Archive for the ‘kinds of freedom’ Tag

What’s Freedom For? (Part III)   2 comments

More freedom – can I handle it?  Can there be too much freedom?  I don’t mean lack of restraint – I mean freedom. Is there a difference?  What is it?

In his baccalaureate address at Earlham College from about a quarter-century ago (1987), philosophy professor Peter Suber distinguishes among several freedoms:

There are many kinds of freedom. I do not wish to speak about all of them, or to give the impression that all of them reduce to one type. There is political liberty, or the freedom from coercion by public power. There is the political freedom of enfranchisement, or the distribution of public power through the vote. There is freedom as independence, or freedom from the power and opinions of others, which tends to reinforce and isolate individuality. There is freedom from pain, hunger, cold, illness, violence, and ignorance: a freedom that can only be purchased by institutions that limit independence and liberty. There is the freedom to enjoy one’s time or friends in peace, which requires cooperation more than independence for, as James Branch Cabell said, you can live at peace only as long as your neighbor chooses. There are freedoms, then, that individuals claim against communities and freedoms that only communities can create for their members.

These are freedoms of the body, and they’re vital.  Without them, our lives reduce to an animal struggle, below the level of anything one calls civilization.  Think of films like The Road or any of a growing number of post-apocalypse films and novels over the past century.  Without some basic physical freedoms, it’s true, we’re too occupied with survival to accomplish much else.  They’re some version of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But they’re also necessary without being sufficient.  There are further freedoms we eventually learn we need with an almost instinctive bodily hunger.  Without them we’re malnourished.

A neighborhood elm -- free in autumn

Suber goes on to make an important observation about kinds of freedom from a different perspective, one sometimes downplayed or ignored in current discussion of rights and freedoms.

“A distinction first made explicit by Kant is that between positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is freedom from —from coercion, constraint, compulsion. Positive freedom is freedom to —to guide oneself from within without taking one’s rule from outside, to be one’s own master and legislator.”

Negative freedom is the kind of freedom many people seem to mean, if they talk about freedom at all.  It’s the kind of freedom that libertarians typically build their platforms around.  However, one kind doesn’t automatically guarantee the other will arrive with the burgers and the beer, so we can all party.  As Suber notes,

“Kierkegaard seems to have been the first to notice that one can attain negative without positive freedom. One can cut oneself loose from enslaving influences and yet have developed no internal or home-grown sources of guidance at all. Kierkegaard in fact finds this state, beyond negative freedom and short of positive freedom, to be a recurring predicament for human beings in the modern world. He calls it hovering, to be free from everything, hence to have no basis for the choices one is then free to make; to be independent but empty.”

“A basis for the choices one is free to make.”  Now we’re getting a little closer to what freedom is for.  And I’m setting the stage for one kind of freedom we’ve neglected so far and Suber at first seems to leave out.  This is spiritual freedom.  The word “spiritual” gets bitch-slapped around a lot, so let me explain what I mean here.  When people are centered on “a path with heart,” they can endure remarkable physical setbacks and obstacles and still achieve their goals, or die trying without feeling they have failed.  Throw them in jail, torture them, exile them, they just keep rolling and rising back up, like the old 70s “weebles wobble but they won’t fall down” ads.  Think Gandhi, think Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, think any number of freedom fighters, rebels (whether we like their politics or not), ornery patriots, and similar cussedly independent folks.  There’s an integrity to their choices we can admire, even if the choices themselves happen to be abhorrent to us.

Yes, we can call to mind great spiritual heroes – some of them end up as founders of religions – but we have examples closer to home.  Most of us know, or know about, people who are “survivors.”  They get ill, they go broke, their families desert them, business goes bad, marriages fail, kids land in jail — but they bounce back.  They have what an older generation called “inner resources.”  We don’t hear about those kinds of resources much, maybe because we don’t have them much in evidence.  But the seeds of them are still in us (and seem to emerge most often in hardship).  The rest of the time they just make us restless, usually because we’re often living less than authentically.  Face it, I get lazy when my life is easy.  I want things to stay the same, which they almost always resolutely, infuriatingly, refuse to do.  Like they’re refusing to do right now in the West, not to mention many other parts of the world.

What is needed, then, is the judgment to decide what to do with the freedoms we already have, and Suber proceeds to examine what that kind of judgment looks like.

A surprising test for freedom of judgment, in fact, is whether complexity overpowers, intimidates, and defeats us, or challenges, arouses, and incites us to comprehend it. In our spiritual apprenticeship complexity prevents us from feeling our power or wanting to control our own fate. We are happy to learn more first. Freedom before this point is merely self-assertion without the foundation of judgment needed for making choices. But as Hobbes said, if he spent his life reading books by other people, he’d never know more than they did. When we emerge from this dependency into our own freedom it is because we are ready to direct ourselves and make the decisions that this requires.

