Freedom, Choice, and Consequences
by Robert L. Kocher
Among the long-term consequences of the borderline-psychotic social revolution of the sixties and seventies are many common misconceptions of the nature of freedom, of what constitutes choice, and what freedom does not confer.
Few people today understand what freedom or is, or could define freedom. They believe freedom allows them unlimited right to do what they want to do. However, that is not a definition of freedom, but of unlimited egocentricism, of license, or of unlimited freedom of action. Far from being the basis of a free society, it’s a recipe for tyranny.
The ideal condition of freedom of action would be to have the freedom from responsibility of a child, while having the autonomy and power of an adult—along with infinite financial resources. Until recently, kings, queens and princes lived under that condition. The king could do as he wanted, supported by enforced confiscation of the complete economic resources of the kingdom when it suited him. It was neither good for the royalty or the people. The royalty inevitably degenerated while the people were drained and suffered. The economies of nations were enslaved and destroyed for the building of pyramids, palaces and other royal self-indulgences. Entire continents were at war in the service of various royal temper tantrums. Overthrow of the existing order of monarchy was periodically necessary. This made up much of the content of human history for the last four thousand years.
Members of royalty did not mature because it wasn’t necessary for them to do so. They didn’t need to negotiate with their subjects because their subjects interests were subordinate to those of the king or the prince. They didn’t need to consider reality because they were insulated from reality. The process of giving up childhood egocentricism and of balancing personal impulses against the rights of others is intrinsically unpleasant. Kings and queens are not required to undergo unpleasantness. This discomfort, as it is with all discomfort, will be avoided if possible. In this case the discomfort is necessary to achieve adult maturity. If you are the king or queen, you can make it a rule that other people adapt to your wantonness and undergo the discomfort instead of you.
It may not be a very happy relationship for your subjects, but, as king or queen, you can decree the additional rule that your subjects are required to like it. Besides, there is no place for your subjects to go. If they go down the road to the next kingdom, there’s no assurance that the next king will be an improvement.
While it works for kings and queens, in ordinary day-to-day life this doesn’t work. As a practical matter only one member of any community can have unconditional freedom of action while the other members inherently become relegated to the oppressive role of forced adaptation to those actions while having no rights. Thus, it can be seen that unlimited personal action is not freedom or a free society. Absolute personal freedom of action for any one person inherently means personal subjugation of everyone else.
Freedom means social and economic interactions occur on the basis of mutual agreement between participating parties. This implies strong restrictions upon behavior. In a free society you cannot willingly subject other people to actions to which they reasonably disagree. Actions which subject eventual intrusional consequences upon other members of society or otherwise intrude upon their lives or damage them are not acts of freedom, but acts of imposition or acts of enslavement.
To particularize with an example. there is no such thing as freedom to rape someone. Rape is a crime against freedom. It violates the critical principle of mutual agreement. It is the purposeful subjecting of someone to an act to which he or she seriously and reasonably disagrees. That constitutes a violation of freedom.
One of the first principles of a free society is that members of that society have a responsibility to conduct their lives in such a way as not to impose upon other community members. In addition to being a basic political principle, this was once taught as part of having basic respect for other members of the community. Many of what have become mislabeled as contemporary social problems are in truth social impositions people have imposed upon other members of society by demanding license for themselves.
The indiscriminate having of children while charging the other members of the community with the responsibility of maintaining those children is not an act of freedom. It is a act of unagreed-upon imposition on the lives of other community members. It is a crime against freedom.
Freedom to engage in a variety of actions does not constitute endorsement of those actions. Nor does it obligate society to support those actions. Freedom does not negate the consequences of those actions and does not obligate society to negate the consequences of those actions. Freedom only confers right to a variety of actions within rigid limits. The consequences of an action are characteristic of reality, of cause and effect. Political or social freedom does not change reality, is not expected to change reality, and does not change cause and effect.
What Good Is Freedom?
The question then becomes, “What good is freedom?” The answer is, freedom is often neither good or bad. Freedom is basically neutral. The value of freedom in general or of any particular freedom depends entirely upon how wisely it is used. The value of freedom to any individual is only as good as the judgment that individual exercises. Freedom permits people to make mistakes. Freedom demands the use of judgment in making choices. Freedom used wisely is beneficial. Freedom used unwisely is either useless or destructive. Freedom employed to engage in actions which by their inherent nature produce chaotic or destructive consequences is useless. Freedom to jump out of an airplane and skydive without a parachute isn’t very valuable, unless you find an overwhelming thrill in making a dent in the ground at the cost of your life–in which case be certain to make the first dent come out the exact way you want it because there is an inherent limitation on opportunity to improve your technique through repeated practice.
To particularize the principle, it has become common to become angry and argue, “What good is sexual freedom if we still get herpes or we get AIDS or we get pregnant? By telling me I’m going to get AIDS or cervical cancer or herpes or by not providing abortions, you are restricting our sexual freedom. You have no right to do that.”
That is not a restriction of sexual freedom. These consequences determine how that freedom should be used. Those consequences determine which choices should be wisely made under freedom of choice. The existence of an option does not negate the consequences of that option. Nor does it make that option necessarily wise. Reality is imposing consequences. Those consequences determine whether an option should or should not be exercised. Reality is refuting the fantasy that indiscriminate sex can be had without inconvenient physical or psychological consequences. In fact, there are unpleasant consequences. Sexual freedom ain’t much. That’s why this country is in the terrible condition it is.
Sexual freedom requires realistic honest evaluation of the consequences of sexual behavior. Sexual license doesn’t.
