The Freedom Fetish

As I will define it, freedom is the absence of interference by other people.  Interference can be understood either broadly or narrowly.  Understood broadly, to interfere with someone is to bring it about that she has no reasonable alternative to performing a particular action.  If I hold a gun to your head and demand your wallet, then I bring it about that you have no reasonable alternative to giving me your wallet. So I have interfered with you in this broad sense.  But similarly, if you are starving, and I offer you a hazardous job on exploitative terms, then in the broad sense, I have again interfered with you, since I have brought it about that you have no reasonable alternative to accepting a hazardous job on exploitative terms.  For that reason, some people might reject the broad understanding of interference, and opt for a very narrow understanding.  On the narrowest understanding, to interfere with a person is to make it physically impossible for her to act in any other way that to perform a specific action (or omission).  Thus, if I tie you down, then I interfere with you in this narrow sense.  As far as I can tell, there is a spectrum of ways of defining interference, with the broadest definitions on one end of the spectrum, and the narrowest definitions on the other end.  I suspect that there are many possible definitions along the spectrum.  For my purposes here, I believe that any one of these definitions will suffice.  That is to say, I think that what I have to say will apply to freedom on any of these definitions.  Freedom is the absence of interference, on any of these various ways of specifying the concept of interference.

Now here is my question.  Why should we value freedom?  More precisely, why should we think that there is a right to freedom in a wide range of cases?  This question goes right to the heart of liberalism.  What I will do here is to survey some traditional answers.  I think that there are serious problems with every one of them.  I will suggest that one answer has the best prospects, but I’m still not sure whether those prospects are very good.

The first answer is that freedom is instrumentally valuable as a means to the end of human well-being.  To say that freedom is valuable as a means to the end of human well-being is to say that, all things being equal, freedom increases the probability of a higher level of well-being.  More precisely, for any given person, if that person is free, then all things being equal, it is more probable that she will achieve a relatively high level of well-being than if she is not free.  If freedom is instrumentally valuable in this sense, then that might ground a right to freedom.  The basic problem with this answer to the question was recently brought to my attention by Daniel Haybron, in the last two chapters of his book The Pursuit of Unhappiness (2008), and Sarah Conly, in the first two chapters of her book Against Autonomy (2013).  Haybron and Conly both summarize the extensive evidence from psychology and behavioral economics that human beings are systematically prone to a wide range of biases and errors in both thought and action, and that these biases and errors render us poorly equipped to pursue our own well-being.  I will not try to summarize those findings here.  To my mind, the evidence is strong enough to cast significant doubt on the idea that freedom is instrumentally valuable to us.  It casts at least enough doubt to make the instrumental value of freedom too weak and unstable a basis for anything like a right to freedom.

The second answer is that freedom is intrinsically valuable – valuable in itself, and for its own sake.  Remember that the kind of freedom that we are considering here is the absence of interference.  Is the absence of interference intrinsically valuable?  This is a difficult question, but I think that the answer is either “no,” or “not very much.”  Here I will just argue for the weaker conclusion – “not very much”.  Suppose that I know, somehow, that if I were not interfered with in the near future, then I would act in ways that would bring about slightly more harm than good for me.  Moreover, I also know that if someone interferes with me, then that will bring about slightly more good than harm for me.  By hypothesis, there are no effects in either of these two cases that are not included in the final assessment that is built into the descriptions of the cases.  Then what should I prefer – to be interfered with, or not to be interfered with?  My own intuition is that I should prefer being interfered with, for the simple reason that I will be better off if I am interfered with.  Now here is the thing to notice: this argument involves only the slightest amount of difference in well-being.  So the upshot, as I see it, is that if freedom is intrinsically valuable, then its value is so small that it can be outweighed even by the slightest amount of well-being in any other respect.  That seems to me too little value to constitute the basis for a right to freedom.

At this point, many people will say that my search has mistakenly prioritized the good over the right.  I have assumed some kind of consequentialist basis for the right to freedom.  However, the basis of the right to freedom is a duty that we owe to people to respect their freedom, regardless of the value that freedom has for them.  On the face of it, I find this view strange.  Just consider this statement: “I owe it to you to give you freedom, which is completely worthless to you.”  That sounds odd to my ear.  But I know that it doesn’t sound odd to everyone – not at all.  So let’s dig in deeper.  The usual basis for this view is the broadly Kantian idea that people deserve respect, and since people are naturally free creatures, that requires respecting their freedom. In order for this foundation to do the work that it’s supposed to do, we need a single sense of “freedom” in which it is true both that people have it, and that it deserves respect.  I think that the recent empirical research, cited above, together with some thought experiments, casts doubt on that assumption.  If freedom just means “capable of acting,” then people are free in this very minimal sense.  People can perform actions.  But does the ability to act, regardless of the degree of irrationality involved, deserve respect?  I think not.  Suppose that my father is told that he could have a surgery that has a 10% chance of success, and he wants to have it because it was described to him in that way.  If he were told that it has a 90% chance of failure, which is also true, then he would decline the surgery.  (This is a common cognitive error.)  Does his ability to act on this well-known error deserve respect?  It seems to me that it doesn’t.  Given the research cited above, this problem generalizes.  Human beings are deeply, systematically irrational.  The mere ability to act, when it is driven by such irrationality, does not deserve respect.  That’s my intuition.  So, given the way people are, psychologically speaking, I don’t think that their actions deserve respect just because they are actions.  I’m sure that some people will disagree with me at this point, but that’s my intuition.

