Freedom and Objective Accountability

I’m currently struggling in an attempt to articulate a problem, or rather clash of intuitions, concerning freedom and its limits. This problem is intended to play a structuring role in my research that will allow me to approach its deeper topic, not explicitly advertised initially, which will be a richer understanding of normativity that (albeit darkly expressed here) positions reason — or better: λογος — just as much in the world at large as in individual deliberation or social communities.

Returning to the surface topic though, that of freedom, one abstract way of expressing some of the tensions that this notion can seem caught up in would be as follows. Although a deeply contested concept or cluster of concepts, we can roughly characterise freedom as self-determination rather than external determination. If this as yet undefended conception of freedom is plausible — which ultimately I think it can be made to be — then it meets with friction when set against the notion of objective accountability. For while freedom is self-determination rather than external determination, answerability to what is objective can seem to demand external determination rather than self-determination. How then can freedom and objectivity co-exist, or at least how are we to understand their demands once it seems that these demands may be in competition?

At a less abstract level we can reintroduce the potential tension by considering individual agents. For, on the one hand, in judgement and action we take ourselves to be free: it is up to us how we are to make up our minds and comport ourselves towards the world. Yet, we also experience the world as imposing its own horizons on our activity. We take our judgements to be answerable to what is actually the case and so too our practical actions to be assessable according to standards more robust than doing what seems to us to be right or good. In other words, we must marry freedom with objectivity such that our authority over ourselves is consistent with the authority over us exercised by how things stand beyond our immediate selves.

This way of framing the matter introduces the distinction between normativity and causality. (These are two ‘moments’ of the concepts of freedom and objectivity but do not necessarily lead to a dualism within the concepts–that is, they might be describable in a uniform metavocabulary in which they are not understood as involving two irreconcilable modes of explanation of freedom and objectivity.)

For when we speak of our ‘authority’ over ourselves and the ‘authority’ of how things stand in the world inclusive of that beyond ourselves, we can take this authority in at least two senses. Taken causally, this authority will consist in the de facto power to bring about some act. So, an adequate account of freedom and objective accountability in this vein would show how the causal nexus responsible for bringing about an act includes both contributions from the agent (e.g. deliberation about what to do, resolution to φ, etc.) and from the world at large (e.g. relevant features of the context of the act, etc.). Taken normatively, this authority will consist in the de jure power over some act. An adequate account of this type would show how the act is licensed or authorised on the basis of contributions from the agent (perhaps as conforming to rational self-legislation or as based on a reflectively endorsed set of desires, etc.) and from contributions from the world at large (maybe it accords with a set of social norms or the way things stand determine it to be correct, etc.).

Ultimately, normativity and causality, as two moments of freedom and objectivity, should, I think, be reconciled. If we consider freedom, without a normative component — that is, lacking direction according to principles of what we deem right or good — the power to direct ourselves is little more than caprice, whereas bare proclamations of what we ought to do without the power to enact them are impotent. So too, being causally receptive to our environment is of little use if we continue to err in our approach towards it nonetheless, whereas acting rightly not on the basis of some receptivity to the context of our acts seems to be mere chance liable to give way at any moment.

Recapitulating then, we can be free by being able to bring about ends and by being able to authorise ends (at least in part); and we can also be objectively accountable by having the world at large being able to bring about ends and by being able to authorise ends (at least in part). Thus, to frame things in Kantian terms, we are creatures of both spontaneity and receptivity. The issue is how we are to understand their necessary co-operation. More specifically, can we hold on to satisfyingly robust versions of the following four conditions:

(i) We cause our own actions.
(ii) The world at large causes our actions.
(iii) We determine the propriety of our actions.
(iv) The world at large determines the propriety of our actions.

Right now, I am not so concerned with the fine details of a solution to, or dissolution of, this problem. Rather, having formulated it thusly, I want to know whether it seems coherent or engaging at all. If anyone has made it this far down, I would be greatful to hear whether you can see any problems, highly controversial assumptions, trivial solutions, underaddressed points, and so on, as to how I’ve set up this initial question. As I say, I’m unsure as to how coherent the problematic I am trying to setup will appear, and as such any comments would be greatly appreciated.

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3 thoughts on “Freedom and Objective Accountability

  1. Tom – for what it’s worth, of course this seems both coherent and engaging – this is the sense I would have had of your work from the first material I read here, and I’ve found your thoughts around these issues consistently engaging. Except that I can’t do anything potentially helpful, like articulating why, because I’m engaged with similar issues, and at a point in my own work that also makes me feel quite inarticulate about them :-) But yes: these are good questions – good starting points – and this formulation seems good:

    to frame things in Kantian terms, we are creatures of both spontaneity and receptivity. The issue is how we are to understand their necessary co-operation.

    From here, I would think, the devil goes into the details… By using the sort of sketch you’re putting forward above, and beginning to work through what kind of lens it provides on other theoretical interventions into this general thought-space, I would expect it to be possible to flush out potential problems and issues you’d then want to address.

    I have a faint twinge going off in the back of my mind about the formulation of freedom in terms of the ability to bring about ends – freedom as goal-directed action. On one level, this seems intuitive; on another level, it seems highly historically overdetermined – which doesn’t mean that the definition is inappropriate, but only that this formulation might open questions of history and reflexivity as you move forward – but that’s already tacit, in a sense, in the formulation you’ve used here. I suppose my impulse is to wonder whether and how it changes these questions, if we were to try not to pose them abstractly, but to ask how such questions, in such formulations, come to seem pressing to us in some specific situation – such that we winnow our way through the situation into an understanding and, perhaps, reflexive resolution to the questions… But I’m not making an argument here, such associating out loud…

  2. Thanks for this, it’s helpful.

    Some of my worries with this way of posing things are also to do with the rather ‘frictionless’ abstract and unhistorical approach I adopt here. (My Wittgensteinian daimon grumbles at me: back to the rough ground!) As it stands, the issue is setup somewhere in the realms between pure conceptual analysis and metaphysical anthropology, and as such I am worried about how adequate my framework will be when it comes down to the grittier details. Hence I’m concerned about the concepts I help myself to until they are on the gold standard, so to speak. Freedom, which you flag, is a case in point. I’m trying to do some finessing of my treatment of it at the moment that tries to situate it historically without submerging it in that history at such an early stage in my project. I expect I’ll post on that too soon enough.

    I am very much enjoying your series on Chapter 1 of Capital and am sure you’re right in your immanent Hegelian approach. Do keep up the good work on that front!

  3. Pingback: Rethinking Autonomy and Nature: Notes on Strategy « Grundlegung

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