Brandom on Freedom and Objectivity

I’ve been trying to write on Brandom, relating his project to the problem of the threatened antinomy between autonomy and external obligations that I’ve been trying to develop. The somewhat lengthy results can be found below the fold. I’m not sure that I’ve nailed all the details yet, especially with respect to some of the more technical aspects of Brandom’s system, but I think the gist is clear.

Also, on the topic of Brandom, N Pepperell and L Magee’s excellent conference paper on him and Habermas can be found here.

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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.

Kantian self-legislation: formal laws and ontological narcissism

One very common way to read Kant’s moral philosophy is with a heavy emphasis on the self-legislative activity of the subject. Championed here is the anti-dogmatist tenor of Kant’s thought: the idea that normative authority can no longer be seen to simply rest in God or nature but must be grounded in a radically self-authorising subject who neither needs these external props nor can in good conscience accept them if they are to heed the Enlightenment call of ‘sapere aude!’ — to dare to know, to step into the maturity announced by the use of one’s own powers of reason.

As attractive as this picture can be in some respects, it often risks underplaying the formal elements in Kant’s project that are crucial to understanding the role of law and so why it is self-legislation that is invoked. To get a grasp on what work the word ‘formal’ is doing in this case, consider the following maxims (taken from Plato’s Republic as presented by Korsgaard):

(a) I will keep my weapon, because I want it for myself.
(b) I will refuse to return your weapon, because I want it for myself.
(c)I will refuse to return your weapon, because you have gone mad and may hurt someone.

They can be seen to be composed of two parts: an action and a purpose. Insofar as we are inclined to think that maxims (a) and (c) are good ones and maxim (b) a bad one, it seems that this cannot merely be a function of the actions or purposes. This is because the purposes of the first two are the same (acting because I want the weapon) and the actions of the second two are also the same (refusing to return the weapon). (a) and (c) both share parts — certainly different ones, but in combination exhaustive — with (b), so it cannot be merely in having a certain part that the maxim becomes a good one. Rather, it is the way that actions and purposes are combined that make the two maxims good ones. But form is not merely the way in which certain matter is combined. We said that the two maxims were good because of their combinations of actions and purpose; and form includes this directedness: it is the functional arrangement that enables something to do what it does, being an exemplum of its kind. (Obviously there are both relatively anodyne and much more controversial ways of understanding the ontological implications of this.)

Kant is concerned with what it is that distinguishes good maxims — the ones that are acceptable to act on — from bad ones — those that we ought not to act on. As we have seen, for him this cannot merely consist in identifying either certain actions or purposes that are good in-themselves. It requires us to examine the functional arrangement of actions and purposes. Kant’s suggestion as to the property of maxims that gives shape to this functional arrangement, that, as it were, locates what function that the arrangement should serve if the maxim is to be a good one, is being law-like. That is, those maxims that can be acted upon while it would be possible to consistently will them to be a natural law such that everyone would follow its dictates.

The way that I think Kant’s thought should be taken is as a thesis about the universality of reason, which implies its authority for and over us irrespective of our desire to heed its call. We can think of this as follows. For Kant, as for Socrates, to deliberate is to decide what ends are valuable, and insofar as we do decide to do something then we take this end as valuable. (Although akrasic factors might intervene before performing the action.) In performing an action pursuant of such an end, as distinct from a reflex reaction occurring or engaging in incoherent behaviour, we must be able to take ourselves to be acting for a reason: this is constitutive of actions (at least for Kant, if not Freud, say). So, given all the details of the particular situation that we find ourselves in, acting at all requires of us to be able to be able to produce reasons as to why we acted as we did in this situation.

The status of these reasons can then be questioned; the reasons in question being justificatory reasons, that is, not explanatory ones — we want to know whether although you took such-and-such to be a good reason to act as you did, was it really such a good reason? In assessing this, especially in the case of a morally dubious action, we may be tempted to point to extenuating circumstances: ‘Yes, I stole her wallet but I live in grinding poverty and have a starving family to feed.’ In a sense this is fine, for all the details of a particular situation are open to be appealed to as potentially relevant factors. However, it will not do to simply appeal to the fact that it is oneself who is acting, that the standards that are applied to others do not apply to me. For there is no metaphysically positive property that distinguishes you as exceptional and at the same time would be normatively relevant here. This means that there is no rational justification for free-riding that could not also be appealed to by anyone else with equal vehemence. We might put the point like this: for Kant there is no greater sin than ontological narcissism.

The formal structure of a law goes some way to excluding this temptation to make exceptions for oneself, for laws are universal. This means that, as Onora O’Neill puts it, they “prescribe for all cases in their scope.” A formal law is attached to fixed criteria, and these provide a measure of impartiality to it — it is not directed specifically at me. Contrast this with commands, which, stricto sensu, are particular, e.g. ‘Shut the door!’ or ‘You three are coming with me.’ If we find that our maxims do not have the formal structure of laws, that to be a subjective normative force for us they must be construed as commands, then considered as contributing reasons for action then they will be found wanting. This is because a brute command will find no rational warrant, whereas a law will be valid for everyone — it will contribute ‘public reasons’, so to speak, in support of the action.

So, to briefly return to the beginning, what is important in self-legislation is not the misleading picture of the agent that somehow binds or authorises itself, but rather the fact that the agent is following maxims with the formal structure of laws, stripped of all partiality. In following these rationalised maxims, ones where no unjustifiable exceptions are made simply because it is I who is acting, we act in a way proper to a being whose nature is itself infused with rationality, with the laws thus no longer being alien impositions: this is the self-legislative component.