Liberty and Its Limits

Article excerpt

Liberty and individual rights are powerful ideas that have shaped the values of people in Western countries, especially the United States, and have given us a way of life that is unique among world cultures. The ideal of individual liberty is an important element in the humanist impulse toward emancipation and self-realization. But there is more to humanism than the achievement of unfettered liberty, which by itself would simply promote a nihilistic culture bereft of values--a charge that is already made against the West by Islam, our greatest cultural rival. We hear the same charge here at home from the religious right, which blames humanism for the breakdown of traditional values. The charge is, of course, a bum rap. It is true that our living patterns are changing and that there has been a general loosening of the bonds of traditional religious belief But it is time that we humanists got out the message that our agenda has only begun to be addressed. True, we want a secular and more rational society--but our real concern is with values.

An essential and defining quality in the humanist outlook is its ethical concern--for learning how we human beings can live together in peace and mutual harmony. Often ignored in discussions of individual rights is the fact that they are usually conflicting--especially in the social context. …