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 It is a question of the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself.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 The right of the circumscribed individual, withdrawn into himself.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.

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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.

What is Freedom? (11): Freedom of the Slave, and Freedom of the Slaveholder

A nice quote from Abraham Lincoln, ridiculing the notion that U.S. slaveholders lost their “freedom” when slavery was abolished:

The world has never had a good definition of liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in need of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. (source)

A similar point – one about the freedom of the tyrant – was made by Hannah Arendt. More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (10): The Ability to Do Things

Sooner rather than later you’ll stumble across the following view when you read about definitions of freedom: people lack freedom when they can’t do what they want to do because governments – or also, in a relaxed version of the idea, fellow citizens – intervene in order to stop people from doing what they want to do (“stop” can mean different things here: literally stop someone, forbid something, coerce someone, prevent someone from doing something etc.).

When people can’t do what they want to do because of some other reasons – lack of resources, lack of money, lack of capabilities, handicaps, natural impediments, natural disasters etc. – then they don’t lack freedom. They merely lack ability.

My view is different: I accept the first part of the argument above – interference does indeed limit freedom in one sense of the word – but I reject the second part. And I have some illustrious company. G.A. Cohen, for instance, has argued that

while the poor are formally free to do all kinds of things that the state does not forbid anyone to do, their parlous situation means that they are not really free to do very many of them, since they cannot afford to do them, and they are, therefore, in the end, prevented from doing them. (source)

Hence, it’s wrong to claim that there is a fundamental difference between a lack of freedom and a lack of the means or ability to use freedom. Cohen again:

lack of money, poverty, carries with it lack of freedom. I regard that as an overwhelmingly obvious truth, one that is worth defending only because it has been so influentially denied. Lack of money, poverty, is not, of course, the only circumstance that restricts a person’s freedom, but it is, in my view, one of them, and one of the most important of them. To put the point more precisely – there are lots of things that, because they are poor, poor people are not free to do, things that non-poor people are, by contrast, indeed free to do. (source)

A lack of freedom and a lack of the means or ability to use freedom are fundamentally the same thing.

A similar post about the link between money and freedom is here, and one about poverty as a denial of freedom is here. More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (9): The Ability to Act Otherwise

Freedom is often defined as the ability to act otherwise. If you do something, you’re acting freely if and only if you can also omit the action or do something else. In other words, you’re free if you have a choice and if your actions are not somehow forced, for example by others, by external obstacles, by internal inhibitions or passions, by the laws of nature, by the law of cause and effect etc.

This definition of freedom sounds obvious – even boring – but once you think about it a little bit, it quickly loses its appeal. After all, how do we know that we can act otherwise? Maybe we think about earlier and similar experiences when we did act otherwise – I feel an urge to have a Scotch right now and I know that’s a free action rather than a compulsion because I remember similar urges in the past, some of which I resisted.

But having acted otherwise in similar circumstances in the past is hardly proof that we can now also act otherwise. In fact, we can only be certain that we can act otherwise if we effectively act otherwise. But that is pointless, because we don’t want to act otherwise; we chose to act in one way, and not another, and we want to know if acting in one way rather than another means that we act freely. We may be able to determine our freedom in the case of unimportant actions: if I put my right hand in my pocket, I may try to act otherwise and put my left hand in my pocket. Acting otherwise isn’t costly in this example because it doesn’t really affect my will and because we’re not talking about something that is important to me. The difficulty arises when we want to know if our important actions are free: actions such as marrying, choosing a career, having kids etc. We don’t want to act otherwise in those cases, and often don’t even have the time or the opportunity to act otherwise.

Acting otherwise is not just pointless but also circular: imagine that we do act otherwise, then as well we want to know if we are free, and this we can only know if we act in yet another way. And so on. (More about this here).

So I guess that we need to say something more than “ability to act otherwise” if we want to know what freedom is.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (8): Generic and Specific Freedom

People from both sides of the political divide are in favor of more freedom, it’s just that they often talk about different kinds of freedom: those on the left usually want to promote generic freedom, while those on the right favor specific freedom. Of course, they don’t use these terms, since I just made them up. What I mean by them is this:

  • Generic freedom: I lack generic freedom if I never have the freedom to do certain things, for example because I don’t have the capabilities, resources, education or whatever that is necessary for me to normally be able to do these things.
  • Specific freedom: I lack specific freedom if I normally have the freedom – i.e. the generic freedom, which is the ability or the resources – to do certain things but if in certain specific circumstances or on certain specific occasions someone or something prevents me from doing these things.

In the case of specific freedom, I both can and cannot do certain things (in the words of von Wright): I cannot do them now or here, but I could have done those things had it not been for some obstacle or interference. The “can do” is given and the problem of freedom only arises afterwards, namely when I can’t do, in some specific circumstances, what I normally can do.

In the generic type of freedom, on the other hand, the “can do” is problematic, and problematic in a generic rather than a specific sense: I can’t do certain things, not because I normally can but I now and here face some impediment, but because I normally can’t.

Promoting someone’s generic freedom means increasing the range of different things that person can do, generically. For example, it means teaching people to do things, allowing them to learn to do things, giving them the resources and opportunities to do things etc. Promoting someone’s specific freedom means reducing the range of impediments that force this person to omit certain actions. For example, it means reducing legal prohibitions, social pressure etc.

It’s tempting to conclude that generic freedom is in a sense prior to specific freedom: you won’t encounter impediments while trying to do what you already can do if what you are trying to do is not something you already can do. If you can’t do something, whether or not there are impediments, you don’t care about possible impediments. However, maybe specific and generic freedom are not so different after all: lack of capabilities or resources can also be viewed as an impediment.

Still, if we maintain the distinction between these two types of freedom – or these two understandings of freedom – then it seems to me that it can help to explain many of the differences between right and left wing politics. If you’re worried about generic freedom, you’ll want to help people pay for their healthcare and education; you’ll favor generous social security benefits etc. If, on the other hand, your main worry is specific freedom, you’ll favor less regulation and legislation, free markets and other policies that may or may not promote equal generic freedom for everyone.

More on the similar distinction between positive and negative freedom is here. More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (7): Individual and Collective Freedom

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.

