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.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (31): Adaptive Preferences and False Consciousness

One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.” (source)

Human rights violations persist not only because governments continue to oppress. When people are faced with oppression or a reasonable assessment of the risk of oppression they adapt their preferences so as not to run foul of the government. For example, they convince themselves that speaking freely in public or publicly practicing their religion is not really what is most important to them. They settle for second best, and often in such a way that they forget about the first best and kid themselves that second really is first. It’s a form of false consciousness induced by an oppressive government.

This pliability of human preferences is well-known – advertising depends on it – but it’s also disturbing because it means that human rights violators just have to push harder and be a more credible threat in order to get people where they want them. In fact, it allows oppressors to make allies of the oppressed: the oppressed assist the oppressors in the act of oppression.

Now, it’s obviously true that preference adaptation can also be a good thing, and even a force for liberty. The Buddhist claim that we should rid ourselves from desires – an extreme form of preference adaptation – is motivated in part by the fact that unfulfilled desires are a cause of unhappiness. And that claim is particularly salient in our age of consumerism and extravagant attention to a vast array of often fabricated and imposed desires.

Preference adaptation can be liberating. Character building is important for freedom: when people manage to restrain some of their preferences and tell themselves that heroine use for example isn’t really what they want, then they open up other options for themselves, options that would have been closed had they indulged in their drug addiction.

However, in these two examples (the Buddhist and the junkie), preference adaptation is not a response to outside oppression determining the feasible, but rather a response to inner values and second order preferences such as happiness, freedom, self-government and choice. Still, notwithstanding the differences, preference adaptation resulting from inner motives is just as much self-delusion as preference adaptation resulting from oppression. It’s just a liberating rather than debilitating form of self-delusion. When self-delusion is a reaction to oppression, then it reinforces oppression; when, on the other hand, it’s a reaction to inner motives or second-order preferences, then it makes us more free. See here for an argument that false consciousness can be beneficial to human rights.

It’s obvious that oppressive governments do not only depend on adaptive preference formation as a means to change preferences. Indoctrination is another method. And neither do they depend on changes of preferences, whatever the method. Violence, pay-offs etc. are other weapons in their arsenal. Conversely, adaptive preference formation is not only a reaction to oppressive rights violations: poverty is a rights violation that’s not necessarily a correlate of oppression, and poor people also adapt their preferences in order to escape some of the effects of poverty, much like a religious minority in a theocratic dictatorship adapts its preference for public worship.

More on the possible causes of rights violations here.

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 Ethics of Human Rights (35): The Global Origins and Foundations of Human Rights

As Jacques Maritain put it when discussing the work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

the nations should and could reach practical agreement on basic principles of human rights without achieving a consensus on their foundations. (source)

In other words, different countries and cultures in the world can – and could in 1948 – agree on the list of human rights as long as nobody asks them why, because they all will have different reasons. Even if we take the charitable view and assume that no one accepts the UDHR and human rights in general for opportunistic reasons (because it reduces international pressure and confers legitimacy for example), we still have to say which substantial reasons different nations, cultures or religions tend to use in order to justify the importance and acceptance of human rights. These reason will emanate from their own culture, religious texts, traditions and history.

To some extent, different cultures can and do find their own foundations of human rights. In this sense, human rights aren’t simply western rights which are imposed on or adopted by the rest of the world. Of course, some of these foundations will be universal because some values are universal in the sense that they belong to all cultures in the world. Homicide, for example, is universally considered to be immoral. In other cases, however, different cultures will find different reasons to justify human rights. For example, the right to free speech in the West will be viewed as justified by the necessity of counterbalancing government power, whereas in other cultures it may be viewed as something to promote prosperity or religious tolerance.

There’s a nice German term for this: human rights are said to be Begründungsoffen, their justification or foundation is open in the sense that they can be justified by different religious, cultural or intellectual traditions. That’s a big advantage. One can legitimately object to making universal claims grounded on such particularized foundations as Christianity, dignity, likeness of God etc. Muslims probably won’t accept human rights if they can only be justified by the teachings of Jesus. They can be justified in this way, and that’s a powerful justification for Christians, but they can also be justified in other ways. There isn’t one ultimate justification for human rights. All different justifications have a particular plausibility for a certain group of human beings, whether this group is a culture, a nation or a religion.

