Our Freedom Fetish

Define liberty. I am guessing your result mirrors the popular definition of the term: a state that allows one to “act as she chooses.” In other words, we are free when we can do as we wish. But this is, plainly put, an awful definition. I cannot go backwards in time or live forever or be invisible or fly. Does that mean that I never have been free nor ever will be? Thomas Hobbes posited a famous test of our understanding of the term when he imagined passengers on a foundering ship who are asked to throw their baggage overboard to save their lives. Is their jettisoning of their property a free act? Imagine for a moment a prisoner hanging by chains in some dark dungeon, incapable of motion. He can think of his mother. Is he therefore free? Held at gunpoint, a captured soldier is ordered to shoot a fellow prisoner or be shot himself. Is his choice a free one? In each of these rather standard examples, we are asked to confront our understanding of what it means to have liberty, and in each we find our simplistic notions challenged. Why is that? As we examine these examples, we find commonalities that might prove helpful in determining the true nature of freedom. First, each example presents us with a choice. Granted, not every choice involves pleasant alternatives, but in each case, the implication is that we are free to find one choice preferable to the other. It does no good to speak of freedom unless we are presented with a choice and in doing so may prefer one course of action over another. Acting on a choice between at least two options is a more thoughtful definition of freedom, but is far from an adequate one.

But break this more complete definition down a bit and examine these examples in light of it. The prisoner in chains can hardly act at all. He can merely think, but who would deny that this option presents him with at least a modicum of freedom? Can’t he choose what to think? Wouldn’t he be less free if he were brain-dead as well as shackled? The storm-ravaged passengers can indeed act, but their choices are so circumscribed and unpleasant that we can hardly view their dilemma as offering them much freedom.  Yet they still can choose the less bad of two awful options. And, in a moral sense, the captive soldier faces the worst choice of all, for no decision he could make would be acceptable under most moral justifications. Yet we must admit that despite his duress, pulling the trigger would be his choosing to act one way rather than another, thereby meeting the definition of freedom presented above. It seems that “freedom” must govern a range of choosing, some concerned with action, others with choosing to act, and still others with even considering choosing.

Something is missing here. Our understanding of freedom (or liberty—the terms are interchangeable) obviously needs clarifying. I find that my confusion in cases like this usually stems from an unwillingness to see the complexity of the term I am trying to understand. Deeper analysis usually resolves the issue. So it is in this case. For in examining freedom in acts of choosing, we face not one term but three.

First, we face our natural freedom. This is the uniquely human ability to identify options after comprehending the reality we face. Obviously, we exercise this ability a thousand times daily. Do I open my eyes or hit the snooze button? Do I wear the red tie or the blue? Do I have the eggs or the cinnamon roll? Do I take the highway, the surface roads, or the bus? And the day has hardly begun! My natural freedom consists of my ability to merely identify choice from the picture of reality my perceptions present to my reason. Now this capacity that opens options to consciousness is not in itself an option. It is natural because it is central to our human nature. It is a blessing and a curse to be a human being whose instincts are so weak and whose rational powers of analysis are so strong, for no other creature is so able to see so many options in the myriad of brute facts of existence. This freedom is inalienable. It is also unavoidable. We cannot ignore it. We become less human to the degree we are deprived of it. It is one of the ways in which “all men are created equal.” It is implicit in our designation of homo sapiens: “wise man.” We may not act with wisdom, but this natural freedom offers us more than a bland reflection of reality. We cannot help but to construct that picture of reality actively, to create from it a set of choices, a range of options, an almost immediate forking path constructed from the very nature of perceived reality. To be a person is to see the world naturally as a maze of choice that follows hard upon the heels of any recognition of reality. Natural freedom correlates with the natural rights that most persons think to be the totality of our rights but which are merely the preconditions of preference. It costs others nothing to recognize these natural rights, for  their exercise involves only that we engage our reason to confront our vision of reality. We only need identify two options to employ natural freedom, but our nature insists that we seek to maximize that freedom so as to energize rather than enervate our range of choices. Most persons see  government’s role as equalizing citizens’ natural rights that conduce to wide preference.