What is Freedom? (6): Objective and Subjective Freedom

G.A. Cohen and Nicholas Vrousalis have suggested that we should distinguish between objective and subjective freedom:

  • We are objectively free if there is no interference with our actions and if we have a real opportunity to act – in other words, if we have the capabilities and other means necessary for action and if afterwards no one stops us from acting. For example, I am free to speak f I have the education and money necessary for me to engage in meaningful speech and if no one censors my speech.
  • We are subjectively free if we do something from reasons that are our own or that we do not mind acting from after due consideration of those reasons. I am free to be a janitor if I have my own, well-considered reasons for choosing this occupation (I may have a deep sense of service to others and strong feelings of humility), but not if I somehow convinced myself that there are, regrettably, no reasonable alternative occupations available to me – even though in reality there are (if there are no real alternatives, then I’m (also) objectively unfree rather than merely subjectively). In the latter case, my being a janitor is not something that I do not mind to be and is not something I do for my own reasons. For the same reasons, I am free to be a doctor if I have arrived at my reasons motivating me to be a doctor through my own sound and independent thinking, and not if I have convinced myself that in reality I have arrived at my reasons through parental influence and indoctrination. Similarly, I’m not subjectively free if I’m a drug or sex addict, if I wish to quit, and if I’ve convinced myself that I can’t quit (if I really can’t, I’m (also) objectively unfree).

Both objective and subjective freedom are important. Someone who is not interfered with and who has all the necessary means and capabilities can still be unfree if he thinks – probably incorrectly – that he is lived by others, that his reasons for doing things are other people’s reasons, that there is no free will and only determinism, or that there are no alternatives. The case of paranoia comes to mind. Vice versa, people may feel subjectively free even though they are objectively unfree, for example if they think that their reasons are their own even if that is objectively not the case. Think of the effects of advertising, beauty ideals or political indoctrination.

How does this distinction between objective and subjective freedom relate to human rights? Objective freedom is clearly dependent on human rights: these rights can stop interference and can offer the means and capabilities necessary to act (the latter is the case for the right to education and the right to a minimum living standard).

However, subjective freedom is in some instances also dependent on human rights. You can best arrive at your own well-considered reasons for your actions, and convince yourself that you have and that your reasons are really your own, when you are a member of a thriving public space where the relative merits of actions, goals and reasons are freely discussed and where the presence and feasibility of alternatives can be clearly seen.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (5): Is Poverty a Denial of Our Freedom?

Freedom is commonly, but in my view mistakenly, defined in a narrow way, namely as the frustration of our goals or our choice of goals by the intentional (or, less restrictively, unintentional) actions of other human agents. These actions can be of two types:

  • intervention with or obstruction of our goals or choices,
  • or the removal or denial of the resources we need to achieve our goals or make our choices.

Most people would not call it a denial of freedom when our goals or choices are frustrated or obstructed by natural phenomena or other non-human causes. (More here).

Take the example of a tsunami washing away the only bridge connecting our home to the mainland, thereby making it impossible for us to achieve our goal of joining the mainland. This does not deny our freedom according to the common interpretation of freedom. However, when our authoritarian government prohibits us from using the bridge in order to join the mainland, then this is seen as a denial of our freedom. Our goals are the same in both cases, but the different causes that make it impossible for us to achieve our goals mark the difference between mere inability or lack of power on the one hand, and a lack of freedom on the other.

The origins of this common interpretation of freedom are to be found in the view that freedom is about the ways in which human beings ought to treat each other and about the ways in which government officials in particular ought to treat citizens. Freedom is a moral and normative notion that only makes sense in a social and political context. On top of that, people often give a pragmatic reason for limiting freedom to human relationships: we can only do something about the denial of our freedom when governments or fellow human beings block our goals and choices or take away the resources we need to achieve our goals and choices. Hence, even if we accept to call obstruction by natural causes a denial of our freedom, there’s no point it since we can’t legislate that a tsunami should not block our goals and should be punished if it does.

This far I can go along with the common view. My objections kick in when people extrapolate the tsunami example to poverty. Poverty, the claim goes, is not – or at least not normally – caused by direct human actions, and therefore it’s not a denial of freedom. In most cases of poverty, it’s not as if we can point to some guy and say: “he made me poor!”. The level of our income and wealth is determined by a gigantic interplay of millions of actions in the global marketplace, by climatic conditions, institutions and policies, our genes, our behavior etc. It’s impossible to point to a precise selection of human beings who are responsible for our poverty. Therefore, although poverty does frustrate our goals and choices just as much as (or perhaps even more than) human actions such as enslavement or oppression, we are dealing here with something that is more similar to a tsunami than to an authoritarian government or an oppressive fellow citizen.

As a first reply to this claim, we can point to cases in which the causes of poverty can be traced to certain very specific human actions and agents: agricultural subsidies, the North Korean famine, politicians voting to abolish unemployment insurance etc. However, let’s grant that it may often be possible to link a particular individual’s poverty to specific actions or agents and that a particular individual’s poverty is often multi-causal. Still, the same may be true of oppression. Furthermore, it remains the case that we can always identify very specific individuals who have the power to end the poverty of other individuals. They may not have caused the poverty of those individuals, or we may not be able to show that they did cause it or that their actions contributed to a great extent, but their failure to use their power to end it is a denial of the freedom of the poor. It may not be their actions that created poverty, but their failure to act certainly does perpetuate it. And although the difference between actions and failure to act or between initiation and perpetuation is important, it’s not important enough to remove responsibility. Because there is responsibility, we can claim that poverty is a denial of freedom even if we adopt the restrictive definition of freedom as the frustration of goals and choices by other human beings and even if we grant that it’s not possible to trace the causes of poverty to deliberate actions.

Go here for a related post.

What is Freedom? (4): Increasingly Demanding Types of Freedom

Freedom can be defined in different ways. Depending on the definition, it’s something that is more or less demanding. Definitions of freedom differ in the things that are required to make us free. Here’s an overview of a number of different definitions that you can find in the literature, from the least demanding to the most:

1. Absence of voluntary goal frustration

A basic, minimalist definition postulates freedom as the absence of goal frustration. We are free if no one blocks our goals, if we can do what we want and what we have set out to do, without anyone – in particular the government – frustrating the realization of our will or our goals. In this basic form, the frustrating agent always acts in a deliberately frustrating manner.

For example, a wife in a patriarchal society – call her Mary – wants to work outside of the household, is formally allowed to do so (there’s no choice frustration) but achieving this goal is made very difficult for her; both her husband and the government put a lot of obstacles in her way.

2. Absence of involuntary goal frustration

A slightly more demanding vision of freedom includes among the frustrating agents those who frustrate goal realization, not because of voluntary obstruction but because of other reasons not inspired by the will to frustrate or obstruct.

For example, although Mary has successfully divorced her husband and migrated to a more liberal county, she finds that none of her skills are marketable in her host society. Hence, the people in her host society involuntarily frustrate her goals and make her less free than she could be.

3. Absence of resource-based goal frustration

A step further: the blocking factors are not only agents but also a lack of resources. The resources can be either inner our external resources:

  • Inner resources: if we lack discipline, a good work ethic or a good education, we may be unable to reach our goals. Our passions, emotions and other tendencies may overwhelm our other tendencies that we require for the realization of our goals. In this case, our goals and freedom are frustrated not by external agents but by aspects of ourselves.
  • External resources: if we lack food and shelter, we may also be unable to reach our goals.