These different cultural paths to human rights, based on different cultural and historical resources, should, however, not discourage dialogue. If you’re convinced that different cultures can find their own way to human rights, you may conclude that intercultural dialogue isn’t necessary. It is necessary, because it’s utopian to believe that each culture will find its way to an identical set of human rights or an identical understanding of human rights. The moralities of all or most cultures or groups will condemn homicide, torture and slavery, but will perhaps provide different exceptions. And other values, such as free speech or freedom of religion may not find an equally strong justification in all cultures. It’s unlikely that the entire set of human rights as present in the Universal Declaration will find a strong and broad justification in all cultures. There’s still a lot of disagreement between cultures on the foundation, importance and extent of things such as discrimination, religious freedom etc.

That is why human rights treaties and declarations don’t just codify a universal moral consensus but also try to steer different moralities into a certain common direction. They want to change norms rather than just describe them. In other words, they formulate a justified morality rather than an existing morality. They want to create a consensus, not describe one. Creating a consensus is impossible if all cultures limit themselves to independently and solipsistically justifying human rights using only their own resources. Intercultural dialogue is necessary, and this dialogue will not just be the exchange of descriptions of different moralities but will try to go beyond existing moralities and formulate a consensus that is wider that the sum of existing norms. It will contain a set of norms that are based not solely on existing moralities but also on justified reasons. Not just on the sum of different moral codes but on the agreements of people discussing about good reasons for human rights, reasons that go beyond “my God/prophet/history/tradition says …”. This dialogue will result in a wider global agreement on the importance of human rights, an agreement that can ultimately result in greater respect for human rights.

For the benefit of those who don’t even believe in the first step – finding the sources of human rights in different cultures – here’s a sample of those sources:

  • Christianity, and more generally the Abrahamic religions – so that includes Judaism and Islam – postulate the equality before God. All human beings are equal creatures of God, and created in the image of God. That notion bestows a sacredness to life that is not a function of national origin, status or affiliation. This is also apparent in the Judaic maxim that he who destroys one person has dealt a blow at the entire universe and he who saves one person has sustained the whole world.
  • Protestantism has developed the freedom of conscience, the right and responsibility of every man to worship as his conscience dictates, to make his own judgments, uninhibited by a religious hierarchy.
  • The Indian emperor Ashoka (third century BC) is famous for the Edicts of Ashoka, a collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka, as well as on boulders and cave walls found throughout India. These are social and moral precepts in favor of tolerance and individual freedom, the doing of good deeds, respect for others, generosity, fairness in the exercise of justice, caution and tolerance in the application of sentences, and kindness to prisoners. His was the first welfare state, providing free education and hospitals.
  • Akbar, the great Mughal emperor in sixteenth century India, was famous for his religious tolerance.
  • The Qur’an claims that there can be no compulsion in religion. Islam also knows the principle of equality and generosity: “Not one of you (truly) believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (An-Nawawī’s Forty Hadith). Caliph Omar, in the 7th century: “Only decide on the basis of proof, be kind to the weak so that they can express themselves freely and without fear, deal on an equal footing with litigants by trying to reconcile them”.
  • Mencius, arguably the most famous Confucian after Confucius himself, has said: “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence”.
  • Lao Tzu, a central figure in Taoism, has said: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss”.
  • In the Mahabharata, one of the major Sanskrit and Hindu epics, it says: “This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you”.
  • Siddhartha (the birth name of the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha) has said: “What is displeasing and disagreeable to me is displeasing and disagreeable to others too. How can I inflict upon another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?” In Buddhism, the human perfection that is sometimes called “enlightenment” consists, in part, in discerning the transcendent truth that the Other is infinitely precious and in acting toward the Other in accord with that discernment, namely, with compassion (in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh).
  • Baha’i, a monotheistic religion founded in nineteenth-century Persia, claims: “Lay not on any soul a load which ye would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for any one the things ye would not desire for yourselves. This is My best counsel unto you, did ye but observe it”.
  • Jainism is an ancient religion of India that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings: “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated”.

