Essayist and cultural critic H.L. Mencken wrote, “The average man does not want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.”
This proposes a philosophical dilemma about whether safety or freedom is more important to human life.
On the one hand, in accordance with Mencken’s views, people need safety and protection. That’s the reason we have a government in the first place, right? It’s like what English philosopher John Locke proposed in his treatises on government in 1689; people begin in the “state of nature,” which is the state of people before giving their rights over to the government, but ultimately people sacrifice certain rights in exchange for laws and protection. Freedom is important, sure, but wouldn’t you rather have just a little less freedom and know you will be protected from harm than having all the freedom you want but constantly worrying about your safety?
On the other hand, freedom is essential to human life. Freedom gives us the ability to be creative and imaginative. Freedom allows us originality of thought. While feeling safe and protected is important, freedom should ultimately be the most coveted because too much protection can become sheltering and destructive to our quality of life.
Mencken implies that freedom is a universal concept in his statement, suggesting that every liberty is equally important to human life. However, I believe that the freedom humans are willing to give up in return for safety actually depends on the scale of this freedom. Ultimately humans want freedom, despite the small sacrifices of freedom we make each day. We are willing to give up less important freedoms for immediate safety, but are not willing to give up fundamental, larger-scale freedoms.
Take, for example, going to the airport. Whenever you go to the airport, you must go through security, and you probably don’t even think twice about it. It’s just something you have to do. You allow for your bags to be searched, maybe a quick pat-down by a security guard, in order to ensure the safety of everyone in the airport or on a plane. And, if airport security officers adhere to the correct protocol, they must have your consent for screening and cannot detain you if you refuse. For the average human, a pat down on top of your clothing on the basis of consent does not feel substantially violating. In this example, humans sacrifice this short and pretty insignificant violation of privacy in airports because it assures that everyone in the airport will be protected as they travel.
Let’s look at another example. Abortion is viewed negatively by some communities in certain parts of the US. There have been incidents of violence and shootings outside of abortion clinics, and women who are seen going into these clinics might be subject to this abuse. However, many women continue to risk their safety to go into these clinics and get abortions in order to exercise their freedom of control over their own bodies, a freedom that has a profound impact on their lives. Without this large-scale freedom, humans would not be able to live and function autonomously. So we fight for this important liberty and potentially sacrifice our safety in doing so for the ultimate goal of leading unconstrained lives.
Freedom is the natural state of human beings, and the development of societal institutions has increased our willingness to sacrifice certain parts of our lives to be less free. But our natural pull towards being free has not been reversed by these institutions, it has simply been shifted. At the end of the day, part of living in a society is having to sacrifice certain liberties. We cannot just conduct our lives however we want; there are certain societal rules and regulations that we simply have to follow. However, these sacrifices are merely minor setbacks to the ultimate goal of humans being free and autonomous people.
Locke, John. “Of the State of Nature.” Second Treatise of Civil Government (1821): 189–93.
Special thanks to my AP English Language and Composition teacher for introducing Mencken’s quote to me!