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Is liberty compatible with public safety?

Posted By Website Admin, Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Ruth Lewis a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the compatibility of liberty with public safety in her fourth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

It seems that in today’s world our security and safety are constantly under threat. Every day brings more tragic news of innocent people murdered, women killed by strangers or beaten by violent husbands, children co-opted for economic or political gains, racists and extremist views given undue publicity. Political expediency demands quick response by governments to prevent such occurrences. They trade off our personal liberty for the good of public safety and security. The outcomes may make us temporarily feel safer, but actually apply discrimination or restriction upon society’s minority groups, the women and children at risk, restriction of freedom of expression or lifestyle for those under threat in order to secure their safety.


Many people argue that there is always a trade-off between liberty and safety, between freedom and security. Others suggest that safety response must cut through any considerations of liberty, and restrictions on minority groups must take priority for the good of the society. Still others think that security is a pre-requisite for liberty and freedom, to protect the collective well-being. A well-defined barrier will prevent ‘evil’ from seeping into society, so we can all sleep well at night.


Safety through restriction doesn’t necessarily mitigate the risk, and can bring unintended consequences that can harm long-term liberty. A well-intended curtailment of freedom for the sake of protection can turn into a vicious cycle of ever greater restrictions of liberty. We are told that the girl who is murdered in an alley shouldn’t have been wandering in the dark alone. The man with the funny headdress or dark skin is to be feared or discredited because he is one of the ‘other’ and shouldn’t be living amongst us. The evil of fear grows and ferments within our society, and no barrier can keep it out.


By engaging in Sir Isaiah Berlin’s two-toned notion of personal liberty as both freedom from oppression (safety) and freedom to do what we want to do (liberty), we see a symbiotic relationship between safety and liberty. Their practices must exist together and evolve sustainably over time. Every citizen must be equally free and safe to reach their potential in accordance with human rights principles for today’s societal needs. Future generations must similarly be accorded the same rights. This can only occur in an open, just and inclusive society, where we recognise our bonds and obligations to our fellow human beings and their individual rights within an integrated society.


In order to promote human flourishing, we need to recognise and celebrate the diversity and temporal position that we hold in our universe. We must undertake custodial responsibility as a society to look after the security and safety of our environment, the food, water, shelter, energy and climate that we all need to survive. We must create a virtuous cycle whereby the positive contributions of all humanity can be celebrated, protected and encouraged.


We must promote both liberty and public safety with a long view to the consequences of today’s decisions on today’s complex society, as well as tomorrow’s generations, their health and their environment. So, liberty is absolutely compatible with public safety, but only if we recognise and share a common and equal entitlement to these aspirations. But does that mean that we must all believe in the same thing? How then does religious freedom affect personal liberty?


© Ruth Lewis 2019

Tags:  freedom  liberty  rights 

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How have we defined liberty in the past?

Posted By Administration, Friday, February 15, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ruth Lewis a member of our Emerging Fellows program examines the definition of liberty in her second blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Past philosophers have often stepped outside the current paradigm of their times, pushing controversial or even blasphemous ideas to challenge the current worldview. They were the futurists of past times, evolving a forward worldview that would change the oppressive society in which they lived, just as futurists today challenge our society’s worldviews, helping to shape the forward visions and actions of our society’s future.

In the 18th Century, the Enlightenment was shaped by philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith and Voltaire who pushed beyond the paradigm of their times, the enshrined First and Second Estate’s monopoly on power and faith. They showed that freedom could be gained for the common people through rational and scientific thought. They promoted dangerous ideas of liberty, tolerance, and separation of church and state. They proposed the concept of a constitutional government, which could formalise the limitations and exercise of political power over the population. These concepts of liberty spread from Britain to the Americas inspiring the American Revolution, and to France inspiring the French Revolution. This latter upheaval intended to free the commoners of the yoke of feudalism, but led to tyranny, despotism and a dictatorship in many ways worse than the original regime.

The 19th Century introduced concepts like democracy and social philosophy, that inspired philosophers like John Stuart Mill to highlight and repudiate inequality and subjugation between lower and middle classes and the aristocracy, between women and men in education, property ownership, marriage and political influence, and between slaves and their masters. Mill highlighted the dangers of the repressive societal pressure that can stifle freedom of thought and discussion, of character and of action.

