Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday metal grind-blogging

Double-shot for the long weekend.

Brutal Truth, "Sugar Daddy" (kicks in at about 1:43)

Napalm Death, "Plague Rages"

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On freedom: (2) Political freedom

Last week, I concluded the following about the nature of freedom as such:
That, then, would be what I take human freedom to be: that there are some causes which can be counted as (part of) the human self. We are free insofar as (and to the extent that) there is some part of us which makes a causal difference to what we think and do.

This week, I want to discuss how I see this connecting to political freedom. There is a difference between the two concepts. While (and I'm not going to get too far into this as I don't have it particularly straight) I take most things about the world to be structured by human practices and institutions, it's clear to me that political institutions do not exhaust those practices and institutions. That is, there are more kinds of things we do and (rule-based) structures we make than those which count as political. Religions, for example, are not a kind of state; they are a different sort of institution. The same can apply to universities, families, and so on. It would be a mistake, then, to try to read political freedom off from human freedom as such.

How do we get to political freedom from human freedom, then? Standardly, political freedom consists of two basic ideas. On the one hand, one is free insofar as one is not restricted by political institutions. This is the sort of freedom that is captured by the ideas of being free to associate with others or being free to move within a country's borders. On the other hand, one is free insofar as one is granted abilities by political institutions. This is the sort of freedom that is captured by the ideas of being free to vote or free to seek public office.

The former is, these days, not particularly controversial. It was controversial when it was first suggested by the Enlightenment thinkers, as it runs against some deep-rooted principles that existed in ancient (and thus also in mainstream medieval) thought. For now, though, since I take it as not controversial, I'll just leave it lie.

The controversial one is the latter type of freedom. Which is odd, really, as it also has Enlightenment roots. We can find it, for example, in the work of Rousseau, who (in)famously noted that one can be "forced to be free". The sense Rousseau makes of this superficially contradictory phrase is that in giving up natural freedom (the sort of freedom one has outside of society) one gains civic freedom (the sorts of freedom that can only exist within society). This is why I picked upon the freedom to vote and the freedom to seek public office above: these make no sense outside of political society. The idea of a "vote" is only sensible within political society; without such an institution, there is no such thing as a vote. The same applies to the idea of a "public office". (And, indeed, it applies to many other freedoms.)

So, freedom in the political sense consists both of the lack of restriction by political institutions and the granting of new abilities by political institutions. On the face of it, these are in serious tension with each other -- forget whether they are in tension with human freedom. That is, in order to create new abilities, it seems that political institutions must impose restrictions on us. In order for there to be public offices, for example, there must be powers associated with those offices, powers which can be used on others. So, if we want to have the freedom to run for public office, we must give up the freedom to not be restricted by those who hold public office. And vice versa -- if we want to maintain the lack of restriction, we must give up the existence of public offices. (Libertarians note that this applies to police as well as to politicians.)

Therefore, as a general principle, we can endorse the following: the more abilities government creates, the more restrictions it imposes; the fewer restrictions it imposes, the fewer abilities it creates. The question is what are we committed to in terms of a priority relation if we commit ourselves to the idea of human freedom. (As I said last week, I will take up the question of whether freedom is actually a valuable thing in next week's final part of this series.)

On the one hand, let us take lack of restriction as fundamental. We could defend this in the following way. In many cases, the state's interference in the lives of adults is not simply not legitimate, as it thus (necessarily ) infringes on their freedoms. However, many forms of state interference are in the lives of (literal or effective) children. And it is legitimate for the government to limit children, as, by definition, children are not full adults and thus not deserving of the full range of adult freedoms. For example, someone who has repeatedly demonstrated that they cannot handle the responsibility of caring for their own children can be deprived of those children or forced to live under state restrictions.

On the other hand, let us take the creation of abilities as fundamental. We could defend this in the following way. In many cases, the state's interference is a legitimate source of freedom for the adult. New abilities could be created through enforced education, for example, and this amounts to saying that the adult's freedoms are expanded. So, an adult who is compelled to go through (say) an apprenticeship would gain skills that expand the actions the adult is capable of taking. Far from limiting the freedoms of the adult, state interference would expand them.