For example, Mary’s goal of finding employment is blocked by her inability to work in a disciplined way and/or her lack of means of transportation.

We are free to achieve our goals if there is no obstruction

  • by agents voluntarily frustrating our achievement,
  • by other agents involuntarily frustrating our achievements,
  • caused by the absence of internal or external resources (or the presence of obstructing “resources”).

4. Absence of choice frustration

The first 3 definitions above take for granted that we want something and try to realize it, even though we’re faced with obstacles of different kinds. The focus is on our ability to get it or on the factors inhibiting our ability. A fourth, still more demanding definition of freedom stipulates that we are free only when there is no goal frustration and when we have an unfrustrated choice between different goals or objects of volition.

For example, Mary’s only objective is caring for her family and she didn’t choose this objective from a certain range of possible desirable goals, for example because certain goals are not allowed. In this case, we will not call her free, not even if she wants her objective and can achieve it without frustration. She’s not free because she didn’t choose her objective from a range of possible objectives of unequal value.

A lack of freedom in this 4th sense can be caused by agents voluntarily or involuntarily limiting the range of options, or by a lack of resources.

For example, Mary only has one possible goals, caring for a family. Other valuable and desirable goals, such as becoming an artist or traveling the world, have been blocked by the cultural or legal norms of her society or by a lack of internal or external resources: she does not have the income, education or discipline necessary to make an evaluative choice among a larger set of options. Mary is less free than she would have been had the other desirable goals been possible options – possible in the sense of not having been removed from the set by agents, or in the sense of being backed up by the necessary resources.

As in the case of goal frustration (types 1, 2 and 3), choice frustration can be caused by interference or by the absence of resources or capabilities.

5. Absence of distortions in option formation

An even more demanding notion of freedom: freedom requires that agents or the absence of resources do not block options, but also that there are no distortions in option formation (as opposed to option choice). People are free if they can freely establish a wide set of possible desirable goals, then freely choose from them without someone or something frustrating certain options (#4), and then freely pursue the chosen options without frustration (#1-2-3).

So freedom is not just goal achievement or goal choice but also the ability to set up a range of possible choices.

For example, some options do not even cross Mary’s mind. Her option formation may be inhibited by early childhood nurturing that has removed certain possible goals from the option set. Or she may erase options from her mind: her realistic assessment of possibilities makes her adapt her preferences and choose those options which are approved by her patriarchal circumstances.

Such distortions in option formation – settling for the options that are feasible or just choosing from those options that have been instilled in us from early childhood on – may make us more happy since we’ll stop agonizing about the impossible, but it won’t make us more free.

6. Absence of the wrong options

And finally, the most demanding form of freedom stipulates that people should have the ability, not to choose from an undistorted set of options or to pursue the chosen options without hindrance, but the ability to choose the right options, i.e. only those options that are moral or those that make one’s life better.

This is the kind of freedom that makes sense of the paradoxical phrase “forcing one to be free”: only by forcing people to make the right choices can people become free.

For example, if Mary was given the freedom to choose between educating herself and working in the sex industry, then Mary would only be free if she chose the first option. The second option, although possibly profitable, would not make her free because it would not allow her to make her life better.

That last sentence makes it obvious that the conception of freedom as the right choice depends on controversial assessments of the “good life”. People cannot be free to decide on their own view of the good life, because then this conception of freedom would collapse into the previous one (#5). Some authority must decide what is the good life and force people to choose the right options. Hence, it’s unclear whether this conception of freedom still deserves the name. The paternalism and perfectionism inherent in the conception are more at home in authoritarian forms of government.

Just a small remark to end: although these 6 types have names that use negative language (“absence”), this does not imply that they are all negative types of freedom in the traditional sense.

More on different types of freedom here.

What is Freedom? (3): The Paradox of Self-Ownership: The Right to Sell Yourself Into Slavery

Self-ownership, or the property of your own person, is a metaphor for the right to exclusive control of your own body and life. It captures some important intuitions: for example, that you should have a right to end your life as they see fit, that no one should be enslaved and that you generally have a right to decide what to do with your own life. As such it supports the idea of personal autonomy. For some, it also supports the right to abortion and it invalidates taxation.

Others even believe that self-ownership implies a right to sell your own body and life, just as you have a right to sell your other property. If that’s the case, then you have a right to sell yourself into slavery.

However, if self-ownership is understood as merely a metaphor for autonomy then there can’t be a right to sell yourself into slavery. Autonomy, or any other value for that matter, can’t be made to include the seeds of its own destruction. In other words, autonomy can’t include the right to autonomously abdicate your autonomy. Take this quote from Mill:

The ground for thus limiting his power of voluntarily disposing of his own lot is apparent, and is very clearly seen in this extreme case. … [B]y selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it beyond that single act. He, therefore, defeats in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself. (source)

If you insist that values or rights should be made to include their own negation, you’ll end up in Absurdistan. Democracies, for example, should then include the possibility to vote democracy away. Freedom should include the freedom to create totalitarian government. Tolerance should include tolerance of intolerance and of the forces intent on destroying tolerance. I don’t think we want to go there.

So, autonomy must include certain limits if it’s not to collapse under its own weight. This means that it’s legitimate to deny the moral value of – and perhaps even to forbid – autonomous actions that forfeit autonomy. Just like democracy is limited and suppresses anti-democratic movements and votes, and just like tolerance is limited and excludes tolerance of intolerance.

More on self-ownership here.

What is Freedom? (2): A Right to Self-Ownership?

Libertarians stress the importance of the right to self-ownership. I would argue that it’s an interesting and useful right in the context of human rights more generally, but also one that is a bit of a problem. When we say that people have a right to self-ownership we mean that they own themselves in just the same way that they can own objects. It follows that people have the same rights over themselves and their bodies as they have over objects:

  • they are free to use their bodies as they please
  • they can claim that others, including the government, refrain from using it
  • they can use the government to protect themselves against others trying to use it
  • and they can transfer property rights to others.

Self-ownership rights understood in this sense are the core of libertarian philosophy and are believed to justify standard libertarian policy recommendations such as the elimination or reduction of taxation, the freedom to sell organs, use drugs, engage in all forms of consensual sex etc. And indeed, self-ownership can be an attractive right to non-libertarians as well: it can be used to justify the prohibition of slavery and rape, to protect people’s rights to euthanasia and assisted suicide, to solve the forced transplant dilemma, to support the rejection of capital punishment on the basis of a theory of non-instrumentalization etc.

