What is the relationship between freedom, rights and duties?
Freedom is a nebulous, abstract concept It admits of different and conflicting interpretations. The concept is nevertheless the very essence of human existence; for the exercise of an individual’s freedom may result in the subjugation of another. Freedom or the exercise of it can degenerate into licence or tyranny.
Freedom, according to some, is the absence of social control. Thoreu, for instance, believes that the best government is the least government’. He nevertheless admits the necessity of some government. There are, however, others who denounce all forms of social control; they may be described as anarchists. According to them `freedom’ is unlimited. They little realise that anarchic freedom will lead to chaos and that the law of the survival of the fittest will prevail. This will result in a primitive situation where the strong are free and the weak are enslaved.
There are, on the other hand, many who view unlimited individual freedom with suspicion. They believe that any deviation from the restrictions imposed on the individual will shake the foundations of a stable society. But they little realise the fact that lack of individual freedom will take away all initiative from the individual resulting in the society remaining static instead of being dynamic.
Neither anarchic freedom nor total denial of freedom is good to society; the first leads to chaos and disorder; the second results in a static society which will ultimately collapse under the deadweight of its own rigidity. In either case it is evident that freedom is a social concept; even though it is the individual that exercises freedom or that is denied freedom, the consequences are inevitably social in nature.
C.E.M. Joad compares man’s situation to that of a pack of porcupines huddling together with a felt wrapping around each one of them so that their quills will not hurt one another. That is to say, freedom is to be exercised by individuals within the limits of the law; the law brings into effect social control. Lack of social control and unlimited exercise of freedom result in the actions of one proving uncomfortable for another. On the other hand, if there is too much of social control, individual freedom is denied, and there is stagnation all around. Individual freedom, therefore, has to be exercised in such a way that the rights of others are not trampled upon.
Man requires a high degree of integrity and social consciousness for the proper and legitimate exercise of his freedom. In The Fear of Freedom Erich Fromm argues that a low level of social consciousness makes man misuse his freedom by either oppressing his fellowmen or by running away from the exercise of freedom.
Proper and prudent exercise of freedom by an individual means taking into account the duties he has towards his fellowmen. Every individual has his rights as a citizen. These rights include freedom of thought and speech, freedom of movement, freedom to pursue a profession of one’s choice, etc. But these rights and privileges are controlled by the law in the larger interests of the harmonious functioning of society. In other words, when an individual exercises his freedom as a right, he has a duty to follow scrupulously the laws of his land. You have the right to pursue a profession of your choice, but this does not mean that you can carry on smuggling or drug-trafficking which are banned by law. You have the freedom of movement; this does not mean that you have the right to drive a car without a driving licence or have the right to violate the rules of the road. Your freedom, in other words, is limited; the rights that you enjoy as a free citizen are curbed by the duties that you owe to society as a whole. Your freedom to exercise your rights is limited by your duties towards your fellowmen.
Freedom is the liberty to engage in activities which do not harm the social organisation. But there is no unlimited freedom; for freedom can be exercised only within limits. Freedom is the exercise of one’s rights, but the exercise of one’s rights should not impinge on the rights of others. It is the duty of everyone to be mindful of the freedom and rights of others. There is thus an intimate connection between one’s freedom to exercise one’s rights and one’s duties.