We certainly are not equal in the other two categories of liberty, though. Once we identify our choices, we still have to choose the best of them. We must have at least two of what William James called “living options.” We often have far more, and identifying and ranking these choices introduces the second level of freedom: preferential freedom. This is no small thing. We may be presented with choice while swimming amongst the shoals and deeps of life as an unearned gift of being human. Try not seeing your options at this or any other moment! But to choose the best or better or least bad among those options: that is the real challenge, isn’t it? This ability to evaluate and choose among options is a second freedom involved in any choice and it introduces complexity because it brings goodness issues into the mix (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”). Natural freedom only involves an accurate picture of our situation. It concerns truths.  Choosing is much harder. We obviously must exercise our preferential freedom to pick a, b, or c, and we do that always in the pursuit of whatever we think good. Preferential choices may involve utilitarian (What is the most useful choice?), qualitative (What is the best choice?), or moral goods (What is the right choice?). This engagement of preference is so complicated as to require nearly all of our energy and to preoccupy nearly all of the moments of our life, so we must respect its enormity (see “What Counts as Justification?“). There is no doubt that the exercise of preferential freedom is utterly dependent on the nature and depth of our judgments of goodness, regardless of whether the choice concerns utility, quality, or morality. And this ranking of the goods in our choices is utterly reliant on our parsing out the truth of the situation we face so as to allow our natural freedom to clarify our choices (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”). So, though we all possess natural freedom, its success in presenting us with choices deepens with the knowledge we gain from experience. Perhaps the ship’s captain can steer the ship away from the rocks. Perhaps the captured soldier can employ his weapons training or his college debate skills to improve his odds. Natural freedom may be enlarged by experience, but preferential freedom may only be improved by clear reasoning.  Once we identify our options, we engage it to choose one thing over another by whatever standard of value we employ in the moment. Just as we seek the best preference for each moment, we must also seek some pattern of preference that makes the process of choosing easier or wiser or quicker. And just as not choosing to exercise preference in the moment is itself a choice, so too do we choose a wild ride for ourselves when we avoid thinking through standards of preference. We may engage preference always on the basis of immediate utility (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“). Or we may exercise a number of absolutist, universalist, relativistic, or highly personalized systems. All of these systems privilege preferential freedom as the very essence of a truly human life, though they all structure preference by their own lights. Virtue ethics, the system that espouses moral virtue as the goal of all choosing, sees the improvement of preferential choosing as the means of living a full life (see “A Virtue Ethics Primer”) and identifies universal needs as the foundation for human rights (see “Needs and Rights”).

Allow me to dissect this vital exercise of preference just a bit further. To employ it successfully depends on the clarity with which we assemble our perceptions into a reflection of the reality we are immersed in. That process is initially preconscious as our minds order perceptions according to the rational categories of human experience from the random data streams that bombard our senses, presenting to our conscious minds a constructed image that we naively consider to be reality itself. That image (consider sight shorthand for the totality of sense data) is then resolved by our reasoning in light of our experiences into a comprehensible set of percepts in some relation to each other. This act of resolution requires our judgment. Is that object far down the road a truck? Is it moving? Is it in my lane? Almost instantaneously, that same judgment begins presenting choices to our minds, another set of rational constructions framed this time as options to be sorted, ranked, and considered in terms of preference as a conscious act of choosing one over others by whatever system of value we employ at that moment (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). I wish to emphasize this process as involving three sequential steps: experiencing a moment in reality, exercising natural freedom to frame choices contained in it, and ordering those choices by preferential freedom. The successful employment of each step relies on the accurate completion of the prior one.

