Individual Freedom or Society’s Common Good?

Although we have had third parties in America, we typically have two major political parties, representing opposing sides, usually the conservative and liberal side to issues.  As a general rule, we could say that today’s Republicans champion individual liberty and the Democrats protect society from greedy capitalists whose selfish ambitions take priority over what is best for our country.

Even though this is a contemporary political debate, the origin of this dichotomy dates back to Plato who, hating Athenian democracy, destroyed the individual to create a perfect state.  On the other hand, many early Greek philosophers were Sophists like Gorgias, Hippias, Protagoras, and Prodicus, who looked inward for answers rather than out upon the materialistic world.  Many of these early philosophers believed that individuals were more important than man-made governments and laws.

So since these issues have been around for about two-and-a-half thousand years, surely one side has proven itself through experience and usage.  But that is not the case.  And you might think that Americans clearly land on the side of individual freedom over social restraints, but that is not true either.  In fact, Americans talk out of both sides of their mouths.  They indicate that they believe in a free market and the importance of individual rights, but they also want to promote the welfare of society as a whole.

It seems this dichotomy is more complex when you actually attempt to apply it to a society.  For example when Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans in 2005, there were some businessmen who overcharged for products and services since the residents had nowhere else to go.  Was this a case of a willing buyer paying a fair price based on the market or was it a buyer under duress who was being fleeced by a greedy seller?  In other words, should the seller be able to charge whatever the market bears or should there be a law that prevents a seller from taking advantage of somebody in distress?

Quite frankly, it would be a mistake to argue that the rights of an individual are more important than the rights of society or vice versa.  A more pragmatic approach utilizes both doctrines as needed based on the circumstances at hand.  Such a blended government will permit the flexibility to adapt to the needs of society.  For example after Katrina, the government was needed to respond quickly and efficiently to the needs of the people in New Orleans.  Allowing businesses to take advantage of people in dire conditions would have gone against the grain of our notions of right and wrong.  But after getting past the emergency conditions, then the free market would return.

So which is better:  individual freedom or society’s common good?  My answer is:  it depends.  But don’t eliminate either one of them from your box of political tools.  

Moderation in All We Do

Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) taught the Middle Way[1] about the same time that Confucius spoke of the “Balanced Order”[2] over 100 years before Aristotle started discussing a “Golden Mean.”[3]  Even though, the philosophers of East Asia and of the western world were separated by time, distance, and cultures, there were interesting similarities that seemed to meet in the middle.

Buddah and eastern religions had a somewhat different perspective, examining the world externally as if everything were connected, more circular.  Buddah said, “Nirvana remains incomprehensible in the vulgar whose minds are beclouded with worldly interests.”[4]  Buddha worked hard to find the middle path between the extremes of sensual indulgence and dangerous denial of his physical needs.[5]  Confucius instructed, “To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short.”[6]  But the eastern philosophers saw this moderate path as a connecting force in a circular pattern.

Buddha hoped that man could find a right view or perspective so that he could take the right action.[7]  Again, Buddha was trying to do the right thing.  Moral conduct was a prerequisite for nirvana.[8]  And the moderate approach was the preferred way for both Buddha and Confucius.

Ethics derived from the Greek word for customs.  Plato wrote in the Republic that ethics is nothing more than manners or conventions.[9]  Plato believed that if you knew the Good, you would do it.[10]  He believed that people would lead a moral life whether or not it made them happy.[11]  Plato also held that “excess” violated proportion and made bad ethics.[12]

Aristotle, a student of Plato, believed in morality and virtue following the “golden mean.”  Temperance and moderation was a moral virtue that could be learned.  Virtue must have the quality of aiming at the golden mean.[13]

Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics stated that “… excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue.”[14]  This famous Greek philosopher, born in 384 BC near Athens, Greece, branded ethics with moderation and temperance.[15]  Aristotle shared Plato’s conviction that there was an objectively determinable answer to moral questions.[16]

Mean was defined to be a middle point between extremes.  Aristotle explained that virtue, which he claimed should be an end goal for man, is like the mean since virtue also “aims at what is intermediate.”[17]  The western philosophers saw life as a linear path with the golden center lines in the highway as the moderate guideposts for leading a righteous life.

Aristotle spoke of the power of reason in man to reach a virtue or excellence through “clear judgment, self-control, symmetry of desire…”[18]  Aristotle envisioned a road to excellence, saving many detours and delays:  “it is the middle way, the golden mean.”[19]

Aristotle taught that doing the right thing, “making us better men,” was following the man of prudence.[20]  For example, if there are two extreme behaviors like being aggressive and passive, then the median approach should be selected, which would be being assertive.  Thus, doing the right thing involves assertive, not aggressive behavior.[21] 

Christianity also pursued temperance.  “Let your moderation be known unto all men.”[22]  Christ blessed the peacemakers, who followed a moderate path.[23]  St. Augustine studied the Greeks, but substituted “God” for Plato’s “Good.”[24]  Augustine battled the two extremes of good and evil, saying in the City of God that these two traits of man are coexistent.[25]  In order to be righteous and do the right thing, Augustine recommended following the path of God.  St. Thomas Aquinas bridged the worlds of Athens and Jerusalem by saying that God gave us reason to discern from right and wrong.[26]  In other words, we can do the right thing through both intuitive and logical reasoning.  Even though this involves our conscience, we also have objective tests provided by the Bible available to utilize in conjunction with subjective ethics.

