Everyone is familiar with concepts such as liberty, justice, equality and authority. However, these concepts mean different things to different people. The importance of these concepts is second to none in regards to the foundation of a happy and healthy society. If everyone were to agree on the definition of these concepts then it is likely we would be living in a utopian society; unfortunately, these concepts are individually torn apart and take on distinct shapes, and forms, and implications. Liberty, in particular, can be shaped and moulded to form the basis of a socialist society whilst also being shaped and moulded to form the basis of a libertarian society with a small and nuclear government. Indeed, most political philosophers focus their work on these concepts and develop different theories which then go on to form the platform for political parties. The Liberal Democrats, for example, are strongly influenced by the work of John Stuart Mill, whose work, On Liberty is ceremoniously delivered to the new leader of the party.
It isn’t terrible logic to think that if we all agreed on one conclusive definition of these concepts then we would quickly become a perfect society as everyone would cooperate in the new political system through the belief that the foundations of the society are just, ensure the liberty of all and are egalitarian at the same time. Alas, the abundant diversity of the human mind means this is unfortunately not the case. I believe, that if we try and find the origins of these concepts we will then be able to follow the conceptual path they weaved and hopefully give us a better understanding of their meanings and nature. To do this I would like to tell a story about a philosophy student who got stranded on an island in the middle of the ocean:
The heat of the sun beat down on the philosopher, his exposed skin feeling the brunt of the sun’s rays. This caused the philosopher to awaken, finding himself face down in the sand. He spluttered dryly as his mind raced to make sense of his surroundings. A beach, stretching many metres to the left and right, a thick, green forest ahead. Slowly, the philosopher turned onto his back and was surprised to see how close the water was to his feet, licking tantalisingly close to his sandals. He sat there for a while, in a trance, delaying the inevitable realisation of the gravity of the situation. It serves the philosopher well not to panic in this situation, panicking does not solve anything.
After a while he stood, a glance to his right and left decided that he would explore the island in a clockwise direction. The island was not big, and it was oval-shaped and monotonous the whole way around. The philosopher was surprised to find himself looking down at the imprint his body had made in the sand, a mere two hours after leaving it. The tide had washed away the silhouette up to its knees. Still, without panicking, the philosopher decided that the island was completely deserted. He was alone.
After a while, he turned and, without thinking, strode toward the forest that lurked behind him. He hesitated a moment before entering the ominous sea of green, it was only a moment. As he picked his way through the jungle he wondered if he were trespassing on private property. A silly thought, a thought nonetheless. Many beautiful enclaves of nature in England are accompanied by a sign reading “This is private property. Trespassers may be prosecuted.” The philosopher smiled to himself at the thought of finding one of those signs plastered to a tree on this island. Even if it was private property, there is no one hear to prosecute him. And how would he be punished? Being locked in a cage? Being fined? Paying with his life? The philosopher’s forehead furrows a moment as he ponders this new development. “There are no rules on this island apart from ones that I may make myself, but I wouldn’t decree a rule to anyone! I would just live by it” he thinks to himself. “And anyway, even if there were rules, who would punish me if I were to break them” he continues.
The philosopher continues picking his way through the forest, but his body works instinctively as his mind races to comprehend these perplexing thoughts. He decides that on an island with a population of one, an authority has nowhere to manifest itself. Authority cannot exist without the ability to punish. The Philosopher is not satisfied with this conclusion, he, of course, can make rules for himself and punish himself accordingly when these rules are broken. So, then, is there a fixed amount of authority on any habitation and, in this setting, he possesses the entirety of it.
The Philosopher stops as he hydrates himself from a small stream heading out to the sea. He pauses drinking and asks himself: “What if someone else were to wake up on the island, as I have done?” The answer comes obviously to the philosopher, the fixed amount of authority would be divided into two and each person would take an equal portion. This sounds very reasonable to the philosopher.