I tease out this information carefully in order to explain the difference between judgment and belief. The careful sorting and assembling of sense data requires a deliberative ratiocinative act, as we decide upon what is true. That act is most fruitfully completed through a dispassionate act of reasoning. And though natural freedom follows that work as night follows day and though preferential freedom is then launched upon the choices thus revealed, these mental operations must follow our reconstruction of reality in order to frame options accurately, so they too function most capably when exercised most dispassionately.  The word judgment describes these efforts. Belief describes quite a different process, one in which the act of reconstruction is already tinged with preference, when either the experience itself or the options it presents are already colored by desire. Will enters the ring. Our judgment of the truth is distorted by the intrusion of preference. We choose to create in our minds a mimesis biased to what we prefer, merging the determination of the true with what should be a second judgment of preference into a single mental operation in which preferential freedom shuts out natural freedom. This merger enormously eases the burdens of building preference from the reality presented to us by our reason by corrupting reason with preference. So beliefs cannot be judgments. How could they be when reality itself is distorted before it can be known?  Employing belief simplifies preference and ostensibly strengthens it by accentuating one option over others that are thus forbidden to consciousness, but by slurring our sense of the true it necessarily blurs our sense of the good. Since the most difficult goodness issues involve morality, the blurring of truth eases the operation of moral choosing, but at the cost of casting issues of truth and goodness into more doubt upon frank analysis (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). I should hasten to add that belief is properly employed in determinations wherein judgment simply cannot be engaged because we cannot construct the reality that should dictate preference. We believe what we cannot know, what lies beyond the frontiers of whatever we define as knowledge.

This distinction reflects the modernist framework that structures my understanding. The defining quality of premodernists is to structure their understanding of belief, particularly religious belief, upon a reliance on authority, which history has shown to be a challenging effort (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). Though they cannot ignore their natural freedom, they transfer moral agency in a single choice of preference to authority which thereafter decrees their moral preferences without regard to the options that natural freedom presents to their consciousness. Postmodernists also privilege belief as a kind of private knowledge qualified to order their preferences, though they also face their difficulties in employing that standard (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). The foremost problem for both understandings of belief involves justifying their positions in public settings to those who engage a different definition of belief (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). In such contexts, their disagreements must ultimately rely on finding common warrants as the anvil upon which to hammer out their disputes, but the axioms that structure the warrants that support their preferences differ so fundamentally that disputants quite literally talk past each other and so perpetuate their discord. Their disagreements go beyond axiomatic ones, for they must also challenge differing positions within their own mode of warrant, challenging those whose beliefs differ even when the method of choosing them is the same. Premodernists reject religions built upon other beliefs. Religious warfare ensues because no reconciliation between beliefs is possible because their truths are so thoroughly alloyed with desire. Authority can find no grounds for resolution when opposed by other authority, for its justification is at best that trust which is subject to dissolution by challenge from opposing authority. Postmodernists can find no common ground in differing identities built upon different private experiences conducing to different preferences. Everyone’s virtual circle is profoundly private. It is only judgment that allows the emotional distancing that permits disagreements to be resolved by reasoning. Beliefs may change by will, but they are not subject to good reasons. Our axioms of public discourse and private morality are so coarse as to blur this foundational issue of preferential freedom.

But wait. Aren’t we missing something? We haven’t even gotten to what libertarians and common wisdom advance as the very essence of freedom: action. For we may engage our natural and then our preferential freedom and still do nothing. Isn’t the most important kind of freedom the actual doing? What does it matter if we prefer a to b if we do nothing about it? This is the argument advanced by proponents of consequentialist systems of morality that ask us to inspect the results of our actions rather than the intentions by which we engage our preferences. I think what we prefer and the reasons why we prefer it is of far greater moral importance than the outcomes of our choices, for even the most immediate consequences are beyond our control and the rippling effects of our actions are ever more unpredictable as they extend out into time.

On the other hand, action is the thing we see, the thing the law prescribes and proscribes, the culmination of the three-step dance of freedom.  We can control our natural and preferential freedom, but once we step out into the world, we forfeit total control. The freedom to complete our preferences by action, circumstantial freedom, is not an inevitable consequence of the earlier two steps. I may decide after examining the travel brochures and choosing Fiji as my vacation destination that I cannot afford the trip. That would be a shame because I spent so much time weighing the options and choosing the best one. Our circumstantial freedom works like that. Though it is the only freedom regulated by law, circumstantial freedom is only the tip of the iceberg. Still, it seems to be the focus of the libertarian fetish with freedom, so its functioning deserves some attention.