Not everything people are free to do is wise or is to be engaged in. Freedom grants permission to make mistakes with unpleasant consequences. It also means the person making those choices has the responsibility to accept and live those consequences. One of my junior high school teachers used to say, as if making the wrong choice were an egg, “You laid it, you hatch it.” Ross Perot made a similar statement in one of his speeches. A basic rule when he was in kindergarten was, “Everybody clean up their own mess.” In Perot’s view, which has become novel in the last 35 years, adults were also responsible for cleaning up their own messes or responsible for living with the consequences of their behavior. Freedom means freedom for everybody. Freedom does not mean one person has the right to do what he or she wants, then force the responsibility for the consequences and mess upon other people. That is not freedom, but is license and criminality.
One of the conditions of the existence of a free society is that people realize this. A free society requires individual judgment be employed to evaluate risks and avoid unpleasant consequences. This responsibility is implicit in freedom. There has been entirely too much talk about unlimited exercise of unrestricted social or individual activity in the last 30 years and too little emphasis on examination of consequences and subsequent personal responsibility. We have wandered away from a free society and gone into a society tyrannized by license and irresponsibility.
Secondly, in the real world, choice is a decision between several available options. Those options may be immediately mutually exclusive—and usually are mutually exclusive. As a concrete example, you can’t spend $20,000 for a new automobile and continue to have that $20,000 in your bank account. You can do one or the other, but one course of action excludes the other. On the other hand, various options may have temporal complexity in the form of delayed consequences which may be pleasant or unpleasant. As a concrete example, you may buy the new automobile, but then not have enough money in your bank account to pay the rent three months later. In the mature adult world, we focus upon the foreseeability of ultimate delayed consequences, viewing present actions as a choice among those ultimate consequences.
Choices and Trade-offs
In the real world, choice is choice. Choice is a selection among several options and implies that one cannot have them all. If one could have them all and nothing need be given up, then there would be no need to choose. Choice always means giving up something and means undergoing some sort of discomfort.
At the present time, alarming proportions of several generations, acting within the psychology of Feeling, Being, and Now in which people live only for day-to-day existence and amusement, have distorted the concept of choice down to either feeling good or not feeling good at the present moment while denying existence of long term choices and consequences. Under this pathological distortion the admission of whether or not there is choice is no longer determined by the availability of various options and consequences, but by the occurrence of immediate discomfort. If an option means there must be a giving up of something or the experiencing of discomfort, then that option is no longer looked upon as an option or choice and is expunged by process of omission or de-emphasis. Since decision or choice inherently means the discomfort of giving up something, choice is rejected. Many people don’t accept choice. They don’t want choice or decision to be the choice or decision, they want something else to be the choice or decision. The something else which they want to be the choice is remedial action which takes various forms. They then seek to impose the responsibility and cost for that remedial action upon other members of society.
To decrease unpleasant psychological elements and psychological consequences, the remedial action in subjectively reducing psychological realization or discomfort often takes the form of the remedy of escape through denial—denial of there having been any original options and, hence, denial of responsibility for making the original decisions.
Secondarily, there is denial of consequences. Since nothing has supposedly happened, there need be no accountability and no need to take responsibility. A concrete example might be when someone says he is not hooked on drugs, or is doing as well in school as ever in spite of drug use, and therefore it is incorrect to say use of drugs is dangerous–the statement hiding the contradictory pattern of his increasing drug use and the fact that he has manipulated himself into a less demanding curriculum to compensate for decreased capability. The remedy, in the case of denial, is not real in the sense of corrective, but is a cosmetic remedy meant only to reduce subjective realization of a deteriorated life situation and to therefore preclude anxiety over such a realization as well as to escape a sense of guilt or responsibility.
Denial of Consequences
On the specific level, rather than give up indiscriminate sex, or give up hit-and-run relationships, it is denied that there are any unpleasant consequences. Rather than give up the use of “recreational drugs,” it is denied that the use of such drugs is serious or it is denied that there are consequences to such drugs.
The individual and social trend have become one in which someone else is to bear the responsibility and consequences. This is an imposition upon, and a crime against, the freedom of other community members. In all the talk, in all the psychologizing, in all the theorizing of sociological predetermination, this basic fact has been forgotten or successfully avoided.
The realization that an accumulated irresponsibility will overwhelm and destroy society has also been successfully avoided. And that destruction is what is happening.
Two trends worry me concerning the loss of personal freedom in this country. One of these is covered under the legal phrase or concept, assumption of risk. In the legal concept there is the basic idea that when one enters into behavior or actions that have inherent possible or probable risks, you implicitly agree to take responsibility for that decision by not holding other people responsible for mitigating, remedying, or compensating you for undesirable consequences resulting from that choice. Collaterally, there is also the concept of contributory negligence. That is, when a person contributes his own critical component of negligence to a damaging situation, attribution of responsibility, or liability, should not be placed upon other people. These views have been lost from actions in day to day life, and are becoming progressively eroded from law.
Second is the concept of personal space. People in this country have traditionally possessed an area of personal space, or personal lives and personal associations that have been free from outside intrusion, and free from any requirement of having to be explained or justified to other people. In recent years personal space has contracted under the pressures of outsiders demanding that personal activities or associations be useful to, or be reviewed by, them. Our lives, personal associations, and group associations have increasingly become the assumed property of other people and must be justified to other people. Twice in recent years the Boy Scouts have been sued by atheists for having reference to God in the Boy Scout oath. Whether or not the atheists prevailed is not the issue. The danger to a free society is that any court would presume outsiders had any right to exercise review of, or compel, a private voluntary organizations, or that such an organization need meet the interests of others who might hold views antithetical to the purpose of that organization. This thinking is dangerous.
Robert L. Kocher is the author of “The American Mind in Denial,” as well as many other articles. He is an engineer working in the area of solid-state physics, and has done graduate study in clinical psychology. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.