Saturday, May 28, 2011

Freedom - What Does it Mean?

One reason why I love to run is the feeling of freedom it affords me. I slip on my shoes, open my door, and it's me and the world, and nothing gets between us. It doesn't matter where I am: in the country, in the city, in the mountains, at the shore. It doesn't matter what the weather may be: I've run through Nor'easters in Maine, forest fire smoke (not advisable) in Colorado, stifling heat and humidity in New Jersey. I've run through: pregnancy, illness (also not advisable), relationship break-ups, losing a parent, losing a best friend (my first dog), fear, joy, confusion, and utter contentment. Everyday is a different run - a different experience - another piece added to the puzzle of the being I am.

So today as I ran along a quiet trail in Boulder, Colorado on a magnificent, crisp spring morning, I embraced my freedom - and acknowledge how fortunate I am to be able to exercise this freedom.

And then I hear something coming from behind, approaching quickly. I look over my shoulder to see a mountain bike bearing down on me. No warning other than the sound of tires bouncing over the clay-mud rutted trail. I move to the right and the bike moves quickly past. I mention that this is a "no bikes" trail (which is exactly a quarter mile north of a well maintained dirt bike trail that runs exactly parallel to this trail). The biker says, "Oh, sorry". There are signs at every entry point onto this section of the trail system saying "no bikes". And the the rule in Boulder is that it is the responsibility of the biker to know where they may and may not go. I mention to the biker that his behavior is not helping the cause of cyclists hoping to gain more access to City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks trails. This has been an extremely contentious and divisive issue in Boulder. He responds "I'm willing to pay a ticket if I get one. Cars speed, they get tickets, everyone does it." I ask him to slow down if he wants to say something to me, and he does. I run alongside him for about a 1/4 mile as we civilly discuss this issue. I appreciate his civility immensely - this has been a rarity in my experience when dealing with cyclists. However, his arguments are illogical and untenable.

Here's the gist of it: It's okay to do whatever you want as long as you're willing to pay the penalty when and/or if you're caught. He fully accepts that what he is doing is against the law and he's ready to accept the consequences. He uses the analogy of speeding in a car to illustrate his point: First, everyone does it; Second, if you pay your ticket it's all good.

So my question today is: Does one's ability and willingness to pay a fine grant them the right and freedom to do whatever the hell they want to do? Notice, I'm focusing on his second claim because the first claim is blatantly weak.

Well, to begin with, the analogy doesn't work: If you speed and get caught, you get a ticket. If you continue to speed you continue to get tickets, but eventually you lose your license (even if you pay your tickets). And if you continue to drive even without a license, you will be thrown in jail. Paying a fine does not guarantee your right to exercise unlimited freedom. Why? Because in this case your actions effect others. In this country we live in and consent to a social contract - that is, we agree to live in a manner that is mutually beneficial to all. So, for instance, I agree not to kill you as long as you agree not to kill me. This agreement benefits us both. Given the reality that some of us are neither reasonable nor rational, we have laws. Those laws are meant to protect rational members (those who recognize that others have rights) of this social contract from irrational members. Traffic laws are there to protect us. It doesn't matter if everyone does it (which is just not true). It doesn't matter if I'm as rich as Oprah Winfrey. Having the the means and willingness to accept the consequences does not give me absolute (moral) freedom. Absolute freedom results in state of nature or anarchy. And as the 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes noted, such a life would no doubt be nasty, brutish, and short.

Now, there seems to be another undercurrent to his argument - which he did not state, though in the spirit of charity I'll entertain another possible angle. That is Civil Disobedience: Let's suppose that bicyclists are unfairly discriminated against - that is: laws are imposed on them that unfairly limit their freedoms.

Martin Luther King Jr. argued against racial segregation laws claiming that discrimination based upon race is unjust. In "Letter From Birmingham Jail" he called for all Americans of good will to break immoral human created laws: "One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the consequence." But, importantly, unjust laws are not unjust merely because I don't like them. (And to clarify: unjust=immoral) I may not like speed limits, but that doesn't make them unjust. According to King there are two criteria useful in determining whether a law is or is not just: It is a law made by the majority/those in power (my addition)and imposed on the minority/those without power, but that law does not apply to the majority/those in power. 2) A law that undermines the human personality (it makes a person feel like a lesser human being). So discrimination based upon race, sex, disability (possibly sexual orientation) qualify based on this criteria. I believe that King's criteria makes a lot of sense.

Do laws limiting trail access for bikes, or dogs, or equestrians, or people in general, qualify as unjust according to this criteria? No. The restrictions apply to all, not some segment of the population. I may be a runner first, but I do also mountain bike. I'm not allowed to bike on those trail, just like everybody else. And those who call themselves cyclists are permitted to use the trails, just not while riding their bikes. Does this law in some way make bikers feel inferior? No. The laws do not condemn bikers as lesser humans. They're aimed at safety and resource/environmental protection. Now, we may dispute the need for such restrictions, but it certainly isn't a case of civil rights being denied, and therefore, breaking the law is not an admirable act of civil disobedience.

So, no matter how charitably I interpret my cycling acquaintance's arguments, they don't work. Freedom is never without limits. My (moral) freedom is always limited by the rights others have to exercise a similar freedom. Freedom should not be available only to those who have the ability to pay for it. And, when freedom and rights are denied in a discriminatory manner, civil disobedience is not only allowed, it is required.


  1. My libertarian bleeding heart loves you. Way to speak to one of their tenants: We are free to do as we wish, as long as we do not infringe on the liberties of others.

  2. Well Danny - I can say that I'm not a Libertarian, but I do subscribe to the Liberalism of John Stuart Mill - I may do what I want as long as I don't harm someone else.


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