Liberty and Responsibility for Individuals and Nations

We have experienced, and continue to experience, the implications of an age of individualism.  Prominent thinkers and political philosophers of the 18th century enunciated the philosophy of individual liberty, whereby each individual had an inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (as the American Declaration of Independence declared).  The idea of individual freedom led to the concept that the individual had the right to do as he pleased, but of course, this right could not be untrammeled because at some point, an individual’s “freedom” would begin to interfere with another individual’s “freedom”.  Thus there developed a body of social or civil law within the society to govern how this freedom was to be interpreted in relation to the needs of others and the society as a whole.  The idea of the responsibility of the individual in society was thereby defined in relation to the idea of liberty.  Similarly, when applied to the relations of nations, there developed a concept of freedom and a concept of responsibility to be governed by international law, although in practice neither the individuals in the society, nor the nations in the international community have yet adapted themselves to this dual principle of freedom and responsibility, to the idea that each individual, and each nation, has equal rights and should therefore have its freedom respected by others on the basis of equality.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The  principle of individualism is the liberty of the human being regarded as a separate existence to develop himself and fulfil his life, satisfy his mental tendencies, emotional and vital needs, and physical being according to his own desire governed by his reason; it admits no other limit to this right and this liberty except the obligation to respect the same individual liberty and right in others.  The balance of this liberty and this obligation is the principle which the individualistic age adopted in its remodelling of society;  it adopted in effect a harmony of compromises between rights and duties, liberty and law, permissions and restraints as the scheme both of the personal life and the life of the society.  …  In this idea of life, as with the individual, so with the nation, each has the inherent right to manage its own affairs freely or, if it wills, to mismanage them freely and not to be interfered with in its rights and liberties so long as it does not interfere with the rights and liberties of other nations.  As a matter of fact, the egoism of individual and nation does not wish to abide within these bounds; therefore the social law of the nation has been called in to enforce the violated principle as between man and man and it has been sought to develop international law in the same way and with the same object.”

Powerful nations have however worked to subvert the rule of equality in international relations and thus, international law has not yet been made a wholly effective tool in managing affairs between nations.  We begin to see the real limitations of the individualistic idea as we become more aware of the way the actions of individuals and nations impact the entire world, through environmental destruction, resource depletion and massive suffering brought about through the egoistic aggrandisement of individuals and of nations at the expense of all other values on the planet.  These issues are becoming more prominent and are driving humanity towards new solutions and the passing of the age of individualism.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 6, The Objective and Subjective Views of Life, pp. 55-56