What is Freedom? (19): Social Freedom

If you ask people what freedom is, then they tend to go with the “ability to do what you want” definition. And it’s equally likely that they immediately add a qualifier: this ability should not be absolute but instead limited by the same freedom of others and by the things that can harm others.

Sounds very reasonable, until you dig a little deeper. Freedom understood like this only pretends to give our fellow human beings their due. Other people in fact become the border of my freedom and are therefore something negative. I can only protect my freedom or my ability to do as I like by avoiding other people as much as possible, by withdrawing from society and by becoming self-sufficient. Freedom is isolation. As long as there are other people around, my freedom is restricted by others; it’s restricted both by the rule that I should not harm other people’s freedom, and by other people’s lack of respect for the same rule with regard to me (since rules are never fully respected).

The more I avoid other people, the less restricted are my actions, and my freedom increases. If I avoid people, then no one stands in my way, no one interferes with my life, no one obstructs my actions or prevents me from doing something, and no one’s freedom limits my own freedom. It seems I can only do this when I leave the community because then my actions are no longer limited by other people’s actions or by other people’s freedom.

I’m not being original here. Marx already formulated this problem in On the Jewish Question 170 years ago:

The limits within which each individual can act without harming others are determined by law, just as the boundary between two fields is marked by a stake. It is a question of the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself. … [This kind of freedom] is not founded upon the relations between man and man, but rather upon the separation of man from man. It is the right of such separation. The right of the circumscribed individual, withdrawn into himself.

Fellow man is merely a limitation or a restriction – the only legitimate restriction of my freedom – and not harming him is the only thing I do for him. This kind of freedom is not incompatible with positive relationships and cooperation, but it doesn’t help either. It’s extremely individualistic even if legitimate interests of others are taken into account. It’s difficult to see how it can be compatible with another understanding of freedom in which freedom requires the company of others and in which other people are the realization instead of the limitation of freedom.

What would such a conception of freedom look like? It would see other people as necessary conditions rather than restrictions, as the beginning rather than the end of freedom. Freedom would not retreat into a space – and inner space or a physical space away from others – in which we can escape the coercion and the rules of the outside world. I think it’s necessary to accept the reality that the world of appearances and of other people is of the utmost importance to freedom. Freedom is more than a withdrawal from the world, from the threatening world of other people who do not allow us to be free and whose freedom limits our actions, either voluntary as a consequence of their own actions, or involuntary as a consequence of our respect for their freedom.

But why is interaction with other people important for freedom? I need the company of other people in a formalized and structured public space protected by rights if I want to take my life in my hands, if I want to examine my opinions and preferences in order to be sure that what I want to do – with respect for other people’s freedom – is really what I want. “Really” means that what I want is something more than unreflective preference. I wish to be able to choose from a wide range of objectives, as many as possible, without discrimination, obstruction and punishment (with the exception of those objectives that impede the objectives of others), but that implies more than freedom from interference. I need to hear others defend certain objectives with the best arguments they can present in an inclusive and accessible place of debate protected by human rights. Without this public place, my ability to do what I want – with respect for the same ability of others – is an empty phrase. If I can do what I want without interference, but what I want is impossible for me to determine in a rational way on the basis of good arguments – or is perhaps even decided for me in some conscious or unconscious way – then I can’t do what I want.

More posts in this series are here.


What is Freedom? (18): Freedom is a Happiness Pump

Several studies have shown a correlation between happiness and freedom. How can we explain this relationship? If we assume that there is some form of causation going on here – and that, in other words, there isn’t a third element which causes similar evolutions of the levels of both freedom and happiness – then it’s reasonable to conclude that freedom causes happiness.

The other way around would only make sense if we adopt a somewhat self-defeating notion of freedom: if we’re happy we don’t need anything more, and hence we don’t need to be able to choose; being free means being free from want.

However, if freedom makes us happy, how exactly does it perform this magic? One possible story is that freedom means, in part, economic freedom. And it does seem to be the case that economic freedom makes us wealthier. Wealth, in turn, makes us happier. There’s even less doubt about that.

Another explanation of the relationship: freedom means control, self-government and self-ownership. These states of being are intrinsically valuable but it’s not silly to argue that they should also make us happier. The life of a slave, a servant, a citizen of a dictatorship or a victim of psychological coercion can be a happy one but it’s not a happy one on average, at least given a definition of happiness that includes self-reflection and awareness of possible alternatives.

