and some change

On the Supposed Conflict Between Individual Rights and Communities

As part of what is hopefully my last term of my undergraduate education, I’m taking a political philosophy course. As part of the general outline of the course, our professor introduced the broad overarching conflict that we’d be studying in several works, one that he phrased as Individual Rights versus Community. The idea, then, being that every individual person wants to preserve their own rights and freedom of action, but at the same time every individual person is part of a larger community that must enforce certain rules (and therefore prohibit certain things, restricting individual rights) in order to enable these individuals to live together. And in fact, this is how the issue is usually framed, as a conflict between what you’d like to be able to do and what you have to do. You see this everywhere: one of the fundamental philosophical differences between the Democratic and Republican parties of today is that the former believes that the existence of the community or society is paramount, and that society itself is responsible for most of the increases in welfare in the past century or so, while the latter emphasizes the role of individuals overcoming whatever societal hurdles are in their way to become great people. In one case, society as a whole is a benefactor of individuals; in the other, society is something to be overcome and then bettered by individuals.

You didn’t build that!

For a long time now I’ve been vaguely uncomfortable about accepting this framing of the issue; I think I’m able to coherently explain why now, after some thought. I don’t actually believe that there’s a “conflict” between individual rights and the community; instead, I think what we’ve been pursuing all along is the maximization of freedoms. Let me explain with an analogy. Clearly, there are some rights which we think humans ought to have, and a bunch of these rights are pretty much unrelated to one another. Take, for instance, a person’s right to bear arms and a person’s right to trial by an impartial jury. Both of these are rights that were, at least one point, thought to be necessary for a healthy society, and they don’t have much to do with one another. Very loosely, we can say that these are “orthogonal rights” (meaning they don’t have anything in common), similar to orthogonal vectors in a vector space, and that they span a subset of some “space of rights” that we’d like to completely span (e.g. give everyone the freedom to everything).

three orthogonal rights vectors

So let’s say our goal is to have the “free-est” society possible, where everyone can do anything. How do we go about establishing this? Well, the naive solution is to simply say “everyone is free to do everything”. That should do it, right? Well, not quite! Very naturally, certain people will be more-capable than others, whether this means they’re born into wealthy families, or have more access to educational resources, or they have a genetic predisposition for physical strength etc. So if we simply said “everyone can do anything”, we’d undoubtedly end up with situations where in name someone might have the freedom from oppression by others, but they nevertheless find themselves a slave. So it turns out that the “trivial” solution (add every “rights vector” to our set) doesn’t actually achieve our intended goal (span the rights-space). In fact, I think it’s pretty clear that you cannot in any meaningful way span the rights-space; surely we cannot give people the freedom to oppress others if we are to have a free society, but prohibiting oppression in and of itself is restricting an individual’s freedoms.

What to do, then? All that’s left is to try to find a set of guaranteed rights that corresponds to a maximal spanning of the rights-space. And it is this struggle, I think, that is at the heart of what we see in American politics today. Democrats are generally in favour of gun control regulation in the pursuit of freedom from being shot; Republicans are generally against it in the pursuit of unrestricted freedom to bear arms. Democrats are generally in favour of carbon emissions regulations in the pursuit of freedom to exist several centuries in the future; Republicans are generally against it in the pursuit of *unrestricted *freedom to emit pollution in the name of economic growth. Democrats are generally in favour of regulation and tight control over the financial sector in the pursuit of freedom from corruption and abuse by the financial sector; Republicans are generally against it in the pursuit of unrestricted freedom to pursue financial innovations. In any of these cases, picking one side over the other necessarily restricts some freedoms in the name of enabling others. It’s not about “individuals” struggling to maintain their personal freedoms against society’s restrictions, and it’s not about “irresponsible” people refusing to “behave” in society.

It’s about maximizing the freedoms that everyone has.