This brings me to what I think is the final, and most plausible view.  Freedom has what Ian Carter and others call constitutive value.  Freedom is a necessary constituent of a larger state of affairs that is, itself, intrinsically valuable.  That state of affairs is acting autonomously.  Autonomous action is intrinsically valuable, and it deserves respect.  To act autonomously is to act competently from motives that are, in an important sense, “one’s own.”  I won’t even begin to try to give an account of autonomy or autonomous action here.  That’s a very large question.  I think that, of all the views canvassed so far, this one has the best prospects.  But it also has some interesting implications.  First of all, if this view is correct, then there is no right to freedom of non-autonomous action.  Second of all, if this view is correct, then if we have a right to any sort of freedom, it is actually autonomy that we have a right to. That, in turn, would mean that we owe people the tools that they need to become autonomous.  That might, in turn, require interfering with people’s negative freedom sometimes, in order to provide other people with the tools that they need to become autonomous.  For example, if some parents want to indoctrinate their children to such a degree that their children are incapable of becoming autonomous adults, then we will have to prevent that, since those children have a right to become autonomous adults.  So this view will have some significant implications.

But I’m not really sure about this view either. For one thing, I’m not really sure of the extent to which human beings are capable of becoming autonomous, at least to a degree that is significant enough to do the work that is needed here.  Second, I’m not sure that autonomy has the degree of value that is needed to do the work here.  In the end, I’m tempted to say that our love of freedom, in every sense of the word, might be something of a fetish. Call it the freedom fetish.

18 thoughts on “The Freedom Fetish

  1. Two thoughts:

    – “Haybron and Conly both summarize the extensive evidence from psychology and behavioral economics that human beings are systematically prone to a wide range of biases and errors in both thought and action, and that these biases and errors render us poorly equipped to pursue our own well-being.”

    Shouldn’t those same biases effect imposers of control as well? The better question is, are the biases attached to free action worse than the biases attached those who impose controls?

    – Your second answer seems to put the cart before the horse. The example presents it as a given that we know what is a better or worse outcome and that one’s freedom to make choices is incidental to that fact. Isn’t freedom instrumental to determining what is a better or worse outcome in the first place?


    • Thanks for these thoughtful comments. This is very helpful. I’ll start with the first issue. If I, as an individual, am no better at making decisions about my own well-being than anyone else, then I am no worse off if someone else makes those decisions for me. I might not be BETTER off, but I am no worse off either. And if I am no worse off having other people make the decisions for me, then the ability to make the decision on my own doesn’t improve my life. Here is an analogy. I have a math test to take. You are just as good at math as I am — no better, and no worse. Now, will I be better off if I can take the test for myself, rather than having you take it for me? No. Since you are just as good at math as I am, I gain nothing by having the freedom to take it myself. And that is sufficient for my conclusion here. In order for freedom to be instrumentally valuable to me, I would have to be BETTER off “doing it myself” than having someone else do it. But given my irrationality, I am not better off that way. I should also add that what I have in mind here, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that we should look at our biases and irrationalities, and then the people, collectively, should make laws and policies that take away the irrational options. So, on my own view, it would be the people, collectively, saving themselves from themselves. They could do this by using the judgments they make with their better, rational natures to eliminate the possibility of those judgments that they would make with their worse, irrational natures. This is what Conly argues for in her book.
      Ok, on to the second point. I see what you mean, and it’s a good point. Here is what I want to say. I am imagining a case in which, if we bracket the intrinsic value of freedom, whatever that is, then the outcome when I act on my own is slightly worse than the outcome if someone else interferes. Now we ask this question: is the intrinsic value of freedom great enough to make it rational to choose the non-interference case? My intuition is that it is not, but I realize that other people might value noninterference much more than I do. That’s fine. But how much would I need to increase the harm to get you to avoid it? I think that if we’re honest, it won’t be very much. Here’s an example. Suppose I say: if I let you choose, then you get a pretty bad headache that will last for an hour, and nothing else out of it. But if I choose for you, you will get a positive sensation and no headache. Do you really want to choose for yourself? I have to say that I don’t. But that means that freedom, in this case, isn’t valuable enough to outweigh a headache. And that’s what I’m inclined to think.


