Freedom – a Social Construct?

October 21, 2011

Recently I have been looking into some books by contemporary and recent philosophers on the much-contested nexus of issues involving determinism, free will, and moral responsibility. Among them are some writings of Peter Strawson, Richard Double, and an early work by Daniel Dennett – my favorite of the New Atheists – called Elbow Room. I had long ago encountered these questions in the context of Christian and other theology – think Calvinism – and developed my own way of thinking about them; but it’s good to see them tackled with modern analytical methods.

As I had suspected, the relationship between “free will” and “determinism” is  not simply one of antithesis. I was never persuaded by those who purported to see a defense of “free will” in the apparently anti-determinist findings of modern physics; it seemed to me that quantum randomness is not quite the thing most people mean by “freedom.” Merely showing that there is a built-in unpredictability to all things, including my choices, doesn’t make me feel free in any meaningful sense; it just means that rather than an inexorable divine will or scientifically analyzable machinery, I am at the mercy of a kind of cosmic coin toss. I, and I suspect others, actually feel most in control of our actions precisely when our choices are rooted in a chain of causality; for this is when we act most deliberately, with a knowledge of what motivates us and what effects we are likely to produce. Richard Double is particularly good at charting out the various options: freedom-only-if-no-determinism, freedom-only-if-determinism, freedom-in-either-case, freedom-in-neither-case… and showing the flaws in all of them. (His position is one of “metaethical subjectivism,” holding that “freedom,” and moral concepts generally, do not refer to objectively real entities, but are no less important for that; and I am inclined to agree.)

Dennett’s book makes a useful contrast between (a) the “freedom” that philosophers fight about and (b) the “freedom” that the rest of us fight about. “Metaphysical freedom,” he says, is not something we really need to bother with, we can get on with our lives quite well without it; political freedom is a very different matter, and much more heat than light results from letting the passions properly associated with the latter spill over into discussions of the former.

When we see philosophers stumble over themselves and talk past each other, I find it useful to see what the terms they are fighting about mean in ordinary life, in contexts where we all seem to know what they mean even if we don’t think much about their precise definitions. “Freedom” in ordinary usage seems to have to do mainly with ability to act on our desires, beliefs, felt needs, whatever motivates us, without certain kinds of restraint. What kinds of restraint? Apparently not physical limitations, individual or general; my lack of wings doesn’t take away my “freedom” to fly. (We may say that a bodily disorder impedes someone’s “freedom of movement,” but this isn’t “freedom” in the hot-button sense of the word.) The restraints that people fight over are restraints imposed by other people. Moreover, they are restraints that are felt to be somehow illegitimate; parental authority over small children is generally accepted, as is the right to keep others off one’s own property. Illegitimate restraint can be by the arbitrary will of some individual, a random thug with a gun for example, or it can be more systemic – and here’s where we get into trouble, such as a good deal of the polarization of American politics today. A lot of people – conservatives, libertarians, economists of a certain stripe – seem to consider a wide range of governmental actions to be illegitimate arbitrary restraints on “freedom,” while accepting economic restraints, resulting from “market forces,” as part of the  natural order of things; while others of us see government (ideally) as a natural function of our social nature, and concentrations of economic power as impositions of an alien will. Although I definitely identify more with the latter camp, my point here is not to argue the point, but simply to characterize the difference. (Here’s a post I found this morning that illustrates my side of it nicely, a response by a liberal blogger to a conservative economist on the question of wage differentials according to gender.)

But for all our differences about what kinds of restraint are legitimate, all who fight for “freedom” in the real world take for granted our starting point as individuals who have desires, felt needs, beliefs, motivations; where these things come from is not in question. It is only when we do start to question it that we get into metaphysical territory, and “freedom” seems to be not merely endangered in practice, but problematic in its very nature; because the very thought that our desires come from somewhere implies that there is something prior to us, whether a God or a machine or a coin-toss, that produces them, and this makes us seem radically dependent on whatever (or Whoever) we think that is. And for this there is no cure, because like it or not, our lives are rooted in a chain of events that way way precedes us. To have absolute “metaphysical freedom” would mean being a God… the “freedom” we can hope for in life is the freedom that comes from living in a social order that allows us a reasonable scope to act on our decisions however we came by them, and a reasonable assurance that our essential interests will be protected against whatever interferences our society regards as illegitimate.



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