp and far-reaching.

The second example concerns illiteracy in India. Since independence in 1947, India has made considerable progress in higher education, but remarkably little in elementary schooling. In the last census, in 1981, only 41 percent of the adult population was found to be literate, while the proportion of literacy among women was only 28 percent. Elementary education has never received quite the importance that other social objectives have enjoyed in Indian public policy. There are many factors to explain this policy failure. But one argument that is often presented is that the Indian illiterate is not acutely unhappy about being illiterate, and seeking education is not one of the more intense desires of the deprived Indian.

As a description of the mental state of the Indian illiterate, this may well be correct. But illiteracy is also unfreedom—not just the lack of freedom to read, but also the curtailment of all the other freedoms that are conditional on communication requiring reading and writing. Here again, a freedom-centered social ethics will take us in quite a different direction from social calculations based on pleasures or desires.

Freedom vis-à-vis the Means of Freedom

Recently, the utilitarian tradition has come under attack from many other points of view as well. For example, John Rawls and Bernard Williams, among others, have provided deep criticisms of the foundations of utilitarian reasoning.6 Many alternative systems of political philosophy have received attention (including powerful explorations of different aspects of liberal and libertarian procedures by James Buchanan, Ronald Dworkin, and Robert Nozick, among others).7

It may be useful to compare the approach that I am trying to present here with some aspects of John Rawls’s far-reaching theory of justice, which has contributed greatly to a radical regeneration of modern political philosophy and ethics. The Rawlsian theory of justice has, in fact, done much to draw attention to the political and ethical importance of individual freedom. His “principles of justice” safeguard the “priority” of individual liberty, subject to similar liberty for all. His accounting of inequality concentrates not on the distribution of utility, but on that of “primary goods.” These are the means, such as income, wealth, liberty, etc., that help people to pursue their respective objectives freely.

However, making comparisons of the primary goods different people have is not quite the same as comparing the freedoms actually enjoyed by different persons, even though the two can be closely related. Primary goods are means to freedom, but they cannot represent the extent of freedom, given the diversity of human beings in converting primary goods into the freedom to pursue their respective objectives. Given the variations in sex, age, inherited characteristics, environmental differences, etc., that may prevail among and within groups of people, an equal distribution of primary goods may go with very unequal levels of freedom. For example, equal holdings of primary goods may make people with physical disabilities less free to pursue their own well-being. Furthermore, not only may the disabled people be handicapped in the pursuit of welfare, they may also be disadvantaged—unless they get special facilities—in participating in the choice of common social institutions and in influencing general political decisions (not necessarily connected with their own disabilities).

While many disabilities are quite rare, human beings are in general deeply diverse in their personal characteristics and in the features of their environment. We differ in age and energy, sex and physical needs (e.g., needs related to pregnancy), inherited and environmental susceptibility to disease, and so on, and these variations affect the extent to which we can build freedom into our lives with the help of a given bundle of primary goods. In view of the pervasive relevance of personal and environmental heterogeneity, concentrating on primary goods cannot serve our purpose of comparing the freedoms people actually have (even though it may be appropriate enough for Rawls’s own purpose).

Instead of concentrating on primary goods or resources that individuals hold, it is possible to focus on the actual lives that people can choose to lead, consisting of various human functionings. Some functionings are very elementary, such as being adequately nourished, being in good health, etc., and these may be strongly valued by all, for obvious reasons. Others may be more complex, but still widely valued, such as achieving self-respect, or taking part in the life of the community. Even the utilitarian functioning of being happy may belong here, though it will figure as one functioning among many (rather than as the basis of the valuation of all achievements, as in the happiness-based utilitarian calculus). Individuals may, however, differ a good deal from one another in the weight they attach to these different functionings—valuable though they may all be—and a theory of justice based on freedom must be alive to these variations (there are various analytical techniques for taking note of them).

The freedom to lead different types of lives is reflected by the set of alternative combinations of functionings from which a person can choose; this can be called the person’s “capability.” A person’s capability depends on a variety of factors including personal characteristics as well as social arrangements. A social commitment to individual freedom must involve attaching importance to enhancing the capabilities that different people actually have; the choice of social arrangements must be influenced by their ability to promote human capabilities. A full accounting of individual freedom has to go beyond capabilities of personal living and pay attention to other objectives of the person (e.g., social goals not directly related to one’s own life), but enhancing human capabilities must be an important part of promoting individual freedom.

