Our Freedom Fetish


  • Defining “liberty” as “the freedom to act without restraint” is an entirely inadequate definition.
  • To choose freely, persons must be presented with at least two options.
  • Natural freedom automatically presents options in particular experiences to consciousness.
  • Persons are entitled to natural freedom as a natural right.
  • Preferential freedom allows persons to choose the good by whatever standard of value they employ.
  • Preferential freedom confers human rights to persons exercising their rational agency and makes them worthy of radical respect in their interactions with other persons.
  • Preferential freedom confers moral responsibility.
  • Persons may prefer goods on grounds of utility, quality, or morality.
  • Morality is a system of preference structured to secure chosen ends of preference.
  • Competent preference requires an act of severance by which the moral agent understands the experience she faces before considering the goodness choices her natural freedom presents to consciousness..
  • Finding truth must always be merely the means of choosing good.
  • Because engaging belief blurs the act of severance by instilling desire into our evaluation of the content of an experience, preferences involving beliefs must be carefully considered.
  • Premodernists surrender their preferential freedom in an act of trust to an authority they think more capable of prescribing goods than they are.
  • Postmodernists zealously retain their rational agency and may have no compunctions about privileging their beliefs over their knowledge, but they invariably resent authority as an imposition on their freedom.
  • Because postmodernism’s goods are invariably private, they can prescribe no public means to resolve their conflicts short of coercion, and for this reason postmodernists are obsessive about power relationships and suspicious of institutional authority.
  • Political libertarians mistakenly think circumstantial freedom to be synonymous with justice and so they seek maximal liberty.
  • Of the three kinds of freedom, laws and polities affect only circumstantial freedom.
  • Circumstantial freedom governs exemption-rights and claim-rights among strangers and between individuals and the state.
  • Public morality relies upon human rights based upon preferential freedom.

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. As we examine these examples, we find common concepts and distinctions 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 options and 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 still not an adequate one.

But break this better definition down a bit and examine these examples in light of it. 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 if in danger of their lives, would be thankful of the opportunity. 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?And in a moral sense the captive soldier faces the worst choice of all, for no decision he could make would be acceptable to 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. In examining freedom we find the common conceptual thread of preference, and in examining its workings 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 the operations of our felt freedom. This freedom is inalienable. It is also unavoidable. We cannot ignore it because it sets the table for our pursuit of the goods we spend our lives seeking. Only mental defect can diminish its operation, so 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 operation of perception. It is a blessing and a curse to be a human being whose instincts are so weak and whose rational powers of analysis are this strong, for no other creature can see so many choices in experience. Natural freedom correlates with the natural rights that American founders mistakenly took to be the totality of our rights but which are merely the preconditions of preference (see “Natural and Political Rights“). It is the possession of life and liberty that allows us to pursue happiness. It costs others nothing to recognize these natural rights, for their exercise is as inherent in our nature as speech or love. We only need identify two options to employ natural freedom, but our nature insists that we seek to maximize their number so as to energize rather than enervate our range of choices.

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 (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument“). 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 the truth we face, the situation that is the context for all of our activity. It follows hard upon our conceptions of reality and is as much a part of its presentation to consciousness as sense data itself. But choosing from among these options is far 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 utility (What is the most useful choice?), quality (What is the best choice?), or morality (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. 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 choose one thing over another by whatever standard of value we employ in the moment. Because preferential freedom is the defining quality of the human person and its capable operation makes the difference between a life of flourishing and one of frustrations, we ought to examine it with some care. Its operation is correlated with a second kind of right, that which recognizes the necessity of fulfilling human needs. Preferential freedom is associated with human rights (see “Needs and Rights”).

The first observation that must follow a closer look reveals how utterly exhausting preferential freedom is. We might automate it just to save energy: by reducing our attention to novel situations and running on instinct for everyday choices. When was the last time you consciously decided which button on your shirt to fasten or which shoe to put on first? We habituate everyday preference so as to spare ourselves the labor of actively deciding. But that also involves a choice, for it implies that saving labor is a good worthy of that preference. We may not have given much thought to the instinctual way we operate in the little things of life, but that thoughtlessness in itself may set or continue a pattern by which we might always engage preference on the basis of immediate utility, allowing the ranking of each moment of preferential freedom to occur as unconsciously as the presentations of natural freedom to consciousness or the rational construction of sense data (see The Tyranny of Rationality”). That is a popular option in a contemporary life overstuffed with choices in every moment, for it fully automates most preferences on the basis of immediate desire (see The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“).

This facilitates choosing, it is true, but not good choosing, for finding the good is more than a momentary response to context. With that thought, we enter the realm of morality: a system of preference structured to secure previously chosen ends of choosing (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?”). Should we decide on a moral preference, we assuredly will decided it in advance of the situations in which it is exercised, and that freedom from context allows us the luxury of choosing categorical goods rather than goods chosen for immediate use.

In choosing a moral system, we may consider a number of absolutist or universalist systems. Absolutist moralities are usually fully categorical, meaning that both their truth claims and their goodness claims are divorced from context, nearly always phrased as divine commands. Universalist systems appeal to reason (see ‘Three Moral 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).

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 . 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.

