Freedom. No single word is found more often on the lips of the American politician. It is ‘Murika’s rallying cry. But what does it mean? And, once we’ve settled on a meaning, what sorts of actions does that value commit us to?
As everyone knows, 99% of philosophy consists in asking, “Ah, ha! But what do you mean by X?” That’s pretty much all philosophers do. All day. We argue about what words mean.
Of course, I’m being facetious. Nevertheless, at least part of philosophy is getting clear on the meanings of terms. Meanings do matter, after all–for both practical and theoretical concerns. Suppose you’re debating with someone over whether happiness is the meaning of life. If you think happiness is a psychologically pleasant state then you’ll formulate your argument one way. On the other hand, if you think, as Aristotle did, that happiness is a way of living–i.e.., living virtuously–then you will formulate different arguments.
It’s also possible for two people to agree that happiness is the meaning of life but disagree about what ‘happiness’ means. Unless they first clarify their terms, they’ll end of talking past each other without any advance in the dialectic. In a political context, they’ll likely advocate different policies and fail to understand why they disagree.
A: “This policy will promote the general happiness (meaning pleasure)”
B: “No, it won’t because it undermines virtue!
A: “Huh? What has virtue got to do with happiness?
In a way, I think this is what’s going in with respect to ‘freedom’. In America there are two meanings to the term. I’ll call the first ‘freedum’ and the second ‘freedom’. People agree that freedom is important but are talking past each other. [Note: There are actually more meanings for freedom, but I’m going to focus on only two of them].
Very simply, freedum is the combination of the absence of coercion combined with capacity to act according to your immediate desires. This is ‘Murika’s definition of freedom. In my more cynical moods, I call it the freedum to be an idiot.
Ain’t no gubmint gonna tell me what to do. If I want to walk around nekit in my front yard and shit on my lawn–it’s my property and I’ll do what I want. If I want to drive a diesel monster truck to and from work, despite the fact that I’m unnecessarily polluting the air, ain’t no gubmint gonna tell me not to. I gots freedum.
Freedum is the type of freedom an animal in the wild has. A desire pops up and no one is there to tell that animal that it can’t act on that desire if it so chooses–no matter the content of the desire.
Before dismissing freedum as somehow beneath a thinking creature, freedum does have value. Very few of us would want to live in a world where we were restricted from acting according to our desires. There are many important political freedoms that fit with what I’ve called freedum: Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to marry whomever you please, etc…
The main point, (to be expanded in the next section) is that at the level of the individual merely acting on whatever fancy enters one’s pointy head is an impoverished view of freedom.
I’ve been overly disparaging of freedum to make a point. It isn’t the only kind of freedom worth having, and, I will suggest, there is a more valuable kind of freedom which should sometimes eclipse freedum.
The absence of coercion is one thing but is doin’ whatever the f*ck I want all there is to freedom? Perhaps, if you’re a 13 year-old.
Kant and subsequent philosophers noted that merely acting according to our desires isn’t genuine freedom (to be fair, the idea starts with Socrates and Plato). In broad terms, freedom is acting according to reason. Let me explain:
You don’t choose to have the particular desires and preferences that you have. For example, when you get a craving for ice cream, you didn’t choose to have that desire. You just have the craving. Acting on your various occurrent desires requires no deliberation. You just act on whichever is strongest. On the other hand, freedom is rationally deliberating on your current set of desires (for current and future ends) and figuring out what the rational/best thing to do/pursue would be, then acting in accordance with what reason tells you to do.
Similarly, we don’t choose our preferences. You don’t choose to like the foods, activities, people, books, etc.. that you do. For example, no one says “I think today I’m going to like studying philosophy” or “I’m going to like carpentry”. You just do.
Freedum would be simply taking these preferences and desires at face value. So long as no external force prevented you from pursuing and fulfilling them, you have freedum. But Kant’s point is that genuine freedom takes more than this. As rational creatures we can take our sets of desires and preferences and submit them to rational scrutiny. We can rationally deliberate over whether they are good desires and preferences to have and whether it would be good to act on those desires and preferences. Freedom is freeing ourselves from our unreflective brute inclinations and instead carefully considering what we ought to do.
Freedom is not simply accepting my brute desire to eat a whole pizza to myself–cuz ain’t nobody gonna tell me what to do. Freedom is rationally deliberating about whether it would be good for me to eat that whole pizza, concluding that it isn’t, then acting in accordance with this conclusion.
