9.2.4 Individual Responsibilities

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/924.htm)

In this book it is argued that freedom of the individual is important, but that it has to be accompanied by responsibilities.  As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix 1) states, “everyone has duties to the community”.  The ‘Harm Principle’ needs to be restated:

People should be as free as possible, subject to them not harming others and meeting their obligations to society.[1]

An individual’s obligations to society include compliance with its agreed governance, both written and unwritten.  These obligations can be analysed in all five dimensions of power:

  • People should contribute towards the cost of publicly-funded services and socio-economic rights by paying their taxes. If some people avoid tax (3.2.4.4), others have to pay more.
  • People should support themselves if possible. Taxpayers are entitled to demand that those who claim publicly-funded benefits are genuinely in need and are not just ‘free-riding’.
  • People should behave with consideration towards others. At a minimum they should exhibit socially-acceptable behaviour – showing respect, courtesy and integrity (4.4.2).
  • The law can protect people against harm inflicted by others. It can only do so if most people voluntarily obey it, so there is a matching obligation upon the legislature to ensure that the law is acceptable to as many people as possible (5.4.3).
  • People mostly have to accept the outcome of the political process (6.8.6), although they can continue to press for change. Governments have a matching obligation to allow free speech, including protests, so that criticism can be expressed (6.8.3.2).
  • Stable governance depends upon individuals not trying to violently overthrow it. Putting pressure on a government to make changes is a necessary part of politics (6.4.2.1) and is a way of preserving the stability of a society.  If people-power becomes excessively violent though, particularly if it inflicts physical harm on other people, it infringes the rights of others.  There is a difficult balance to be struck.  Refusal to negotiate is the subject of a later section (9.6).

These obligations, whilst they might appear to be constraints on personal freedom, are necessary to guarantee the freedom of others and to underpin the well-being of society as a whole.  The chaos that results from failure to comply with agreed governance results in the lack of everyone’s freedom to live as they choose, so it is rational to agree not to completely overthrow the current system of governance (2.3.2), even when expressing opposition to it.  Revolutions (6.2.5.3) and complete breakdowns in law and order (7.2.6) harm many people.

Freedom isn’t only the license to do what one wants.  Freedom for the disadvantaged members of society depends upon them having sufficient means to live with dignity and to have a chance of competing fairly to gain a better standard of living, so wealth has to be adequately shared (6.7.2).  And freedom for the successful to retain their earnings depends upon the State restricting itself to the minimum scope necessary to grant a fair opportunity to the less successful (9.2.2).  A society which fails to be fair to both rich and poor will eventually tear itself apart, as history has repeatedly shown; the French and Russian Revolutions are obvious examples.

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[1] This addition of “obligations to society” to the Harm Principle can be considered as an extended implementation of the concept of “samaritanism”, as described by Christopher H.  Wellman in Liberalism, Samaritanism, and Political Legitimacy.  Wellman argues that “what ultimately legitimizes a state’s imposition upon your liberty is not merely the services it provides you, but the benefits it provides others” [his emphasis].  A copy of this article was available in April 2018 from http://philosophy.ucsd.edu/faculty/rarneson/WELLMANlibsam.pdf, subject to JSTOR’s Terms and Conditions of Use, which are available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp.