President's Column

Freedom, Responsibility and Justice: The Cornerstones of the Good Life

Paul T. P. Wong
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Trent University

The theme chosen for the second bi-annual Meaning Conference is: Freedom, Responsibility, and Justice. To the extent that these are the cornerstones of the good life and a civil society, they are pivotal issues of positive psychology.

Never in the history of humanity had so many freedoms been won for the individual in so many countries. Yet, liberty without responsibility poses the greatest threat to democracy. Similarly, license and addiction pose the greatest threat to personal and community health.

Dr. Viktor Frankl has long contended that meaningful living is predicated on the exercise of freedom of choice and personal responsibility. To Dr. Frankl, responsibility entails responding to the demand of meaning unique in each situation.

But, where does personal responsibility end? Who should be held responsible for evil deeds? To what extent are society, corporations or other people responsible for foolish and harmful individual decisions? Does a culture of victims and scapegoats undermine personal responsibility? What can be done to promote ethics, meaning and virtues?

The relationship between freedom and responsibility is indeed complex and so much hangs in the balance. The challenge facing psychologists is: how to foster responsible, meaningful choices without externally limiting individual freedom.

Any progress in addressing this research question will contribute to the welfare of the individual and the society as a whole. It calls for the best minds and generous funding to tackle this pressing issue, which has broad implications.

Social justice is another urgent issue, to which psychologists can no longer turn a blind eye. Thomas Jefferson once said, “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”

The pursuit of liberty, life and happiness does not occur in a vacuum. It can be greatly hindered by an oppressive society or conflict-ridden community. Furthermore, psychological problems often stem from the unraveling of family, neighborhood and social institutions.

Thus, another challenge facing psychologists is: how to create organizations and communities that are characterized by fairness, harmony and kindness. This is an even greater challenge, because community transformation depends on more than individuals making responsible decisions. It also depends on knowing how to create a climate of respect and regard when individual rights and personalities clash.

We have singled out justice for special attention at this Conference for several reasons. Firstly, meaningful existence cannot be based on selfish pursuits – it needs to be concerned with larger issues such as poverty, racism, indigenous disadvantages, etc. That is why Dr. Frankl and other existential psychologists have emphasized the need for self-transcendence and serving a higher purpose.

Secondly, a lack of fairness undermines the individual pursuit of meaning. It would be difficult for individuals to experience meaningful living and fulfillment, when they feel that they are discriminated against and unfairly treated,

Thirdly, a lack of justice hinders community building. Conflicts and factionalism are inevitable, when group members feel that there is a lack of fair treatment and procedural justice in the organization.

Finally, the perception of fairness raises important questions: Does it depend on equal opportunities or equal results? Can fairness co-exist with elitism and hierarchy? Is the prevailing winner-takes-all philosophy contrary to peace making and community building?

This new Millennium calls on psychologists to wrestle with issues of responsible choices and positive participation within the life of the nation. We need to discover how to harness all the forces – psychological, spiritual, social, political and economical – to enhance freedom, responsibility and justice.

The Meaning Conference provides an opportunity for psychologists and social scientists to get together and weave a rich tapestry of positive psychology with numerous themes, such as personal meaning, optimism, competence, coping, love, faith, trust, courage, empathy, justice, acceptance, forgiveness, character education and participatory leadership.

Thus, the scope for the Meaning Conference is broad enough to encompass a wide variety of topics, involving different methodologies. In addition to the traditional research and theoretical presentations, we will also include several open sessions for interested individuals to share their ideas and experiences.