The Cost(s) of Freedom

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

“Fidelity to choice is the condition for freedom.” This sounds restrictive and confining: sticking with a choice made years ago. Is that reasonable? Is it desirable? Is it possible?

Many of us think otherwise of freedom. We regard it as the power to break free of constraints, to remake the boundaries which we adopted, perhaps years ago, when “things were different”. An example would be the practice of gerrymandering by legislative bodies, such as our Congress, consisting of remaking the geographical political boundaries of a state to better conform the size of a voting unit with the numbers of voters within that unit, so as to more or less equalize the numbers of the voting population of each unit within any given state. Fidelity to an earlier decision to enact certain geographical voting blocks, designed to safeguard the impact of one’s freedom to influence the vote, can eventually impede freedom if more and more voters move into that voting block, thereby watering down the influence of my freedom through voting. However, this diminishment of freedom might justify departing from the original boundaries of the voting unit, and justify a change—in the name of freedom. Obviously, as at times happens, gerrymandering can be manipulated to unduly diminish the impact of one’s voting freedom, rather than protect it. But generally fidelity to choice is the condition for freedom. To waffle on such fidelity is to diminish freedom.

But fidelity to the exercise of one’s free choice can lead to bizarre situations. A devout religious believer, remaining steadfast in his/her religious beliefs, can be persecuted for this, and, in despotic governments, imprisoned for fidelity to one’s religious convictions. The exercise of religious freedom in this case may seem to result in the loss of freedom in another dimension. But would not reneging on one’s fidelity to a religious choice, in an effort to preserve one’s political freedom, actually undercut whatever freedom one tried to achieve in this way? Or is not fidelity to religious convictions the only way to preserve and actually enhance one’s freedom in the fullest sense, despite an apparent loss of freedom? There have been some beautiful testimonials by those imprisoned for their fidelity to religious (or political) choices, testifying to their experiencing a new dimension of freedom enjoyed within prison despite confinement there. On the other hand, would one truly experience freedom by backing off a religious commitment?

Or fidelity to a commitment made to another person. This is one of the most common forms of fidelity to a bonding that one has freely entered. Marriage, of course, comes to mind, but there are a variety of other kinds of personal commitments that punctuate our lives. Sometimes these occur in the family, as when a parent spontaneously promises a child an outing or a special treat. Or a neighbor freely promising to return a piece of equipment borrowed for some task. Interestingly, these instances of freedom generate the context of an obligation to fidelity: fidelity to return what one has received. In these instances, freedom generates obligation; it does not lay the groundwork exemption from obligation. It is difficult to think of any situation one has freely entered that does not, somewhere along the line, make demands on one receiving a favor. To engage another person in any enterprise whatever, regardless of the mention of obligation, factually generates obligation somewhere along the line. Even a simple “Good Morning” elicits a “Good Morning” in return.   Fidelity to choices evident in personal exchanges generates its own set of commitments. The choice operative at the heart of freedom generates obligation.

Gerrymandering at its best seeks to expand freedom for more persons but it puts others under constraints, not to be avoided. Religious convictions express one’s freedom before God, but this freedom is not enhanced by curtailing it so as to avoid imprisonment through denying one’s religious convictions.   Even living (presumably freely) with myself exacts commitments to myself which cannot be disregarded without damage to that freedom. Personal interactions beget implicit promises, which can’t be avoided by dismissing them lightly. Fidelity to choice (an expression of freedom) is the condition for freedom. Freedom begets its own set of rules.