      • Perhaps you can concoct an example that avoids this objection, but your math test case seems to me obviously false. I have a math test to take; you and I will do it equally well or poorly; you conclude that I will be no better off if I take it than if you take it. Presumably you are deriving that conclusion from the assumption that the only relevance of the math test to my being better or worse off is what the score on the test is. But if that’s the argument, it begs the question and it requires a pretty implausible premise. I, for one, would hold that I am substantially better off if I take it, because then I am exercising my own rational agency and achieving what little in the way of mathematical knowledge and excellence I can achieve. Indeed, I would hold that I am vastly better off taking the exam myself even if you would score perfectly while I would not. At best, your perfect score might yield me some beneficial consequences. But even apart from the dishonesty involved (which, on my and many similar views, undermines my own good both constitutively and instrumentally), the sheer fact that if I take the test I am engaged in some sort of intentional rational agency makes me better off than I would be if you did it for me.

        The thought is just that there is something intrinsically valuable about the exercise of my own rational agency, so that, ceteris paribus, I am better off if I am acting than if I am not. Insofar as your response simply assumes that this is false, it begs the question; insofar as your assumption is the less plausible, your response is just a non-starter. As with my worries about your treatment of ‘freedom,’ it seems to me that it would be a better strategy to argue that the value of freedom is limited even given assumptions (like the intrinsic value of rational agency, which seems to involve choice either necessarily or in many cases) that libertarians and other liberals embrace.


      • Thank you for the reply.

        On the first issue, I think you are unintentionally blurring the lines between two very different modes of action: (1) having one’s freedom to act as he or she sees fit coercively taken away, and (2) individuals voluntarily relinquishing their decision making.

        You start with the premise that you are no better than anyone else at making decisions. Therefore, aside from the intrinsic value of freedom, there isn’t any significant difference to your well being if someone acts upon your behalf.

        My problem is that I don’t see how an individual can *choose* to relinquish his freedom. At the core of freedom is choice, freedom is only gone when choice is removed. If an individual is free, then he can choose to make decisions on his own or defer his judgment to someone else. If he is not free, then his judgment is automatically subjugated to another individual.

        The way your argument is laid out, it sounds like you consider a free individual’s choice to surrender his decision making to be an end of freedom. You phrase this collectively with, “the people, collectively, should make laws and policies that take away the irrational options. So, on my own view, it would be the people, collectively, saving themselves from themselves. They could do this by using the judgments they make with their better, rational natures to eliminate the possibility of those judgments that they would make with their worse, irrational natures.” If we are talking about some sort of commune situation or an arrangement delimited under a contract, then this sort of collective behavior modification is possible. But otherwise, behavior modification can only be curtailed via the forceful end of freedom, whether it comes from a dictator or a mob.

        This means that at some point, an individual or group of individuals, must make the decision to use force upon others and remove their freedom. Saying “the people will collectively save themselves” dresses up the point, but at the end of the day, unless 100% of the people are on board with this collective action plan, someone is going to have to put a gun to someone else’s head. This opens up a massive decision matrix which includes questions like, “who should be controlled?,” “to what degree?,” “in which contexts?,” etc.

        *My point is that these decision are subject to the same biases that individual decision making is subject to.* Also, add to that a whole slew of other decision making issues that arise with concentrations of power. I am not familiar with Conly’s book, so maybe something in there answers my objection.


  2. I want to raise an objection to the characterization of freedom here. I’m inclined to agree that, so construed, the value of freedom is at best unclear (though Matt Faherty’s objections suggest that it is unclear whether it is valuable rather than clear that it isn’t, or isn’t very much).

    The narrowest definition is too narrow for anyone interested in giving an account of freedom as an interpersonal notion, I’d think. It leaves me free when you put a gun to my head and tell me that you’ll kill me unless I kill my dog. In an intrapersonal sense, I’d agree that I am still free; in a fairly obvious sense, I can choose whether to kill my dog. But insofar as freedom or liberty is an interpersonal notion, it’s pretty apparent that putting a gun to my head and telling me to choose between dying and killing my dog deprives me of freedom.

    But the broadest account is likewise too broad. Suppose I really need to look at a copy of the Greek text of Aristotle’s Politics. You happen to have one, and you offer to let me borrow it. In a straightforward way you have acted such as to bring it about that I have no reasonable alternative to accepting your offer, borrowing the book, and reminding myself of what Aristotle says about freedom at the beginning of Book VIII. But again, it hardly seems that you have deprived me of freedom.