I think the second is more plausible, for two reasons. First, the sense of freedom in terms of not being restricted by political institutions is irrelevant if one has no abilities to act politically. Having a maximal set of political freedoms in the second sense is a pre-condition on having any political freedoms in the first sense. This is, in my view, the fatal flaw in libertarianism: libertarians seem to believe that political freedom in the sense of lack of restriction can exist even when political freedom in the sense of having abilities is entirely absent. But this makes no sense, as without abilities to do things, there is no sense in which one's abilities can be restricted.

Second, favouring the second sense as primary over the first sense as secondary provides a more plausible justification for interfering in the freedom of children. We are not justified in interfering because they are somehow less worthy of being unrestricted than adults; instead we are so justified because they are less developed than adults and it is our responsibility to encourage and promote their development.

With the tension within political freedom resolved, we can now make some headway in connecting political and human freedom. Human freedom is based on, as I've said, the idea of a self being constituted by a particular set of causes. One is free insofar as one can affect what happens -- especially what one does -- with these causes. Political freedom, I've argued, is fundamentally about expanding the range of political abilities humans have, and only secondarily about not restricting what humans do. Thus, political freedom, in the primary sense, is about expanding the range of causes with which a human being can affect what happens; it is about making us more able to take control of the world around us, both natural and social. This is really the point of political freedom: to allow us to express our human freedom more completely and more widely.

Now, I'm not suggesting a massive project of government intervention in the lives of adults in the name of increasing their political, and thus human, freedoms. I tend to think that government's role is mostly passive when it comes to treating adults. That is, it provides a background set of conditions and opportunities (which have nothing to do with freedom), and encourages people to take advantage of them. If some adult refuses to take advantage of them, that is a legitimate choice insofar as the adult is a full-fledged adult. The government's role is to create the full set of political freedoms -- as a subset of the causes that amount to human freedom -- and then, and only then, back off. (Many physical adults will not meet the definition of "adult" in this sense, but I'm fine with that result).

(We can see this most clearly when it comes to euthanasia. If someone decides, say, that they don't want to live with the ravages of Alzheimer's, government and society have no business refusing to allow that decision, or removing the opportunities to act on it. Right now, pre-Alzheimer's, insofar as the adult is a full adult with full grasp of their capacities and a full set of political freedoms, to limit their choice to end their lives is to treat them as more limited than they are, as less than a full adult, solely on the basis of the choice that is made. But no choice -- save possibly for the choice to make no more choices -- is less legitimate than any other, as long as it is made from a position of full rationality and full information. (Within reasonable practical limits, blah blah.))

But, generally, I would endorse more government intervention, and intervention from other state institutions, in order to expand our abilities to act. For example, I would endorse poverty reduction programs to give adults greater ability to engage in the economic aspects of political institutions. I would also endorse reducing the barriers to education so that adults could expand their range of freedoms through that mechanism. And so on.

Yeah, I don't have a pithy conclusion for this one. Deal. Next time: the value of freedom.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Update May 10, 2010

I've turned comments back on for both blogs. Anyone can comment for the first two weeks, and then moderation kicks in. I reserve the right to delete comments I don't think are constructive (where "constructive" is read to mean comments that contribute to the discussion rather than trolling, deliberate nastiness, etc.).

Original Post

Those who pay attention to such things will have noticed that I have done all that I can to remove comments from the blog. Not deleting comments that already exist (although they have been hidden), but preventing the existence of new ones.

This is not just a random decision on my part, though. There's basically three options for comments:
  1. Open
  2. Moderated (at various levels)
  3. None
I don't like open. That tends to degenerate into something like the infamous YouTube comments sections. There are places with good communities that police themselves, but this requires a certain critical mass that, if I'm honest, this blog will never achieve. It is possible to police an open comments section oneself, but this usually turns into a very rigid form of censorship, wherein all views that are not one's own are immediately deleted without warning or apology. For examples, see "Tories, Blogging".

