Matthew Babb is a Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry Postdoctoral Fellow with the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities, Washington University
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.” Those are the famous words of Jean Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract. For many, these chains are merely metaphorical; I am not literally in chains. My chains are the restrictions society places on my actions. I am not permitted by society to do whatever I want, and I know this. I know that if I cross the lines society has drawn around my freedom, there will be consequences. I will be in some way punished, which may involve being placed in actual chains or subjected to physical violence or ostracization from my community. What interested Rousseau was the question of what could legitimate such a situation. What could make it legitimate that I am both born free and yet everywhere in chains?
By living together in societies, people have been able to do magnificent things (though people have together also done some truly horrific things, e.g. slavery). We have developed sciences and economies, created amazing technologies, built cities and infrastructures, and distributed food and information around the world. It is only by continuing to live together that we can move forward further still. It is only by humanitarians working together that the lives of the least well off will be improved. It is only by academics and scientists collaborating and building on each other’s work that technologies, medicine, and knowledge will advance.
But living with others, no matter how productively, comes with trade-offs. As Rousseau and others observe, almost all these trade-offs concern limits on personal freedom. When you live in a society, you simply cannot do anything you want. Living together with others means trading what society has to offer for some of your freedom. In many cases, we passively accept these limits on our freedom, not minding them much and rarely recognizing them as such. No one is bothered by the fact that you are not free to drive in any lane you want on the road. Nor are most terribly distraught by having to go to the back of the queue at the grocery store. Sure, we get frustrated when queues are too long, but few would complain about the fact that being required to queue at all restricts their freedom.
Other instances of societal restrictions on personal freedom are more jarring. Sometimes individuals disagree with society. Sometimes one’s conscience tells them society is wrong and they ought not do what society is telling them to do. To what extent must an individual be willing to ignore these pangs of conscience in order to live with others? To what extent are these pangs themselves shaped by living with others? Moreover, how do societies hold themselves together in the face of the fact that everyone has different ideas about how things should be?
One way societies hold themselves together is through the benefits they bring. Again, trade-offs: I’m willing to queue up at the store because trying to check out would be all the worse without queues. But another way societies hold together is through threats and coercion. Why do I not speed on the highway? Because of the threat of getting a ticket. Why do I not cut in a queue? Not only because queues keep shopping experiences orderly, but also because other shoppers will be angry if I do so. If I were to jump the queue, the ire of other shoppers would likely be enough to pressure me into going to the back of the line. To what extent are such societal threats and coercion justified? And how much of our lives are shaped by societal coercion?
The relations between conscience, coercion, and freedom in the context of living with others are vast and complex. But they are incredibly important as well. Rousseau was one thinker among many to try to resolve some of these complexities. Yet it is equally important to be aware of them, not taking them for granted. It is important to be aware of the limits societies place on our freedom. And, in the face of these limits, it is important to ask when we should listen to our consciences and when we should accept society’s demands.
Living With Others: Conscience, Coercion, and Freedom
This two-day conference brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars working in the social sciences, humanities, and law from across the St. Louis community to address the urgent and complex questions on the precarious project of living with others.
Keynote lecture: “How to Live Free in an Age of Pessimism”
Neil Roberts, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Faculty Affiliate in Political Science, Williams College
Friday, January 25, 4:30 pm