MARCH 01, 1977 by RIDGWAY K. FOLEY JR.
Mr. Foley, a partner in Souther, Spaulding, Kinsey, Williamson & Schwabe, practices law in Portland, Oregon.
Commitment refers to devotion to a person, or to a cause, or to an ideal. The concept defines a solemn pledge to adhere to a certain moral choice. Such fidelity demands steadfast faith and belief in the object revered. This essay proposes to explore the concept of commitment.
The sine qua non of commitment is freedom. Commitment without freedom states an absurdity, an impossibility. Man must be at liberty to choose the object of his fidelity. No one can express a solemn pledge for another in matters of deep concern; only the actor, responsible for the consequences of his choice, ought to, and is able to, decide on his destiny.
Freedom represents the absence of human restraints on personal creative action. Choice represents the means of expressing freedom, the manner in which each human actor decides between the myriad alternatives open to him. Commitment represents the intensity with which the object of the free man is sought by the actor.
Consider the suggestion that a slave can manifest commitment to a goal. If one chooses for another, the choice becomes that of the tyrant, not the slave. The tyrant, the social structure, indeed the law of man, may contend that the choice abides in the slave rather than in the master, but such a view fails to accord with reality and amounts to mere whimsy. Even if sanctions are meted out to the slave by those in authority as a consequence of the master’s choice, that does not alter the condition: the choice belongs to the one who chooses. One who does not choose cannot be said to make a decisive moral choice.
Arguably, a slave can attain commitment if his goal coincides with that course of conduct chosen by his master. One questions how often this concatenation of events would occur. However, passing that intriguing inquiry, both rational and empirical evidence demonstrate that the serf will act with less intensity if he lacks the faculty of choice, whether or not he believes that the object corresponds with his aim in the endeavor. And, intensity marks the touchstone of commitment.
Freedom, Slavery, Commitment
To this point, we have utilized the seemingly pejorative words "master" and "slave" to connote parties who choose for another and parties who lose their decision-making power to others. One might take issue with such harsh descriptive words in the absence of analysis. Upon reflection, the terms appear apt. One can define a master as a person who commands, domineers, or subjugates others. A slave refers to a bondsman, a servant, or a fief, one limited and directed by another. To the extent that one person forecloses the choice between alternatives available to another, he dominates the latter and denies him his essential humanity.
Freedom means making your own fetters. A free man circumscribes his actions just as surely as a slave. The difference: the free man chooses his own yoke; the preceptor imposes a harness upon the serf.
Cursory reflection reveals the validity of this set of premises. Each man bears the marks of restraint: wholly unlimited conduct is unthinkable, save for a madman. Nature restricts the physical feats we perform; morality impedes the treatment we accord to others occupying this planet; our sense of value commands the choices we make. The salient question remains, who shall decide what path each man shall follow? Those who seek their own star can be called free and committed to that end; those who are denied choice must be termed slaves. Remember, commitment also refers to consignment to a physical or mental prison as well as adherence to another person or a course. A commitment to freedom may well encompass a consignment to a stricter lash than totalitarianism, for a free man must bear responsibility for his moral decisions.
Two Faces of Commitment
Commitment, like many other serious concepts, evinces a duality: silent devotion to principle and open demonstration of purpose.
The first aspect of commitment, a quiet steadfastness, requires no spectacle of obligation for all the world to see. One may entertain a deep and intense commitment forever unknown to others. Who can measure the depths of another’s commitment? No one, for to do so requires an absolute knowledge of the values embraced by another. True commitment may include that fidelity which is unspoken and unknown to all save the actor, for only he can truly measure what he has surrendered in exchange for his fealty.
Consider the case of Edward VIII of England, the Duke of Windsor. Who among us really knows how committed he was to Mrs. Simpson when he abdicated his throne? Perhaps he decried the royal life. Certainly he attained a long and seemingly happy life with Mrs. Simpson, full of esteem of many people, well-being and good health. How much deeper the comparative commitment of one who gives up life itself, or consigns himself to a short, solitary, distasteful and brutish existence of alienation in quest of an ideal? No one can comprehend the commitment existent throughout history by untold multitudes who followed their polestars in silent allegiance.
The second and converse aspect of commitment devolves to the concept of witness. The object of commitment may induce, nay demand, obeisance or even an open demonstration of conviction. True, those who engage in the greatest display may actually carry the shallowest pail. Nevertheless, true commitment encompasses a demand in addition to fetters, a demand that one live his life in harmony with his chosen purpose. Distinguish between empty posturing, evangelical conversion, open recruitment and proselyting, and solid adherence to principle at all cost, in all times, and in all places. One can effectively witness his commitment without openly seeking converts, without mass demonstrations, without mean rhetoric; he need only understand his values and express his philosophy in the choices he makes. Yet even this manifestation of commitment appears to run counter to the silent, internal aspect first discussed.
What Constitutes a Commitment to Liberty?
Each individual, discrete and unique, must determine the existence, extent, and intensity of his or her commitment to freedom. Like other singular features of life, commitment—especially commitment to freedom—represents the most personal, profound, and individualistic of choices.
Each person must decide if he possesses a commitment to liberty, a belief in the untrammeled right of each person to govern his own life and to make his own choices without interference by other human beings. Once established, the actor must also determine how far and how deep his pledge travels, whether his is the superficial kind of lip service without meaning, or whether his principle has a price or a limit. Judging by actions, few men today offer any commitment to freedom, and fewer still adduce any evidence of a deep, intense, extensive, and abiding conviction. Were this not true, one would not witness all manner of interventions and deviations in modern society.
Recognizing that commitment comprises an inherent internal facet of life, one not necessarily apparent to the objective observer, we may still ask the seminal question, what constitutes a commitment to freedom? Obviously, not every answer will apply with equal force to each unique individual; one must deal in aggregates. Nonetheless, the enterprise still yields some general rules for consideration of the committed.
First and foremost, commitment to freedom compels an unyielding belief in the sanctity of human life and a disparagement of the initiation of force in any endeavor. A faith founded on the value of individual life will impart a belief that each life possesses subjective value to its owner so precious that it ought not be traduced in any particular. A right to life naturally encompasses a right to live that life in all endeavors as the actor sees fit, so long as he refrains from initiation of force or fraud against any other person. Secondarily, a commitment to freedom requires the believer to do more than believe—he or she must act in accordance with that belief and live life in harmony with the principles espoused.
From Principle to Practice
The initial step, while presenting a hurdle of considerable magnitude, does not often waylay the person seeking freedom. One can fairly easily acquire and profess at least a superficial belief in the free life. It is the secondary postulate which poses the most difficulty in achieving true commitment. All too few seem able to correlate action with principle. Thus, civilization perceives the specter of an apparent devotee of freedom clamoring for controls over the personal, social, or economic actions of others. Businessmen seemingly imbued with the sagacity of the voluntary market system hanker after price, wage and rent controls during times of economic ferment. Workingmen interested in individual choice band together to conscript nonunion believers into a coercive union and to petition for minimum wage laws.
One can only suggest the aberrations apparent in such conduct and offer light leading to a different result; to one who does not approve the initiation of force, that principle must remain enduring and equable, even to the extent of a refusal to force man to be free. Indeed, few if any persons possess the ability or right to drag others on the path of liberty. Each of us must find his own way, a way illuminated without compulsion from the varying light from many lamps of other believers inching their respective ways toward the goal of liberty.
Improve yourself: that norm summarizes the essence of the obligation of one committed to freedom. Learn the philosophy of freedom and consistently apply it to all situations arising in life. If all followers would adhere to this principle, the road would be better lighted and less treacherous.