If freedom is to have real meaning as a concept, it can have no concrete definition.
On September 15, 1981, Barry Goldwater, senior senator from Arizona, took to the Senate floor and denounced the rise of the religious right. Among his complaints with the rise of single-issue social groups, particularly those devoted to religious restoration, was their tendency to move political discourse away from serious issues appropriate to federal attention because they implicitly concerned all citizens, such as national security and economic policies. But more than that, Goldwater was even more concerned with the implications their appropriation of moral arbitration had for personal freedom.
Goldwater — perhaps the quintessential figurehead for hardline ideology in American politics — voiced his consternation in terms of the chilling effects the with-us-or-against-us rhetoric such groups tend to take has on freedom of association:
“Our political process involves a constant give and take, a continuous series of trade-offs. From this system of compromise, we get legislation that reflects input from many sectors of our society and dresses many needs and interests. Obviously, not everyone can be pleased, but at least all sides are considered…The religious factors that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their positions 100 percent.”
Social groups — and not only those which are overtly religious — often fall prey to the temptation to enforce the values their members abide by on the population at large. This stems, in part, from a very natural tendency to perceive one’s judgment as infallible. By itself, there is nothing inherently wrong about this belief. Why adopt a position if, following a rational exploration of competing ideas and sets of values, one does not think it most closely represents truth in the absolute sense?
However, the fatal hubris of social groups, as Goldwater notes, is their tendency to supplant the judgment of others: to imbue their certainty of mind with uniqueness of vision and acuity. They alone become arbiters of truth and fairness, for they, to their mind, alone possess the perspicacity to solve the woes of the world, a fact which gives them power to take up the mantle of downtrodden and misrepresented masses and to impose beneficently their conception of justice upon the well-intentioned but ignorant and more malevolently on those in power who hold a different moral vision.
Take, for instance, moral crusades justified by the need to protect standards of decency, upon which the foundation of good communities are built. Everything from gambling to drinking to crude language and titillating imagery is banned because of its perverse and corrupting influence, particularly to the vulnerable — those too young, poor or uneducated to know better and realize the sweeping implications of their actions for the state of society.
Such thinking, however, perverts the rationale on which it is based. Freedom of association exists for prominent members of social groups, who claim discrimination whenever they are opposed, but do not afford those who balk at the imposition of standards that negate their own freedom to engage their own reason and make their own moral judgments and pursue actions and associations in keeping with those judgments. Rather, the idea that individual actions have bearing on the greater social whole serve as sufficient justification for the exertion of control. Freedom, then, is not an expansive term, to be defined by each individual in accordance with their own reason, but is winnowed away, so that it has only one legitimate definition.
Paradoxically, the freedoms upon which such groups depend — freedom of conscience, freedom of association, freedom of expression — become the root of actions that violate the sovereignty of others. The mantle of freedom in which they wrap themselves becomes a garrote around the throat of opposition, whose dissidence is painted as an existential threat. Disagreement on principle becomes, not the necessary byproduct of a vibrant and pluralistic society, but an existential threat one group levies against another. The rationality on which certainty of mind becomes distorted; freedom to speak and to act is confused with a right of influence over society at large.
But it is the individual mind that conceives of right and wrong, and the individual mind alone that can be certain of the soundness of its judgment. This is not a process done once, but incessantly, as new information affects certainty. It is not principles that change, but the way in which they are made manifest. Life is an absolute, but the entropy of the natural world also makes it relative. The way in which absolute principles are best applied, then, is a function of the choices available to a person and to the requirements of a desired end. Just as the polarity of a compass can be altered by exposure to certain elements, correct conclusions mean nothing unless context is considered.
As life is individual, collective judgments are unfailingly invalid. Actions undertaken in order to preserve “standards of decency” work on the operative assumption that those who do not openly oppose them implicitly agree with their judgments about decency. Consent, whether expressly or implicitly given, however, is irrelevant, because open opposition puts one outside the bounds of decency and therefore justifies that individual’s destruction, never mind if, as Goldwater notes, that person is in a position where they must simultaneously represent competing opinions.
Collectivism also demands a static uniformity that cannot lead to effective government of communities. For actions to be corruptive of communal standards, some apex must have been attained and, presumably, manifested itself in exactly the same manner in the lives of all who live in the community. Crusades which attempt to stop the degradation of morals assume this apex ought to continue, unchanging, in perpetuity, even as life and its amenities continue to evolve. Standards of decency, however, demands that such considerations be ignored and one code of conduct be strictly enforced.
Freedom — true freedom — has no concrete definition. For it is, to purloin a phrase of Plato’s, that which each man makes it. Corruption cannot be defined in any communal term, but in relation simply to any action undertaken by one man which voids the rights of another, particularly those where one individual’s actions supersede the judgment of another.