Responsibility and Freedom

John Dewey



The more comprehensive and diversified the social order, the greater the responsibility and the freedom of the individual. His freedom is the greater, because the more numerous are the effective stimuli to action, and the more varied and the more certain the ways in which he may fulfill his powers. His responsibility is greater because there are more demands for considering the consequences of his acts; and more agencies for bringing home to him the recognition of consequences which affect not merely more persons individually, but which also influence the more remote and hidden social ties.

Liability. –Freedom and responsibility have a relatively superficial and negative meaning and a relatively positive central meaning. In its external aspect, responsibility is liability . An agent is free to act; yes, but–. He must stand the consequences, the disagreeable as well as the pleasant, the social as well as the physical. He may do a given act, but if so, let him look out. His act is a matter that concerns others as well as himself, and they will prove their concern by calling him to account; and if he cannot give a satisfactory and credible account of his intention, subject him to correction. Each community and organization informs its members what it regards as obnoxious, and serves notice upon them that they have to answer if they offend. The individual then is (1) likely or liable to have to explain and justify his behavior, and is (2) liable or open to suffering consequent upon inability to make his explanation acceptable.

Positive Responsibility. –In this way the individual is made aware of the stake the community has in his behavior; and is afforded an opportunity to take that interest into account in directing his desires and making his plans. If he does so, he is a responsible person. The agent who does not take to heart the concern which others show that they have in his conduct, will note his liability only as an evil to which he is exposed, and will take it into consideration only to see how to escape or evade it. But one whose point of view is sympathetic and reasonable will recognize the justice of the community interest in his performances; and will recognize the value to him of the instruction contained in its assertions of its interest. Such an one responds, answers, to the social demands made; he is not merely called to answer. He holds himself responsible for the consequences of his acts; he does not wait to be held liable by others. When society looks for responsible workmen, teachers, doctors, it does not mean merely those whom it may call to account; it can do that in any case. It wants men and women who habitually form their purposes after consideration of the social consequences of their execution. Dislike of disapprobation, fear of penalty, play a part in generating this responsive habit; but fear, operating directly, occasions only cunning or servility. Fused, through reflection, with other apprehensiveness, or susceptibility to the rights of others, which is the essence of responsibility, which in turn is the sole ultimate guarantee of social order.

The Two Senses of Freedom. –In its external aspect, freedom is negative and formal. It signifies freedom from subjection to the will and control of others; exemption from bondage; release from servitude; capacity to act without being exposed to direct obstructions or interferences form others. It means a clear road, cleared of impediments, for action. It contrasts with the limitations of prisoner, slave, and serf, who have to carry out the will of others.

Effective Freedom. –Exemption from restraint and from interference with overt action is only a condition, though an absolutely indispensable one, of effective freedom. The latter requires (1) positive control of the resources necessary to carry purposes into effect, possession of the means to satisfy desires; and (2) mental equipment with the trained powers of initiative and reflection requisite for free preference and for circumspect and far-seeing desires. The freedom of an agent who is merely released from direct external obstructions is formal and empty. If he is without resources of personal skill, without control of the tools of achievement, he must inevitable lend himself to carrying out the directions and ideas of others. If he has not powers of deliberation and invention, he must pick up his ideas casually and superficially from the suggestions of his environment and appropriate the notions which the interests of some class insinuate into his mind. If he have not powers of intelligent self-control, he will be in bondage to appetite, enslaved to routine, imprisoned within the monotonous round of an imagery flowing from illiberal interests, broken only by wild forays into the illicit.

Legal and Moral. –Positive responsibility and freedom may be regarded as moral, while liability and exemption are legal and political. A particular individual at a given time is possessed of certain secured resources in execution and certain formed habits of desire and reflection. In so far, he is positively free. Legally, his sphere of activity may be very much wider. The laws, the prevailing body of rules which define existing institutions, would protect him in exercising claims and powers far beyond those which he can actually put forth. He is exempt from interference in travel, in reading, in hearing music, in pursuing scientific research. But if he has neither material means nor mental cultivation to enjoy these legal possibilities, mere exemption means little or nothing. It does, however, create a moral demand that the practical limitations which hem him in should be removed; that practical conditions should be afforded which will enable him effectively to take advantage of the opportunities formally open. Similarly, at any given time, the liabilities to which an individual is actually held come far short of the accountability to which the more conscientious members of society hold themselves. The morale of the individual is in advance of the formulated morality, or legality, of the community.