However, useful as the right to self-ownership can be, it’s not without drawbacks. The right can, and in the minds of most libertarians does imply a denial of the obligation to help others in need (apart from an obligation based on prior wrongdoing and assistance based on voluntary agreement). Such an obligation would be a form of slavery. It would mean the forced use of our bodies and labor power for the benefit of others. Libertarians often reject taxation for the same reason. All this seems needlessly selfish and contrary to moral intuition.

It also seems incoherent. Most if not all libertarians accept taxation for the funding of some collective goods such as highways and the police force. It’s not clear how they can accept a limitation of the right to self-ownership for the sake of some types of taxation but not others. Taxation is always the non-consensual use of persons for the benefit of others, whatever its purpose.

If you view the right to self-ownership as an absolute right – or axiomatic – you may wind up accepting some absurd conclusions: you’ll have to claim that it’s impermissible to gently push the arm of a driver holding his steering wheel and heading towards of group of school children, because that would mean using the body of the driver without his consent to aid others in need. Self-ownership therefore can’t be an absolute right, at least not in a non-solipsistic world. Minimally, it should be limited for the sake of the self-ownership rights of others: imprisoning murderers or slave holders means limiting their self-ownership rights for the sake of the same rights of their potential victims. And, on top of that, it’s probably also necessary to limit self-ownership rights for the sake of certain other values. The problem is that it’s difficult to think about a limited right to self-ownership: every limit to that right seems to destroy it completely. Either you own yourself or you don’t.

There are, I think, three ways to react to these problems with the right to self-ownership.

  • You can bite the bullet and maintain that the right to self-ownership is the fundamental right and should be absolute whatever the consequences.
  • Or you can hold on to the right but only as one value amidst others, and to be balanced against others.
  • Or you can abandon it, claiming that it only has a rhetorical value, and that it’s better to focus on the “derivative” rights – such a the right not to suffer slavery – and try to justify those derivative rights independently (e.g. an anti-slavery movement doesn’t need the concept of self-ownership in order to be effective).

As a good value pluralist, I prefer the second option. The rhetorical and unifying force of the right to self-ownership should not be underestimated. If we manage to prune its extreme libertarian outgrowths (such as selfishness and extreme marketization in the form of organ sales or the “right” to sell yourself into slavery), we’re left with a powerful concept that can be of great value in the struggle for individual liberty (which isn’t a libertarian monopoly by the way). But it can’t guarantee liberty by itself. It depends on and is only meaningful together with a theory of ownership of the rest of the world. Imagine that one other person owns the entirety of the world, minus yourself (i.e. you only have self-ownership). That means that when you want to eat you’re a thief, and when you want to move about you’re trespassing. That’s hardly freedom. Self-ownership without a theory about how the rest of the world is owned can be utterly meaningless.

So the question then turns to the way in which nonhuman things and beings should be owned and distributed. Who can own what? Libertarians would claim that self-ownership provides a basis for ownership in general, and they use Locke’s theory of property to argue for that claim (I own myself, therefore also my labor, therefore also the fruits of my labor – since hardly anything in the world today hasn’t been touched by human labor, almost everything can be said to be owned by someone).

However, I argued elsewhere that this is a difficult if not impossible move. Hence, ownership should be justified independently from self-ownership, and should probably include the notion of a “fair share”, whatever that means. Perhaps this notion can be based on another element in Locke’s theory, namely the “Lockean proviso” that we should leave enough and as good for others, or on some form of sufficientarianism (meaning that all should have enough resources for basic subsistence, for a decent life, for a life worth living etc.). Or it could be based on the persuasive claim that the earth is the common ownership of all, regardless of the labor some have put into it. But I’ve already discussed those issues here and here respectively.

What is Freedom? (1): Three Kinds of Freedom

People usually talk about two kinds of freedom, negative and positive freedom. This common framing of the discussion about freedom is a result of the pervasive influence of Isaiah Berlin. However, this influence can be inhibiting in the sense that it can discourage other ways of thinking about freedom. Let me propose one other way.

We can, for instance, argue that there are not two but three kinds of freedom. Take the case of a business man being unfaithful to his wife. He tells her he’s going on a business trip but he’s meeting his lover instead. On his way to her, he’s not hindered in any way on his trip. There are no impediments or obstacles to overcome. His wife doesn’t try to stop him since she’s not aware of the affair. He takes the plane to see his lover and the airline cooperates in an unusually efficient way, security checks are cleared without any problems etc.

So the business man is free in the first sense of the word: freedom from external impediments. Let’s call this FREEDOM 1. It’s, in the tradition of Berlin, a negative kind of freedom.

However, the business man, while on his trip, is torn by guilt. Part of him tells him to stop and go back home. He knows that’s the best thing to do. But another part of him is driven by sexual desire and passion. The rational part wants him to be free of sexual desires because it knows that they may destroy everything that is dear to him.

So the business man isn’t free in this second sense of the word: freedom from internal impediments. He’s not free, not because of the presence of outside control, but because of the absence of self-control. Let’s call this FREEDOM 2. It’s also, obviously, a negative form of freedom in the sense that it requires the absence of internal impediments to a preferred action. (Berlin would not call this a negative freedom, but this post isn’t about Berlin, so let’s skip that).

We can also define this freedom 2 by way of the concept of “second-order desires” (following Harry Frankfurt). You are free if you can exercise self-control or self-mastery, and you can if you are able to act on your second-order desires. In our example, the businessman is free to have sex with his lover – no one forces him to have sex with her or to not have sex with her (this is freedom 1) – but he’s not free in the sense that he succeeds in acting on his second-order desire to remain faithful to his wife.

Freedom 1 is essentially a political concept, and receives most attention in political discourse. It’s the basis of concepts such a limited government, rule of law etc. Freedom 2 is usually part of discussions about psychology, personal morality and some forms of religion (such as Buddhism, which teaches that we should rid ourselves from desires). It also features in criminal justice (to what extent is a person criminally responsible for his or her acts, and to what extent is that person driven by passions, desires etc.). For this reason, freedom 2 can be likened or perhaps even equated to the concept of free will.

Freedom 2, although not political, can be reinterpreted in a political sense. Personal self-control and self-government – with the rational part of the individual taking control over the irrational and self-destructive part – can be seen as the starting point of a certain form of political freedom. Self-government is then translated from an individual notion into a collective one. If an individual wants to exercise self-government, he or she may also want to do that together with others. A society takes the model of individual self-control and uses it to exercise collective control over common matters.

