We tend to see freedom as the attribute or right of an individual. G.A. Cohen has argued that this is incomplete at best. Individual freedom is A’s freedom to do X. Collective freedom is A’s and B’s freedom to do X. Cohen gives the example of 10 people locked into a room. There’s only one door, one key, and the door can only be opened once allowing only one person to escape. Any individual is free to leave, but collectively all are unfree. Individual freedom is dependent on the decision of all other individuals and of the collective not to exercise their freedom.
Cohen uses this example to argue that the working class is collectively unfree: workers are individually free to escape the working class, but collectively unfree to do so; capitalism allows only a small number of workers to become capitalists, otherwise there would no longer be any workers left to support it. In general, most workers have no choice but to sell their labor power and remain in the working class.
I’m not interested here in an abstract evaluation of the respective merits of individual vs collective freedom. My point is limited: individual freedom does not make sense when we talk about human rights. What is important is not that individual freedom depends on others or the collective giving up their freedom, but that individual freedom is meaningless without collective freedom. It’s only when the collective is free that individuals are free. Few if any of my rights make sense if I’m the only one having them or the only one being able to exercise them. If I can speak but nobody else can, then what is the point of me speaking? I will just be talking to walls. If I have freedom of religion but nobody else has, then with whom will I worship and congregate? Etc. My individual freedom in the sense of my having effective rights depends on everyone else being free and having equally effective rights, not on everyone else giving up their freedom.
More posts in this series are here.