On the other hand, too much choice and responsibility for ourselves can make us worse off: it makes our lives more complicated and riskier, and increases the chances of regret or post-hoc dissatisfaction with certain choices. Regret obviously doesn’t make us happier. Neither does self-criticism, and self-criticism is another likely outcome of more freedom. If the results of our actions are caused by our free choices, then we can’t blame someone or something else if these results turn out bad. Buddhism can be understood as a reaction to the possibility of regret: freedom for Buddhism is not the ability to choose – and regret your choice afterwards – but is instead the freedom from want. This, however, is akin to defining freedom away, as I’ve argued above.

There are indeed measurable drops in self-reported well-being associated with the process of acquiring agency (see for example this source). Which may be related to the possibility of regret, the burden of responsibility for oneself, or the fact that increased choice and opportunity often entails an increased expectation that the choices we make and opportunities we get result in success of some sort. After all, if we don’t get what we choose why bother with the freedom to choose in the first place? And as we all know, success is rare. Sour grapes and adaptive preferences may then be seen as a reaction of the free against life’s many long shots. We are free to choose the grapes and even to attempt to get them – and our culture of freedom can even persuade us to choose a lot and choose things that we may never get – but instead of damning our overpromising freedom when we can’t get them we convince ourselves that we don’t want a choice in the matter. Once again, freedom is reduced to freedom from want.

In sum: the causal effects of freedom on happiness are complicated, if there is an effect at all. Maybe we should consider the possibility that freedom is worth having irrespective of or even despite of its impact on happiness. And is worth having even if the effect on happiness is negative.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (16): Does the Division of Labor Enhance or Reduce Freedom?

Adam Smith is famous for the argument that freedom needs the division of labor. Without division of labor, everyone needs to be his or her own “butcher, baker and brewer”, leaving no leisure time for self-chosen activities. Individual home production of all basic necessities is inefficient compared to industrial production aided by division of labor. Division of labor allows the mechanization of labor, and distributes producers into their personal field of speciality and talent. As a result, divided labor is much more productive. Being more productive it yields more social leisure time, and hence more freedom.

Conversely, individual home production does not allow people to specialize and focus on activities for which they are best suited in terms of talent, inclination, power etc. Neither does it make mechanization possible, at least not on an industrial scale. Division of labor, and the market that comes with it (if you divide labor and no longer do everything yourself, you’ll need to exchange the products of labor), liberates people from a large number of tedious and unproductive task, many of which are not well suited to their talents.

Karl Marx, while agreeing with Smith about the efficiency and freedom-enhancing consequences of the division of labor and the concomitant market economy (he was no romantic), has some well-known and convincing criticisms. The workers in a highly developed and industrial system of divided labor lose their character of producers. Given the importance in Marx’ view of working and of making things, a worker in a modern factory is by definition a stunted human being, alienated from the product of his work and exclusively occupied with detailed tasks that are as monotonous as incomprehensible. The worker can no longer express himself in his product and therefore can’t develop himself. He is not free.

The market exchange of produced goods is also alienating in Marx’ view: we no longer deal with specific persons when we trade, but with a large amorphous group of people who we don’t know nor want to know. For Marx, a large part of freedom is to be able to produce and to engage in normal relationships with one another. He clearly saw how divided labor and the market economy that goes with it reduce that freedom. And his lesson is not heard anymore. Those who care about freedom should listen more carefully, to both Marx and Smith.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (15): Non-Domination?

The so-called republican notion of freedom, championed by people such as Philip Pettit, defines freedom as non-domination, as the absence of a master wielding arbitrary power over you.

It’s a kind of freedom that appeals to me, in part because it helps to justify democracy: individual freedom from domination can be aggregated to political self-mastery and self-determination. However, I suspect that this framing of freedom collapses into a more common notion of freedom, namely freedom from coercion or freedom from interference. After all, being dominated is bad because you master can coerce you. A master is synonymous with a coercer.

Pettit then replies to this by giving the example of A Doll’s House, the play by Ibsen. Nora and Torvald have a traditional marriage in which the husband is the master of the house and has all the legal and cultural prerogatives that this entails. However, Torvald (in the beginning at least) is well-meaning. Although he has every right to treat Nora as he pleases, he allows her lots of freedom and doesn’t really intervene or coerce. Still, Nora isn’t really free according to the republican notion of freedom because she lives by the grace of Torvald’s good will. The day Torvald decides that it’s enough – and that day does come sure enough – her freedom, or imagined freedom in Pettit’s mind, comes to an end. Nora can only be free when she’s free from her master, however well her master treats her.