The philosopher’s happy thoughts are interrupted by a grumble resonating angrily from his belly. He had not eaten in a while and he was not sure where his next meal would come from. As before, the philosopher is adamant that it is important not to panic in these situations. He continues on through the forest, methodically picking his way through the shrubbery. Gradually, but in an all-of-a-sudden kind of way, the forest thickens and the philosopher finds himself clambering through the thicket, sometimes on his hands and knees, and always wary of thorns and brambles. With his head down he ploughs through the thicket, still without panicking, until, to his astonishment, the forest clears and he finds himself in a meadow with soft, light green grass. The sun is shimmering through ephemeral, light clouds which dapple the rays ever so slightly as to cast a golden pall across the opening. It reminds him of England, in the summertime. Right in the centre of the meadow stands a huge apple tree with the most ripe and juicy pink apples one could possibly imagine. This cornucopia of goodness is ringed by an impossible variety of foods from potatoes to almonds and cucumber and banana, with blueberry bushes, dotted low around the larger trees. The philosopher can’t believe his eyes and thanks himself for not panicking earlier when he had every right to.
He pulls a carrot from the ground and wipes most of the mud and soil and takes a satisfying crunch. The carrot is surprisingly moist and sweet and he greedily takes a few more bites before tossing the carrot aside. Again his mind wanders to the nature of this delicious stockpile of food. “Who owns it? Am I allowed to eat as I please?” There really is nobody to stop him from eating anything. Again he wonders about the philosophical implications of this. “I am completely at liberty to take from this natural farm. I would not say I own it but in the absence of anyone else’s claim to ownership, it is effectively all mine.” What if someone else were to come to the island? The philosopher knows that if someone else were to come to his island he would not have total liberty to just take as he pleases as this could impede on the other person’s liberty. “I agree with this but why would that stop me, or her, from doing it anyway?” The philosopher has to ponder this for a while and decides that if one’s liberty is impeded one has the right to utilise their share of the fixed amount of authority to attain the equal proportion of liberty that one is guaranteed. The philosopher makes a mental note of how much more difficult concepts like authority and liberty are when multiple persons are involved. Later, he alters this mental note to: concepts like authority and liberty only matter when multiple persons are involved.
The philosopher thinks back to the conflict and tension that is, usually, ever-present between liberty and equality. How can one have true liberty if equality must be strictly adhered to? “How remarkable that on my little island equality and liberty live happily together like an old, married couple.” Or maybe they don’t live at all?
After the philosopher had eaten heartily -and drank plenty from the freshwater spring that lay at the centre of the island, on one edge of the meadow- he lay some fronds from the banana tree on the soft grass and lay down, staring at the stars. Despite the bleakness of the philosopher’s situation, he rested easily that night, as the stars winked knowingly down at him from above.
For a second time, the philosopher woke to the aggressive force of the sun, coercing him into awakeness. Much had changed on the island as the philosopher slept dreamlessly in his bed of banana leaves. The meadow was no longer the luscious green it was yesterday, it now had a distinctly orange hue to it and the grass sagged dryly to the ground. The streams that led out to the sea had dried and the mud and stones left behind were drying rapidly under the vicious gaze of the sun. Doing all he could not to panic, the philosopher managed to fashion a cup from a coconut that was surprisingly cooperative. He rushed over to the spring at the centre of the island to find it rapidly dwindling, he managed to scoop a portion of the dregs of water, which was unexpectedly brackish and gulped greedily. He repeated this as many times as he was able before filling his cup and heading for some much-needed shade. The morning sun only grew in viciousness as the day wore on and the philosopher cowered motionless in the thicket for a number of hours, sipping from his coconut cup sparingly.
He began to reflect on the rapidity in which his situation on the island had deteriorated. Yesterday was filled with premonitions of an untouched paradise nestled in the middle of the ocean. Today, the philosopher was panicking. His anger led him down a hasty and ill-tempered conclusion of events: “It is not fair to treat a human like this. Is there no justice on this island?” he ripped a lock of grass from the earth as he said it.
