Individual freedom in a collective context

September 20, 2020

More freedom for the individual ensures more creativity, which Pakistan desperately needs

Dr Afzal Khan, a teacher of philosophy at GCU and a fine scholar with a PhD from Germany, responded to my recent columns on the idea of freedom by asking me to incorporate the idea of individual freedom into my argument. It is an intriguing line of thought that I intend to pursue here.

My argument in this regard is that the individual’s freedom makes sense in the context of society. An individual, despite Western notions of the individual as the centre of social life, is nevertheless not totally independent of the society.

The collective freedom of society determines the extent of the individual’s freedom. Though some philosophers, like Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell, have conceptualised individual freedom, to my reckoning, they have drawn on Aristotelian thought in which Plato’s emphasis on collectivity was called into question.

However, practically that could never be brought to fruition. Even in the 1968 movement that challenged the ideological narratives enshrined in the philosophies of Kant, Hegel and Marx, the ideologues of that movement also called for the individual space to be secured vis-a-vis the ideology embedded in collectivity, whether it is the nation-state or overarching social or ideological norms.

The basic problem remained, as it always has, that when individual freedom gets beyond a certain extent, it leads to anarchy and disorder. Despite an individual having entered the twenty-first century of the Gregorian calendar, it seems that the practical manifestation of individual freedom haunts him/her. The human being still has to be a social animal. It is because as a self-sufficient entity an individual has yet to reach a stage whereby he/she operates on his/her own without banking on the help of others.

Personal freedom, as I understand it, is still predicated on the context of an individual, spatial as well as temporal. It is an instrument of the individual being different from other individuals, which may be his/her siblings. Therefore, the idea of freedom essentially denotes an individual having a right to lead his/her life that is in consonance with his/her own context. That context of the individual’s existence is not appropriated by the socio-political context of the collective.

The context of the collective should have a minimal impact on the context of the individual, and that too should not appropriate but complement the context of the latter. However, human society has yet to reach that level where these two contexts allow each other to exist in tandem without harming each other or mutilating each other’s socio-cultural configuration. This is a utopian objective which may take a lot of effort in time to transpire.

Some commentators on the horrific recent gang rape case have pointed out that the freedom of movement for an individual is a basic human right in a democracy. This is an important observation because it locates the right of the individual in the context of the responsibility of the collective society.

As part of the individual’s social contract with the state, the individual’s right to move freely is protected. A senior police officer and other members of society callously claimed that women should not travel alone at night. This statement was rightly objected to and the officer chastised by most segments of the public because it implies a restriction on the freedom of a woman as an individual to decide when she can travel.

In theory, the collective (society, state) is responsible for allowing the woman as individual to exercise her right to move freely as, when, and how she wants. The freedom of all individuals, within the accepted norms of societal restrictions, feeds the stream of collective freedom. Thus, freedom at the levels of both individual and collective is necessary to allow a creative outflow at both levels.

It is also important to note that individual freedom has not been exercised fully even in Western urban centres like New York, London, Amsterdam, and Berlin. What this means is that the individual in those societies, even though liberated and isolated, is still a part of a collective with responsibilities and limitations.

Even the West, where individualism is one of the fundamental conditions of existence, is not absolutely liberal in granting individual freedom when it clashes with the limits of societal and national boundaries. So, in the context of eastern societies like Pakistan, where there is still no conception of the individual as a singular and isolated entity existing independently, it is a bit too much to ask for absolute and unfettered individual freedom.

The cause of individual freedom in Pakistan has been specially complicated by the ideological structure of the state and society. With religion forming the basis for society and state, they have acquired a hyper-masculine identity and are formed according to the needs of the patriarchy.

In such a society, the only individuals who have any freedom are the hyper-masculine adherents of ritualistic religion who are also hyper-nationalists. Ironically, they draw their individual freedom from the collective power that the hyper-masculine ideological state holds. Outside of this group of individuals, no other individual group is allowed any real freedom.

Women, religious minorities, and transgenders are just three examples of individuals who have no real freedom within the state. Their freedom is always dependent on their association with some members of the dominant group. Hegel’s assertion about eastern societies becomes relevant here. Even though it is a widely criticised statement, Hegel claimed that in eastern societies, only the rulers are free and nobody else has any access to freedom.

In conclusion, it is important to understand that creativity is connected to freedom, but freedom cannot be attained without responsibility. Any freedom that is not aware of the responsibilities that it entail is a hoax. For freedom to be fully exercised by individuals and societies, individuals have to simultaneously acknowledge their obligations to other individuals, i.e. to the collective. More freedom for the individual ensures more creativity, which Pakistan desperately needs.

Individual freedom in a collective context