    A better approach that does not beg the question for or against the value of freedom would understand the notion in terms of choice and preferences: I am free in the relevant interpersonal sense to the extent that nobody prevents me from acting as I choose to act on the basis of my preferences. Hence I am completely free when you offer to let me borrow your copy of the Politics, because you are not preventing me from choosing to act on my preferences, which involve looking at that text. But likewise I am not free at all when you put a gun to my head and tell me kill or be killed, because you are leaving me unfree to choose to act on the basis of my preferences. I would, of course, remain free to act on the basis of the preferences that I form provided that you’ve given me this ultimatum (you’re gonna have to kill me, because I’m not going to kill my dog), but your ultimatum has restricted my options solely to courses of action that I do not want, and hence has left me unfree.

    That’s of course not anything like a satisfyingly rigorous account of freedom, but I think it avoids stacking the deck against it. I accept something like this account and do not think that freedom is unconditionally valuable or that valuable freedom is extremely broad in scope. But it is also at least very much like the conception of freedom that many libertarians accept — I am free when I am am uncoerced and can act voluntarily. I take it that if our goal is to undermine libertarian arguments by questioning the value of freedom, we should employ a conception of freedom that libertarians would be inclined to accept.


  3. This is good. I agree with you about the problems with both the broadest and the narrowest definitions. However, while we’re on the subject, there are some powerful arguments for each of them. Let’s start with the narrow definition. Hillel Steiner argues that I am free to refuse to give the mugger my wallet, and he doesn’t just mean “free” in some metaphysical sense. His argument is that what you are free to do doesn’t depend on your desires. If it did, then a willing slave would be free, since he desires to be a slave. But that’s not right. So freedom cannot depend on what you happen to desire. But in the case of the mugger, we think that you are not free only because you desire to live. If you ceased to desire to live, then the mugger couldn’t affect your behavior. So Steiner thinks that since freedom doesn’t depend on what you happen to desire, you can’t say that the mugger takes away your freedom. I agree with you that this conclusion seems crazy, but I’m not yet sure how to reply to this argument. At the other end, with respect to the broad definition, I think that there might be a way to modify the definition to handle those cases, but I have to think about that some more. Ok, but my real question here is this. Suppose that we go with your definition — to be free is not to have anyone interfere with my ability to act on my preferences. I don’t see how that’s going to secure the value of freedom against the arguments that I gave. It seems to me that all of the same arguments will apply to this definition as well. Given the empirical evidence of human irrationality, we are likely to use our freedom to act on our preferences in ways that will satisfy fewer of out total set of preferences, and cause unhappiness and failure in lots of other ways. And I would apply the same argument about intrinsic value to this definition as well. Acting on your preferences does not guarantee that you will end up satisfying a greater number of your total set of preferences. So we will still have possible trade-offs between the allegedly intrinsic value of acting on your preferences and satisfying a greater number of your total set of preferences. If acting on your preferences without interference would lead to a situation in which fewer of your total set of preferences were satisfied than if someone interfered, then would it be rational for you to act on your preferences? I think that the answer is no.


  4. Well, I don’t find Steiner’s argument compelling. I think it trades on a more robust conception of freedom to do what is good; I have no objections to that notion except that it doesn’t seem like a conception of freedom or liberty. It seems straightforward enough that the willing slave is not free, because he is in fact being prevented from choosing to act on his preferences; it’s just that he happens not to prefer to act in any way that he’s being prevented from acting. This does help clarify the account of freedom in terms of preference and choice, though; we should not say that I am free simply to the extent that I am acting on my preferences, but that I am free to the extent I am not being prevented from choosing to act in ways that I might prefer. So, to the extent that other people’s actions make it such that I cannot form alternative preferences and choose to act on them, I am unfree. A point in favor of this conception is that it makes sense of the libertarian idea that some restriction on my liberty is quite justified; what is justified is the maximum degree of freedom compatible with an equal degree of freedom for everyone else. So I am genuinely unfree to some extent in a minimal state that employs coercive means to prevent and punish murder; it’s just that being unfree to commit murder still leaves me an extremely wide range of freedom.

    I agree with you that your argument still raises problems for this conception of freedom; in fact I think your argument is stronger when put against this conception of freedom, precisely because the conception itself is more plausible as an account of that concept as we use it in interpersonal contexts and because it seems, prima facie, to make sense of why freedom seems valuable at least sometimes, yet without presupposing that it must be valuable.

