Social Limits to Personal Freedom

Existentialists like to believe in the absolute personal freedom, that we have a choice in everything we do in life, and that even when we are forced to do something, we are choosing to be forced. I have written about it many times before, for example here and here. Philosophically, yes, it seems that we do always have a choice. But there are social limits to this personal freedom, and these occurs in two ways:

1) The consciousness of personal freedom requires a certain social structure that would permit its development. More precisely, the awareness that one has a choice and that one has a right to a choice develops only after one is exposed to this philosophy. An illiterate girl born in a strictly conservative family where gender segregation is strictly enforced and where it is accepted by all that girls ought to be married off without asking for their approval, she probably wouldn't even realize that she has a choice and would accept that this is the way things are... unless she somehow gets exposed to the "radical" idea.

2) Society cannot eliminate existential freedom. What it can do is limit the choices available to a person. Consider the above example again. If that girl becomes aware of her personal freedom, what can she do in that situation? What choices does she have? She isn't educated, she can't work on her own. She can't leave the house, because she knows nothing of the outside world, has no where to live and knows no one. Well, she can leave the house, but then she would risk being hungry, homeless, moneyless, and other gruesome possibilities like abduction, rape, abuse or prostitution would also be there. Existentially, I can think of the following choices she has:

a) Accept whatever marriage her family decides.
b) Refuse, and suffer whatever punishment her parents mete out to her, including the possibility of forceful illegal marriage.
c) Run from the home, and risk whatever it leads to, including the possibility of getting killed for honour.
d) Commit suicide

Not too many acceptable options to choose from, are there? To call this girl 'free' would be just too cruel.

An educated girl in the West would, in contrast, have considerably far more options to choose from. She can work, she can live on her own, the society is safe for girls living alone. She is a position to explore her existential freedom.

So, the conclusion -- which would probably be blatantly obvious to someone not obsessed with existential philosophy! -- is that true freedom requires both personal and social freedom.


Butters said…
Although you are right, we shouldn't forget three things:

1. People always have some agency, even if it is little. The agency can be increased by thinking creatively about the problem.

2. Social problems can themselves be dealt with by proper organization, e.g. the creation of unions and the precipitation of mass movements. In Pakistan people have little sense of public-spiritedness and identify only with their families, clans etc.; which results in an atomization a trillion times worse than the 'atomization' of the individual in Western, capitalist societies.

3. Social problems can be dealt with by Divine intervention.
Dur-e-Aziz Amna said…
'Blatantly obvious to someone not obsessed with existential philosophy!'