Social Intervention and the Nature of Poverty

Shifting the emphasis from primary goods and resources to capabilities and freedoms can make a substantial difference to the empirical analysis of social inequalities. It can, for reasons that were discussed earlier, affect the evaluation of inequalities related to gender, class, disability, and location. Since these are among the major social issues in the modern world, the practical differences made by the shift in perspective may be far from negligible. The modification of emphasis is relevant also to other related matters, such as the choice of criteria for assessing deprivation and poverty, e.g., whether to see poverty in terms of low income (a failure of resource), or in terms of insufficient freedom to lead adequate lives (a failure of capability). For example, a person who is not particularly poor in income, but who has to spend much of that income on kidney dialysis, can be taken to be suffering from poverty precisely because of the limited freedom that he or she has to achieve valuable ways of functioning. The need to take note of variations in converting incomes and primary goods into capabilities and freedoms is quite central to studies of living standards in general and of poverty in particular.

These variations need not always be reflections of immutable personal characteristics, and are sometimes related to social conditions that can be influenced by public policy. In particular, the state of public health and epidemiological environment can deeply affect the relation between personal income, on the one hand, and the freedom to enjoy good health and long life, on the other. Some of the richest countries fail badly in making these public provisions. For example, the social arrangements for public health in the United States are more deficient than those of many other countries that are much poorer, and this deficiency especially affects particular groups, such as blacks. The United States may be the second richest country in the world in per capita gross national product, but the average life expectancy at birth of the US population is lower than that of a dozen other countries, with the US tying for the thirteenth position with half a dozen other nations (see Table 1 of the World Development Report 1989 of the World Bank).

The disparities within that average are also quite remarkable. For example, in the age group of thirty-five to fifty-four, blacks have 2.3 times the mortality rate of whites, and only about half the excess mortality of blacks can be explained by income differences.8 Men have less chance of reaching the age of forty or beyond in the black neighborhood of Harlem in New York, than they have in famished Bangladesh.9 This is so despite the fact that as far as per capita income is concerned, the Harlem residents are much richer than the Bangladeshis.

If individual freedom (including the positive freedom to live without premature mortality) is accepted to be a social commitment, then much more attention has to be paid to the delivery of health care and education in the United States. There are remarkable divergences between income levels and health performances among the different countries in the world, and the variations are often related to social arrangements concerning the provision of health care, elementary education, and sometimes food. The experiences of such diverse countries as China, Costa Rica, Jamaica, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and of the state of Kerala in India, show clearly how far-reaching may be the effects of planning for public health and a variety of public policies in improving the capability of the people to live a long time, despite their low incomes. It is also instructive to see that the move toward a market system in the Chinese rural economy since the reforms of 1979 has, on the one hand, brought about a major increase in agricultural productivity, but on the other, led to a decline of the extensive system of public health care. Just when food and agricultural output per head jumped up in the early Eighties, the mortality rates in China stopped their rapid decline compared with the prereform period.

The limitations of the market mechanism in distributing health care and education have, in fact, been discussed in economic theory for a long time (e.g., by Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow).10 But it is easy to lose sight of these problems in the current euphoria over the market mechanism. The market can indeed be a great ally of individual freedom in many fields, but the freedom to live long without succumbing to preventable morbidity and mortality calls for a broader class of social instruments.

Social Choice and Freedom

A freedom-centered view of social commitment can lead to conflict with other principles of social decision, though it will be compatible with some. The compatibility and discord between different principles of social decision can raise intricate problems, and have been extensively addressed, in very general terms, by the modern discipline of social choice theory. That discipline has had a long history, going back to the writings of eighteenth-century French mathematicians such as Borda and Condorcet, but its modern revival is due largely to the pioneering contributions of Kenneth Arrow.11 While Arrow himself has been primarily concerned with establishing the incompatibility of some commonly advocated general principles of social choice, the methods of analyses he pioneered can be used positively as well as negatively, to examine whether a particular set of diverse principles can or cannot be consistently combined together to arrive at coherent social choices. My own attempts in this field have been concerned both with sources and implications of incompatibility and with exploring settlements.12

It turns out that many of the conflicts between different principles of social decision arise ultimately from divergences in what may be called the “informational bases” of the respective principles.13 Each principle of social choice implicitly selects some facts as intrinsically relevant and others as irrelevant or only derivatively important. For example, the apparently noncontroversial “Pareto principle,” much used in economics, is concerned exclusively with utility information (e.g., pleasure, desire fulfillment); it claims that a social change that would raise everyone’s utility must be, of necessity, right. Not surprisingly, in particular circumstances, the Pareto principle can conflict with even very minimal requirements of respect for personal liberty, since the Pareto principle attaches no intrinsic importance to personal liberty at all (it grants to liberty only the influence that it gets indirectly and derivatively from its contingent association with utility).