    My own view is that freedom in this sense is indeed instrumentally and perhaps also constitutively valuable, as you put it, but not unconditionally so. What that means is that while it is never a sufficient defense of an action or policy to observe simply that the agents involved are free, nor a sufficient objection to an action or policy to observe simply that some of the agents involved are to some extent unfree, some range of freedom is required for fully flourishing agency and fully just, non-remedial interactions between people. I can’t argue for that here, but it’s worth mentioning as an alternative.

    For the record, in case it’s unclear, I am by no means a libertarian. I am a liberal of some sort of other, but I think freedom is overrated — though perhaps not as overrated as you think!


    • I agree with a lot of what you say here. Your response to Steiner seems plausible to me. I think that it might lead to further complications, but I think that something in that neighborhood has to be right. I have a lot of lingering, unanswered questions about the concept of freedom, and exactly why we possess and employ exactly that concept, with exactly the contours that it has, but I have to think about that a lot more. I’m also sympathetic with your own, balanced view of the value of freedom. When I started thinking about this issue, I would have described myself as some sort of liberal egalitarian. So I’m sympathetic with exactly the view that you express here. But now here is what really worries me. (And I mean it honestly when I say “worries me,” because I might not be a libertarian, but I would have thought of myself as some kind of liberal.) What if we discover, empirically, that we human beings are so deeply, systematically irrational that if we are left to our own devices, then we ruin our own lives? Then should we just continue to let ourselves ruin our own lives? Maybe the empirical research will not ultimately give such a bleak picture, but right now it seems to be moving steadily in that direction. Now, I can appreciate valuing free action for its own sake, though I really think it is fully autonomous action that has this kind of value. But just how much weight can its intrinsic value bear? If God came to me tomorrow and said “If I let you choose freely, then you will destroy your marriage, destroy your children, and hate yourself for the rest of your life,” would it be rational for me to insist on choosing freely? I understand that some people will say “I want the choice,” but I have to confess that I think that’s irrational. I don’t have any argument for that judgment, but I think that’s because it’s so difficult to argue for comparisons between intrinsic values.
      I can’t seem to find the right place to respond to Matt’s latest comments, so I hope you won’t mind if I respond here. I am certainly sympathetic with the claim that free action is intrinsically valuable, and I can even appreciate the degree of value that Matt places on it, even if I don;t share that view. The analogy with the math test was only meant to be relevant to the issue of instrumental value, not the issue of intrinsic value. And I agree that if you value free action intrinsically as much as you do, then my argument about the intrinsic value of freedom won’t persuade you. That argument is based on my own intuitions, and I know that not everyone will share them.


  5. There is the (putative) right not to be interfered with (or coerced) by other private citizens and there is the (putative) right not to be interfered with (or coerced) by one’s community (e.g., the state). These, I think, are different things. If we think of rights (and obligations) in terms of what communities (in given contexts) have sufficient reason to allow (and require), the (public) reasons for requiring private individuals to abstains from some given type of interference with another private individual’s actual or potential aims or plans are different from the (public) reasons for requiring agents of the community (e.g., agents of the government or state) to abstain from in the same given type of interference. Regarding private interference, allowing disputes to escalate (and certain types of interfering will tend to bring this about) would be a primary concern; regarding public interference, what public goods need to be achieved and by what means would be a primary concern. So I think there are two rights here, not one – and hence worry that you are treating two importantly different things as the same. This is my first concern.

    It is obvious that one should not be allowed to initiate a physical assault on another person – i.e., the community, and all of us in it, have sufficient reason not to allow this. And it is obvious that one should not be allowed to decline to do her fair share in supporting the machinery of the community that enforces such private, interpersonal rules and pursue various other public goods not otherwise unlikely to be effectively achieved. These are different types of “free actions” that we do well to forbid, for different sorts of reasons. Because of such cases (and others), I share the skepticism that the instrumental or intrinsic value to the agent (or to all) of any generic free (not interfered with) action, or anything else about free action per se, grounds a right to free action. I agree that some (libertarian and liberal) folk are confused or subject to some kind of fetish.

    The important questions, I think, are what general, social reasons there are for allowing people: (a) a broad range of freedom in relation to other private individuals and (b) a broad range of freedom in relation to what their governments require of them, with respect to the public interest and their being compelled to do their fair share to support it. Why don’t all of us have sufficient reason to require everyone to do the particular things that achieve their well-being, up to the point at which achieving general social conditions of benefit to all (or all in the community) requires that we require that they sacrifice their well-being to some extent in particular ways? (This is a bit of an odd possibility. In all real systems of rules or requirements, we are required to do specific things and there is an enormous set of other things we might do that are, by default, allowed. But there can be social systems with lots and lots of requirements that leave little room for things that are allowed but not required.) I suspect that such sufficient reasons include mankind having “progressed” individually and socially to a certain point and perhaps achieved a certain level of material prosperity. I doubt that generic reasons of human nature, what we have most basic individual or person reason to do, etc. will suffice for a robust liberalism or libertarianism.