And yet, I still believe that this doesn’t make non-domination a separate kind of freedom: what makes Nora unfree, even though she is free from immediate coercion, is the risk of future coercion by her master, not simple the fact that she lives under a master and by the grace of this master. Freedom of coercion in any non-trivial sense must include freedom from the risk of coercion.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (14): Do We Have Free Will?

The evidence seems to say “no, there is no free will”. The notion of free will has been the object of criticism and even ridicule for as long as it exists, but it has recently become the target of a truly continuous and seeming devastating scientific onslaught. Study after study argues that we really don’t want what we do or do what we want, that we have no choice in a lot of things we do, and that we don’t decide to act the way we act and can’t act otherwise even if we want to. Here’s a short summary of the evidence:

  • Priming. People in advertising have long known that exposure to certain images – perhaps even subliminally – can change behavior. Studies have shown that American voters exposed to the American flag are increasingly supportive of the Republican Party, even if they identify as Democrats, and even if the exposure is fleeting. And it’s not just images. If a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that he or she will answer table is greater than if they are not primed (source). If it’s this easy for other people to decide how we act, then we can assume that we often act in ways that they decide.
  • Stereotype threat. When the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task. Again, this makes it easy for others to change how we act.
  • Anchoring. In one study, German judges first read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, then rolled a pair of dice that were loaded so every roll resulted in either a 3 or a 9.  As soon as the dice came to a stop, the judges were asked whether they would sentence the woman to a term in prison greater or lesser, in months, than the number showing on the dice.  Finally, the judges were instructed to specify the exact prison sentence they would give to the shoplifter.  On average, those who had rolled a 9 said they would sentence her to 8 months; those who rolled a 3 said they would sentence here to 5 months. Yet another example of how we often act not because we freely want (or “willed”) our actions but because of external pressure and manipulation.
  • Learned helplessness. Rather than try their best to escape oppression, subjugation and other predicaments, people often give up and accept their situation. A failure of the will, but a failure determined by outside forces.
  • Adaptive preferences. We settle for second best and call it the best, not because that is our free choice but because the thing that we really believe is best is out of reach. Free will? Meh.
  • Peer effects. Group membership and the presence of role models determine what is the “natural” way to act.
  • Justificational reasoning. When we defend our so-called free and freely willed actions, we tend to do so after the fact and with special attention to the good or bad reasons justifying our actions, at the expense of reasons justifying other kinds of actions. This suggests that we didn’t weigh all the reasons for all possible actions beforehand, and that our actions are therefore not actions we chose to want on the basis of good reasons. Perhaps then our actions are caused by something else, such as habit, conformism, reflexes, tradition etc. Free will is incompatible with those causes.
  • Poverty of willpower. Power of the will seems to be a finite resource that can be depleted. No willpower means no free will.
  • And then there are Benjamin Libet’s infamous studies showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before people are consciously aware of their desires.

I could go on, but this will do. Of course, none of this proves that there is no free will. At most, it makes us realize that free will is severely constrained: if it exists at all, it’s only a partial and intermittent faculty, present in unequal degrees in different people at different times in their lives.

And yet, despite all this evidence, we continue to act as if all people, , with the exception of minors and the mentally handicapped; have free will all of the time. We constantly blame people, we punish and praise them, and we say that they deserve what they get. If I – being a mentally healthy adult (at least according to some) – were to hit the person sitting next to me now, I would be castigated because everyone agrees that I could have acted otherwise. I probably could have, but perhaps I couldn’t. Who’s to tell? Perhaps a little less blame and praise could be one good outcome of psychological research. But I’m not holding my breath. We can follow this advice, or we can all act otherwise, unfortunately.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (13): Five Increasingly Demanding Types of Freedom

Here are 5 increasingly demanding, and also increasingly complex definitions of freedom:

1. Freedom is being free from coercion and being able to do what you want.

Angela is free because no one forces her not to do the X which she wants to do, and because no one forces her to do the Y which she doesn’t want to do. Angela can walk naked in public because there’s no law making public nudity illegal.