Let’s call this FREEDOM 3: you’re free if, as a member of a community, you participate equally in the government of common affairs. This freedom is autonomy and democracy. One could call it a negative freedom as well, in the sense that a community, in order to govern itself, should be free from the rule of external forces (a dictator, a ruling class etc.). But even when those external forces are absent a community still needs to act together in order to govern itself. In that way, freedom 3 is not similar to freedom 2, and therefore it makes much more sense to call it a positive freedom: not merely a freedom from something, but a freedom to control a common destiny, a freedom to make your own rules and laws. (You could argue that freedom 2 is also positive in this sense, but it is much more negative than freedom 3 in other ways. And anyway I want to go beyond the positive-negative distinction here, so let’s drop that).

Freedom 3 is autonomy and democracy because it allows a community to take control of its common life. The problem with freedom 3, as already argued by Berlin, is that it can easily spill over in paternalism and become unfreedom. Rather than a collective acting together in a democratic spirit in order to govern their common affairs, we have a split in the collective: some use the split inside an individual between the rational part that tries to govern the irrational part and achieve freedom in this way (i.e. freedom 2), as a metaphor justifying a social distinction between more and less rational individuals. The former know best what is in the rational interest of the latter, and start to force the latter to act “rationally”, whatever that means (e.g. avoid adultery or compulsive gambling, live according to the communist worldview etc.). By forcing the irrational to act rationally, the paternalists make the irrational free, just like an individual who forces her irrational part to act rationally thereby makes herself free (freedom 2).

Coercively forcing an adulterer to mend his ways makes him free because mending his ways is presumed to be what he really wants (his second-order desire). So people are coerced for their own good, a good that they themselves are perhaps too blind to see.

This criticism was forcefully described by Berlin, and it remains very useful. However, I don’t think it necessarily discredits freedom 3. On the contrary, paternalism is a deviation from freedom 3, not its logical conclusion. Freedom 3 can avoid the pitfall of paternalism as long as it focuses on the mode of formation of desires rather than on their content. (See John Christman for a more elaborate version of this argument).

Freedom 3 remains important, like the other two types.

  • Freedom 1 is important because people want to be able to do what they want with a minimum of external impediments.
  • Freedom 2 is important because people often want to be able to decide rationally what they want, rather than instinctively. And rationally here means a thinking and reasonable assessment of the available options, which in turn means that you’re not forced into an option by your passions (or by your government, tradition, family etc. in which case we’re back in freedom 1).
  • And freedom 3 is important because people want to be autonomous and want to shape their common life. They don’t want their common lives dominated by a ruler or a ruling class.

If all three types of freedom are important, then none of them is sufficient by itself. Freedom 1 leaves the individual at the mercy of internal impediments and assumes – incorrectly – that the prior fixation of the individual’s volition is unproblematic. Freedom 2 shows that it is problematic. But it’s not only problematic because of the possible effect of passions; see here and here for some other reasons why the fixation of volition requires more than simply the absence of overbearing passions.

People do not simply want unimpeded action. They also want to reflect on what it is that they want. Freedom 1 is also insufficient for another reason. External impediments are often defined in a very limited way: to some who adopt freedom 1, only impediments intentionally produced by fellow human beings count, which means that unintentional impediments such as economic forces or non-human or natural impediments such as a handicap do not make people unfree (they merely make them “unable” to do something). That seems to me very restrictive. What difference does it make that my freedom of movement is impeded by an authoritarian government rather than by my poverty or disability?

Freedom 1 is insufficient because it can’t produce freedom 2, but also because it can’t produce freedom 3. It can’t be, by itself, the basis of democratic government. It’s perfectly compatible with some forms of limited dictatorship, on the condition that this dictatorship is relatively non-interfering. However, one could argue that a democracy – freedom 3 – is the best way to protect freedom 1 since a democracy protects human rights, and human rights limit external impediments.

Freedom 1 is insufficient, but so is freedom 2. Freedom 2 – the absence of internal impediments – can’t possibly produce freedom 1. On the contrary, it’s often a reaction to the absence of freedom 1. When faced with numerous external impediments, it can be reasonable to retreat into yourself and cut back your desires (like a Buddhist). The other option, going against the external impediments that block your desires, can be very costly, especially when the impediments are caused by your dictatorial government.

Freedom 3 as well is insufficient, even though it promotes freedom 1. After all, it doesn’t necessarily promote freedom 1, especially not for democratic minorities. And it’s completely unable to promote freedom 2.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (11): Freedom as Capability

Freedom as independence or the absence of interference (especially government interference) is an important concept but it doesn’t cover all useful meanings of the word. Freedom is more than just the (relatively) unhindered ability to do as you like; it’s also the availability of significant and wide ranging choices and of the capabilities to do the things you choose to do. Choices and capabilities may be enhanced by the absence of interference, but also by interference. Someone who’s doesn’t suffer interference by her government, and who isn’t pressured by her family, tradition or society, may still lack freedom because her choices and capabilities are limited: maybe she doesn’t have a basic income necessary to make choices and act on these choices. Or maybe she didn’t receive the education necessary to have the capabilities to make informed choices. In those cases, government interference in society by way of poverty reduction and the provision of education may enhance freedom. Take an example that’s less controversial than education or poverty: traffic rules. These rules interfere with what we can do, and yet they vastly increase our choices and opportunities and they allow us to do what we choose (getting somewhere), because they prevent chaos and accidents.

Normally, the point of driving is to get somewhere. The traffic laws enable us to get where we are going much more quickly and safely than we would if each of us had to decide for him- or herself which side of the street to drive on. The traffic laws do not tell us where to go. They leave the choice of destination, and for that matter the decision whether to drive at all, entirely up to us. They simply tell us which side of the road to drive on, that we should stop at various points, and so forth. By taking away our freedom to drive on the left, or to blast through busy intersections, they grant us much more freedom in the form of a greatly enhanced ability to get wherever we want to go quickly and safely.

Anyone who thinks that the traffic laws enhance our freedom should acknowledge that in some cases, including this one, government action can enhance our freedom, even if that action takes the form of restrictions on what we can and cannot do. An enormous number of questions about which (other) forms of government action might enhance our freedom would remain to be answered, but the fact that some government policy involves either a more active government or new restrictions on our action would not, by itself, imply that it diminishes our freedom. Hilary Bok (source)

Traffic rules are a form of government interference that enhances our capabilities. And while they may not be representative of all government rules, we can safely conclude that some constraining rules can also be enabling rules. By limiting certain kinds of behavior, government actions and laws can greatly expand the range of possible behavior. Paradoxically, limiting freedom can mean expanding freedom.

Government can enhance our freedom by helping us to expand our choices and foster our capabilities, and by giving us the opportunity to exercise our capabilities as often – or as little – as we want. It does so especially for those of us who would struggle to foster and use our capabilities by ourselves. Hence, government enhancement of capabilities often means equalization of capabilities. Not in the case of traffic rules because in that case everyone equally depends on government intervention; in the case of education and poverty reduction, however, some will benefit much more than others.

