On Personal Liberty; You Always Have a Choice


Every once in a while my view on how society should be organized seeps into my entries on philosophy. This view stems from my objectivist leanings, as well as my libertarian outlook. I say “should be” because society is actually a compendium of different personal philosophies bastardized by the collective brutality of government, societal norms, and those who abuse natural law. Simply put, how things should be as a society are not how they are…at least not exactly. However, that does not mean that I shouldn’t strive for the “ought.” The Stoic maintains his virtue despite its absence all around him.

A cornerstone of our behavior is personal liberty. Each and every one of us has it.  I have the choice in how I handle my own matters. OK, that sounds agreeable, most of us can live with that, but here’s where a lot of us lose some of our faith: the result of my choice is mine to live with. This axiom is all well and good when we make the “right” choice, but it becomes difficult for many to swallow when it is the “wrong” one.

Well, now I feel like Maria in The Sound of Music trying to teach six children how to sing. Let me see if I can make this a little easier (doe, a deer, a female deer…). When it comes to the natural state of how things are, there are three concepts to remember about choosing.

  1. FREEDOM – You always have the freedom to choose
  2. REWARD – You have the right to the fruits of your decisions
  3. FAILURE – You, and you alone, must live with the consequences of your choices

Put simply, this is a wonderful and terrible thing. There are so many opportunities that await you, but there are also many failures you most certainly will experience as well. When you have chosen to put in the blood, sweat and tears in an endeavor, you have the absolute sovereignty over the wealth, joy, and satisfaction it produces.  By the same token, when you end up a miserable failure, NOBODY owes you anything.  You certainly have the right to ask for help, but nobody should be COMPELLED to do so.  You also have the choice to pick yourself up and try again.

Fortunately, on the whole humans naturally want to share their good *”fortune” (see note below) when they have earned it, and we also have a tendency to help others in need. We’d like to think that this is because we are altruistic, but this is just part of our survival behavior. We act as a community, because we survive better when we act that way: I’ll scratch your back, so you can scratch mine.

Back Scratching

Back Scratching

Even though nobody should be COMPELLED to help me when I am in need, somebody WILL most likely help me.  Generally, people want to help others because this is how we are programmed to act.  This is part of a bet each of us instinctively makes that the kindness will be returned. The worst violators of this bet are those who take advantage of this natural tendency…those who take more than they receive. Selfishness is one of those traits most despised by humanity. Of course, being a selfish person is like being a bad driver, nobody thinks they are one (It’s always the other guy). To really see selfishness in myself, I must rationally reflect upon it.

I keep alluding to the fact that this is how things should be. There are two thoughts on this matter that I would like to make sure we understand:

  1. Humans violate how they “should” act all the time. This is why the pursuit of virtue exists (not to mention “the law”). If it were easy, it wouldn’t really be a pursuit, would it? We are all imperfect, but here is some good news: On the whole, humans will rationally choose the virtuous path. They will serve, share, and help where they can. They will practice reciprocity. They will scratch your back in return.  They will even scratch your back first, betting that this might benefit them later.  This is why absolute freedom from coercion would work if we had it (of course, we don’t…try not paying your taxes). My job is to take part in this cooperation in the most generous way possible.
  2. None of us lives in a completely voluntary society, but the concept of choices and their results holds true. Even in a complete tyranny, one where choices are severely restricted by forceful law where imprisonment or death is the eventual sentence, YOU STILL HAVE A CHOICE. Your choice may end up costing you your life, your fortune, or your family, but you ALWAYS have a choice. The philosopher should never forget this.
Photo of NE State Penitentiary...you always have a choice.

Photo of NE State Penitentiary…you always have a choice.

So, we are free to choose, but we must live with our choices good or bad.

*Note from above: “Fortune” is a slippery word, and is only part of the equation. Generally, good things happen when virtuous choices, hard work, and opportunity meet.

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