2. Freedom is being free from coercion, being able to do what you want, and being free from the possibility (and risk?) of coercion. It’s the same type of freedom as in Type 1 but with added security for the future. After all, Type 1 can be the case for a minute or so, and then gone. (Requiring that there is a low risk of coercion is of course less demanding than requiring that there is no possibility of coercion, given a risk level higher than 0).

Angela is free because no one can force her not to do the X which she wants to do, and because no one can force her to do the Y which she doesn’t want to do. (Alternatively, Angela is free because there is a very low risk that someone forces her not to do the X which she wants to do, and because there is a very low risk that someone forces her to do the Y which she doesn’t want to do.) Angela can walk naked in public because there’s no law making public nudity illegal and because she doesn’t run the risk of having a law imposed on her in the future. Her lifestyle, as opposed to her fleeting activity, is protected.

3. Freedom is being free from impediments and being able to do what you want, and being free from the possibility (and risk?) of impediments. The word “impediments” has, compared to “coercion”, the advantage of including non-human impediments to being able to do what you want as well as internal impediments (e.g. feelings of guilt or shame, unwanted desires, obsessive compulsive disorders etc.). “Impediments” means everything that “coercion” means, but not vice versa.

Angela is free because no one and nothing (internal or external) can force her not to do the X which she wants to do, and because no one and nothing (internal or external) can force her to do the Y which she doesn’t want to do. Angela can walk naked in public because there’s no law making public nudity illegal, and because shame or the weather don’t make it impossible.

4. Freedom is being free from impediments and being able to do what you want, being free from the possibility (and risk?) of impediments, and being equipped with the capacities and resources (inner resources and external resources) to do what you want.

Angela is free because no one and nothing (internal or external) can force her not to do the X which she wants to do, because Angela has the capabilities and resources (internal or external) necessary for her to do X, because no one and nothing (internal or external) can force her to do the Y which she doesn’t want to do, and because she has the capabilities and resources (internal or external) necessary for her not to do Y. Angela can walk naked in public because there’s no law making public nudity illegal, because there’s nothing making this impossible, and because she has the necessary resources such as self-confidence, leisure time etc.

5. Freedom is being free from impediments and being able to do what you want, being free from the possibility (and risk?) of impediments, being equipped with the capacities and resources (inner resources and external resources) to do what you want, and being able to choose what we want to do or be from a wide, unimpeded and undistorted set of choices or set of objects of volition. These impediments and distortions in the set op option can be caused by brainwashing, agenda-setting etc.

Angela is free because no one and nothing (internal or external) can force her not to do the X which she wants to do, because Angela has the capabilities and resources (internal or external) necessary for her to do X, because no one and nothing (internal or external) can force her to do the Y she doesn’t want to do, because she has the capabilities and resources (internal or external) necessary for her not to do Y, and because Angela’s decision to want to do X and to not want to do Y was a choice from a wide set of options, a set that was not restricted or distorted in anyway by others. Angela can walk naked in public because walking naked in public is something she has freely chosen to do without others meddling in the set of her options or in her choice of options.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (12): Uniqueness?

“Freedom breeds uniqueness” says Venkatesh Rao. And indeed, freedom means the ability to make different choices and therefore allows people to head off in different directions. Conversely, nothing gives a better clue of oppression and dictatorship than displays of uniformity and collectivism.

However, could it not be the case that people all agree on things and have come to this universal agreement in freedom? When something is true, we should all accept it uniformly if we are rational human beings that think freely. Hence, people who look like they’re the pinnacle of unfreedom because of the consensus they display, are in fact free. Freedom is then not an appearance but a capacity, namely the capacity to make a voluntary and informed choice between propositions. This capacity can lead to diversity, but also to uniformity.

Sounds obvious, but often we label people unfree merely on the basis of how they look. Often when we see conformism there is in fact freedom. The rational consensus cited above may appear to us as something less than rational and based on group pressure or confirmation bias. Buddhist monks may sound as if they are merely reciting the same age old mantras they were taught by their elders whereas their detachment is in fact a form of freedom. The burka wearing Muslima may look like a victim of religiously imposed conformism but perhaps she made a free and informed choice to be what she is.

Hence, uniqueness may well be a sign of freedom, but freedom is more than just apparent uniqueness. Uniqueness can even be a cause of unfreedom. The urge to be unique can lead people to torture themselves in order to achieve something, or can lead them to reflexively oppose themselves to others (as we see in some subcultures). There’s nothing free about the compulsive effort to distinguish oneself or about knee-jerk opposition to others.

More posts in this series are here.