The compatibility of principles often turns on the extent to which different classes of information can be combined together in making social decisions. This is exactly where the literature of social choice is connected to the subject of this paper. Utilitarianism relies exclusively on information about individual pleasures, desires, and such. If the argument (presented earlier) for replacing the concentration on utility by that on individual freedoms is accepted, then comparisons of the freedoms that different people enjoy would have to provide the informational basis of aggregation for social choice. Giving priority to individual freedom will frequently conflict with other principles of social choice with different informational bases, e.g., utilitarianism, or wealth maximization, or the pursuit of economic opulence. Given the exclusive concentration of libertarianism—as it is usually defined—on negative freedoms only, a social commitment to individual freedom (encompassing both positive and negative freedoms) will conflict with libertarianism as well. Similarly, it will conflict also with the exclusive pursuit of positive freedoms with no concern for negative liberties. These conflicts should come as no surprise, since the case for giving priority to individual freedom, broadly characterized, is based on rejecting the claims of exclusive concern with utility, wealth, liberty, or positive freedom, even though these variables do receive attention, inter alia, within the general pursuit of freedom.

Even within the overall perspective of social commitment to individual freedom, there can, of course, be distinct views of the relative weights to be attached to different aspects of freedom, e.g., negative and positive freedoms respectively. An acceptance of that general perspective must not be seen as closing the door to differences of views on the relative weights. The same informational base of individual freedoms (broadly defined) can be used with varying emphases on different components. Despite its firm rejection of utilitarianism, libertarianism, wealth maximization, etc., the general approach of social commitment to individual freedom is compatible with considerable heterogeneity in ascribing different weights to different elements.

Social Commitment and Inequality

In this essay I have explored the nature and implications of an approach to social ethics that focuses on individual freedom as a social commitment. The approach raises interpretational issues, e.g., whether a “negative” or a “positive” conception of freedom should be adopted (I have argued for the necessity of using both and for seeing them as deeply interrelated and intertwined). There are also questions of justification, involving comparisons, particularly with utilitarianism and the Rawlsian theory of justice (I have tried to point to the advantages of an explicitly freedom-centered view).

Since individual freedom is not only a central social value, but also an undetachable social product, these explorations have some direct and indirect implications for the choice of social institutions and of public policy, some of which I have tried to discuss. It must, however, be emphasized that the general approach of seeing individual freedom as a social commitment does not eliminate the necessity of facing problems of conflicts between groups and between individuals. As Ralf Dahrendorf has argued, we cannot even assess the future of social and political freedom without taking adequate note of the pervasive conflicts in modern society.14

Distributive principles are obviously relevant for freedom-based approaches, and the conflict between the respective concerns of efficiency and equity have to be faced in this field as in others. Further, even when some distributive principles come to be accepted for making social decisions, that acceptance must not be seen as the removal of interpersonal or intergroup conflicts. Distributive principles deal with conflicts, rather than eliminating them. For example, if a principle of social justice gives priority to enhancing the freedom of the worst-off group, then that is a way of responding to the conflict, not a design for eradicating it. A major task of social arrangements is to recognize the conflicts of interest, and then, to seek a fair response to them, yielding more just distributions of individual freedoms.

However, if conflicts of interest are very sharp and extensive, the practical feasibility and actual emergence of just social arrangements may pose deep problems. There are reasons for skepticism here, but the extent and force of that skepticism must depend on the view we take of human beings as social persons. If individuals do, in fact, incessantly and uncompromisingly advance only their narrow self-interests, then the pursuit of justice will be hampered at every step by the opposition of everyone who has something to lose from any proposed change. If, on the other hand, individuals as social persons have broader values and objectives, including sympathy for others and commitment to ethical norms, then the promotion of social justice need not face unremitting opposition at every move.

In many economic and social theories today, human beings are seen as strict maximizers of a narrowly defined self-interest, and given that relentless compulsion, pessimism about social rearrangements to reduce inequality will indeed be justified. But not only is that “model” of human beings depressing and dreary, there is very little evidence that it is a good representation of reality. People are influenced not only by the perception of their own interests, but also, as Albert Hirschman puts it, by their passions.15 Indeed, among the things that seem to move people, whether in Prague or Paris or Warsaw or Beijing or Little Rock or Johannesburg, are concern for others and regard for ideas.

The effectiveness of the press and news media as vehicles of political responsiveness and of economic security, on which I commented earlier, would have been incomprehensible if people really did confine themselves only to promoting their narrow self-interests. In contrast, if the news of famines, published in newspapers, gets the public outraged and puts the government under pressure, then that is precisely because people take an interest in what is happening to others.

Reports of discrimination, torture, misery, or destitution help to marshal forces against these occurrences by broadening the opposition from the victims themselves to the general public. This is possible only because people have the ability and inclination to respond to the predicament of others. This does not, of course, imply that it would be very easy to change existing inequalities in freedom to something less unequal and unjust. But it does suggest that the feasibility and emergence of more equitable distributions of individual freedoms need not be decisively threatened simply by the existence of conflicts of interest.

The more immediate issue is the need to reassess problems of social efficiency and equity by focusing on individual freedoms. The present paper has been largely devoted to that—more elementary—question.

This Issue

June 14, 1990