Relation of Legal to Moral. –It is, however, absurd to separate the legal and the ideal aspects of freedom from one another. It is only as men are held liable that they become responsible; even the conscientious man, however much in some respects his demands upon himself exceed those which would be enforced against him by others, still needs in other respects to have his unconscious partiality and presumption steadied by the requirements of others. He needs to have his judgment balanced against crankiness, narrowness, or fanaticism, by reference to the sanity of the common standard of his times. It is only as men are exempt from external obstruction that they become aware of the possibilities, and are awakened to demand and strive to obtain more positive freedom. Or, again, it is the possession by the more favored individuals in society of an effectual freedom to do and to enjoy things with respect to which the masses have only a formal and legal freedom, that arouses a sense of inequity, and that stirs the social judgment and will to such reforms of law, of administration and economic conditions as will transform the empty freedom of the less favored individuals into constructive realities.


The Individual and Social Rights and Obligations.

–That which, taken at large or in a lump, is called freedom breaks up in detail into a number of specific, concrete abilities to act in particular ways. These are termed rights. Any right includes within itself in intimate unity the individual and social aspects of activity upon which we have been insisting. As a capacity for exercise of power, it resides in and proceeds from some special agent, some individual. As exemption from restraint, a secured release from obstruction, it indicates at least the permission and sufferance of society, a tacit social assent and confirmation; while any more positive and energetic effort on the part of the community to guarantee and safeguard it, indicates an active acknowledgment on the part of society that the free exercise by individuals of the power in question is positively in its own interest. Thus a right, individual in residence, is social in origin and intent. The social factor in rights is made explicit in the demand that the power in question be exercised in certain ways. A right is never a claim to a wholesale, indefinite activity, but to a defined activity; to one carried on, that is, under certain conditions. This limitation constitutes the obligatory phases of every right. The individual is free; yes, that is his right. But he is free to act only according to certain regular and established conditions. That is the obligation imposed upon him. He has a right to use public roads, but he is obliged to turn in a certain way. He has a right to use his property, but he is obliged to pay taxes, to pay debts, not to harm others in its use, and so on.

Correspondence of Rights and Obligations. –Rights and obligations are thus strictly correlative. This is true both in their external employment and in their intrinsic natures. Externally the individual is under obligation to use his right in a way which does not interfere with the rights of others. He is free to drive on the public highways, but not to exceed a certain speed, and on condition that he turns to right or left as the public order requires. He is entitled to the land which he has bought, but this possession is subject to conditions of public registration and taxation. He may use his property, but not so that it menaces others or becomes a nuisance. Absolute rights, if we mean by absolute those not relative to any social order and hence exempt from any social restriction, there are none. But rights correspond even more intrinsically to obligations. The right is itself a social outcome: it is the individual’s in so far as he is himself a social member not merely physically, but in his habits of thought and feeling. He is under obligation to use his rights in social ways. The more we emphasize the free right of an individual to his property, the more we emphasize what society has done for him: the avenues it has opened to him for acquiring; the safeguards it has put about him for keeping; the wealth achieved by others which he may acquire by exchanges themselves socially buttressed. So far as an individual’s own merits are concerned these opportunities and protections are unearned increments, no matter what credit he may deserve for initiative and industry and foresight in using them. The only fundamental anarchy is that which regards rights as private monopolies, ignoring their social origin and intent.

Classes of Rights and Obligations. –We may discuss freedom and responsibility with respect to the social organization which secures and enforces them; or from the standpoint of the individual who exercises and acknowledges them. From the latter standpoint, rights are conveniently treated as physical and mental: not that the physical and mental can be separated, but that emphasis may fall primarily on control of the conditions required to execute ideas and intentions, or upon the control of the conditions required to execute ideas and intentions, or upon the control of the conditions involved in their personal formation and choice. From the standpoint of the public order, rights and duties are civil and political. We shall consider them in the next chapter in connection with the organization of society in the State. Here we consider rights as inhering in an individual in virtue of his membership in society.

I. Physical Rights. –These are the rights to the free unharmed possession of the body (the rights to life and limb), exemption from homicidal attack, from assault and battery, and from conditions that threaten health in more obscure ways; and positively, the right to free movement of the body, to use its members for any legitimate purpose, and the right to unhindered locomotion. Without the exemption, there is no security in life, no assurance; only a life of constant fear and uncertainty, of loss of limb, of injury from others and of death. Without some positive assurance, there is no chance of carrying ideas into effect. Even if sound and healthy and extremely protected, a man lives a slave or prisoner. Right to the control and use of physical conditions of life takes effect then in property rights, command of the natural tools and materials which are requisite to the maintenance of the body in a due state of health and to an effective and competent use of the person’s powers. These physical rights to life, limb, and property are so basic to all achievement and capability that they have frequently been termed “natural rights.” They are so fundamental to the existence of personality that their insecurity or infringement is a direct menace to the social welfare. The struggle for human liberty and human responsibility has accordingly been more acute at this than at any other point. Roughly speaking, the history of personal liberty is the history of the efforts which have safeguarded the security of life and property and which have emancipated bodily movement from subjection to the will of others.