The important thing, according to Martha Nussbaum (who, together with Amartya Sen, has written a lot about the capabilities approach), is not that we exercise all our capabilities all of the time, but that we all have an equal opportunity to exercise our capabilities as much or as little as we choose. People who starve cannot exercise their capabilities, but people who fast could exercise their capabilities but choose not to. Only in the former case is there a task for government. Likewise, something must be done when people in a totalitarian state can’t read the books they want, not when people in a free country decide to be coach potatoes. The power of choice is the central concern, not what is actually chosen. Capabilities are important, not actual functionings.

Read the other posts in this series here.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (10): Limited Freedom and the Temptation of the Future

It’s hardly controversial to claim that some limits on freedom are necessary in order to protect the freedom of others. Few people consistently argue in favor of an unlimited ability to do as one likes. More controversial is the internalization of this principle, in which it is possible and acceptable that a person’s current freedom is restricted in order to protect that same person’s future freedom.

I think this is only generally accepted when limited to children. A child loses some of its freedom when it is forced to attend school, do homework, learn good manners etc. because this will greatly improve his or her future opportunities and choices. A restriction of current freedom serves to expand future freedom. A child that isn’t forced in this way will find that he or she has fewer choices when grown up, and therefore less freedom.

But is this “less is more” philosophy of freedom, or the principle that one needs to be forced to be free (in the infamous words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau), also applicable to adults? Well, it does happen, whether it’s morally legitimate or not. Smoking bans, drug bans, helmet rules etc. are examples. Communism is also an example, although obviously a more extreme one. Citizens of communist states were often “encouraged” to suffer now for a better future and for the “reign of freedom”. There’s also a long tradition of anti-hedonism. A life focused on pleasure, desire and the avoidance of effort is frowned upon because of the damage it can do to the future self. Perhaps less today than in previous ages, but still… In all these examples, people take away other people’s freedom in the name of freedom. Limits on freedom are deemed necessary for the future enlargement of freedom. External discipline and control is put in place of lacking self-discipline and self-control, or external knowledge in place of lacking internal knowledge. If the objects of their coercion complain about it now, then perhaps later in life will they understand and appreciate the reasons why they were forced to do certain things.

This temptation of the future, as we can call it, is in fact an effort to equalize freedom: those who live a hedonistic life or who don’t understand their own long term interests run the risk of diminished freedom in the future. Other people will be tempted by a possible future freedom to try to restrict these people’s current freedom. Doing so, they believe, will give them access to equal freedom compared to those who do understand the demands of future freedom.

The problem here isn’t that the premise is stupid, but that the consequences of this premise can be harmful. Most people would readily agree that only a fully developed individual who doesn’t constantly yield to temptation and who invests effort in his or her life can have a wide spectrum of choice and hence freedom. Someone who forgoes effort is likely to become an uneducated bigot who has the freedom to choose between being a coach potato one minute and a nitwit the next.

But what gives other people the right to force this nitwit to make an effort and try to access a more interesting notion of freedom in the future? Even assuming that the use of force is effective in some objective and verifiable sense (that may be true of compulsory education for children, but not for other types of force directed at adults), are you morally allowed make people free by treating them as infants or idiots dependent on coercion and education? And, if so, is this freedom worth the disrespect that it entails? It’s clear that we’re rapidly turning the corner to some kind of fanatical altruism in which freedom is no longer the ability to do as you want but rather the ability to do as you should want.

Does this mean we shouldn’t ever force people for the sake of their future freedom? I don’t think so. There is room for some types of legal measures that protect obviously self-destructive people against themselves. Prohibition of hard drugs and of the free purchase and use of certain pharmaceuticals, as well as some measures regarding road safety are some examples of limitations that receive widespread approval, accept among hardcore libertarians. (Although most of them also go to the doctor when they are sick and obediently do as the doctor orders. They may say that this is their own free decision and therefore not comparable to legal prohibitions of strictly self-regarding behavior, but is this really their free choice? How many sick libertarians choose not to do what the doctor says?). We just have to be careful that we don’t go beyond a certain minimum (which I agree is difficult to determine) and don’t quietly slip into paternalism and the rule of the technocrats who think they know better how people should lead their lives.

Restrictions of freedom that aim to modify strictly self-regarding behavior must remain the exception for at least three reasons:

  1. It’s very difficult to prove that somebody does not understand his interest in the right way and that there is somebody else who has a better understanding of this interest.
  2. Even if 1 isn’t a problem, how are we going to select these “wiser” persons?
  3. And even if neither 1 nor 2 is a problem, how are we certain that our current restrictions have a positive net impact on future freedom? The future is, after all, hard to predict and past predictions that have been shown to be correct will not necessarily remain correct in the future.

Most of the time, people know very well what is or is not in their interest and how to maximize their future options and freedom by themselves. Democracy would be impossible or undesirable otherwise. Only if people know their own interests can they be given the power to decide for themselves and the power to control whether laws or policies are in their interest. Otherwise, guardianship or a paternalistic form of government would be more appropriate.

No matter how important it is to care and show compassion, we should not allow ourselves to get carried away by it. In general, we should allow people to decide for themselves, to determine their own way of life and their own interests, even if we believe that these people have chosen a wrong, inferior or offensive way of life and harm themselves as a consequence of the way in which they understand their interests (if they harm other people as well, then it is easier to intervene). Of course, we can advise people and try to convince them, but we should be very careful if we want to impose a way of life on people through the use of (legal) force, no matter how reasonable and beneficial this way of life seems to us. What is best for me is not necessarily best for everybody. Most people value the freedom to decide for themselves. The value of this freedom may even outweigh the value or price of any possible outcomes of their decisions.

Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be forever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties and increased direction of their feelings and aims toward wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations. But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being. John Stuart Mill

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (9): The Freedom of the Tyrant

A popular definition of freedom is “the ability to do what you want”. If you accept the claim that tyrants or dictators are among those most able to do what they want (since the rest of humanity is always to a larger extent bound by laws and the actions of others), then it follows that a tyrant is the archetype of a free person.

Except if you believe – as I do – that freedom is not only – or even primarily – the ability to do what you choose, but also the availability of significant choices. And a choice is significant when you have the ability to expand the options you can choose from and the ability to make an educated choice between expanded and examined options.

Now, how do you widen the available choices, and check if what you at first think you want is really what you want after reflection and consideration of all the available options? Only if all possible options and choices are flooded with the light of publicity. When you see which options are available, when you hear people freely discussing in public the merits of different options and objects of volition, only then can you make an educated choice.

