Dissecting freedom

No idea is so generally recognized as indefinite, ambiguous, and open to the greatest misconceptions (to which therefore it actually falls a victim) as the idea of freedom: none in common currency with so little appreciation of its meaning.

Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, §482A

Wise words, as ever. I am aware that my own employment of the notion of freedom is potentially oversimplified and risks failing to do justice to lack of settled agreement on its content and import. In recognition of this, I want to give a general outline of some aspects of the concept as I see it that expands upon my rough characterisation of freedom as self-determination. So too, I want to at least minimally situate this outline with reference to the modern philosophical history of the concept (although this will be far from adequate). My intention here will not be to justify the conception of freedom I have adopted, rather simply to explain its elements.

My provisional definition of freedom identifies five aspects or conditions of freedom. As such, I take it that to be fully free is to: (i) select an end for ourselves (ii) in the right way (iii) ensuring that it gives rise to an appropriate action (iv) in circumstances where we have the skills and resources to achieve our end (v) without external hindrance in so doing. Each such aspect I take to be as follows: (i) minimal autonomy (ii) ideal autonomy (iii) autocracy (iv) positive freedom (v) negative freedom. I will say something about each in what follows.

On what is arguably the most basic conception of it, freedom is taken to consist in the absence of constraints upon doing what one desires or otherwise has as one’s project. As Hobbes puts it, on the basis that we are free, “no liberty can be inferred to the will, desire, or inclination, but the liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop, in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to doe.” This conception of freedom is one that is shared by Hume, who articulates it more tersely, saying that such liberty is, “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will.” Hume goes on to explain that this freedom is possessed by everybody who is not chained and imprisoned. This remark confirms that this sort of freedom is a species of negative liberty, the conception of freedom central to political liberalism. For on this understanding it is clear that to be actively prevented from carrying out our projects just is what it is to be deprived of freedom.

If taken to provide a full characterisation of freedom, some critics have supposed that the conception of freedom outlined so far must be supplemented by a more positive account. That is, to put it crudely, to be genuinely free is not just to be free from some constraint upon our existing powers that prevents us realising our desires or other projects, but also to be free to realise these things. Thus, these critics advocate an expansion of our notion of freedom to include the provision of such things as the material resources and social goods necessary to carry out our projects. For example, on this understanding we can fail to be free not only by being locked up or stuck in a ravine but also by being in poverty or without access to education. In effect, they reject Hobbes’ claim: “A free-man is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to.”

Both of these conceptions take us to be free to the extent that it is possible for us to fulfil our existing desires and projects. They differ as to what sort of possibility they specify in this respect, whether that is being unhindered in our use of the abilities and resources we have or being in possession of the requisite abilities and resources themselves. But what they do not interrogate as yet are those desires and projects which we regard as our ends. As such, they fail to address autonomy: the notion of being a legislator for oneself and thereby setting one’s own ends. This idea might be understood in a number of ways though and so initially we ought to make a distinction between what I shall call ‘minimal autonomy’ and ‘ideal autonomy’.

At root, minimal autonomy is the idea that in order to act then I must to some extent take my action as an end. In other words, minimal autonomy is the authority of the agent to legitimately initiate their actions through setting a goal for themselves. All that this legitimacy consists in is the fact that were something other than a certain person to be responsible for bringing about an occurrence then that occurrence could not qualify as their action. Thus, minimal autonomy is the requirement, as a condition of agency, that agents are self-authorising to whatever extent is required for them to be responsible for their action. To draw out the connection with freedom we might say that, for the defender of minimal autonomy, part of what it is for us to be agents at all is to choose our own goals—that the ends of our action cannot simply be given. This is to say, one cannot just act because one is always faced with the question of how one should act which requires us to actively make up our minds as to what to do and what not to do. So, on such a view, there is some respect in which an agent cannot fail to be free just by virtue of being an agent at all, even if they simply acquiesce to their existing desires or even if they fail to go on to act all.

What is at issue between those who want to affirm minimal autonomy, such as Kant, and those who want to deny controversial versions of it, such as Hobbes and Hume, will be questions centring on the role of desire, reasons and motivation in agency. So, someone may want to deny minimal autonomy is required for agency as a result of thinking that to explain the fact that Kate eats the apple we need only know that Kate desired to eat the apple and not that, furthermore, she took eating the apple as an end based on this desire. Alternatively, we might say that those against and those defending a role for minimal autonomy will differ as to whether they take reference to the deliberative standpoint to be essential to explain human action. So, proponents of minimal autonomy will take it that genuine actions are those that the agent performs on the basis of reasons that are available to them from within their perspective on the world, whereas opponents of minimal autonomy will suppose that there is no such constraint on what counts as an action. As such, we could describe the defender of minimal autonomy as an internalist about agency and their opponent as an externalist about agency. (At root, I think it is the materialist impulses of Hobbes and Hume that make this approach unattractive to them. Suffice to say, I can see their worries but am ultimately unconvinced by them.)

If minimal autonomy—as the necessity of actively choosing or taking up an end for ourselves—is a condition of agency, then insofar as we are agents then we cannot fail to exhibit this sort of freedom. Ideal autonomy, however, is another conception of freedom as setting an end for ourselves that we can fail to exhibit while remaining agents. This is because ideal autonomy concerns the grounds or procedure by which that end is chosen or taken up by us. So, we might think that to be fully autonomous it is not enough to have adopted a certain end for oneself but that we must have done so in the right way, rather than, say, on the basis of an arbitrary whim or bad reasons. For example, Kant thinks that we are genuinely autonomous only when we adopt ends that could be followed universally as if they were laws of nature. Thus, for him it is not enough that we are responsible for our actions through deliberating about or otherwise endorsing them, but we must do so in conformity with the further principle of the categorical imperative.

Finally, a fifth conception of freedom is as self-mastery or autocracy. Here the focus is upon the connection between having an end (whether autonomously adopted or not) and actually acting to fulfil it. For we might think that we could fail to be free, even if we had the abilities and resources to fulfil our desires and projects and where no-one was preventing us fully utilising these abilities and resources, because we could not bring ourselves to act appropriately. Phenomena like akrasia (weakness of will) are relevant here, where we genuinely intend or desire to do something—say, to hold one’s tongue in an argument—but are, as it were, overwhelmed by the circumstances and do not do so. Being able to avoid such situations, say by virtue of practice and the self-conscious cultivation of patience in oneself over time, is, then, the final general aspect of freedom that I want to include.

So, I hope it is clear the sort of broad approach to freedom I want to take, which is rather Kantian in outline if not in some of its details. Now, actually tracing this conception out historically and coming to defend it is another matter.

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