To drive the point home, if freedom were merely a matter of acting on our desires in the absence of coercion, we’d have to say the heroine addict is just as free as the person who carefully plans out and lives a successful and purposeful life. Thinking this way confuses freedum for freedom and it turns freedom into a mockery of a travesty of a sham.
Another way of thinking of freedom is self-legislation. I rationally deliberate upon a set of principles and values according to which I live my life. When a desire arises that clashes with my rationally arrived at principles and values (as will happen frequently), I accord my action with my principles and values–not the haphazard desire.
For example, perhaps one of my values is to become a great philosophy teacher. To do this I know that in the evenings I have to spend time planning my lectures. However, sometimes in the evening I instead have an overwhelming desire to watch a movie. I am free when I live in accordance with my rationally conceived values and principles. And so, if I refuse to indulge the desire I am free.
Conversely, I might think, “YOLO!!!”. If I acquiesce to my occurrent desire, I give up on my own rules and values. I’m not in control of my life anymore–there are no principles guiding my actions. Like Otis, I just act on whatever fancy happens to enter my head in that moment. But I’m not free when I do whatever the f*ck I want. In such a case I only possess freedum.
We can think of this notion of freedom not only at the individual but also at the political level. Political freedom can also be understood as self-legislation. We govern ourselves as a society according to the rules, principles, and values that we collectively rationally agree to. Of course, there will be disagreement within a society over exactly what those rules will be. Figuring out what to do in cases of disagreement is the heart and soul of contemporary political philosophy. I won’t go into it in this post–I only want to suggest how Kant’s idea of freedom extends to the political realm. (For an overview of how political philosophers approach the problem of political freedom, self-legislation, and disagreement see this post.)
Hegel and Marx
Hegel and Marx build on Kant but kick it up a notch in terms of explaining why you aren’t free when you merely act on your desires. The best way to understand is by way of my version of an analogy which I loosely borrow from Peter Singer (Singer’s original analogy concerns deodorant products).
Economist think an economy is good to the degree that people’s actual preferences are satisfied. But the philosopher asks two further question: (a) why do people in that economy have the particular preferences that they do? and (b) are these good preferences to have?
Take for example the massive popularity of fast food in the US of A. An economist will say that an economy is good in so far as people’s preferences for fast food are being met. The philosopher asks: (a) why do people in the US of A desire fast food so much? and (b) are these preferences for fast food good? Let’s examine each in turn.
A little reflection provides several answers to (a) at various levels of analysis. The first point to consider is that the desire for fast food didn’t arise spontaneously. It is the result of carefully crafted marketing campaigns to generate the desires. This insight counts as a strike against the idea that someone is free when they act according to their desire for fast food. The desire came from without, not from within and an action is free only in so far it is the product of conscious deliberation. There’s a lot more to the story which I discuss below.
The short version of the story is that our desires and preferences are the product of complex environmental factors external to us. Since their origin is external, accepting and acting upon them isn’t commensurate with authentic freedom. Freedom, as should be clear by now, is acting on desires and preferences generated and reflected upon internally.
Hegel’s point (more fully developed in Marx) is that our political preferences–our values and principles that we think ought to order our society–are just like our preferences for fast food. They are the product of our particular place in history and its institutions, attitudes, and practices.
Marx emphasized that our values and preferences don’t just shape our institutions and practices (namely capitalism) but our institutions and practices also serve to reinforce the prevailing values and preferences. To understand, we can return to the fast food analogy.
People have the preference and desire for fast food because not just because of clever marketing but because of our existing practices and the very structure of our institutions. The practice of eating fast food reenforces the preference and serves to generate the desire. The structure of our cities, neighborhoods, and food production systems also serve to generate and reinforce our desire for fast food.
When you’re hungry and out of the house, what’s the quickest easiest meal? Fast food restaurants are on every corner. It’s much easier to find and pull into a drive thru than to find a quick affordable healthy option. And so, the very structure of our world (in some neighborhoods more than others) pushes us toward fast food. When it’s all around us, the desire seems endogenous when in fact it isn’t.
We can take further steps back in our analysis and ask why it is that we don’t have time for sit down meals. This is also a contingent fact about how are world is currently structured. But it also pushes us toward the practice of eating fast food, desiring fast food, and further creates demand for fast food restaurants which in turn reinforces those material structures in our world.