This publicity requires a legal system and legally protected human rights. These rights open up the options, allow other options to appear and show the merits of all options. These rights improve your volition and hence give something more than the mere ability to do what you want. They allow you to take a step back and reflect on what it is that you want.

Only in a public space protected by legal rights, where everybody is equal and where everybody can speak and listen in an equal way, can we examine our options. So we see that freedom needs equality in the sense of the equal participation in public life. If there’s no equal participation, then some possible options and some arguments for or against some options will not appear, and, as a consequence, a free choice isn’t possible.

Now if we return to the case of the tyrant, we can say that he’s not more free than his subjects. A tyrant does not have access to a public space because a public space needs the protection of human rights, something which a tyrant gets out of the way as soon as he can.

The point of Herodotus’s equation of freedom with no-rule was that the ruler himself was not free; by assuming the rule over others, he had deprived himself of those peers in whose company he could have been free. In other words, he had destroyed the political space itself, with the result that there was no freedom extant any longer, either for himself or for those over whom he ruled. Hannah Arendt

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (7): Negative and Positive Freedom

It think it’s fair to say that both the libertarian and egalitarian conceptions of freedom are wrong. Libertarians traditionally adopt a negative kind of freedom. More precisely, they believe that individuals should be free from interference, especially interference by the government, and with their property. They don’t accept that it makes sense to view freedom more positively as the possession of resources and capabilities that are necessary to make a really free choice between alternatives and opportunities. The freedom of those without certain resources and capabilities (such as education, health and a basic income) is futile because they can’t exercise their freedom, not because they are actively interfered with but because they can’t choose between opportunities.

Such a positive freedom is preferred by egalitarians (also called social-democrats, progressives, or even liberals). These, however, often make the mistake of denying the importance of negative freedom. In their effort to equalize freedom they often show disdain for non-interference and property rights.

There is a relatively easy way to bring these two points of view a bit closer together. The main worry of libertarians is that egalitarians will use the power of the state to redistribute property. (Remember the uproar over the claim by Obama that he wants to “spread the wealth around”). As I stated here, there are good reasons to encourage voluntary redistribution by citizens, without enforcement by the state (enforcement should only be necessary when citizens fail to engage in charity). If the resources and capabilities necessary for an equal positive freedom are redistributed voluntarily by citizens, then there is no interference and negative freedom and property rights are safeguarded.

This may sound naive, but I don’t think it is. There’s already an enormous amount of private charity and remittances are also a very important source of financial aid.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (5): Free Will

The concept of free will is usually viewed in a theological light. It’s the classical explanation for evil in the world. God has created the world. God is not evil (no one would want to live under the rule of an evil God). There is evil in the world. Why is it there, when a non-evil God has created the world? Why doesn’t God do something about the evil in the world, given that he is almighty? Isn’t the logical conclusion of the combination of omnipotence and evil that God must be evil?

Theologians traditionally use the “free will escape”: God has created man (and woman) with the capacity of free will. We have the power to do good and evil. When there is evil in the world, it’s our free choice, not the choice of God. Divine intervention in the affairs of the world and stopping evil things from happening, is undoubtedly what God, being good, would prefer to do, but doing so would mean taking away our free choice between good and evil and taking away our free will. The world would be a deterministic place where God drives everything. Human beings would be pawns in a chess play. It appears to most religious people (in the West at least), that this isn’t what God wants.

There has always been a tradition of determinism, but rather than God determining everything determinists nowadays believe it’s genetics, psychology, physics or whatever. People are said to be determined by their genes, evolutionary forces etc.

A strict determinism – all human actions, as everything else in nature, are determined by outside causes – is by definition religious, even if at first sight it seems incompatible with religious tradition (western religious tradition that is). If everything is determined by a pre-existing cause, then one has to go back to the beginning of the universe, to the first cause. Since determinism cannot go back indefinitely, to the infinity of the past, there must be a first cause. And this first cause, being the first, doesn’t have anything pre-existing causing it. Hence it is the causeless causer, the unmoved mover, the uncreated creator, the demiurge according to Plato. And this has to be some kind of God.

Strict determinism is a terrifyingly improbable idea. Imagine that the past rules the future, that we don’t have any choice in any matter. People would be mere billiard balls. It’s improbable because we all have the experience of making choices, of having had the possibility to do otherwise (there would be no regret without it). However, lack of probability doesn’t make strict determinism impossible. Maybe our experience and our regret are illusions.

A better argument against strict determinism is that accepting it would mean abandoning morality and criminal law. It is incompatible with responsibility – moral, legal and criminal. If you don’t control your actions and you cannot make a choice to do or not to do something – if, in other words, you couldn’t have done otherwise – then obviously you cannot be punished for having done something. It wasn’t you who did it. There was some pre-existing cause making you do it.

The fact that there is morality and criminal law indicates that people generally believe that we have at least some measure of free will. And the concept of extenuating circumstances or diminished responsibility in criminal law, points to the fact that there is also a consensus that some level of determinism is present in our lives and that individuals do not in all circumstances have a free choice (they may be forced into to doing something by reasons grounded in genetics, sociology, psychology etc.). We probably shouldn’t be absolutists on either side. In the words of Sartre, we are always ready to take refuge in a belief in determinism if this freedom weighs upon us or if we need an excuse.

However, it’s not because something is abused that it doesn’t exist.

Strict freedom is as unlikely as strict determinism, so freedom and determinism seem to coexist. This is the theory called “compatibilism“, of which Thomas Hobbes is a known representative.

now, you may ask – if you remember the title of this post: what is the link with equality? Strict determinism is an extremely egalitarian theory. It makes it impossible to distinguish between people. Everyone is equally praiseworthy or blameworthy. In fact, we all have a praise and blame counter stuck at 0. There can be no praise or blame, no reward, desert, punishment or retribution, since nothing we do can be attributed to us. We are indeed all as similar as the next billiard ball. If we accept free will, then we accept inequality and the existence of people with different qualities and different levels of value and merit.

This, however, doesn’t mean that we can discriminate – discriminate in the legal and human rights sense of the word, not in the sense of “to distinguish” and “to make distinctions”. Or that we can treat certain people as without any value (that we can use them, abuse them, torture them, sell them as slaves etc.). There is a baseline, under which we shouldn’t go, and this line is defined by human rights. But above this line, the more distinctions, the better.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (3): Freedom, Poverty and Public Life

Freedom and poverty

Is the problem of the contradiction between freedom and equality solved by limiting freedom – limiting the freedom of the strong, thereby providing security against the freedom of the strong, and this equalizing freedom? Not quite. I can see at least three problems remaining. The first one is poverty. Poor people can’t do what they want and the laws which protect their physical security against the free actions of others will not help them. Their situation is not primarily caused by the limitations imposed on them by the free actions of others. And the provision of social security is much more controversial than the provision of physical security, which is bizarre given that both kinds of security have the same purpose, namely the equalization of freedom in the sense of the ability to do as you want.