    I realize that I have framed things in a somewhat idiosyncratic way that reduces things like requirements to all of us (in a community) having sufficient reason to exhibit the attitudes and actions that constitute requiring (or allowing) someone to do some particular type of thing. Maybe this framework is wrong. I’m not sure how it squares with your options for justifying a right to act (or perform a certain sort of act) free from the interference of other private individuals and government officials. Broadly speaking, I suppose, my suggestion is that the right way of justifying a version of liberalism (or libertarianism) is in terms of dominant social patterns of requiring and allowing types of actions achieving things that are of general instrumental (and perhaps non-instrumental) value to any given person in a community. Perhaps, within certain constraints, autonomous action is not only non-instrumentally valuable to the agent, but also instrumentally and non-instrumentally valuable to others in one’s community. That seems like a promising way to justify a pattern of public requiring and allowing (and enforcement, whether formal or informal) that counts as liberal or libertarian. But, again, I’m not entirely clear just where and how our two different frameworks and conclusions come together and diverge.

    P.S. I don’t have time to edit the above, so apologies in advance for errors, lack of clarity, etc.


    • I really appreciate these thoughtful remarks. I’m going to have to think about them for a while. I agree with your first paragraph entirely, and I think that i agree with most of the rest of what you say as well. Now here is how I think that is consistent with my arguments. I don’t deny that there are many specific contexts in which freedom is instrumentally valuable as a means to many different intrinsically valuable states of affairs. But if my arguments are correct, then this would only justify granting freedom in exactly those specific contexts, for the reason that freedom “works” in those specific contexts. Now, as I understand you, you are suggesting that perhaps there are enough of these contexts to start building up to a liberal, or even a libertarian view. I don’t have any a priori argument against that possibility. I think that it’s what many of the new libertarians, like David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan, mean to do. Unfortunately, in their case, what they offer as empirical evidence is extremely weak. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t such empirical evidence out there. I, myself, think that the empirical evidence is starting to point in the opposite direction. The freedom to smoke and eat fatty foods and play the lottery … isn’t serving our interests very well. But the question of whether there are many circumstances in which freedom “does better” is certainly an empirical question. As I see it, my argument is meant to place an empirical burden pf proof on anyone who would defend individual freedom, to give reasons for thinking that individual freedom works well in the context in question.


      • Thanks for your reply! And sorry for taking awhile to get back to this thread and read it…

        I agree that not-interfered-with action has to be valuable, in some sense, in order for us to have an obligation to respect it in others – i.e., not interfere with them. But I think the relevant way in which it is valuable is this: for any given member of the right sort of group or community, that group or community being largely characterized by its members engaging in free actions (or a certain broad range of free actions) is uniquely and strongly instrumentally valuable to each member (most members, enough members). Since, under the right conditions, we correct each others biases, even a pretty strong tendency toward individual imprudence does not directly speak to this way in which free actions (or the social conditions created by predominantly free interactions between individuals) might be valuable. (As far as I can tell, your arguments about non-instrumental and instrumental value speak directly only to the pursuit of personal well-being.) Obviously, Hayekian insights about how markets and social systems function is relevant as well (the production of knowledge and preference-discovery being other important effects of the relevant sort of free social system).

        The focus of my reply was the obligation not to interfere with or coerce others (however interference or coercion is construed). I believe the sort of value-status just outlined supports the relevant duty-status as follows: the inference from one [believing that state S of general value to each (in the group that I am a part of) tends to be produced just in case all/enough of us PHI] to one [feeling obligated to PHI] and hence to one [PHI-ing] is a defeasibly conclusively rational inference. (Part of what makes this inference good in its rationality is that enough members of a group adhering to it reliably tends to make the group engage in effective collective action – something along these lines.) For the right agents and the right range of free action (restricted at least by the interference required to codify and enforce an otherwise maximal extent of freedom), these very general evaluative conditions are met.

        What makes a community (and its circumstances) of the right sort for a wide scope of free action for members of that group being of general (and unique) benefit to its members (such that there might be a general, defeasible obligation not to interfere with others)? Do we satisfy these conditions? Though I cannot fully defend my “yes” answer, I would start by noting that things like social bias-correction in personal prudence and social value-discovery and knowledge-production seem to be a general, important factor in virtually all social circumstances (and of dominant importance in many social circumstances). Schmidtz’ defense of several property (as a specific right to free action) does not operate at this level of generality and that may well hurt his case (and shape how he allows or does not allow different sorts of spheres of exclusive use and control of property to instantiate a realistically maximal extent of freedom). My (hopefully reasonable) hope, then, is that there is a general, quasi-empirical, quasi-normative-ethical case for an obligation not to interfere with one another across a broad range of actions.

