Limit to freedom: Balancing ideologies and social norms
During a recent scroll through Facebook, I came across a thought-provoking post by a social media influencer discussing her concept of freedom within a specific context. She is a renowned feminist in Dhaka city, where she published a photo of her wedding ceremony in a rebellious avatar on a popular social media site, where she is holding a glass of wine in one hand and smoking a cigarette in the other hand. She was trying to establish that she is not bound to conform to any societal rules and regulations as it's her freedom, her choice. The ensuing comment section was filled with criticism, with many arguing that freedom is not boundless and that its exercise has inherent limitations. Netizens were infuriated with her actions. This encounter compelled me to ponder the essence of freedom, its ideal manifestation, and the boundaries that should accompany it. Let's explore the concept of "limit to freedom" from some eminent philosophers' arguments.
At its core, the concept of freedom was initially examined by philosophers who advocated for liberation from traditional and religious boundaries and championed the principles of liberty. They maintained that freedom should not be absolute and unrestricted rather it must have some intrinsic limitations. For instance, John Locke, an influential Enlightenment thinker, introduced the concepts of "natural rights" and limited government. Locke recognized the need for certain limitations on freedom to maintain public order and prevent harm to others.
Philosopher John Stuart Millcoined the "harm principle," an articulation of the notion that the freedom to self-determination is not unrestricted.So, if any action can be considered harmful toothers, the state has every right to stop it from happening. This concept became a cornerstone of the liberalist philosophy of his time.
Immanuel Kant explored the concept of freedom by distinguishing between noumenal and phenomenal freedom. Noumenal freedom refers to our capacity to act independently of causal determination, while phenomenal freedom recognizes our experience of making choices within the framework of natural causality. To Kant, freedom lies in following moral principles; as he stressed: "Act as you would want all other people to act towards others."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that freedom stems from the collective will of the people. He further said that if the 'general will' governs a society, true freedom can be realized where societal decision-making reflects the shared will and values of that society.
Friedrich Nietzsche talked about freedom in various ways in his writings. His concept of "will power" advocates for self-mastery and the affirmation of one's values rather than conforming to norms and external influences. Despite his support forrejecting societal norms and other constraints, he talked about the need for 'self-discipline' and taking into account the consequences of one's action instead of reckless disregard for others and unrestrained pursuit of personal desires. Rather, he focused on rising above societal pressure or constraints and living an authentic life with limitations and responsibilities.
When examining freedom's political and legal dimensions, we find that societies have devised systems to protect individual liberties while ensuring social order. This principle is reflected in the works of various political theorists and legal thinkers. One such example is Thomas Hobbes, a prominent political theorist. As a social contract theorist, Hobbes argues that individuals must surrender some of their freedom to authority in exchange for protection and prevention of conflicts.
The rapid diffusion of ideas facilitated by the internet and modern communication mechanisms means that these ideologies can be adopted swiftly without the same gradual process of modification experienced in their countries of origin.
Critics of unrestrained freedom argue that it can lead to chaos and a breakdown of social cohesion. The West, often depicted as the origin of many modern ideologies now spreading globally, has developed its principles over time through extensive societal deliberation and evolution. Nonetheless, we must understand that a society is constructed through its unique context, shaped by history, culture, and social norms. The existing fabric of society maysometimes be welcoming to absorb new ideologies and may take some time to develop or change. The complexity of social transformation must be acknowledged. It's not a total dismissal of progress to take time to absorb, but rather an inherent complexity.
The definition of freedom must surpass an endless pursuit of desires. Instead, it should be viewed as an opportunity to thrive within shared boundaries that promote respect and the rights of others. Thus, the limit of freedom lies in understanding broader social implications and the need to balance personal desires with the prevention of social chaos while promoting social harmony and cohesion.
As Bangladesh navigates this continuous influx of ideologies, engaging in thoughtful discussions that consider the societal context and its values is crucial.
The corresponding author is a teacher and researcher. Currently, he is a Lecturer of Sociology at Gono Bishwabidyalay (University), Savar, Dhaka.Farheen Akter Bhuian is a Lecturer of Sociology in the Science and Humanities Department at the Military Institute of Science and Technology, Mirpur-Cantonment, Dhaka.