That's why I don't like moderated comments, of any sort -- whether it's comment approval, requiring registration, policing an open comments section, or what have you. It's too easy to disappear comments that one doesn't favour down the memory hole. Sometimes this may be justified, and sometimes it may not be. But there's a real temptation to let the personal trump the important and dispose of insightful remarks that, in the heat of the moment, one simply doesn't find worthy of approval. I know I've done it, and I'm confident that others with moderated comments sections would, if they were honest, admit it as well.

So, given that the choices are swill, ego-gratification, or nothing, I choose "nothing". It's not ideal, I grant, but it's better than the other options that I see. I can, of course, still be reached for reply on anything blogged herein -- Twitter is probably the best option, as 140 characters of even the swilliest swill is rarely sufficient to annoy me (and TweetDeck has a "clear tweets" function that I enjoy).

(If enough suggest it (and I have no idea what would constitute "enough", so don't ask) I may set up an email address in lieu of a commenting form. That might turn into another form of comment moderation, though, hence why I'm not interested in doing it at the moment.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday metal-blogging

Slayer, "War Ensemble"

War Ensemble - Slayer from rogertm on Vimeo.

Where does the Toronto Star find these people?

Richard Gwyn is very, very stupid. He notes, correctly, that strikes are about power. Then he declares, wrongly, that Toronto civic workers have a monopoly on garbage collection. And he declares, wrongly, that York U's TAs and contract faculty have a monopoly on university teaching (or possibly teaching at York -- neither is correct). And he declares that union members should have no power and be trampled on by the majority. (No, majoritarianism is not "democracy"; sooner or later, majoritarians are going to learn what tyranny of the majority actually means.)

None of this is ever actually argued, as that would probably be too difficult for Gwyn to achieve. One suspects that a union member once ran over his cat or something, as the column is very, very bitter.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On freedom: (1) Human freedom

For the next little bit, I want to talk about freedom. Not in the political sense necessarily; more in the broader, metaphysical-y (metaphysical-esque? metaphysical-ish?) sense. I tend to think the two notions are related, in that figuring out the broader sense helps in figuring out the narrower political sense. But the tradition doesn't always draw these distinctions in a particularly clear way, and common thinking consequently seems to confuse them. My aim for today is to spell out some ideas regarding the broad sense of freedom, and then use those as a jumping-off point to talk about political freedom and why freedom matters.

So, what is freedom? Intuitions famously diverge. The standard intro to philosophy way of getting people to think about freedom is via the so-called "problem of free will" -- which unfortunately isn't obviously a problem, nor is it obviously about "free will" as such. Still, it's as good a place as any to start.

As you start delving through the history of philosophy, you find a broad division between two different ways of thinking about human thought and action. One holds that human thought and action originate in what we could call basic capacities. Thought is a result of the capacity called reason; and action is a result of the capacity called will. The other holds that human thought and action originate in a complex interaction of a variety of impulses, tendencies, dispositions, and so on. Thought and action alike, then, are a result of some sort of collision or combination of different parts of oneself. What distinguishes the two approaches, then, is that the former takes thought and action to each have its own basic and unique capacity, while the latter takes thought and action to be higher-level consequences of lower-level processes, with no necessary connection between parts of the lower-level and parts of the higher. (Hybrid views are, of course, possible, but focusing on the extremes is methodologically useful.)

The approaches do share something, though, which is a commitment to the claim that human beings are at least in some sense part of the causal order. By the "causal order" is meant nothing very mysterious: just the usual ramshackle physical world. Human beings are parts of physical reality, and so are subject to physical causes and can produce physical effects. This creates the problem of free will for both approaches. (Note that I'm omitting the moral responsibility aspect of the problem, as I think it leads us into worse confusions.)

If you take human thought and action to be grounded in basic capacities, and humans to be part of the causal order, then one of two things must be true: either those capacities are, as parts of a causally-ordered thing, caused by something, or they are caused by nothing, despite being parts of a causally-ordered thing. (The latter is not impossible. I, as a person, am part of the legal order; my right forefinger is a part of me; but my right forefinger is not part of the legal order -- my right forefinger cannot commit crimes, only I can.) If they are caused by something, then my thought and action are caused by something, and hence are not freely chosen (because determined by things outside myself). If they are caused by nothing, then my thought and action are caused by nothing, and hence are not freely chosen (because random and not the result of anything I have done).