Many philosophers believed that man, making subjective decisions, would not be perfect.  However, there also was an objective basis for ethics.[27]  These objective approaches for determining what was right or wrong could be applied universally.[28]  Thus, the reasonable person test could be applied anywhere. 

Rene Descartes, the father of subjective philosophy, declared, “I think, therefore I am.”[29]  Descartes also could have said, “I feel, therefore I am.”  This would have embraced the full force of subjective reasoning, utilizing both logic and instinct.  Some subjective philosophers, such as David Hume, said, “Just because everyone else does it, does not make it right.”[30]  To which, Aristotle might have responded, “Everyone is not following the golden mean.  Unfortunately, it is only a handful of us.”  Christ also said that the middle path to righteousness was narrow and few would find it.[31] 

Sir Francis Bacon, the father of objective philosophy,[32] believed that customs, religion, and laws “reigned in men’s morals.”[33]  Since people have free will, they will be constantly bombarded with choices.  People can make decisions based on subjective desires, objective demands of society, or a combination of both.  “The subjective rights of conscience could still be countered in public by the claimed objective claims for truth.”[34] 

Moral virtue should have a quality of aiming for the middle between two extremes, between the vices of excess and dearth.[35]  For example, even if you enjoy wine, you probably should avoid drinking ten glasses of wine, but there should be no problem with drinking a glass of wine at a party.  If you like wine, you would be missing the mark if you abstained from all wine.  However, if you were an alcoholic, drinking even one glass of wine might be a bad decision. 

The moderate path, which is determined on a case-by-case basis and may vary because of individual differences, leads to pleasure and righteousness.  You should moderate your behavior based on both self-control and outside pressures, including laws and religions, imposed by society.  Aristotle, leader of western philosophy, primarily emphasized the individual and self-control focused on a straight-and-narrow line.  But the eastern world focused more on the social organism in the cycle of life.[36]  It is interesting when we combine the two primary world philosophies, incorporating the linear western philosophy in daily life, but utilizing the eastern philosophies as a lifetime goal. 

Good decisions are made after weighing all the circumstances.  If you are the designated driver, then you probably should not have any glasses of wine as your duty to the group.  If you are driving home after the party, you probably should limit yourself to one glass of wine early in the evening.  If you are already home, then you may consume several glasses of wine.  But you will know your limitations, and you need to impose them on yourself based on both your self-discipline and on what a reasonable person should or should not do under the same circumstances.   Earlier when we were determining whether or not to bomb a statue of Hussein, we found that utilizing both subjective and objective ethics could be beneficial in the decision-making process.   

Sometimes, it is referred to as “doing the right thing.”  We should constantly improve ourselves so that we make better choices.  We should seek moderation and balance in all that we do.  Society offers laws, religions, customs, mores, and peer & family pressure, but we also have our own sense of balance within our conscience.  We must use all the tools (nature and nurture) to find peace and harmony in the righteousness of ethics.  You have arrived when you follow the moderate path.  You do the right thing when nobody is looking because it is the right thing to do. 

Moderation is included in Homo sapiens genetic makeup.  Otherwise, our species would have gone extinct centuries ago.  Extreme approaches to life would have placed mankind in jeopardy, exposing us to larger and stronger predators.  Man had no hard shell or claws or speed or dagger teeth.  All we had was our ability to reason and a propensity to follow a moderate path.  Both of these qualities saved us from extinction.

We learned temperance from bad experiences that established better habits.  Since a lion ate our friend yesterday who jumped down from a tree without looking around, we learned to survey the area around the tree before climbing down.  We also adopted moderate habits from societal pressures, mores, and laws which imposed consequences.  Thus, our moderate innate and instinctive nature works together with all our experiences, leading to logical reasoning that makes us a better person overall.

So, why do we make bad decisions?  Well, we have free will.  We can do anything that we want, and most people want to satisfy themselves.  Sometimes, we hear people admit, “It’s not about you; it’s about me.”  Extremes occur more often in today’s world because we do not have the leveling effect of large predators outside our doors waiting for us.  In fact, the predators of today’s society are our own species who will take whatever you have if they want it.  And these predators come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are Chief Executive Officers of corporations, some are politicians, some are religious leaders, and some are criminals locked up in jails.  It is difficult maintaining a moderate existence around these people.    