The development of the law of human rights had foundation in ancient societies and religions and entered Western law through transcripts including Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Right of Man and Citizen and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. However, a unified declaration of human rights was constituted through the United Nations after the existential horror of World War II. This formed the concept of ‘crimes against humanity’, attempting to enshrine the right to life and liberty for all people on Earth, holding governments accountable for the treatment of people living within their sphere of influence.

In the mid- 20th Century, philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin described a two-toned way of looking at the world – as either a fox or a hedgehog, based on the Archilochus poem. This described how people’s knowledge and approaches to life can be inspired as a fox by many little things, or as a hedgehog by one ‘Big Idea’. A fox will reconcile to recognise that ‘the truth’ may be fully unknowable, but the hedgehog – who tries to fit the universe to a unifying code – will never be content until ‘truth’ is fully explained. Berlin was a master fox who drew inspiration from many sources. His 1958 essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ described the conflict between ‘negative freedom’, in pursuit of freedom from oppression, and ‘positive freedom’ which describes what we are free to do. Berlin’s concept of negative freedom was formed after fleeing the Russian Revolution as a child, where he realised that a revolution founded in the freeing the proletariat from State oppression could deliver an even more despotic and oppressive rule.

In our contemporary complex, interconnected world, our Western worldview is formed by multifaceted information reacting with our historically based roots. In internal overload, it seems to produce a humanistic purposeless of meaning. Our liberty to see and speak and act as we feel seems to have led to a morass of confusion and a lack of purpose. What do we need to free ourselves from? Can our liberty to think as a fox through many versions of the truth formulate a higher-level purpose for our humanity and produce the agency to take us there? Now that we are free, what do we want to do?

If our past is the key to our future, our notions of personal liberty formed through adversity and interpreted by our philosophers should give us the wisdom to invest in a better future for our world. But our hard-won liberty has given rise to private asset ownership through economic capitalism and wealth accumulation for some but not all, echoing the inequalities of past centuries which we have sought to overturn.

© Ruth Lewis 2019

Tags:  freedom  law  people 

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What value do we place on personal liberty?

Posted By Administration, Monday, January 14, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ruth Lewis a member of our Emerging Fellows program investigates the concept of personal liberty in her first blog installment in 2019. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

How do we feel about our freedom to do as we wish? How is our perception of our sense of freedom governed by the times and the type of society that we live in, and the type of person that we are? For most people in Western Society, our personal liberty is highly valued, and is fundamental to our sense of well-being. The freedom to be who we are or who we aspire to be, to reach our potential, to acquire wealth or to withdraw from society – these are all seen as personal liberties that we value as a fundamental right. However, of equal value in our society is the ‘rule of law’, which can sometimes constrain our sense of personal liberty, ‘Rule of law’ can be represented by traditional values, by morals and by restraints imposed to ensure the safety of others.

Clearly there will always be tension between these two ideals between liberty which carries with it the absence of restraint on human action, and with the restraint on human action imposed for the good of society.

When we think about our personal liberty, we see the positive image of our freedom, happiness and unbounded pleasure to do whatever we wish – so many choices! Lurking underneath is the negative image of our lack of control, over-consumption, living beyond our means, dissatisfaction, anger, fear and anxiety for future, greed, avarice and jealousy, or wrong-doing. This is the paradox of our free society: having the freedom to do and say as we please, yet a lack of control or accountability over the consequences of our actions.

How do we balance our individual liberty with personal and societal restraint to promote and protect the good of the individual and our society? And how do we react when the society that we live in imposes constraints on our individual liberty?

Current definition of minimum acceptable liberty includes the definition of Human Rights, for example as codified through the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is enshrined within international and national policies and law. Such law protects the individual’s right to life and liberty, including freedom of holding an opinion and being able to express it. It protects the right to education, work, cultural freedom, well-being, privacy and freedom from enslavement or torture, arbitrary detention, discrimination or religious hatred.

Paradoxically, our freedom of expression, coupled with strong beliefs, often results in some of these enshrined human rights being violated. How can we protect our societal human rights, and yet at the same time offer freedom of expression through times of change, complexity and individual uncertainty, which in itself brings an atmosphere of fear? Uncertain times seem to always lead to fear within society. This leads inevitably to protectionism, and to discrimination and harm to ‘the other’. In these times, love of liberty may become less important than protectionism, and freedom held less sacred. Our recognition of the bonds and responsibilities to our fellow human beings may be inverted into violation of the basis of human rights.

