The Individual, The Community and The Concept of Liberty

The concept of liberty may appear to be uncomplicated in the beginning as others may simply view the same as the absence of restriction or the ability to do things as one may please. It is worth noting, however, that the depth of such a concept surfaces when one tries to factor in the individual and his desires together with the society and the norms observed in that society in the evaluation of liberty as a concept. For a better understanding of how individual liberty relates to the society, the works of John Stuart Mills and Georg Wilhelm FriedrichHegel prove to be instructive.

John Stuart Mills views freedom as the absence of restriction upon the exercise of rights of every individual belonging to the community. It is his view that man is free when there exists no interference in his actions. Mills considers the harm principle as the only plausible restriction to an individuals liberty. The said principle holds the individual free to act as he pleases for as long as in doing any such act, he does not cause harm to others in the community. Those acts which are not supported by justifiable reasons and cause harm to other people deserve and ought to be restricted (Mills, 1869) as adversely affecting others is one such acceptable restriction in ones exercise of freedom. In this regard, absent any negative or harmful effect of an individuals action on the community or society, the government has no right to interfere with such persons acts. Thus, even if the act of the person is considered as harmful to himself, for as long as no other member of the community is adversely affected, state intervention, for Mills, is not justified.

Georg Wilhelm FriedrichHegel, on the other hand, takes a different view on an individuals liberty. For Hegel, liberty or freedom is best exemplified when man is able to have a hold over or to control life and this can be achieved, not in isolation, but through effective involvement and participation in the society. Hegel considers as inseparable the individual and the community in which he belongs, and thus, an act on the part of the individual necessarily influences the society. Thus, it is Hegels view that in the exercise of liberty, society is not only an element to be considered, but is a vital part of every individuals exercise of his freedom as an individual is inseparable from the community in which he belongs.

Bearing in mind Mills perception on liberty, it appears that for him, the individual is accountable solely to himself in his exercise of his freedom if his actions affect no one else but him. But as a member of a society who receives protection and support from the community, an individual is expected to comply with a certain form of conduct. As explained by John Stuart Mills,
This conduct consists first, in not injuring the rights of one another or rather certain interests, which, either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights and secondly, in each persons bearing his share of the labours and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation (Mills, 1869).

Mills opinion finds application in both actions and omissions of individuals. In view of this, an individuals failure to act or proceed is considered as a ground for government intervention if such failure results to harm to others in the society. In this light, the individual becomes accountable to the society if in the exercise or non-exercise of his freedom, a resulting harm is produced or brought upon the society or any other member of the community. It thus becomes an individuals obligation to desist from any such acts that may be considered as harmful to others.

This is different from Hegels view which holds the individual accountable to society for his actions. As mentioned, the identity of society is inseparable from the individuals identity, and hence, the act of man necessarily affects his community. In explaining the interconnection, he said in one interview that all such phenomena can be comprehended only in the perspective of their role in a living universe. And then finally, the philosophy of spirit, which shows how the workings of our individual minds and our social institutions also follow the same development of conceptual forms. As I said, you cant really understand any facet of human experience without understanding the others, as well (Solomon, 1981).

In this regard, the state has the right to intervene even if the only person affected or harmed by an act is the actor himself. From Hegels concept of liberty springs the idea that the state has the right to regulate or restrict an act harmful to the individual as the same adversely affects his society in that the individual becomes less useful to his community. In view of the same, for Hegel, an individual, in his performance of actions, is accountable to his society as the smallest action that would originate from an individual will ultimately reflect on the society in which he belongs. Thus, in his actions, the individual must always take into consideration the community and the other individuals belonging in the same community.

Following the view of Mills, it would appear that an individual does not have much participation in shaping the history of his society. Whilst there exists a duty to strive for the betterment of himself and his society, he is not considered as an influential factor in the community. In fact, it is the view of Mills that when a person acts in accordance with the customs of society, he is not at liberty nor is he, in actuality, making a choice, but rather, he is simply doing what others are doing (Mills, 1869). As such, nothing distinguished is contributed. For Mills, what is natural is for a person to follow or pursue that which makes leads him to happiness. Acts brought about by personal desires and strong feelings are those which are real and natural as compared to acts called for by customs and norms.
A person whose desires and impulses are his ownare the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own cultureis said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character (Mills, 1869).

The same is an affirmation of the view that the individual, whilst belonging in a community, is a distinct element which exists, decides and acts independently of the society.

Hegels view, on the other hand, is that since an individual is one vital element of society, he contributes in shaping or developing his society. In this regard, it is advanced that progress in thinking of man likewise translates to progression of the community in which he belongs by contributing as to what are considered acceptable norms in the society. To Hegel, what is natural is not what is desirable to the individual, but rather what is acceptable to the society. Based on his notion that the individual is necessarily linked to his society, then what is considered as acceptable is the totality or end result of the constant interaction between the individual and the society. This is what Hegel means in his discussion of dialectic or development which further bolsters the idea of the natural interconnection between the individual and his society. In his point of view, the connection between man and his society is tainted, not only with cooperation, but even with conflicts. It is advanced, however, that the same contributes to the progress of society as development oftentimes has for its basis even conflict and opposition (Solomon,1981). What occurs in one period of time is effectively authored by the individuals of that time. In his interview, he explained this by saying that
Well, our world is the old one we have exhausted ourselves in wars and encrusted ourselves in seemingly indestructible fossils which we call our culture. You and your world, the new one, you have another chance (Solomon, 1981).

Thus, for Hegel, the individual is necessarily a part of the history of the community as the series of events that take place in the community are regarded to as products of the interaction between man and the state during the relevant period of time. As can be gleaned from his words during the interview, Hegel remains hopeful that history may speak of beautiful and grandiose things if individuals of that time would yearn for and contribute such beautiful and grandiose things for the society.

In summary, it is worth noting that Mills position on the concept of liberty is conceived as negative as it focuses more on restricting intrusion and intervention of the state into the acts and affairs of the individual. For Mills, natural acts of individuals are those triggered, not by what is dictated by society, but those springing from their personal desires and wants. It is freedom to be able to act in accordance to ones personal desires. He points out, however, that in mans exercise of his freedom, he must take caution in order not to cause peril to other individuals in the society, as state interference is considered justified when one act adversely affects the community. The foregoing view is contrary to Hegels position on individual liberty which considers cultural identity and individual identity as closely related and inseparable. This being the case, every act of individuals in the society would necessarily affect the community in which they belong. In this regard, there must be constant communication interaction between the individual and the state.


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