We can play this game all day but the point remains the same. Many values, desires, and preferences that we might think come from within, in fact don’t. The structure of our world, our institutions, and our practices all serve to generate and reinforce values which fold back on themselves to reinforce the existing structures and practices that were their genesis. Freedom is about acting on internally generated (and deliberated upon) preferences, values, and desires. We are frequently mistaken about the origins of many of our desires; thus, we are also mistaken about the nature of our choices and actions with respect to freedom.
Once we’ve applied our critique of our values, practices, desires, etc… we must do the real philosophical work. We need to figure out what values and desires we would rationally will that are independent of being externally generated. Returning to the analogy, What would I rationally want to eat–devoid of external forces generating my various gustatory desires?
More generally, what are the authentic unpolluted rational desires for human beings? For Kant there are universal rational answers to this question since reason is universal and we all (to varying degrees) possess rationality. If we all go to the same well, we all drink the same water. There are universal right answers for what humans should desire. (It’s not clear in Kant’s philosophy how specific those desires would be).
Hegel’s insight is that we never make choices completely divorced from an implicit value system. Just as we can never perfectly escape our own subjective point of view, we can’t escape our point in history and all its implicit accompanying beliefs, values, practices, and attitudes. Nevertheless, through critical analysis we can come to understand the source and origins of our existing institutions, practices, and values and apply rational deliberation to them and the desires they generate.
To continue with the analogy, Kant might have us ban all the fast food restaurants along all the forces that created them. We couldn’t rationally want to eat fast food, and so away with it! Hegel would tell us that since we can never exist apart from a value-laden environment we should do the best with the one we currently inhabit: take the existing fast food restaurants and improve through application of rational deliberation. Fast food restaurants are both good and bad: They offer food that is quick, affordable, and convenient. Unfortunately, the food itself isn’t good for us. So, let’s tinker with the menu but preserve what’s good. Marx might agree with Hegel regarding the menu change, but you best believe he’d also insist labor practices be changed too!
Let’s now apply this framework to life choices. Consider the fact that many students want to be business majors. Why? At the level of freedum, they may just have the brute desire. But a Hegalian analysis gives us much more to consider. We ask, why do they have that brute desire in the first place? If we look around at the structure of our society (capitalism) and the values it inculcates (money, power), the answer is apparent. In a capitalist society, status, power, and success are all tightly bound to how much money one has. Without money, you’re in for a rough life.
In one sense, we can say these students are rationally choosing and are thus making choices consistent with freedom. They recognize that in order to be successful in the US of A you need money. Thus, if they had competing desires to go into social work or fine arts, we might say they are rational in choosing to study bidniz.
But the Hegelian point cuts deeper. It asks how we came to value money so highly in the first place which in turn leads students to have the desire to pursue business degrees. What are the structures, institutions, practices, and attitudes that shape and maintain our value systems which in turn shape our desires? Since we didn’t choose the conditions out of which our values arose, there is a sense in which we are not free when we accept them uncritically and the desires they generate–even when they are rational to pursue within a particular historical context.
It can be rational to desire money in a capitalist system and so in a sense you’re free when you order your life in pursuit of it. On the other hand, in so far as you don’t reflect on the social and historical origins of your deeply held desires and values you are not free. You mistakenly assume that values in your world are eternal and objective. They are the right ones. You fail to see that they are a contingency of your location in history. In so far as you don’t see the contingency of your core values and desires, and don’t subject them to critical analysis and rational scrutiny, your choices are not consistent with freedom. Otherwise stated, for your choices to be truly free in the Hegelian sense, you have to recognize that your values and desires are the product of your society, your location in history, and a function of various institutions, structures, practices, and attitudes. Only after you’ve done this intellectual work can a choice be considered to be free.
The next time someone rants about Freedom!!!1!1!!!! USA #1!!!!1!1!! or a politician makes proclamations about freedom, take a moment to reflect on whether they’re primarily concerned with freedum or freedom. It’s true that the gubbamint can constrain your freedum and that’s something we should avoid. But if you reflect a little you might find that restricting your own freedum is sometimes consistent with freedom. And freedom, it seems to me, is frequently to be preferred to freedum. Especially when it comes to living in large groups…