Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What kind of freedom is worth fighting for?

To: Patrick A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What kind of freedom is worth fighting for?
Date: 21 February 2007 09:32

Dear Patrick,

Thank you for your email of 12 February with your first essay for the Possible World Machine, with your own title, 'Freedom, fate and freewill - What kind of freedom is worth fighting for?'

This is an interesting essay, although it was not exactly what I had expected!

If you recall, we were discussing the question of free will vs determinism. I suggested that a good question to ask is what kind of 'free will' is 'worth wanting'. What I meant by this is that there is more than one possible definition of 'free will', and one definition might be more interesting or more desirable to us than another.

To take a key example, according to the compatibilist definition of free will, an action is free so long as the actor is not constrained or compelled by external circumstances (such as a gun at one's head) or hindered by internal psychological obstacles (e.g. a panic attack). This kind of 'freedom' is fully compatible with determinism. The fact that a chain of causes and effects can be traced from my birth to the present action of writing this email does not mean that I am being 'constrained' to write it, nor am I under the influence of an abnormal mental condition. I wanted to write to you and I am writing to you. If I had not wanted to write today I would not have written.

But is this kind of 'free will' worth wanting? Isn't there a residual feeling of despair at the very thought that if determinism is true, then every action that we do was already 'taken account of' by the big bang? I might have not written today, had I chosen not to. But given the way the big bang banged, there was no real possibility that I might not have made that choice.

So another form of 'free will' would be defined in opposition to determinism. If determinism is true then we cannot have this kind of 'free will'. Should we be upset at this thought? Is this kind of freedom worth wanting?

The topic of your essay is not 'free will' as this notion figures in the free will vs determinism debate, but rather the question of political freedom. I have no criticism to make of this. In fact, it is a very interesting topic in its own right.

The concept of negative freedom was championed by J.S. Mill in his essay, 'On Liberty'. Mill's argument is that we ought to be free to do anything we choose, so long as our action does not cause harm to anyone else. This freedom is 'negative' because it is defined in terms of a necessary - not causing harm to others.

The concept of positive freedom was developed by G.W.F. Hegel and figures in the philosophies of a number of continental philosophers of this period. The fundamental idea is that to be allowed to do 'whatever you like' is not true freedom. If you say to someone, 'Do whatever you like', but they don't have any clear idea what they want to do, then the poverty of real choices signals a lack of freedom.

The possibility of meaningful choices arises from culture and society, the political order within which individuals pursue their life plan. The idea was given powerful expression by F.H. Bradley in his essay, 'My Station and Its Duties' (in his book Ethical Studies). The lowly gardener who tips his hat at the Lord of the Manor as he drives by is aware of his station and the actions that are appropriate to it. That is his 'positive freedom'.

Critics of the idea of 'positive freedom' point out that it is a recipe for fascism, and even if not taken that far is decidedly undemocratic.

The things that you say in your essay about our 'abilities, limitations and potentials' actually sound much closer to J.S. Mill, where he talks in his essay 'On Liberty' about the value of 'individuality'. It could be argued that it is incorrect to describe Mill's concept of liberty as merely 'negative', because he in fact goes to great lengths to explain WHY it is best to allow people to do whatever they like - try all sorts of 'experiments in living' to quote Mill - because this is the best way to give each human being the opportunity to develop his or her potential.

Supporters of 'positive freedom' would say that there is no need to try 'experiments in living' because the structure of the state already lays out what the possibilities are. Each citizen has his or her function in the 'political organism'. If everybody was allowed to forget their 'station' and do whatever they wanted to do, the state would be destroyed and no-one would be better off in the resulting anarchy and chaos.

There are echoes of this in your essay where you cite Goethe's idea of 'freedom within limits'. It is true that novelty and creativity, whether in the arts or the sciences, presuppose a backdrop which sets the defining problem which gives the artist or thinker a reason to struggle and work. However, I don't think that Mill would deny this. Of course, when we consider our own lives and what we want to do, there are all sorts of structures already laid out. We don't have to invent ourselves from scratch. However, Mill would argue that the survival of society in the face of changing circumstances depends on people who are prepared to 'break the mould', reject assumptions made in the past and go off in a radically new direction.

All the best,