Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On freedom: (3) The value of 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.


Today I want to consider the issue of what would make this idea of freedom valuable -- and whether it actually is. As I see them, values are identified by playing a particular functional role in practical reasoning. To be a value is to make a difference to how we should think about what we should do. So, for example, prudence is unquestionably a value: that is, there's no serious doubt that there is at least some worth in being cautious and discrete in one's conduct, in ensuring that one acts in an efficacious and considered fashion. Why is prudence a value? It is, in my view, because prudence is something we should take into account when deciding what we should do; when I am deciding, for example, whether to write this or not, whether writing this is the action I should take, one thing I should take into account (insofar as I am thinking rationally) is whether it would be prudent. An action's being prudent, by virtue of being prudent, gives me a reason that I should use in my practical deliberations.

So, reason-giving can be taken as symptomatic of value. Something is valuable insofar as it is the sort of thing that gives rise to reasons; therefore, if something gives rise to reasons, we have reason to believe that is is valuable. Not decisive reason, of course, as reason-giving is only a symptom of value, but I find it difficult to characterize value generally in any other terms. I'll run with this one, then.

There are two outstanding issues here before I can draw a connection to political freedom. First, what are reasons, in this sense? And, second, what is it to deliberate practically?

Reasons in this sense are practical reasons (which, FWIW, I take to exhaust the category of all reasons). That is, they are reasons for doing something; they are considerations that speak in favour of a particular course of action. If I am thirsty, that doing so would get me a drink is a reason for opening the fridge. If I am in danger, that doing so would protect me is a reason to hide. And so on. Reasons in this sense are not necessarily conclusive; they can just be favouring reasons. If I am on my way to work and see a man lying in pain on the side of the road, his pain is a reason for my helping him, but my needing to be at work is a reason for not helping him (as I will be late if I do). These two reasons are in conflict, in that the actions they favour cannot both be done. And most situations are far more complex than this: we face a multitude of considerations which speak in favour of a similar multitude of various possible actions. Some of these actions we can do in combination, others we cannot, and some we can only do in particular orders. So, practical deliberation exists to help us sort through the various reasons which exist in any given practical situation, to help us determine which of the favoured actions is the one most favoured -- that is, the one we have most reason to do, and therefore the one we should do, all things considered.

Practical deliberation, then, depends on a certain facility of judgement. It is not, despite some prominent attempts to distill it to such a thing, a mechanical procedure. Aristotle had his practical syllogism; for example:
  1. All lies are wrong.
  2. To say p would be a lie.
  3. Therefore, I should not say p.
(The form here isn't perfect, but it's close enough.) Bentham had his utilitarian calculus, which assigned numerical values to about a dozen different qualities of pleasures; upon adding and subtracting the pleasures and pains from all possible courses of action, we should, according to Bentham, do whatever led to the highest numerical result. All such procedures break down at the extremes. The practical syllogism cannot capture the sort of deliberation involved in deciding between two courses of action: it is not possible to fit such a choice into the major premise, minor premise, conclusion structure. Similarly, the utilitarian calculus, ignoring its very limited account of value, is sufficiently unwieldy as to be useless in most concrete situations.

So, I rest practical deliberation on a well-informed, well-developed capacity for judgement. That is, to deliberate between competing reasons for action is to have the ability to assess them in an informed and experienced fashion. And this ability exists in a sufficiently refined and educated character.

Do reasons arise from political freedoms? That is, does the range of political abilities afforded to humans by being in political society give us reasons which should figure in to our practical deliberations? I tend to think that the range of political abilities does give us reasons for action -- indeed, that it has to give us reasons for action. Political freedoms connect to human freedoms, as I have already argued; and, human freedoms are, in sum, the ability to enact changes in the world. Human freedom, then, is the capacity to respond to reasons for action -- to take action on the basis of reasons. So, anything that serves human freedom must give reasons, for freedom and reasons go together. (I acknowledge this is a little vague, but I hope the basic point is clear.) Given the connection between political freedom and human freedom, and the connection then from human freedom to reasons for action, it must be the case that political freedom gives us reasons for action (and thus freedom is always valuable). That is, that something would affect freedom or relate to freedom in some way always favours or speaks towards some particular course of action.

Are these favouring reasons or conclusive reasons, though? Can they be defeated by other reasons, and, if so, can they be defeated easily and quickly or only by considerations of very great significance? I think that freedom gives us only favouring reasons, but that is an instance of a broader point: that nothing, really, on its own, gives us conclusive reasons. Conclusive reasons, I think, can only be generated out of the process of practical deliberation; they cannot be the input of this process. This is not a hard position to motivate, as all that is required is the point that any reason can, in principle, be defeated by some other reason. Even something as fundamentally important as life can be defeated by other reasons; self-sacrifice is, after all, not always irrational. If death is not always a reason not to do something -- indeed, if death can be a reason to do something -- then it follows, I think, that there is no value which gives rise to reasons that cannot, in principle, be ignored.

So, freedom could be overcome by other things; the reasons it gives us may be defeated. But can freedom be easily defeated? I tend to think it can't. Since freedom is fundamental to the idea of acting for reasons -- of rational action at all, that is -- to allow its reasons to be defeated is, in a sense, to allow reason to defeat itself. I don't see that this is contradictory, but it is, I think, quite a difficult state to achieve. What would be required is a case where giving up one's freedom is necessary in order to protect one's freedom: we could think of limiting our freedom to speech, imposing a limitation on my ability to express threats, in order to protect others from serious harm (i.e., the legitimate and serious threats), or of limiting our freedom of movement, imposing a limitation on our ability to move around our nation, because being in certain areas (e.g., toxic waste sites) could cause us serious harm. Harm is not a blanket reason that will always swamp freedom, but it certainly can. (After all, certain harms will inhibit our ability to act on the basis of reasons at all.)

To summarize, then: 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 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. Freedom always gives rise to reasons for action, as freedom and reasons go together; therefore, freedom is valuable. It is significantly valuable, but not overwhelmingly so. Freedom can be defeated by other reasons, but only in extenuating circumstances by other, significantly weighty considerations, such as the prevention of harm.

(I'm not yet sure what I want to do for next week. I'll try to come up with something a little less theoretically-oriented, though.)