All Commentary
Thursday, April 1, 1965

Self-Discipline: Free Choice: Responsibility


Although strongly independent by nature, my friend thought cer­tain government welfare projects were necessary—because he had never heard of an alternative. As I presented the libertarian view­point, he listened attentively, but very soon caught me up.

“Freedom? Are you sure free­dom is always good?”

“Oh, yes,” I replied innocently.

“Well, some people want free­dom to line their own pockets, to run riot and steal and get rich without working. They want free­dom to do exactly as they please!”

“Wait a minute: I should have said, ‘equal freedom.’ Each man should have equal freedom to run his own life without interference from others.”

“Then you want to give every­body equal freedom to do exactly as he pleases? To steal or attack others?”

“No, I said without interference from others. Every man should have equal freedom to undertake creative activities, so long as he doesn’t interfere with other men’s creative work.”

“Then freedom is not always good for everyone. And you do not really want to grant all men freedom.”

“Not if it means interfering with someone else’s creative ac­tivity. Freedom must be accom­panied by responsibility.”

“Ah,” said my friend, “freedom with responsibility: that is a dif­ferent picture altogether!”

In the years since that conver­sation, I have made the same dis­covery that anyone who is growing in libertarian understanding must eventually make. If we talk only about “freedom for all,” or “equal freedom” or even “freedom to be creative,” we may be misunder­stood.

Socialists want freedom to be creative, too: they want to create an egalitarian society where men work for the “common good,” and each receives according to his need—no more, no less—regardless of the size of his contribution. The Union of Soviet Socialist Repub­lics has been creative in that field for over forty-five years.

What, then, is the essence of human life at its best? What can we be for, in a positive way, that will not be misunderstood? All men have one goal in common, regardless of differences of race, creed, or political philosophy. All men want to be happy, to have a better life. That is the “common good.”

St. Augustine said in 390 A.D., “Error comes about when we fol­low an aim which does not lead us where we wish to go.” The question is, how can we achieve happiness, the “common good,” without falling into error? The best I can do in answer is this: Combine self-discipline and free­dom of choice with responsibility.

Three Aspects of Self-Discipline

Self-discipline is admired in all countries, especially in the USSR. There, each citizen is expected to fulfill his obligations, and to criticize his own shortcomings in public meetings. In all nations the discipline of parading troops is ad­mired. Each soldier makes an ef­fort to keep in perfect step, know­ing he will be called to account if he fails. Here we have two ex­amples of discipline and responsi­bility imposed on the individual by threat of force, rather than his own free will, or conscience, or desire for betterment. His free­dom of choice is narrowly limited: to accept or refuse to comply with another’s will, under threat of punishment. (Note that punish­ment invariably involves a further restriction of free choice.)

Self-discipline means “self-teaching,” or “self-government,” or “self-chastisement.” Self-teaching means not only learning facts and ideas, but also learning from experience. Each must set his own goals (have an incentive), and bear the burden of any error in his choice of goals or in his efforts to achieve them. Self-government means not only controlling one’s temper, but also directing one’s choice of goals and choosing the means to reach them. It includes the will to deprive one­self of a short-run good in order to attain a greater good in the long-run.

Self-chastisement means not on­ly admitting a mistake and back­tracking when one has made an error; but also refusing to follow passions, relationships, or ideas once recognized as erroneous, i.e., as means which will not lead to the desired end. This may be called “punishment” by those who are shortsighted, but chastisement al­so means “correction.” Thus, it is intimately related to learning and governing: learning prepares one to choose wisely; governing is the act of choice; chastisement is correction of wrong choice.

Freedom of choice must there­fore be combined with all three meanings of self-discipline. “Free” means “unrestrained” or “unlim­ited.” “Choice” means “the act of choosing from among available alternatives.” Combining the words, we then define freedom of choice as: “the unrestrained act of choosing from among available alternatives.” When the act of choosing is not restrained by other persons, then the only limitations are those imposed by nature and our own will. However, we must remember that our choices may not necessarily be good from other people’s point of view. Here we come to the concept of responsibility.

Answerable for Our Actions

Responsible means “answer­able.” We all talk to ourselves sometimes, but generally an an­swer is elicited in response to a question from someone else. Man does live in soclety, in company with others. As soon as we choose a course of action and start mov­ing toward it, we find other peo­ple in our path. Some of them may have no business there; others may have a perfect right to ask, “Where do you think you’re go­ing? How are you going to get there?”

Your answer may draw one of several reactions. “Do what you like; it doesn’t interest me.” Or perhaps, “May I come along? I’m going that way myself.” Or: “You’re crazy—you don’t know what you’re talking about!” (Pos­sibly he is right; we had better have a little talk with that one.) But there may be one more stand­ing in the path: “You can’t go this way because I refuse to per­mit it.” (This may be your gov­ernment, but it may also be your wife or your conscience or your banker.)

Family, friends, and government can all take up those various posi­tions: indifference, cooperation, warning, or opposition. Now it may be that the just answer from you should be, “You’re on the wrong track.” (The indifferent one perhaps ought to be interested.) But we cannot ignore them, even if the error be theirs rather than ours. All those who demand an answer must be satisfied, or we shall not be allowed to get on toward our goal unhampered—if at all.

Responsibility is a habit of character that looks far ahead, that tries to foresee what obstacle or opposition—justified or not—may arise, and prepare to meet it with satisfactory answers. A re­sponsible person does not start a vacation in his car without seeing that there is air in the tires, gas in the tank, money in his pocket, and an open road ahead.

Each time we encounter firm opposition the cycle of self-dis­cipline, choice, responsibility be­gins anew. These qualities are needed daily and hourly as long as we live in this world. The greater our self-discipline, the less will our own weakness and igno­rance delay us. The wider area of choice we have, the less serious will be any particular obstacle to our constructive purposes. The more responsible we are, the far­ther-seeing we will learn to be, tracing our route ahead of time to avoid insurmountable barriers.

Let us work continually to de­velop and use these qualities in ourselves. Here is an area where we can get action now, without waiting for the other fellow. Even in the area of choice, we are not exercising our freedom to the full­est unless we always choose the highest good as we see it, instead of moving with the herd. This means fighting our own battles and cheerfully accepting the con­sequences.

Individually, all men seek hap­piness. But how can we achieve the “common good”? It will be re­vealed progressively as one by one we learn to combine self-discipline with freedom of choice and re­sponsibility.

***

Seek The Good

All wish to be happy, but not all are able so to be. Not all wish to live rightly, which is the only state of will that deserves a happy life.

All… seek the good and shun evil, but they follow different aims because they have different opinions about the good. If a man seeks what ought not to be sought, he errs, even though he would not seek it unless he thought it was good…. Therefore, in so far as all men seek a happy life, they are not in error.

St. Augustine, The Problem of Free Choice (Circa 390 A.D.)