        If many or most human communities (including our communities) meet these conditions, this allows for defeating conditions (that need not coincide with adherence to the generic rule not maximizing relevant outcomes in the particular case). It also allows for a special, capacious set of defeating conditions special to being an agent of the state (after all, if the state is for anything, it is for achieving desirable general social conditions that cannot be achieved via free action, markets, etc.). In any case, presuming no defeaters are present (or thinking in terms of a near-absolute, unless-the-sky-falls principle or merely assuming that allowing freedom is always personally or socially valuable) does amount to something like a freedom fetish. And that attitude is around. But asserting a defeasible obligation not to interfere with others (or a more-easily-defeasible principle for the state or for when one is an agent of the state) need not be.


  6. “What if we discover, empirically, that we human beings are so deeply, systematically irrational that if we are left to our own devices, then we ruin our own lives?”

    I’m not sure why you think that’s anything more than barely conceivable. Unless you mean something by “left to our own devices” more robust and absolute than, say, operating within a space of freedom that enables us to deliberate and choose between significant alternatives, then it would seem as though we’ve got all the empirical evidence we could ask for that we don’t ruin our own lives when free. Lots of us have very substantial freedom in that sense, and our lives are far from ruined. Even in the case of an especially irrational, akratic, self-sabotaging neurotic (I know at least one very well), we couldn’t sensibly say that such a person is ruining his life. Given how he is, he is of course not nearly so well off as he might be; perhaps we should say that he is not living well, but there seems to be no reason to think that even such a person’s life is on balance just plain bad. Such cases are possible, but the sorts of examples that come to mind are ones in which people’s capacity for rational decision-making is so severely impaired as to cast doubt on whether it is active or has any influence on their behavior at all — I’m thinking here of people with severe drug addictions or behavioral disorders, for instance. Perhaps in those cases it would be best for someone else to make the people’s decisions for them. But since the vast majority of people are not so irrational, it seems that we already have more than adequate empirical evidence that people left free to make their own decisions do not necessarily, or even frequently, ruin their lives.

    That said, it may still be vastly beneficial to us for the space of our freedom to be fairly minimal, and empirical considerations would play a role in helping us to determine just how much we might profitably expand or contract it. But there seem to be deep problems with the notion that it might be in our interests to be substantially unfree, so that we make few or no decisions of our own. It’s just hard to see how we could then be active rational agents at all, and that leads to at least three problems. First, how could we do much of anything at all if we did not have some significant space to make decisions? Even if my major life decisions were out of my hands, so that my spouse, the number of children I have, where I live, what I wear, and my profession were all assigned to me, I will still have a fairly wide range of choices to make within that unchosen framework; even if it were possible to reduce every decision that I would have to make to a set of abstract rules from which we could deductively arrive at a uniquely correct decision (and that seems pretty clearly not to be true), human beings just don’t work that way — it would be vastly more difficult for me to memorize and apply those rules than to engage in old-fashioned deliberation and decision. So I just don’t see that it would really be possible for us to live without making decisions, even if all of our decisions were restricted to implementing some predetermined policy.

    Second, because rational agency necessarily involves choice, to the extent that active rational agency is a central component of human well-being, to be deprived of the conditions in which we can exercise it at all could hardly be good for us. It may be possible to restrict my freedom to the point where everything I do is either directly commanded to me or involves nothing more than applying some fixed principles in order to carry out whatever I’ve been ordered to do. But such a restriction would rule out very many if not most of the forms of activity that are worth living for. So while the first problem is that choiceless human existence seems scarcely possible, the second problem is that it seems to deprive us of much that we rightly regard as valuable.

    The third problem is just that somebody has got to be making these decisions. But if we are supposed to be so bad at making decisions that it is in our interests to be substantially unfree, then how are the people deciding for us supposed to do any better? You’ve taken a stab at addressing this problem, but I don’t think appeals to the superior collective wisdom of the people will help. To begin with, if we deprive them of choice, then we’re depriving them of the conditions that enable them to come together to produce wiser choices than any of them would on their own; I may not need to be very excellent at decision-making in order to contribute in significant ways to collective deliberation, but if I’m not making any choices in my ordinary life, it seems at least likely that my participation in collective decision-making will not improve it at all. In short, if we’re as hopelessly bad at decision-making as your hypothesis suggests, then we’re not likely to find anybody better to make our decisions for us.

