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Relational Liberty

“Relational liberty is freedom through interdependence.”


For the rest of the day, the passengers spent time alone in their cabins, chatting in small groups about personal matters, taking pictures, helping with trimming the sails and steering Kalea, stretching, exercising or sunbathing on deck, and listening to international news on the shortwave radio.


At one point, Jack asked if he could use the snorkeling equipment and get towed behind Kalea to get a fish-eye view of any marine life and the assortment of odd inanimate, semi-buoyant objects that could be seen suspended in the water column close to the surface.


Bob replied,


“Fine by me, so long as you don’t mind being trolled as shark bait.”


Sure enough, intrepid Jack spent the next several hours with mask, fins, and snorkel in the smooth water between Kalea’s twin wakes — no doubt a most enticing live lure for any large ocean predator. Fortunately for Jack, there were no curious sharks along Kalea’s path that afternoon, though he did get bonked on the head when he wasn’t looking by a semi-submerged orange-ish plastic bucket with the letters ‘… om … epot’ on the side slowly drifting and bobbing its way across the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.



The conversation earlier in the day made me think of how we are emerging from a centuries-long emancipation quest of the mind and spirit that has succeeded in producing the illusion of human mastery over Nature. Ironically, one of the great successes of this newfound intellectual freedom — the Scientific Method — is now starkly revealing how we have overstepped Nature’s boundaries. Nevertheless, our hard-won emancipated agency surges onward.


The growth-seeking capitalist market economy is tied to a liberal justice model that champions the emancipation of individual agency, but conveniently leaves out stewardship of the environment and the economy’s creation of externalities.


Liberty must be redefined in the context of a responsible and just human-Nature relationship — individual agency and responsible self-direction with an ecological awareness. Self-directing ecological citizens who use their freedom and agency in the service of a sense of ecological trusteeship and responsibility — this is the democratic hope of the future. Privatized selves who concern themselves with who gets what, when and how, need to be reoriented to become deliberative democratic citizens who are attentive to the common good and to obligations of trusteeship for the health of the planet — our fragile lifeboat in the cosmos. Our personal flourishing is inextricably linked to the flourishing of others and to the flourishing of the natural world.


Relational liberty is freedom through interdependence. It internalizes the freedom and well-being of all (both human and non-human) into the freedom and well-being of each. It means living life in one’s own way, but only after embedding that way of life in a tradition — a civic life of shared purpose — and rooting that life in a sense of ecological place and in a sensibility of care for Earth’s life support systems.


Relational liberty rejects the exclusive privileging of individualistic values over communal ones and leads away from the control of the natural world as a source of ‘wealth’ defined as material accumulation, relative social status, and ‘utility maximization.’ It leads toward a notion of artistry, craftsmanship, and appreciation of the beauty of natural forms. It emphasizes participation, engagement, and capacity for creative agency.


The new ethics of relational liberty can justify and motivate the kinds of economic and social change needed nationally and globally in the next generation. It is a recipe for rich lives in a socially and naturally interconnected and interdependent world.


American democracy was founded on the idea of maximizing individual liberty and rights as long as those rights do not interfere with the freedom and well-being of others. But in today’s crowded, full-world reality, more and more of the actions of individuals do interfere with others. And we have certainly expanded our definition of ‘others’ over time from being only privileged white European men to now including women, blacks, and other minorities. Now we are once again expanding that definition even more to include future generations and other species on the planet. Our ‘maximum individual liberty’ must not interfere with the freedom and well-being of any of these additional categories of ‘others.’


The market system ensures that an individual’s freedom and property are not violated unless there is fair, mutually agreed upon compensation. But many impacts occur outside the market system and are not adequately covered by laws. In a ‘full’ world, these externalities are now pervasive — and leaving these costs out of the market threatens everyone’s liberty and freedom. For example, it is rather ridiculous to hear individual and corporate polluters argue that they should not have to pay for their externalities because it would ‘infringe on their personal and corporate liberties’.


Our culture is tragically allergic to any self-conscious analysis, and thus we have embraced a self-indulgent materialism that now is undercutting life’s prospects. But what if we were to honestly question anew our understanding of fundamental concepts such as development, poverty, and wealth — particularly as they apply to the new reality of interdependent living in a full world?

The Islander Knows

Sleepwalking Into Despair >

​© 2020 Rich 'Rico' Leon