Granted, not all of these moral precepts can be immediately translated into recognizable human rights, and many precepts underlying human rights are difficult to find here. Yet, we can claim that all these cultural sources can be used, to some extent, to justify human rights.

Religion and Human Rights (28): Is Religion Particularly Violent?

9/11 and other terrorist attacks apparently motivated by Islamic beliefs has led to an increased hostility towards Islam, but also towards religion in general. Perhaps in an effort to avoid the charge of islamophobia, many anti-jihadists have taken a new look at the violent history of other religions, particularly Christianity, and concluded that religion per se, because of the concomitant belief in the absolute truth of God’s words and rules, automatically leads to the violent imposition of this belief on unwilling fellow human beings, or – if that doesn’t work – the murderous elimination of persistent sinners. This has given rise to a movement called the new atheists. The charge of fanatical and violent absolutism inherent in religion is of course an old one, but it has been revitalized after 9/11 and the war on terror. I think it’s no coincidence that many of the new atheists are also anti-jihadists (take Christopher Hitchens for example).

There are many things wrong with question in the title of this blogpost. (And – full disclosure – this isn’t part of a self-interested defense of religion, since I’m an agnostic). First of all, it glosses over the fact that there isn’t such a thing as “religion”. There are many religions, and perhaps it can be shown that some of them produce a disproportionate level of violence, but religion as such is a notoriously vague concept. Nobody seems to agree on what it is. Even the God-entity isn’t a required element of the definition of religion, except if you want to take the improbable position that Buddhism isn’t a religion. All sorts of things can reasonably be put in the container concept of “religion” – the Abrahamic religions as well as Wicca and Jediism. The claim that “religion is violent” implies that all or most religions are equally violent, which is demonstrably false.

That leaves the theoretical possibility that some religions are more violent than others. If that claim can be shown to be true, islamophobia may perhaps be a justified opinion, but not the outright rejection of religion inherent in new atheism (which, of course, has other arguments against religion besides religion’s supposed violent character). However, how can it be shown empirically and statistically that a certain religion – say Islam – is relatively more violent than other religions? In order to do so you would need to have data showing that Islam today (or, for that matter, Christianity in the age of the crusades and the inquisition) is the prime or sole motive behind a series of violent attacks. But how do you know that the violent actor was motivated solely or primarily by his religious beliefs? Because he has a Muslim name? Speaks Arabic? Looks a certain way? Professes his religious motivation? All that is not enough to claim that he wasn’t motivated by a combination of religious beliefs and political or economic grievances for instance, or by something completely unconnected to religion, despite his statements to the contrary.

Now let’s assume, arguendo, that this isn’t a problem, and that it is relatively easy and feasible to identify a series of violent attacks that are indisputably motivated solely or primarily by certain religious beliefs. How can you go from such a series to a quantified comparison that says “the religion behind this series of attacks – say again Islam – is particularly violent”? That seems to be an unwarranted generalization based on a sample that is by definition very small (given the long history of most religions and the lack of data on motivations, especially for times that have long since passed). Also, it supposes a comparison with other causes of violence, for example other religions, other non-religious belief systems, character traits, economic circumstances etc. After all, the point of this hypothetical study is not to show that (a) religion can lead to bad things. That’s seldom disputed. Everything can lead to bad things, including fanatical atheism (and don’t tell me communism and fascism were “really” religions; the word “religion” is vague, but probably not as vague as that – which doesn’t mean that there aren’t any religious elements in those two world-views). The claim we’re discussing here is that (a) religion – because of its fanatical absolutism and trust in God’s truth – is particularly violent, i.e. more violent than other belief systems, and hence very dangerous and to be repudiated.

I think it’s useless, from a purely mathematical and scientific point of view, to engage in such a comparative quantification, given the obvious problems of identifying true motivations, especially for long periods of time in the past. There’s just no way that you can measure religious violence, compare it to “other violence”, and claim it is more (or less) violent. So the question in the title is a nonsensical one, I think, even if you limit it to one particular religion rather than to religion in general. That doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful to know the religious motives of certain particular acts of violence. It’s always good to know the motives of violence if you want to do something about it. What it means is that such knowledge is no reason to generalize on the violent nature of a religion, let alone religion as such. That would not only obscure other motives – which is never helpful – but it would also defy our powers of quantification.