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

Religion and Human Rights (22): The Proper Role of Religion in a Democracy

For me, as an agnostic, the question of the place of religion in a democracy is an important one, although I believe the question would be just as important if I held a religious belief or if I were an atheist. There’s no doubt in my mind that the full protection of human rights and civil liberties for all citizens can be jeopardized by misconceptions about the proper role of religion. Take, for example, the rights of homosexuals, the rights of non-believers or adherents of other religions, women’s rights etc.

At the most basic level, this is a problem of tolerance. We should not impose our beliefs, moral values and practices on others if these others don’t inflict harm, even if we think other people act immorally from the point of view of our religion. And neither should we discriminate people when they act or speak or think in ways that are incompatible with our own beliefs. These two prescriptions are based on the need for respect. We would show disrespect for other people if we were to force them to act according to our own beliefs. And the need for respect is, in turn, based, on the importance of freedom. Other people value their freedom to act according to their own beliefs. Let’s take two examples:

  • A Muslim father may, as long as his daughter is underage, impose certain religiously inspired rules of behavior on this daughter, and he can even hope that the girl internalizes these rules and respects them for the rest of her life. But when the girl reaches adulthood and chooses to live according to her own rules, she will be protected to do so by her human rights and civil liberties, even against the wishes of her father. The proper role of the religious beliefs of the father has reached its limit. The father should tolerate and respect (which doesn’t mean agree with) the choices of his adult daughter, and the laws of the democracy in which they live will enforce this tolerance and the girl’s freedom of choice if necessary.
  • A Catholic human resources manager in the recruitment department of the army of a democratic country, refuses to hire a perfectly qualified candidate because of her homosexuality. Again, this would be a sign of disrespect on the part of the HR manager and the law should intervene.

But the problem goes beyond the level of relations between citizens. The question about the proper place and role of religion in a democracy isn’t limited to the problem of how we treat each other in our daily lives, how we treat our wives and children, our gay or “infidel” neighbors or employees etc. In a democracy, the people translate their beliefs in legislation and government policy. Hence we should ask to what extent people can use their religious beliefs as the basis or reason for legislation.

Here I take a nuanced position between the two extremes: between a complete lack of restrictions on the role of religion in democratic legislation, and a complete exclusion of religion from democratic legislation. So the question becomes one of degree: to what extent can religion be the basis of law? When is it allowed, and when is it no longer allowed for religious reasons to be the reasons for government coercion?

I think that the problem arises when the legal coercion resulting from religious reasons violates the human rights and civil liberties of individuals, and that any religiously inspired legislation that stops short of such violations is acceptable. Some would say that even legal coercion based on religious reasons that doesn’t violate the rights of individuals is reprehensible, but I don’t agree. An argument in favor of this more restrictive approach could go as follows. Legislation based on religion automatically implies disrespect for people of other religions and for non-believers, since the religious reasons used as a basis for this legislation are likely to be exclusive to a particular religion. Only religious reasons which are sufficiently vague so as not to be exclusive to one religion can then be acceptable religious reasons for legislation. An example: charity can be an acceptable religious reason for legislation, because it’s not a reason that is exclusive to one religion, perhaps not even to religion as such. Laws regarding the sabbath, on the contrary, would not be an acceptable reason for legislation, even if it produces legislation that doesn’t violate anyone’s rights. Or the argument could be that only a law that is supported at the same time by religious reasons and non-religious reasons is acceptable, and that laws that are supported only by religious reasons are unacceptable, even if they don’t violate anyone’s rights.

I think that goes too far. Disrespect should be avoided, but I don’t see why the avoidance of disrespect should automatically override legitimate religious concerns. It’s not even clear to me that there’s necessarily disrespect involved in the use of exclusive religious reasons as a basis for legislation. It’s certainly not the case that such legislation necessarily means forcing one religion on people of other faiths or of no faith. If that would be the case, we would have legislation that violates the rights of individuals (namely the freedom of religion). And that would violate my own rule stated above.

However, legislation that is based on exclusive religious reasons does involve coercing people on the basis of a doctrine that they don’t accept. But, again, if this coercion doesn’t result in rights violations I can’t see what would be wrong with it. Laws by definition force people to do things they don’t accept or to abstain from doing things that are essential to them. I don’t see why there should be laws in any other case.

To summarize, religious people can advocate and – if they are in the majority – implement laws on the basis of their own, exclusive religious reasons, as long as the human rights and civil liberties of all are respected. A religiously inspired law banning same-sex marriage would therefore not be acceptable; a law instituting a religious holiday on the contrary would be acceptable. In the words of Habermas:

The liberal state must not transform the requisite institutional separation of religion and politics into an undue mental and psychological burden for those of its citizens who follow a faith. (source)

On the other hand, religious people should also refrain from imposing a burden on the rights of their fellow citizens.

Some would say that even my rule is too restrictive on religion. For religious people, religion is not only a personal and private conviction but also the law of humanity. Forcing them to forsake the legal implementation of their religious views means taking away their identity, forcing them to be what they don’t want to be. Their religious beliefs are political beliefs and always trump opposing political beliefs. It’s intolerable for them to be forced not to implement their beliefs by way of legislation, or to submit to political decisions that are not based on their religious reasons. It’s indeed a good question: can religious people really accept democracy, given that God cannot be in the minority and God’s commands are absolute and trump opposing majority decisions? Democracy seems to be unacceptable from a religious point of view. However, catering to this view would mean forfeiting democracy, majority rule, the free choice of others, respect for others, freedom of religion, and human rights, and replacing all this by absolute theocracy. I don’t think that’s a price many are willing to pay, and not even many religious people as I argued here.