If you take human thought and action to be higher-level consequences of lower-level processes, and humans are part of the causal order, then one of two things must be true: either those processes are, as parts of a causally-ordered thing, caused by something, or they are caused by nothing, despite being parts of a causally-ordered thing. If they are caused by something, then my thought and action are caused by something, and hence are not freely chosen (because determined). If they are caused by nothing, then my thought and action are caused by nothing, and hence are not freely chosen (because random).

The traditional solutions to the problem split into three positions: (hard) determinism, compatibilism (also "soft determinism"), and libertarianism (not the political view). Hard determinists accept the first horn: our thoughts and actions are fully causally determined, and hence are not freely chosen. Libertarians partially accept the second horn: our thoughts and actions are not causally determined -- but try to argue that they are nonetheless freely chosen. And compatibilists partially accept the first horn: our thoughts and actions are fully causally determined -- but try to argue that they are nonetheless freely chosen. I don't know of anyone who fully accepts the second horn: perhaps this could be glossed as some sort of extreme nihilism or perverse fatalism.

Hopefully, you can see why this is not a useful problem, in itself, for figuring out what freedom is. The "problem of free will" focuses our attention on whether a certain conception of free choice is compatible with a certain conception of the causal order. It doesn't help us to figure out what the causal order actually is, and it doesn't help us to determine exactly what freedom is. In that sense, then, the problem is misconceived. The resulting positions, though, are useful, for in their development there must be some consideration of what it would take for an action or a thought to be the result of some free choice.

On the hard determinist side, of course, the answer is fundamentally negative: there is nothing that there could be for an action or a thought to be the result of some free choice. This, to my eye, is either a gross scientism or a form of despair. That is, one can be led to hard determinism by believing that only science can tell us what is true and real; and, since science assumes the universe to be a roughly uniform causal order, anything that doesn't fit -- such a freedom -- needs to be excluded. One can also be led to hard determinism through despair of ever achieving any sort of deep and meaningful freedom -- sort of a surrender to philosophical pessimism.

On the libertarian side, the answer is positive, but obscure. Libertarians hold out hope for a freedom that somehow allows us to escape the causal order, and yet doesn't deprive the causal order of its significance. After all, many things that we do and think we actually want to be caused, at least partially, by the world around us. My past choices, for example, if they matter at all matter because they make a difference to what I do now and in the future. So, the trick for libertarianism is to retain causal influence over thought and action, but do so in a way that doesn't prevent us from deviating, yet without deviation looking like a random occurrence.

This is a very difficult trick to pull off; I've never read a libertarian who was persuasive on this point. The difficulty to my eye is conceiving of the impact of choice on thought and action in a way that isn't causal. It just seems impossible to me: if my past choices matter, it is because they act as partial causes of future choices. My sense is that libertarians are yearning for the sort of extreme freedom that the hard determinists sought and failed to find: the ability to always do otherwise, to take some option which has nothing to do with one's history or nature or anything at all. Without getting into whether this radical freedom has any point (again: how does it differ from randomness?), it doesn't strike me as something we actually have. The more we know about humans in general, and particular humans, for that matter, the better able we are to predict and control what they will do. We are rarely surprised by the behaviour and thoughts of people we know well; and the behaviour and thoughts of human in groups are becoming progressively better understood. So, I don't think this sort of radical freedom really exists, even if it is conceptually possible.

Therefore, I think compatibilism has the most going for it as a way of figuring out what human freedom is and how much of it we have, especially given our presence in a world of causes. A compatibilist would take free choice as a cause among many, one which originates from either a fundamental capacity (the will) or that emerges from lower-level (probably neurobiological) processes. The story will be causal all the way down -- so, we are still creatures in the causal order -- but some of those causes will be identifiable as originating from within the human agent him/herself, and thus count as free choices. That is, in order to salvage the idea of human freedom, we need to identify the human self as a locus of a certain set of causes and, through so doing, we identify human freedom within the causal order.

