Three Ways of Looking at Individualism: Freedom in Responsibility

Defending the supreme importance of individual freedom is not about endorsing license – it’s not about doing whatever you want like a self-centered immature kid. Although sometimes accused of such, individualists need not be libertines who only do whatever they feel like and don’t care if their actions harm others. A commitment to individual freedom is not a commitment to “anything goes” or “metaphysical madness”. Values may be objective or subjective – philosophers have debated this for centuries – but even the best “subjectivist” accounts of values defend informed preferences. Our reasons for action are ultimately up to us, but they require a measure of intelligibility and coherence in order for a freely lived life to be judged, even by that very person, as good for her. And it’s worth noting that some of our strongest preferences are not only about others but for them - we truly want those we care for to thrive.
The sort of individuality I have in mind is defended by J.S. Mill in chapters 2 and 3 of On Liberty, particularly with regard to freedom of thought, expression, and action. Freedom of thought and expression allows us to explore ideas and arguments, bring them into discussion with others, and learn accordingly better and worse approaches to attaining knowledge, or at least justified beliefs. Freedom of action parallels matters in the practical realm. We can learn from ourselves and each other what are better and worse values and choices. Regardless, Mill is not endorsing doing whatever one wants but rather the freedom to do whatever one wants. In this way, we can learn not only from successful arguments and ways of life, but perhaps just as importantly, we can learn from the failed ones. All of this, however, requires facing up to one’s errors without defensiveness or self-pity. Far from being opposed to it, personal responsibility is the concomitant of any individual freedom recognizably worth having. Many things have to be earned for us to enjoy their full worth. 

Someone who spends all their time counting blades of grass is likely not leading a good life – by their own standards and values – unless they can give us (more importantly themselves) a sincere and intelligible account of why such an activity is in fact preferable to all other available activities. Maybe they have such an account, but it sure seems like they’re wasting chances at greater fulfillment. This is not to say we should stop them if in fact they are choosing to waste their lives counting grass blades. Their irresponsibility is…their responsibility, not ours. 

On the other hand, if there are objectively valuable matters independent of our preferences, these sources provide only a necessary not sufficient condition for a good life on the individualist view. These objective goods can’t be realized as good unless an agent identifies with them; they’re freely pursued by him and integrated with his purposes. Freedom of conscience is sacrosanct, but we also need freedom to act on what our conscience dictates. What good would religious freedom be if you had the right to believe whatever you want but couldn’t live by your beliefs? The same is true of non-religious beliefs and actions. The real value of these items must include our standing in a certain relation to them, as objects to our agency, which is why freedom of action is just as basic as freedom of thought. A corollary is that responsibility for our actions also requires responsibility for evaluating, when needed, the reasons motivating those actions.

These freedoms are not mere permissions but claims that we have on others and the mutual responsibility to honor those they have on us. Without such moral claims, we’d be left with a chaotic free-for-all like Hobbes’s state of war. On the other hand, we must have the responsibility to acknowledge that claim-rights can’t be so wide in scope that they paralyze each other. I can’t have a right to date you, or not be offended by you, since such “rights” can’t co-exist. As Hillel Steiner observes, rights like these are not “compossible”. Imagine Bob had the right to demand that Jen go on a date with him – this would violate Jen’s right to associate with whom she pleases. At least one of these can’t be an actual right. Imagine Jen had the right to stop Bob from doing or saying any things that offend her. If she opposes homosexuality and demands that he not have same-sex relationships, this would violate Bob’s right to associate romantically with certain consenting adults. Again, at least one of these can’t be an actual right. 

The value of individual freedom is much richer when accompanied by personal responsibility. Even better, we can have as many running experiments as there are individuals.