Religion and Human Rights (15): Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty

From someone on the political “right”:

Changes in the law that bring a little happiness, resolve some painful practical injustices (from hospital visitation rights to the ability to benefit from the spousal Death Tax exemption) and help take the previously marginalized deeper into “regular” society should, probably, be seen as a Good Thing.

The role of the Right should be to shape the way that this change takes place, by building in, for example, free speech and “conscientious objection” protections to those who do not go along. If that’s the aim, a position of outright opposition is not the best place to begin. Andrew Stuttaford (source)

This view on same-sex marriage is a welcome change. Unfortunately, many in the religious right still adopt prejudiced and bigoted opinions regarding gays (which doesn’t mean that all on the right are prejudiced or that prejudice is the monopoly of the right). Of course, everyone is entitled to his or her opinions, bigoted or not. That’s a fundamental freedom. And when these opinions are grounded in religious morality, the issue is not only free speech but also religous liberty. The problem arises when people want to impose their opinions and morality on others by way of the law.

If a Christian believes that gay sex, gay marriage etc. are immoral, then he or she has strong reasons not to engage in such activities. And also to communicate these reasons to others and to try and persuade them to be “moral”. What this person should not be allowed to do is to use the power of the state and the law to force others to be “moral”. The role of the state and the law is not to impose one particular view of morality or religion, but to guarantee a maximum degree of freedom and equal treatment to all citizens.

Religiously wrong, a motive of legislation which can never be too earnestly protested against. Deorum injuriae Diis curae. Injustices to the gods are the concern of the gods. It remains to be proved that society or any of its officers holds a commission from on high to avenge any supposed offense to Omnipotence which is not also a wrong to our fellow creatures. The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and, if admitted, would fully justify them … A determination not to tolerate others in doing what is permitted by their religion, because it is not permitted by the persecutor’s religion. It is a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not hold us guiltless if we leave him unmolested. John Stuart Mill.

So we should outlaw only an offense to Omnipotence which is also a wrong to our fellow creatures: there have of course been attempts to describe homosexuality among consenting adults as something that can produce harm to others (e.g. children adopted by gay couples etc.), but in my view no successful attempts.

To come back to the first quote: the “conscientious objection protections” that are mentioned are indeed useful. Proponent of same-sex marriage such as I should take into account the genuine fears of religious people. When we abolish the laws that refuse same-sex couples the right to marry – and hence abolish one instance of the law being used to impose one person’s morality on another – we should make sure that we respect people’s freedom of religion. For example, we should not make it illegal for a Cathholic priest to refure to marry a same-sex couple, or for a Christian adoption agency to refuse to place children with same-sex couples etc. If we were to make such refusals illegal, we would be needlessly limiting the freedom of religion of those people. I have a detailed post here on the need to balance the rights of gays with the rights of religious people.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (8): The Harm Principle and the Freedom to Damn Yourself

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. John Stuart Mill

This is the so-called “harm principle“, for which Mill has become famous. In other words, people have the right to “damn themselves”, as long as they don’t hurt others in the process. If being an alcoholic or drug addict is part of a person’s vision of the good life, and if it doesn’t make him beat his wife or children, steal from others etc., then no government should intervene.

Obviously, this is limited to people who act rationally and are sane. Who, in other words, know the consequences of their actions, and then primarily the consequences for themselves. In some cases it must be possible to ignore someone’s desires for the sake of his or her own well-being. Some people have to be coerced for their own good because they fail to understand and to pursue their good or their interest autonomously. I’m thinking of children for example. No one would sincerely believe that we would hurt their freedom if we allowed them to engage in unsafe sex or to abandon their studies. They cannot assess the consequences of their actions and the harm they inflict on themselves.

In general, however, we should allow people to decide for themselves, to determine their own way of life and their own interests, as long as their choices don’t impact other people. We should do so even if we believe that the people in question 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.

We can, of course, advise people and try to convince them, but we should be very careful if we want to impose a way of life on people, 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 possibility to decide for themselves. It is much more dangerous to enact laws that only deal with people’s own lives than it is to enact laws that deal with social relations.

Even if the state can encourage or force people to pursue the most valuable ways of life, it cannot get people to pursue them for the right reasons. Someone who changes their lifestyle in order to avoid state punishment, or to gain state subsidies, is not guided by an understanding of the genuine value of the new activity. … We can coerce someone into going to church but we will not make her life better that way. It will not work, even if the coerced person is mistaken in her belief that praying to God is a waste of time, because a valuable life has to be led from the inside. A perfectionist policy is self-defeating. It may succeed in getting people to pursue valuable activities, but is does so under conditions in which the activities cease to have value for the individuals involved. If I do not see the point of an activity, then I will gain nothing from it. Hence paternalism creates the very sort of pointless activity that it was designed to prevent. We have to lead our life from the inside, in accordance with our beliefs about what gives value to life. Will Kymlicka

That is why we can only propose the “good way of life” (if we have an idea of what it is) and argue for it (and we need democracy and human rights to do that). Except in very exceptional cases, we should not impose this way of life and we should accept other ways of life, not because these ways of life are better, but because they are other people’s autonomous choices. The good way of life should be led from the inside. It should be a choice, a conviction, not something that is imposed from the outside. If your life is not your choice, it can never be good.