But there is hope.  As long as you are making an effort to follow the moderate path and live a righteous life every minute of every day, then you are making progress and should continue that course.  We hope to do our best. 

Philosophers typically emphasized either subjective or objective ethics.  There were some subjective philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, who believed that individuals should not regret prior acts in their will to power.[37]  But Nietzsche’s philosophy was adopted by Adolph Hitler, and we know where that went.  There were other philosophers who employed subjective and objective simultaneously.  Immanuel Kant argued that objective experiences should be processed by subjective reason. He also argued that using reason without applying it to experience only leads to theoretical illusions.  Kant believed not only in an innate moral sense, but also in a logical morality developed as a code of conduct for group survival.[38]

The most interesting philosopher to me was Soren Kierkegaard, the Father of Existentialism.  Kierkegaard emphasized subjective ethics,[39] but also believed in a God, who was capable of all things, while we were capable of none.[40]  So, according to Kierkegaard, even though he emphasized the individual, needing God and objective ethics would be the highest perfection for man.[41]

Kierkegaard did not accept the objective reasoning found in traditional church doctrine.[42]  Instead, he relied on his “highly personal, subjective, passionate and freely chosen commitment to believe.”[43]  In other words, he didn’t allow the church bureaucracy to dictate his beliefs.  He came to God on his own terms, as an individual face-to-face with eternity and God.[44]  By isolating man from the crowd, this forced self-examination.  Only when man was alone could he face eternity and God.[45]  I consider the individuality of Kierkegaard as being similar to lightening, which when combined with objective ethics, creates the thunder.  Even though they are entirely different, one being light and the other sound, they actually do go together. 

In a trial, the burden of persuasion belongs to the party attempting to convince the trier of fact.[46]  One might argue that our individuality remains intact since we are both the party with the burden of persuasion and the trier of fact.  We, in effect, are trying to convince ourselves that the action being reviewed is a good thing.  There is no reason for us to be distracted by outside forces in this process unless we allow this to happen.  Thus, we subjectively apply the objective burden of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Many philosophers and religious teachers have pointed us in the direction of organizing society in a harmonious way with philosophy, religion, laws, and mores that follow objective ethics.  Whether you call it the Middle Way, the Balanced Order, the Golden Mean, Christianity, or the reasonable person test, they are all focused on providing guidelines for mankind to know the right things to do throughout life.



[1] Deepak Chopra, Buddha – A Story of Enlightenment (New York: Harper One, 2008), 269.

[2] Lou Marinoff, The Middle Way (New York: Sterling, 2007), xii.

[3] Gordon Marino, ed., Ethics – The Essential Writings (New York: Modern Library, 2010), 73.

[4] William Corlett and John Moore, The Buddah Way (Scarsdale, NY: Bradbury Press, 1979), 66.

[5] The Everything Buddhism Book, Arnie Kozak (Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2003), 23.

[6] Marinoff, 105.

[7] Chopra, 268.

[8] Michael D. Coogan, World Religions (New York: Metro Books, 2012), 185.

[9] Marino, xi.

[10] Marino, 5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, ed., The Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973), xxii.

[13] Marino, 73.

[14] Marino, 74.

[15] Renford Bambrough, ed., The Philosophy of Aristotle (New York: Signet Classics, 2011), 312.

[16] Bambrough, xxxii.

[17] Marino, 73.

[18] Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishing Co., 1927), 86.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bambrough, 306, 312.

[21] Lt. Col. Hinds, The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 9, 2011, Guest Column in Opinions.

[22] King James Version The Holy Bible (Nashville, TN: Kedeka Publishers, 1976), Philippians 4:5.

[23] Bible, Matthew 5:9.

[24] Marino, 109.

[25] Marino, 118.

[26] Marino, 121.

[27] Mel Thompson, Understand Ethics (London, UK: Hodder Education, 2010), 47.

[28] Thompson, 49.

[29] Durant, 166.

[30] Thompson, 51.

[31] Bible, Matthew 7:14.

[32] Durant, 166.

[33] Durant, 135.

[34] John A. Coleman, ed., Christian Political Ethics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008), 30.

[35] Marinoff, 117

[36] Marinoff, 119.

[37] Gary Cox, The Existentialist’s Guide to Death, the Universe, and Nothingness (New York: Continuum, 2012), 75-76.

[38] Durant, 313-314.

[39] Cox, 153.

[40] Howard V. Hong, ed., The Essential Kierkegaard (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), 87.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Cox, 152-153.

[43] Cox, 153.

[44] Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing (New York: Harper One, 2008), 15.

[45] Kierkegaard, 16.

[46] Roger C. Park, David P. Leonard, and Steven H. Goldberg, Evidence Law, A Student’s Guide to the Law of Evidence as Applied in American Trials, 2nd Ed. (St. Paul, MN: Thomson West, 2004), 92.