We see here that the state, by intervening and reducing poverty, can promote freedom. People whose basic needs are met have a whole new world of choices and opportunities opened up to them and can move on to more complicated needs. “Freedom from” (in this case freedom from want) creates “freedom to”.

Freedom and public life

A second problem with limited freedom is revealed by the bigot. Take the example of the bigot who isn’t poor but doesn’t want anything else in life than watching sport, drinking beer and shouting to his wife. He can do as he wants, but is he free? Here we see that it may be necessary to redefine freedom and not only to limit it. Freedom means not only the ability to do what you choose, but also, and in the first place, the fact of having significant choices, the ability to expand the options you can choose from, the ability to make an educated choice between examined options and to choose the options which are best for yourself and for the people around you. In other words, freedom is the ability to choose the options which make ourselves better persons and allow us and our fellow-humans to develop.

Now, how do you widen the available choices, and check if what you want is really what you want? Only if all possible options and choices are flooded with the light of publicity and education. When you see which options are available, when you hear people discussing the merits of different options and objects of volition, only then can you make an educated choice.

Freedom and human rights

This publicity, and hence freedom as the possibility to develop your self, requires a legal system. Legally protected human rights for example open up the world of culture, art, science, history, education, etc. They open up the options, show the merits of all options and hence can improve your volition. Constraining rules are also enabling rules. By limiting certain kinds of behavior they make other behavior possible, for example public discussion of objects of volition. Only in a public space protected by legal rights, where everybody is equal and where everybody can speak and listen in an equal way, can we examine our opinions and options and can we self develop. So we see that freedom needs equality in the sense of the equal participation in public life.

The law is necessary for freedom because if there is no external control, then rights will be violated, security rights but also rights which protect the public space in which choices can appear. Some people will be victims of others and will not be free, not in any sense of the word. They cannot do as they like and they have no public life in which to determine what they like. And we can all be victims in certain circumstances. Laws and obedience are not just obstacles or impediments, limits on our freedom or elements of oppression. They are prerequisites for public life and therefore prerequisites for freedom as well because freedom needs public life.

Laws do not only limit the actions of people; they also link the actions of people because they create a public space. And these links make freedom possible. Laws are rules for public life and should not disappear. The state is a mechanism to coerce people, but this is not necessarily negative. On the contrary, coercion creates possibilities. The state creates, by way of coercion, the prerequisites for public life — such as security and human rights — and therefore creates the possibility of freedom.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (2): Limited Freedom

What is freedom? The ability to do as you like

In the previous post in this series, I described the ways in which freedom and equality can be incompatible. I also mentioned that the reason for this opposition has something to do with the way in which we normally define freedom. In the current post, I want juxtapose this standard definition with another one.

Traditionally, freedom is believed to be the absence of coercion and the ability to do as you want. Hobbes gave one of the canonical descriptions:

By LIBERTY, is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of externall Impediments: which Impediments, may oft take away part of a mans power to do what hee would.

This is a negative definition of freedom because it focuses on the absence of impediments, constraints or limits on actions (limits imposed by other human beings, by the state, by nature or perhaps even by our own passions).

Is this kind of freedom possible? And is it acceptable? It will definitely be a very unequal freedom. If everybody can do as he or she likes, then we create offenders and victims rather than free citizens. Victims obviously cannot do as they like. And we can all become victims. Not even the strongest among us can do as he likes, because he has to sleep now and again and we are weak when we sleep. Unlimited and lawless freedom as in the definition of Hobbes therefore cannot exist, or only in a very precarious fashion. And it should not exist because if it did, most people’s freedom, human rights and other important values such as security would suffer. Hobbes clearly understood this.

What is freedom? The ability to do as you like, within limits

That is why this absolute negative freedom has to be limited. Freedom is always freedom in the state and freedom within the limits of the rule of law. Freedom can only exist together with obedience because only a state with its rules and laws can create equal and durable freedom for all. Obedience to rules opens up a space in which people can be free without fear of insecurity, coercion, domination, intolerance etc. Freedom is, therefore, not incompatible with rules, obedience and coercion.

Strictly speaking, none of this invalidates the definition of freedom as the ability to do as you like without impediments. One can say that the state merely limits our freedom defined in this way, in order to make it safer, more secure and more lasting. So we are still speaking about the same kind of freedom, but now it’s limited.

Much of social contract theory – of which Hobbes is an example – posits a kind of natural, unlimited freedom, a part of which people give up when entering into a contract with a state. And instead of saying that they give up a part of their freedom or their ability to do as they like in order to gain security, one could say that they give up a part of their freedom to make the remainder of their freedom more secure. That’s the same thing. They choose not to do certain things – e.g. break the law – in order to have more freedom to do the other things they want.

According to this definition of freedom, all coercion is bad but some kind of coercion is necessary. If people were always friendly to each other, the state would not be necessary and people would not have to accept a limitation of their freedom. State coercion in the form of laws limits freedom because it forces people to act in a way that is contrary to their wishes. Yet coercion can actually promote freedom. Coercing one person and thus limiting his or her freedom can promote the freedom of other persons. And since we can all be these “other persons”, coercion promotes the freedom of all. Coercion in fact equalizes freedom. It makes it impossible that the freedom of one harms the freedom of another. So it already becomes apparent how freedom and equality are intertwined.

Limiting the limits

However, because of the importance of freedom as the ability to do as you like, the proponents of limited negative freedom want to keep the area of the law and the state as small as possible. Libertarians and conservatives generally believe that the only way in which the state can promote freedom is by guaranteeing the physical security of the weak. The state should only protect the weak against the strong. In this way, it makes it possible for the weak to do as they want. It puts the freedom of the weak on the same and equal level as the freedom of the strong who can do what they want even without protection.

For the rest, they say, the state should not do anything and should keep itself as inconspicuous as possible. It should create an area which is free from state coercion and in which people can do as they like. In a certain sense, this freedom is a stateless freedom even though the state must act to protect it. The area of non-interference must be as large as possible in order to allow freedom to become as comprehensive as possible. Freedom and politics can only go together because and insofar as politics guarantees freedom from politics.

Contrary to anarchists, libertarians and conservatives believe — correctly I think — that the area of freedom or non-interference cannot be unlimited because this would result in insecurity, chaos and war. But in a sense they all believe in unlimited freedom. For anarchists it’s an ideal for the future, for libertarians and conservatives it’s something which belongs to a perhaps mythical past (before the time of the “contract”) and which can only be desirable in the unlikely event that human beings learn to behave and to respect each others security.