    The pessimistic view of human deliberative capacities that you’re suggesting would seem to point in the direction of something like what Plato’s Statesman argues we should do in cases where we can’t find a political expert (i.e., all or virtually all cases): we should set up the best laws we can think of and then rigidly enforce them and refuse to allow any changes whatsoever to be made to them. To suppose that we can do better than that is to suppose that our deliberative and decision-making capabilities are not as hopelessly flawed as you suggest.

    Lucky for us, I think we’ve also already got decisive empirical evidence that that supposition is true. The more difficult question is just how bad we are and what we can do, both personally and socially, to make ourselves better.


    • Somehow I missed this comment way back after I wrote this. I apologize for the oversight. I disagree with this claim:
      “…t seems that we already have more than adequate empirical evidence that people left free to make their own decisions do not necessarily, or even frequently, ruin their lives.” Rates of anxiety, depression, divorce, suicide, etc, in our free society call that assumption into question. Moreover, there is some reason to suspect that people overstate their own level of happiness, as a matter of self-preservation. So I don’t agree with this statement at all. I think it’s an open, empirical question whether and to what extent we use our freedom to ruin our own lives. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Schopenhauer lately. 🙂
      On the issue of “who will decide” I think that there is a plausible possibility here. The empirical evidence seems to show that, under normal conditions, we are subject to all of these biases. However, it seems that we are capable of stepping back and, in rational reflection, become aware of these biases, and in THAT state of mind I believe that we could make laws to prevent ourselves from acting on our biases in very harmful ways. That still seems to me like a real possibility.
      Your argument for the conclusion that we have to have SOME space of freedom is very powerful, and maybe compelling. It seems right to me. I was aiming my argument mainly at a liberal presumption in favor of more liberty, rather than less. But I think that your argument definitely shows that there is some minimum amount of liberty that we will have to have in order to remain fully human. Thanks for making that point so well.


      • Well, perhaps I don’t understand what it is for a life to be ruined or quite what it is to be free. I would ordinarily not think that divorce rates are any sort of evidence that people’s lives are ruined, especially since for many people divorce is a step toward a better life. If suicide is an index of what it takes for a life to be ruined, I’d think your suggestion would be obviously false, since the vast majority of us are not killing ourselves despite our substantial freedoms of choice. Depression is a relevant factor, as is anxiety, but I’m not at all convinced that anyone who suffers from either has a ruined life, nor do I see any obvious connections between them and freedom — it seems at least as plausible to think that they are driven by a real or perceived deficiency of freedom as by its excess. As I understood it, your suggestion that freedom frequently leads people to ruin their own lives just seems as falsified as could be. I don’t believe that people have authoritative epistemic access to their own well-being, but I don’t take my own life to be ruined, nor does yours seem to be, nor does Irfan’s or Carrie-Ann’s or my departmental colleagues’ in any of the three institutions I’ve taught — in fact all of these people seem to be living quite good lives despite, if not in fact because of, the freedom they have to choose how to spend their time. Of course probably most of us could live better, and I’m not nearly so dubious of the ideas that we might increase our well-being by decreasing our range of options in certain areas or that we might decrease our well-being by increasing our freedom. What seems to stand refuted, though, is the idea that we’re so bad at making decisions that freedom makes it likely that we’ll ruin our lives. Unless I’m misunderstanding the notions of freedom or a ruined life, there are just too many counter-examples; and I’d say that securely employed academics, who in many cases have much more freedom than most other people and yet live enviably good lives, offer sufficient evidence that the thesis is just false.

        I do think you’re right, though, to take the empirical studies you cite as raising important questions about whether more freedom is always better and whether we can benefit from lacking certain kinds of freedom. I’m inclined as an armchair moral psychologist to think that freedom is over-rated and that, to paraphrase Aristotle, it is good to be responsible to others because the liberty to do what one pleases cannot guard against what is base in every human being. So I wouldn’t be surprised if people reach a similar conclusion when they leave the armchair. But that’s a far cry from saying that being free will lead us to ruin our lives.


  7. Also, I should add that even though I’m mostly raising objections to what you write, I’m enjoying your contributions here a great deal and I hope you’re finding it sufficiently engaging to want to keep it up.


  8. Absolutely. This has been extremely helpful to me. The questions and objections have all been good ones, and I’m learning a lot from them. Everyone has also been very generous. In the past, I haven’t always been the best online interlocutor, but everyone here has made it very easy to be respectful and stay focused on the arguments. That’s been very good for me, personally. So I’m enjoying it immensely, and I’m looking forward to stretching into new areas and learning new things from everyone else.


  9. Pingback: Rethinking Rights (and Freedom): A Series | Policy of Truth

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