“Freedom, Indeterminism, and Fallibilism”

My friend Danny Frederick asked me to post this conspectus of his new book, ‘Freedom, Indeterminism, and Fallibilism,’ now out from Palgrave.]

In my new book, Freedom, Indeterminism, and Fallibilism, published in the series ‘Palgrave Studies in Classical Liberalism,’ I employ the notions of indeterminism and fallibilism to give an account of the nature and value of freedom. There are chapters on free will, rationality, being a person, moral constraints, and political authority. Here I offer a sketch of that theory of freedom.

A person is a moral being in the sense that she has a conception of right and wrong. She therefore has a conception of her duties to others and of others’ duties to her. That means that a person is essentially a social creature: she has a conception of herself as distinct from but related to other persons. Even a hermit may encounter other persons and the encounter will involve awareness of mutual obligations (whether or not the obligations are met). A person is responsible for meeting her moral obligations, which means that she has it within her power either to meet them or to not to meet them. That is, a person is a creature with free will: how she acts is up to her. That in turn means that her intentional actions are always actions she might not have performed. In the book I explain why so-called Frankfurt-type cases provide no counterexamples to that claim. I also dispose of the ‘Mind’ or ‘chance’ objection to indeterministic accounts of free will.

A person has possession of critical rationality, that is, the ability to question and criticise by means of argument. However, the use of our reason is only partly a matter of reasoning. It is also partly a matter guessing solutions to problems. Reasoning is then employed in evaluating rival guesses. Indeed, even reasoning itself is a matter of guessing what follows from what and being prepared to test the guess by looking for counterexamples or by attempting to construct a derivation. Practical reasoning bears on decisions about how to act. It is, again, a process of conjecture and criticism. I lambaste contemporary decision theory, explaining the defects in expected utility theory as well as minimax/maximin rules.

Unlike other animals, a person has critical rationality, which enables him to consider alternatives to his current way of living and to assess them as being better or worse in meeting his needs. It also enables him to question and thus discover what his needs are. For a person, achieving fulfilment depends upon a critical process of conjecturing what kinds of life may fulfil his needs and then testing those conjectures by argument and experiment. Ultimately, a person discovers whether a kind of life fulfils him by experimenting with it and evaluating the results. Self-discovery and the fulfilment that it makes possible have no connection with ‘authenticity’ as described and championed by recent philosophers.

A person’s right to direct her own life implies that she has private property in her own body and the liberty to acquire and dispose of private property through exchange. Her freedom is increased if all resources are, as far as practicable, converted to private property, as opposed to being unowned or state-owned. The fulfilment of persons therefore depends upon each person having the right to direct her own life in a world of private property. Since resources are scarce, one person’s pursuit of her own fulfilment may conflict with the counterpart pursuits of other persons. That means that each person has a moral obligation to respect the rights of other persons. It does not, however, mean that all persons have equal rights to freedom. Immaturity and some forms of mental incapacity make their possessors entitled only to restricted freedom to experiment with kinds of life. A person who has committed a serious wrong typically forfeits part of her freedom. A person may also exercise her right to direct her own life by surrendering part of that right, as when an employee puts herself under the direction of an employer. I argue, in addition, for the permissibility of enforceable fixed-term voluntary slavery contracts.

The fact that self-interest and moral obligations often conflict implies that persons’ rights to freedom will always be at risk of being violated. The fulfilment of persons in general therefore depends upon there be a state that enforces moral obligations. The state also has the obligation to convert unowned or state-owned resources into private property, wherever practicable. Thus, the prospects for general personal fulfilment are what grounds both persons’ rights to direct their own lives and the authority of the state to enforce persons’ obligations and to privatise common resources.

Part of the freedom to be secured by the state is freedom of speech. The exploration, sharing and criticism of different theories about how to live, types of need, types of persons, appropriate social structures, and so on, is an indispensable part of the freedom to experiment with kinds of life. For the most part, freedom of speech will be secured by the state enforcing property rights; but the possibility of closed-mindedness or bigotry existing among parts of the populace gives the state an obligation to ensure that the regulations made by property owners across the society does not make it unreasonably difficult for any type of content to be disseminated. I criticise in some detail Jeremy Waldron’s defence of laws against ‘hate speech.’

The state is not a person or a collection of persons. It is a social structure, an institution, which is constituted by a complex set of relations into which individual persons enter and exit. The state is brought to life only when it is represented by persons who are officers of the state who carry out the state’s responsibilities. Thus, the existence of political authority in the state does not disturb the equal sovereignty of all competent adult persons. The default position is that each competent adult, qua person, has the same right to direct his own life as every other; but qua officer of the state, a person can have some rights to direct other competent adults.

I derive the rights and obligations of persons and of the state from the conditions that provide the best prospects for personal fulfilment in general. However, this is not a consequentialist (specifically, rule-consequentialist) theory. If a person finds fulfilment, it is by guessing and testing; but there is no guarantee that guessing and testing will eventually discover fulfilment. A person may try and try again but still be unsuccessful. The best that general adherence to a moral theory can do is to provide the conditions for personal fulfilment in general, that is, wide scope for freedom to experiment. What the consequences may be is unpredictable.

In my concluding chapter I criticise Philip Pettit’s ‘republican’ conception of freedom. Other authors who receive more or less detailed criticism through the course of the book are Aristotle, Bishop Berkeley, Jason Brennan, Bill Brewer, John Broome, Donald Davidson, René Descartes, Peter Graham, Immanuel Kant, Niko Kolodny and John MacFarlane, Christine Korsgaard, Michael Lynch, James and Stuart Rachels, Gilbert Ryle, Helen Steward, and Charles Taylor.

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