Commentary: Thoughts on freedom and responsibility

July 6, 2013 

As we've just celebrated our freedom, I thought it might be a good time to discuss the importance of responsibility.

We have all heard the adage, "freedom isn't free." But have you ever stopped to consider why?

As a Humanist, oneof my core values is personal responsibility. Humanists embrace responsibility because we feel it is the best way to attain individual liberty and freedom.

Humanists aren't the only ones to make this connection. Eleanor Roosevelt, in her book "You Learn by Living," said, "When you cometo understand self-discipline you begin to understand the limits of freedom. You grasp the fact that freedom is never absolute, that it must always be contained within the framework of other people's freedom."

We don't exist in a vacuum. We are interdependent. The struggle we all have is to find the right balance between personal autonomy and social obligation.

This is probably why the French, when they wrote their declaration of rights in 1795, included a section on duties. These duties can be summarized thusly: to have a good society that is respectful of your rights you have an obligation to be a good person who respects the rights of others.

You are free to act however you think best, but that freedom isn't absolute. To flourish as individuals, we need a society that respects and supports us. Society is in a constant state of creation.

The quality of our society is a direct reflection of the choices we make as individuals. My actions affect not only myself, but the people around me as well.

And yes, this is a terrifying thought. The quality of our lives is directly tied to the quality of the society in which we live and that requires each of us to do our part.

There is no way to contemplate this without understanding how seriously we should all take our responsibilities. It's no wonder we get upset when one among us breaks the rules and disregards our social contract.

Don't use the existence of bad people as an excuse to not do your part. No society will ever be perfect.

Instead of focusing exclusively on how we can eliminate those who cheat, we should also focus on being worthy of our ideal society.

Make it your responsibility to be the best most ethical person you can be.

The guarantee of freedom gives you the rightto be whoever or what-ever you want to be. The question is: who will you be?

Don't make your choice out of selfishness. Be enlightened instead. Ennoble our society by your very presence and by choosing your words and your deeds wisely.

Jennifer Hancock, a Humanist educator and the author of several books, can be found on the web at and on twitter@jenthehumanist.

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