Now our first thought about circumstantial freedom is likely to be as hapless as our first thought about freedom in general. The usual point is that more freedom to act must be a good thing, for it allows us to carve out wider ranges of options. Who doesn’t want that? But let me be the spoiler here. What good is circumstantial freedom if we lack the wisdom to exercise our preferential freedom wisely? In a materialist culture celebrating choice for the consumer, how many options are too many, require too much time and attention, tempt us to gratification of the very superfluous desires they instill? Why seek to be free of law when good laws enlarge our freedom by accomplishing goods individuals cannot procure for themselves, assist us in setting healthy boundaries for our own actions, and actively block those who would elevate their freedoms far beyond their desserts? Too much freedom is called license and the very existence of this term should alert us to the possibility, odd as it may seem in the present cultural climate, that we can have too much circumstantial freedom. Without a correct orientation toward our natural and preferential freedom, having unlimited circumstantial freedom is like giving a child a loaded gun. Indeed, this is not just a simile but a proper example. The child lacks an awareness of both the consequences and the wisdom of firing the gun. She lacks natural and preferential freedom in this example, so her circumstantial freedom is blind. Even libertarians could not desire this degree of circumstantial freedom, nor could this example fail to remind them that circumstantial freedom is far less important than the preferential freedom that should direct it.

The most obvious limit on license is positive law, but in today’s culture law is more likely to be viewed either as the arbitrary pronouncements of the majority or the veiled imposition of the will of the powerful seeking to perpetuate their privilege, so its directive force in shaping public preference is frequently either resented or resisted. Certainly, some laws should be. The trick is in identifying those that call for civil disobedience and warranting that decision (see “When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?). Of course, accuracy in that diagnosis depends on first engaging moral preference in regard to the propriety of law in general and laws in particular (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer“). Even in engaging positive law, standards of preference matter.

Most of our preferences are private ones, rooted in our efforts to secure our needs in the torrent of situations we face daily. Since we spend virtually every waking moment exercising our three freedoms, it makes sense to mold our preferences in ways that not only avoid contradictions and their attendant frustrations but also ease our choosing to ensure that we pursue real goods with courage and integrity (see “Needs Anchor Morality”).

Freedom is intimately correlated with rights. Natural rights enable our natural freedom and human rights our preferential freedom. But freedom isn’t free. The existence of a right imposes a duty. That might involve a simple exemption-right: the duty to give way, to allow a person the room to exercise the right. Natural rights are exemption-rights. Of course, governments love to recognize them because they cost nothing. But human rights, those deriving from the universal right of preference, do impose a cost. If I have a right to health, a medical professional will have a duty to provide it to me. Human rights are largely claim-rights, imposing a duty on someone to satisfy them. Human rights advocates insist that the inviolable prerogatives they champion protect freedom, but if their analysis is correct, some persons or governments must face some limitation of freedom imposed by their duty to grant the demanded rights. Now this give-and-take can degenerate into pure power grabs and evasions of responsibility as individuals and groups jostle to stake their claims and avoid others’. In truth, that outcome must ensue when persons operate out of different conceptions of freedom and responsibility, which describes the cultural climate today. A public morality should unify that outlook on the basis of a consensual understanding of justice that regulates both law and relationships among strangers (see Toward a Public Morality).  A private morality must recognize that the same freedom that allows persons to see choice and engage preference also imposes a duty on the moral agent to engage her freedom well and to take responsibility for its consequences. That same universal freedom that allows reason to engage preference imposes its claim-right on each of us as moral agents to satisfy our own needs so far as that is possible (see “Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights“). Freedom is responsibility. Right imposes duty. Since we can only impose our intentionality on preference, we can hardly control the consequences that circumstantial freedoms produce, yet what is not our fault will still remain our responsibility. We can never be free of that.



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