Our understanding of personal liberty depends so much on who’s worldview is being described, and in which society we are applying it. To a ‘conventional’ and structured society, personal liberty may be supported by the rule of Human Rights, but too much personal liberty may appear as anarchy, as stepping outside conventions and rules, and may result in sharp censure of the individual. To a success-oriented highly capitalist society, personal liberty means the freedom to acquire success without boundaries or obstacles, and their ideal society will support and promote their aspirations. However, as we have seen so often, some ‘success stories’ built without due care for societal impacts, often have victims of that ‘success’. To a consensus-based community, personal liberty may cause disruption of the social fabric, placing the individual’s desires above the good of the whole.

In my discourse, I plan to examine the checks and balances of personal liberty in the present, the past and the future. I will explore how the individual’s sense of personal power and freedom must be protected. We will discover how we might apply balanced, foresightful justice through obligation and regulation for the good of the society that we live in.

© Ruth Lewis 2019

Tags:  freedom  right  value 

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Rewriting freedom of speech

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Monica Porteanu‘s second post in our Emerging Fellows program concerns the weaponization of free speech. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Many can only dream of having the freedom to express their opinion. The fortunate of us might take it for granted. Others might see it through biased lenses. I acknowledge mine, originating from growing up in a former communist country. In that world, information dissemination meant precisely two hours of evening TV programming. Any form of expression linked everything back to the doctrine regurgitating “glorious” dictatorship propaganda. Information beyond meant treason. Asking for a passport just to explore a different culture, stamped one as being against the system. Censorship was deeply entrenched in everyday life. It should come as no surprise that the world after the cold war sought freedom of access and expression. But with little knowledge on how to achieve that after 50 years of communist rule. As a result, even today, after almost another 30 years, the discovery of free speech is continuing. Experimentation with extreme polarization is allowed. Perhaps unknowingly, essential aspects of freedom, well-being, or even human rights are impacted. Foul language, objectifying those who are different, or talk shows exploiting fear are such examples.

However, everywhere else the discovery of what free speech may become seems to also be in question. The internet has opened massive channels of online communication. It has increased our acceptance of sharing more about ourselves, even intertwining our private and public selves. To stay informed, and to speak up when we see fit, we use a multitude of devices and apps. We freely give our consent to provide pieces of our private information. More recently though, the online life that we thought was public, has increasingly become an island that we inhabit together with those like us. The software is becoming more and more sophisticated, learning about our preferences and presenting us with the information it thinks we want. In the process, it isolates us in our own world. Not realizing we live with a different flavour of privacy, we still stay always online, expecting everything to happen now, while disseminating instantly what resonates with us, thus reinforcing the attributes of the data silo forming our world.

The paradox of the bubble is that it still drives the fragmentation of our attention with methods that have their own chapters in economics, politics, or social realms. Some are fair, some are not. Most of these methods have recently emerged and our language is catching up with the times by adding these contemporary meanings to the dictionary. For example, “someone who posts inflammatory messages online to provoke emotional responses” is called an internet troll. Sadly, though, our “always on,” instant, share-all expectations have become a medium for expanding trolling into the physical world, making it ubiquitous. With this, everything goes, it seems, including extreme, hateful, and harmful speech that has been recently coined in media as the “weaponization” of free speech.

We have the freedom of assembly, religion, and speech, or the freedom to marry and love, but is this enough? OCAD Professor Suzanne Stein argues for a “greater form of freedom: freedom from harm.”

The question is what do we do about it? Perhaps zooming into this proliferation of trolling, online anonymity, social media bubbles and their connection with the fight for our attention would provide an answer. In a world in which we’ve become omnipresent, attention fragmentation seems to illustrate the contemporary version of the divide and conquer paradigm. Attention holds the key to today’s competitive advantage, starting from the individual level. At the same time, the more we realize our attention is selective yet limited, the more we seem to crave it while giving it freely away at the expense of freedom itself. Has the freedom for attention become a basic need, and right?

© Monica Porteanu 2018

Tags:  freedom  politics  speech 

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