Unsolved Problems: War and Punishment.–While history marks great advance, especially in the last four or five centuries, as to the negative aspect of freedom or release from direct and overt tyranny, much remains undone on the positive side. It is at this point of free physical control that all conflicts of rights concentrate themselves. While the limitation by war of the right to life may be cited as evidence fro the fact that even this right is not absolute but is socially conditioned, yet that kind of correspondence between individual activity and social well-being which exacts exposure to destruction as its measure, is too suggestive of the tribal morality in which the savage shows his social nature by participation in a blood feud, to be satisfactory. Social organization is clearly defective when its constituent portions are so set at odds with one another as to demand from individuals their death as their best service to the community. While one may cite capital punishment to enforce, as if in large type, the fact that the individual holds even his right to life subject to the social welfare, the moral works the other way to underline the failure of society to socialize its members, and its tendency to put undesirable results out of sight and mind rather than to face responsibility for causes. The same limitation is seen in methods of imprisonment, which, while supposed to be protective rather than vindictive, recognize only in a few and sporadic cases that the sole sure protection of society is through education and correction of individual character, not by mere physical isolation under harsh conditions.

Security of Life.–In civilized countries the blood feud, infanticide, putting to death the economically useless and the aged, have been abolished. Legalized slavery, serfdom, the subjection of the rights of wife and child to the will of husband and father, have been done away with. But many modern industries are conducted with more reference to financial gain than to life, and the annual roll of killed, injured, and diseased in factory and railway practically equals the list of dead and wounded in a modern war. Most of these accidents are preventable. The willingness of parents on one side and of employers on the other, conjoined with the indifference of the general public, makes child-labor an effective substitute for exposure of children and other methods of infanticide practiced by savage tribes. Agitation for old-age pensions shows that faithful service to society for a lifetime is still inadequate to secure a prosperous old age.

Charity and Poverty.–Society provides assistance and remedial measures, poorhouses, asylums, hospitals. The exceedingly poor are a public charge, supported by taxes as well as by alms. Individuals are not supposed to die from starvation nor to suffer without any relief or assistance from physical defects and disease. So far, there is growth in positive provision for the right to live. But the very necessity for such extensive remedial measures shows serious defects farther back. It raises the question of social reponsibility for the causes of such wholesale poverty and widespread misery. Taken in conjunction with the idleness and display of the congested rich, it raises the question how far we are advances beyond barbarism in making organic provision for an effective, as distinct from formal, right to life and movement. It is hard to say whether the heavier indictment lies in the fact that so many shirk their share of the necessary social labor and toil, or in the fact that so many who are willing to work are unable to do so, without meeting recurrent crises of unemployment, and except under conditions of hours, hygiene, compensation, and home conditions which reduce to a low level the positive rights of life. The social order protects the property of those who have it; but, although historic conditions have put the control of the machinery of production in the hands of a comparatively few persons, society takes little heed to see that great masses of men get even that little property which is requisite to secure assured, permanent, and properly stimulating conditions of life. Until there is secured to and imposed upon all members of society the right and the duty of work in socially serviceable occupations, with due return in social goods, rights to life and free movement will hardly advance much beyond their present largely nominal state.

II. Rights to Mental Activity.–These rights of course are closely bound up with rights to physical well-being and activity. The latter would have no meaning were it not that they subserve purposes and affections; while the life of mind is torpid or remote, dull or abstract, save as it gets impact in physical conditions and directs them. Those who hold that the limitations of physical conditions have no moral signification, and their improvement brings at most an increase of more less materialistic comfort, not a moral advance, fail to note that the development of concrete purposes and desires is dependent upon so-called outward conditions. These conditions affect the execution of purposes and wants; and this influence reacts to determine the further arrest or growth of needs and resolutions. The sharp and unjustifiable antithesis of spiritual and material in the current conception of moral action leads many well-intentioned people to be callous and indifferent to the moral issues involved in physical and economic progress. Long hours of excessive physical labor, joined with unwholesome conditions of residence and work, restrict the growth of mental activity, while idleness and excess of physical possession and control pervert mind, as surely as these causes modify the outer and overt acts.

Freedom of Thought and Affection.–The fundamental forms of the right to mental life are liberty of judgment and sympathy. The struggle for spiritual liberty has been as prolonged and arduous as that for physical freedom. Distrust of intelligence and of love as factors in concrete individuals has been strong even in those who have proclaimed most vigorously their devotion to them as abstract principles. Disbelief in the integrity of mind, assertion that the divine principles of though and love are perverted and corrupt in the individual, have kept spiritual authority and prestige in the hands of the few, just as other causes have made material possessions the monopoly of a small class. The resulting restriction of knowledge and of the tools of inquiry have kept the masses where their blindness and dullness might be employed as further evidence of their natural unfitness for personal illumination by the light of truth and for free direction of the energy of moral warmth. Gradually, however, free speech, freedom of communication and intercourse, of public assemblies, liberty of the press and circulation of ideas, freedom of religious and intellectual conviction (commonly called freedom of conscience), of worship, and to some extent the right to education, to spiritual nurture, have been achieved. In the degree the individual has won these liberties, the social order has obtained its chief safeguard against explosive change and intermittent blind action and reaction, and has got hold of the method of graduated and steady reconstruction. Looked at as a mere expedient, liberty of thought and expression is the most successful device ever hit upon for reconciling trangquillity with progress, so that peace is not sacrificed to reform nor improvement to stagnant conservatism.