Some time passed as the philosopher just sat in the thicket, his anger had cooled and he was now filled with a melancholic serenity. “How foolish of me to speak of justice to an island? The island has no concept of justice, it only does, it merely exists.” The philosopher knows that he is the only being on the island who has a concept of what justice is and the only being who feels entitled to it. “If I am wronged there is no-one here to remedy the wrong through the pursuit of justice. However, if there were more people on this island perhaps this would not be the case.” The philosopher loses consciousness as the heat and the debilitating thought that he will, likely, never experience justice again, consumes him.
As if to laugh sardonically at the philosopher as he lay prone in the thicket, the island began a process of recovery. The luscious meadow which had provided so much to him the day before gradually restored it’s emerald, green hue and the lank, dead grass slowly regained its vigour. The sun’s glowing rays were softened by a cool, sweet breeze and the streams which had emanated from the centre of the island were once more restored, meandering their way out towards the endless ocean. The heavy green hues of the forest and the meadow were softened and dappled by vibrant pink, oranges and reds, creating an altogether beautiful spectacle. The philosopher awakens feeling well-rested. Upon seeing the rehabilitation of the island he is not overly surprised. His face wears an exasperated but happy smile as he picks his way through the forest toward the beach. When eventually he reaches the beach, drinking leisurely on his way, he is confronted by a brilliant sunset. The warm orange, an almost crimson, fans out and blends into cooler oranges and on into the purples. A sunset beyond words. The philosopher sits in the sand with a careless abandon. After more than 24 hours on the island and more than 24 hours of constant alertness, the weight of emotion rises heavily on the philosopher. “Has the island deliberately pursued the path of justice this evening to help me forget the struggles of the morning?” The philosopher ponders this unexpected spirituality brewing inside him but decides it should be annexed within, to ponder about in another life.
“What more can and will the island throw at me? There is no semblance to justice in the erratic motions of this rock?” The philosopher lies motionless for many hours, enjoying the sound of the waves. Well into the night he falls asleep and is whisked away into a dream. In his dream, he finds himself in the meadow, on the island. He is surrounded by a countless number of delicious nuts, vegetables, seeds and fruit. The water is crystal clear and sweet like honey, and it flows smoothly over the pebbles, which are many shades of a hypnotic blue. Instead of the thick, green forest, the beach rings the meadow in an artistic amalgamation of all the beauty on the island. Somewhere in his brain an annexe is opened and the island begins to speak to the philosopher: “I have provided everything for you, philosopher. You have all the food you could possibly need, you have fresh water and full mastery of your utopia. You are king and peasant in a perfectly cohesive and intrinsically happy society..” The philosopher finds himself agreeing with the island although the words do not come out in the dream. The island grants the philosopher a very, very dangerous thing: a choice. The philosopher can continue alone on the island and live in a utopian world of his own making, or he can risk the cohesion of his world and open his island up to others. Without thinking the philosopher makes his decision. It was a decision so final and absolute that he jolted awake to find himself once again alone on the beach.
Looking out longingly across the starlit ocean, the philosopher sighs. His body moves slowly, reluctantly, as he turns around and heads inland. As he picks his way toward the cornucopia at the centre of his island, tears stream freely down his face as he contemplates a life completely alone.
The philosopher’s story confronts the concepts at an angle that is rarely used. What to make of the four listed concepts when only one person exists? The story suggests that the answer is either the concepts do not exist at all or exist entirely and harmoniously within the single extant person. To me, these two possible answers mean largely the same thing. If the philosopher’s wish was granted and another person came to live on the island, she would surely die if she was not at liberty to take from the cornucopia, therefore the philosopher’s wish would not be granted. How much liberty does she have to take from the cornucopia one might ask, just as much as the philosopher has, an equal amount. In no way at all, has this story solved the tension within and between these concepts but I think an important conclusion has been reached. Most rational human beings would choose companionship and all the problems and difficulties it entails rather than an easy, solitary life. The philosopher is no different, in the dream he decided instantly for companionship but the island, which is just an island, did not grant him his wish. Does this not justify the needs of the community over the individual, we shall see. In a way, we have chosen to live together and not alone.
Written by Jack Spears