A big part of building a more cohesive and responsible society is arriving at the correct balance between personal freedoms and social obligations. Do I do something because I want to (without worrying about the consequences for others) or do I sacrifice my personal interests in situations where pursuing them will somehow negatively affect others? This debate will seem quaint to many (that we can or should subsume personal interest for the greater good), but the willingness to do so is the foundation on which a strong and stable society is built. It is inevitable that we experience the tension between our individual rights and our collective responsibilities every day as we interact with others—the difficult decision is where to draw the line.
David Brooks of The New York Times has thought a lot about this tension and the article in the url below is another component of his evolving ideas. The focus of this column from last week is the gay marriage debate and how, by seeking equality on this issue (an apparent right), gay people are in fact sacrificing their individual freedoms and surrendering themselves to an institution that benefits society—marriage constrains personal liberty in the name of long-term commitment to something that is bigger than the lives of the two people separately (an important social responsibility).
Although the focus of the article is gay marriage, Brooks frames the discussion within this larger tension between personal rights and societal responsibilities. I think these ideas are central to the idea of CSR as a way of ordering the relationship between for-profit businesses and their various stakeholders. It is also a feature of our modern, convenient, narcissistic society that we are surrendering—seemingly without putting up much of a fight.
Here are some selected quotes from the article:
“Over the past 40 years, personal freedom has been on a nearly uninterrupted winning streak. In the 1960s, we saw a great expansion of social and lifestyle freedom. In the 1980s, we saw a great expansion of economic freedom … . Since then, we’ve had everything from jeans commercials to rock anthems to political conventions celebrating freedom as the highest ideal.”
“The big thinkers down through the ages warned us this was going to have downsides. Alexis de Tocqueville and Emile Durkheim thought that if people are left perfectly free to pursue their individual desires, they will discover their desires are unlimited and unquenchable. They’ll turn inward and become self-absorbed. Society will become atomized. You’ll end up with more loneliness and less community. … For these writers, the goal in life is not primarily to be free but to be good. Being virtuous often means thwarting your inclinations, obeying a power outside yourself. It means maintaining a balance between liberty and restraint, restricting freedom for the sake of an ordered existence.”
“Recently, the balance between freedom and restraint has been thrown out of whack. People no longer even have a language to explain why freedom should sometimes be limited. The results are as predicted. A decaying social fabric, especially among the less fortunate. Decline in marriage. More children raised in unsteady homes. Higher debt levels as people spend to satisfy their cravings.”
“The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.”
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Freedom Loses One
By David Brooks
April 2, 2013
The New York Times
Late Edition – Final