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April 6, 2017 / Congau

Freedom and Responsibility

Freedom and responsibility seem to be contradictory terms. To be free is to be able to do whatever you want and a responsibility is a restricting duty. The only way to harmonize these two opposing notions is to suppose that we actually want to carry out our responsibilities and for that to be the case they have to originate from us.

So where do our responsibilities come from? We didn’t choose to be born and we never volunteered to be a part of society, so how can a free person be burdened with responsibilities from the very beginning? It is only possible if we presume that they are somehow acquired by us.

We can take a responsibility, it can be given us if we accept it, but it cannot be forced upon us against our will. In a prison no one actually has a responsibility. Only when we voluntarily enter into a relationship with other people can anything rightfully be expected of us.

But unfortunately it is not quite as simple as that, for it is not always clear what it means for something to be voluntary. Active consent may not be a prerequisite in cases where the individuals are not able to see the full consequences of their choice. The child can be forced to go to school because it is assumed that it would have chosen to do so if the situation had been fully understood. Grown-ups may also find themselves in a similar situation although no one can have an a priori right to make decisions for them.

A prisoner, who insists on staying in jail, can be forced to be free, for no one can possibly want not to do as they want. This may be controversial, but such a concept is necessary if we are to accept that responsibilities can be imposed on us without explicit consent. We would have agreed to take a certain responsibility if we had understood that it was a necessary consequence of a desired situation. When that is not the case, freedom and responsibility remain contradictory.

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