That, then, would be what I take human freedom to be: that there are some causes which can be counted as (part of) the human self. We are free insofar as (and to the extent that) there is some part of us which makes a causal difference to what we think and do. Sometimes the choices we make will be momentous ones -- I'm tempted to call these "decisions" to distinguish them -- and actually alter who we are and which choices count as free. Consider, for example, leaving a religious group that one has grown up in, one which placed significant limits on what was acceptable behaviour. The choice -- the decision -- to leave opens up a larger realm of possible choices -- possible self-oriented causes -- than one previously had. And sometimes the choices we make are insignificant -- such as whether to have pancakes or waffles for breakfast. I think there will be a line beneath which we wouldn't even call something a choice any more, instead terming it a fully-caused action; I'm thinking of habitual actions that we tend to always do in the same way. These originate from causes within one's self, but not the causes that count as freedom. But these distinctions within the causes that are part of me don't affect the general idea that some of those causes are the ones that count as freedom, whose effects count as free choices.

For next week (it's summer, so I'll try to do these weekly), I'll consider how this connects to political freedom.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday metal-blogging

It seemed appropriate somehow. Sepultura, "Refuse/Resist".

Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday metal-blogging.

Carcass, "Corporal Jigsore Quandary"

Thursday, July 09, 2009


I can't read things like this and think seriously that Toronto council wants to settle this strike. Which should lead voters to wonder whose interests council is acting in. Of course, it won't -- it'll just lead the spoiled populace of this city to continue to cry about those mean ol' unions.

Same ol', same ol'.

This is the most utterly bizarre thing.

Okay, it's not Friday. But, I'm not sure this is entirely metal.

Madonna covering Pantera. Seriously.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


I had Miller pegged as a likable incompetent. Apparently, he's actually a cowardly asshole (from here:
"I can tell you what I'm hearing from Torontonians is: Keep it up."

Miller told reporters his biggest worry is not the growing piles of garbage at temporary dumps at parks and arenas, but children. "The poorest children in the city are losing their summer recreational opportunities. I don't think that's right."
So, in other words, Miller's more interested in being popular than right, and he's hiding behind children to make his point.

Like I said: cowardly asshole. How unfortunate that everyone else who's run for mayor in my recollection was at least as bad (if not worse).

Interesting notes on the Toronto city strike.

I haven't confirmed these. But if they're true, then Mayor Miller's attitude towards the current city workers' strike becomes just that much more reprehensible -- and the usual union-bashing crowd that much more vile.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The similarities between university administrators and Conservatives are striking.

I love this first piece on the recent York U news update (taken, I believe, largely from the Toronto Star and CP -- but it's hard to tell how much is quoted and how much is original without comparing the stories directly). It's about the recent York Federation of Students (YFS) elections. My favourite part, I think, is where it lists the allegations of irregularities in a way that implies they actually happened -- with no discussion of whether there was any basis to these claims.

Here's the deeper problem, though. The York Federation of Students is an independent body. Which means that the folks named -- York VP Students Rob Tiffin, Conservative MP (Thornhill) Peter Kent, Conservative MPP (Thornhill) Peter Shurman, and York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri -- have no status to interfere in or investigate anything about York student elections. None. For them to behave as if they have some authority to consider voting "irregularities" is pure bullshit. The whole thing seems to be motivated by more crybaby nonsense from the same group of undergrads who were whining about the York strike ("I might have to take another semester to graduate!" Yes, and if you fail a course, the same thing happens. Should you get the province to legislate that out of existence, too?).

Incidentally, York's not in Kent's or Shurman's riding, so why do they give a shit? York's in York Centre, which is Ken Dryden (MP, Lib) and Monte Kwinter (MPP, Lib). Could it be that the crybabies who lost the election couldn't get the Liberals to take them seriously, and so they went searching for a sympathetic ear? No, never; it must be that Kent and Shurman are deeply principled... yeah, okay, I couldn't get through that even sarcastically. Moving on.

I get worried when people try to use the authority they do have to assume authority in areas where they have none. And I get really worried when the alleged "future" of the country can't stand the thought of not getting what they wanted. (Well, okay, I don't worry about either; at this point, I find the latter darkly amusing and the former evidence for continued cynicism. But someone less misanthropic might find these cause for concern.)