Right and Duty of Education.–It is through education in its broadest sense that the right of thought and sympathy become effective. The final value of all institutions is their educational influence; they are measured morally by the occasions they afford and the guidance they supply for the exercise of foresight, judgment, seriousness of consideration, and depth of regard. The family; the school, the church, art, especially (to-day) literature, nurture the affections and imagination, while schools impart information and inculcate skill in various forms of intellectual technique. In the last one hundred years, the right of each individual to spiritual self-development and self-possession, and the interest of society as a whole in seeing that each of its members has an opportunity for education, have been recognized in publicly maintained schools with their ladder from kindergarten through the college to the engineering and professional school. Men and women have had put at their disposal the materials and tools of judgment; have had opened to them the wide avenues of science, history, and art that lead into the larger world’s culture. To some extent negative exemption from arbitrary restriction upon belief and thought has been developed into positive capacities of intelligence and sentiment.

Restrictions from Inadequate Economic Conditions.–Freedom of thought in a developed constructive form is, however, next to impossible for the masses of men so long as their economic conditions are precarious, and their main problem is to keep the wolf from their doors. Lack of time, hardening of susceptibility, blind preoccupation with the machinery of highly specialized industries, the combined apathy and worry consequent upon a life maintained just above the level of subsistence, are unfavorable to intellectual and emotional culture. Intellectual cowardice, due to apathy, laziness, and vague apprehension, takes the place of despotism as a limitation upon freedom of thought and speech. Uncertainty as to security of position, the welfare of a dependent family, close to men’s mouths from expressing their honest convictions, and blind their minds to clear perception of evil conditions. The instrumentalities of culture–churches, newspapers, universities, theatres–themselves have economic necessities which tend to make them dependent upon those who can best supply their needs. The congestion of poverty on one side and of culture on the other is so great that, in the words of a distinguished economist, we are still questioning whether it is really impossible that all should start in the world with a fair chance of leading a cultured life free from the pains of poverty and the stagnating influences of a life of excessive mechanical toil. We provide free schools and pass compulsory education acts, but actively and passively we encourage conditions which limit the mass of children to the bare rudiments of spiritual nurture.

Restriction of Educational Influences.–Spiritual resources are practically as much the possession of a special class, in spite of educational advance, as are material resources. This fact reacts upon the chief educative agencies–science, art, and religion. Knowledge in its ideas, language, and appeals is forced into corners; it is overspecialized, technical, and esoteric because of its isolation. Its lack of intimate connection with social practice leads to an intense and elaborate over-training which increases its own remoteness. Only when science and philosophy are one with literature, the art of successful communication and vivid intercourse, are they liberal in effect; and this implies a society which is already intellectually and emotionally nurtured and alive. Art itself, the embodiment of ideas in forms which are socially contagious, becomes what is so largely, a development of technical skill, and a badge of class differences. Religious emotion, the quickening of ideas and affections by recognition of their inexhaustible signification, is segregated into special cults, particular days, and peculiar exercises, and the common life is left relatively hard and barren.

In short, the limitations upon freedom both of the physical conditions and the mental values of life are at bottom expressions of one and the same divorce of theory and practice,– which makes theory remote, sterile, and technical, while practice remains narrow, harsh, and also illiberal. Yet there is more cause for hope in that so much has been accomplished, than for despondency because mental power and service are still so limited and undeveloped. The intermixture and interaction of classes and nations are very recent. Hence the opportunities for an effective circulation of sympathetic ideas and of reasonable emotions have only newly come into existence. Education as a public interest and care, applicable to all individuals, is hardly more than a century old; while a conception of the richness and complexity of the ways in which it should touch any one individual is hardly half a century old. As society takes its educative functions more seriously and comprehensively into account, there is every promise of more rapid progress in the future than in the past. For education is most effective when dealing with the immature, those who have not yet acquired the hard and fixed directing forms of adult life; while, in order to be effectively employed, it must select and propagate that which is common and hence typical in the social values that form its resources, leaving the eccentric, the partial, and exclusive gradually to dwindle. Upon some generous souls of the eighteenth century there dawned the idea that the cause of the indefinite improvement of humanity and the cause of the little child are inseparably bound together. is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

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