Liberty and License

First Published: 2008-05-16

Justice Dame Sawyer appears to have ignited a fire storm with the following statement as quoted in several newspapers this week.

“The worst thing that ever happened to this country in my humble opinion was freedom of religion and freedom to speak, because people have taken that freedom to be license. They do not see that freedom is really responsibility”.

It appears some respondents did not get beyond “the worst thing that ever happened to this country in my humble opinion was freedom of religion and freedom to speak……” Missing what follows is to misinterpret and is probably what ignited the “fire”.

Dame Sawyer was referring to dysfunctional families and the criminality that is sweeping the country. Bad behaviour is becoming a cultural norm the reality of which must be faced head on.

At first glance and failure to read the whole sentence, the Justice’s statement appears to repudiate the most fundamental and sacred of all freedoms; speech and religion. To overlook the second half is to miss the truth of the relationship of “freedom” to “responsibility”. To take umbrage with her remark suggests ignorance of the realities of life in the Bahamas today.

Justice Sawyer identified two principles for living, liberty and responsibility. Simply put, personal responsibility cannot exist without liberty, and liberty will not endure without responsibility.

Liberty-as-license is what concerns the Honourable Justice. She is aware that license has become widespread in Bahamian culture. It shows up in the thoughtless actions of so many with the desire to do whatever they feel like without considering the cost to others. There is even the assumption that someone else will pay.

For freedom to prevail widespread acceptance of personal responsibility is required.

What are the missing “responsibilities” required so that freedom can prevail. We presume Justice Sawyer has in mind a list of virtues that would include productiveness – creating values we can trade for other values to sustain ourselves, Honesty and the refusal to deceive ourselves or others. Add perseverance required to reach goals, and not giving up when difficulties arise.

If these and other virtuous qualities of character disappear from a society, liberty will also decline. Irresponsible people do not value liberty and the challenges it presents.

By the same token Responsibility requires Liberty. Without the liberty to choose our own actions and make our own choices, we lose the qualities of responsibility and virtue that make us uniquely human.

Justice Sawyer may or may not have anticipated the negative comments. Perhaps she intended to stir the pot and awaken the community to the appalling decline of morality, the root of the widespread crime.

It appears she may have succeeded and for this she is to be congratulated – not castigated.

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