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 dispassionate 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 rely upon our prior reconstruction of reality in order to frame options accurately, so they too function most capably when exercised most dispassionately. That requires an act of severance in which determinations of truth are concluded before natural freedom presents its options to choice. But that is a problem, for as was mentioned, natural freedom operates intuitively. We are not aware of options presenting themselves to the mind, so unless we check ourselves, the mind may begin ordering options to preference before it comprehends what it is facing. That temptation is moved by two quirks of natural freedom. The first is the preconscious operations of the mind that assembles perceptions into rationally apprehensible pictures of reality with no more recourse to conscious reasoning than whatever happens when we first turn on our computers. We are not active in the operation of natural freedom unless we make ourselves conscious of it. The second peculiarity of this process is the intimate linkage between our conceptions of the true and our preferences for the good. For truth is merely a means to the end of choosing. So we quite naturally wish to jump to the important part of this two-stage process of freedom. We want the goods. And to make a too-nimble preference even more tempting, we might engage in premature closure, the hasty finalizing of determining the true so that we can get to preference. That might involve omitting complications or exaggerating influences conducing to our desires. And that disorders the act of preference, distorting our freedom.

So we face a choice in choosing. The word judgment describes the act of severance that properly orders preference (see “The Act of Severance”). When desire moves us to premature closure, we see quite a different kind of operation. Belief describes the process in which the preconscious actions of sense data are at some point 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, biasing it with preference. So beliefs cannot be judgments. How could they be when reality itself is distorted before it can be known? And if beliefs are not knowledge but are instead a kind of premature preference, we have to examine whether they can adequately ground moral systems. Employing belief simplifies preference and ostensibly strengthens it by accentuating one option over others, 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. Its central tenets are founded upon individual preferential freedom as an inalienable natural right. But we face two other axioms of commitment that rather challenge this view (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”).

The defining quality of premodernists who wish to see a revival of religious values is a replacement of their belief-as-desire with a reliance on authority. This submission of preferential freedom offers the advantage of bowing to a public categorical morality, historically the most powerful form and the one that was long dominant. Though congregants cannot ignore their natural freedom, they transfer moral agency in a single choice to authority, which thereafter determines their moral preferences without regard to the options that natural freedom presents to their consciousness. Because categorical religious authority justifies its truth and goodness claims by a single decree of divine command, the problems of premature closure and the biases of belief are avoided, and congregants find the alloy of truth and goodness claims powerfully convincing. But that strength is brittle rather than tensile because it cannot reconcile challenge by competing authorities as the Protestant Reformation demonstrated (see The Fragility of Religious Authority).

It can only be a blindness to history that allows religious nostalgists to lobby for a revival of religious authority. That desire abrades strongly against modernism’s jealous retention of individual rational and moral agency combined with a generalized societal distrust of the same institutional authority that congregants view as entirely formative of their moral outlooks but which other factions regard as discredited or power-seeking (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”).

Postmodernists express even more allegiance to natural freedom than modernists do, for their entire schema involves privileging a kind of private knowledge to order their preferences (see What Is the Virtual Circle?). They urge an active resistance to institutional authority in all of its forms, which they see as suppressing individual autonomy. While their position seeks to maximize preferential freedom in service to individual values, they flux on natural freedom. As postmodernism was percolating through a culture exhausted by the hypocrisies and contradictions of the Victorian age, it urged maximal awareness of natural freedom and an anti-heroic resistance to societal rules (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). By the 1970’s, its existential values had so permeated popular culture that postmodern thinkers, who had finally fully articulated their theoretical foundations, began invoking cultures as the makers of identity rather than its oppressor. Their human science roots ensure this kind of inconsistency and contradiction will continue to flavor postmodern thought for the foreseeable future (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). Because its phenomenological bases also can provide no means to resolve disputes between persons, cultures, or nations, postmodernism has fetishized the use of power in resolving conflict, ensuring that every disagreement will be viewed as suppression of liberty and therefore will be highly politicized.

Disagreements must ultimately rely on finding common warrants as the anvil upon which to hammer out solutions, but the axioms that structure the warrants that support our preferences differ so fundamentally that disputants quite literally talk past each other and so perpetuate their discord. Premodernists reject religions reliant on other authority because their trust begins to erode as soon as challenge from opposing authority is considered. 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. And when they conflict, what recourse can either appeal to other than raw applications of power? If pre- and postmodernists cannot resolve public dispute within their own axioms of commitment, we could hardly expect them to find concord when they conflict with each other. The formative power of institutional religious authority is despised by postmodernists who see it as the iron hand of coercion and oppression threatening their virtual circles.

But wait. Aren’t we missing something? We haven’t even gotten to what political libertarians, positive law, 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. It also is associated with a kind of right. Circumstantial freedom is defined by civil rights and so is the freedom most related to law.

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 carry out wider ranges of preference. 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 in three ways? First, they prescribe some goods that individuals cannot procure for themselves. Second, they assist us in setting healthy boundaries for our own actions that we might be unaware of. Thirdly, good laws actively block the behavior of those who would elevate their own freedoms far beyond what they deserve by impinging on ours? 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. The common wisdom seems to be the more circumstantial liberty the better.

But that is patently untrue. 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 (seeFoundations 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, human rights our preferential freedom, and civil rights our circumstantial freedom, at least as they touch on issues of justice (see “The Moral Bullseye”). 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 and are the mark of human dignity, do impose a cost because they are synonymous with universal human needs (see “Justice Is Almost Everything”). 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 involves a complex interaction between pursuing real goods for ourselves and respecting that others have both the same needs and the same rights as we do (see “The Riddle of Equality”). 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.


One thought on “Our Freedom Fetish

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s