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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Realism and autonomy: three sketchy thoughts

Right now, the work that I’m doing for my supervision meetings is on realism and autonomy. My aim is to articulate possible tensions between realist accounts of normative force and the Kantian understanding of autonomy: that is, acting according to a law not derived from something external to the will. For, while contemporary Kantians like Christine Korsgaard seem to think that there is an obvious incompatibility between autonomy so understood and any reasonably robust moral realism, I remain unconvinced. In part, this may be because the criticisms of realism from a perspective that privileges autonomy are rather underdeveloped and gestural. Also, however, I remain sceptical because the resources available to the realist have been underestimated. Ultimately, I think that far from clashing with autonomy, a sufficiently nuanced realism can do a better job at explaining it. Indeed, eventually I hope to show that a certain version of realism gets closer to Kant’s own position than the oh-so-obvious subsumption of Kant’s moral philosophy under the categories of modern anti-realism.

Very crudely, the contemporary ‘Kantian’ thought seems to go something like this. In practical deliberation, the realist is going to appeal to reasons for action that are supposed to be intrinsically compelling, e.g. ‘the fact that killing is unjust’, or ‘God mandates eating animals’. Yet, to be autonomous is to act on a law in some sense immanent to the will and not imposed from outside of it. If there are intrinsically compelling normative features of the world, and so features in some sense independent of the activity of the will, then it seems that the will cannot or ought not be autonomous. This is because the will would be beholden to reasons whose authority lies outside of it, and therefore it is not free to choose its own law constrained only by principles immanent to it as a will. Thus autonomy and moral realism are incompatible. At least, that is how I think the basic story is meant to go.

Obviously, things can rapidly get more complicated. There seem to be various ways for the realist to reply as well as ways of finessing the way the anti-realist sets up the problem. So too, there are other potential clashes between realism and autonomy, fleshed out differently from the one presented here. Here, I only wish to note three of the more nascent thoughts I’ve had recently with respect to these issues:

(i) In good Zizekian fashion, why not simply plead guilty? That is, what is so awful about jettisoning autonomy, at least in this sense, in favour of realism. I find this tempting, since I am suspicious of freedom-like concepts being the keystones of ethico-political systems. Apparently, Charles Larmore pursues this thought in his The Morals of Modernity, which I have yet to get hold of. Still, it is a separate question whether on the grounds given by the neo-Kantian the realist must give up autonomy. As I say, I am yet to be convinced of this.

(ii) The understanding of autonomy outlined is one in which to be autonomous is to act according to the will’s own principles, where these are understood to be constitutive of the will as such — part of what any will must be in virtue of it being a will at all. One path would be to pursue this thought rather deeper, to try and connect the appeal to such constitutive principles — which the Kantian anti-realist strategy endorses — with realism. If it could be shown that the will relies upon, say, an implicit understanding of a reason which is the same as one given by a realist account, then there may be a way of conjoining realism and autonomy. This strategy would try to show that the very notion of a will must be understood against a realist backdrop to be intelligible. Conversely, we might try to show that an anti-realist will — one whose constitutive principles preclude or ignore the realist conception of normativity — fails to be a will at all.

This is extremely sketchy, and I feel there are lots of possible confusions afoot here. One thing to bear in mind is the distinction between two senses of a constitutive principle. There are what we might call constitutive features (e.g. of a rose that it is a plant) and constitutive rules (e.g. given that you are thinking, you are licensed to employ the principle of non-contradiction). The sense in which the will is said to be autonomous seems to be the latter, that it acts on constitutive rules and so does not appeal to anything outside of itself. If these constitutive rules required a realist conception of a good reason for action then it seems there could be no clash between autonomy — as the acting upon such rules — and moral realism.

(iii) How does this relate to other stripes of realism about normativity? The topic of my larger project encompasses normativity in general, not merely moral practices. So, can similar issues be raised with respect to, say, normative epistemological realism — which can be characterised as the position that good reasons for belief are, perhaps in some qualified sense, independent of what we take to be such reasons. In Kant at least, the concept of autonomy might seem to be misplaced here, with Kant taking the subtly different notion of freedom to apply to theoretical activity. Kant aside though, perhaps it does make sense to ask whether a realist account of theoretical activity is a threat to the autonomous exercise of our intellectual powers. Spelling out some of the relevant disanalogies between theoretical and practical reason (if [contra McDowell and Dancy?] there are any), such as the agent-centric perspective of the latter, might help to clarify matters.