Bald Eagle -- flight as freedom

So are we really free in the U.S. right now?  Ignore for a moment whatever your local conspiracy theorist or naysayer or grumpy partisan has to say.  The vast majority of Americans have food and shelter.  Most of us have a car, won’t get stopped at state borders, and so have freedom of movement (if we can afford the gas).  We have freedom from pain and suffering to a larger degree than any other time in history, with all the painkillers and routine buffers from the hard corners of reality that our heated and air-conditioned and work-saving-device-crammed houses and cars and buses and planes can provide.  Most Americans live better and longer than medieval kings and queens, with a vast array of entertainments at our command.  Are we free?  Material things are enjoyable — you don’t see me volunteering to give mine up just yet — but they can’t help us “emerge from this dependency into our own freedom … because we are ready to direct ourselves and make the decisions that this requires.”  When our things get threatened, we complain out of a supposed “freedom” that is “merely self-assertion without the foundation of judgment needed for making choices.”  We have the freedom to complain and criticize.  But where is the judgment for the choices and changes we need to make?

There is one more factor I want to consider.  I mentioned Aung San Suu Kyi earlier, the Myanmar freedom fighter and legally elected official confined to house arrest for years.  One of her most famous speeches is her “Freedom From Fear” speech, which begins: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”  This is one of the last great “unfreedoms” we face.  Think how much fear there is in headlines, on talk shows, in the news, in people’s faces.  Suber observes:

The larger kinds of unfreedom abroad in the world and within … are not affected in the slightest until people who recognize them as unfreedom rouse themselves to challenge them.

Religions aren’t always up to the job of helping people wake up and “recognize unfreedoms,” either.  I’m including Druidry here along with the rest.  One problem with Christianity (to pick on a religion I know and which has had longer to make an impact) is that it has defined freedom theologically and thus very narrowly.  That is, until I am saved, I am a slave to sin and subject to its penalties of wasted chances and dissatisfaction and emptiness, and ultimately to damnation.  After I am saved by the substitutionary atonement of Christ, who died in my place and paid the price for sin that otherwise I would have had to pay myself, I am free from the penalties of sin, and therefore able to go to heaven at death.  But I am no more free immediately after salvation than I was before from the responsibility of judgment, and the consequences of my own and others’ bad and good judgments.  My dissatisfaction with Christianity isn’t that it doesn’t save people; it’s that it seems to transform too few of them into better versions of themselves.  Where’s the “new creature” promised in the New Testament?  A saved jackass or a damned jackass is still a jackass.  Salvation may get you to heaven, but we have to live with you till then.

To offer you any kind of definitive “answer” to what freedom is for is to promote an unfreedom.  I’m working closer to my own answers, but you need to find your own.  Suber acknowledges this:

To take one’s judgments from others is exactly the unfreedom to be avoided. To negate the judgments of others, without more, takes one just as directly to dependency and enslavement, though by a path that is one step longer. To judge by standards that one finds inescapable is still bad faith, for one has chosen to adhere to them, and is not taking responsibility for that choice. To recognize that we are responsible for all our judgments, including our standards of judgment, is the beginning of positive freedom and self-direction. Then we will recognize that all the noisy certitudes of the world are not primarily candidates for truth but appeals to our judgment.

That is, all these supposed “certitudes” are jumping up and down, waving flags, cheering and whistling and shouting and saying to us, “Here I am.  What do you think?” rather than “Here I am. Do what I tell you.”

For me, more and more I find as the years pass, freedom is for loving more.  Nothing else matches up, noting else offers the challenge and delight and fulfillment.  It’s life-long.  I’m most loving of myself and others when I’m free, and — paradoxically? — I’m most free when I’m loving.  What’s freedom for in your life?

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Eagle image credit


What’s Freedom For? (Part II)   Leave a comment

B F Skinner

Years ago now, I remember furiously reading behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity on a plane.  I was making lots of notes and highlighting the text and writing exclamation points in the margins — at one point my seat-mate, who hadn’t spoken to me otherwise, asked  if I was prepping for a class.  I still have that copy, a cheap paperback, yellowing on my shelf.

But I wasn’t reading to complete an assignment.  I loathed Skinner’s conclusions, and I was gathering ammunition against them — all the false premises and counter-points and fallacies and over-generalizations I could muster. The most egregious of Skinner’s conclusions were that since — apart from genetics — we are machines controlled by our environment, there was no need to sustain delusional beliefs in freedom and dignity.  There is no such thing as an “autonomous” person who thinks and decides and chooses.  Any talk of political rights, a “soul,” consciousness, or freedom or any of a large number of other psychological states, was pointless, unfounded — an obstacle, in fact, to human progress.  We’re formed and motivated by reward and punishment, by reinforcement, Skinner claimed. And he asserted that a “science of human behavior” made designing any human culture we wished both a possibility and a demonstration of his conclusions.

A few years later I found out that linguist and critic Noam Chomsky had already done the job of demolition years before — 40 years ago, now — in a 1971 article in the New York Review of Books.  Chomsky takes Skinner down quite unapologetically:

Skinner is saying nothing about freedom and dignity, though he uses the words “freedom” and “dignity” in several odd and idiosyncratic senses. His speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior. Furthermore, Skinner imposes certain arbitrary limitations on scientific research which virtually guarantee continued failure.

I mention my personal story here because at the time I didn’t feel “free” to ignore Skinner — another way of saying I didn’t want to.  My freedom in this case was a choice, though one strongly influenced by emotion.

Here’s why I didn’t feel free — why I “had to” critique Skinner — again in Chomsky’s words:

Noam Chomsky

There is, of course, no doubt that behavior can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. This much is not at issue, and the conclusion is consistent with a belief in “autonomous man.” If a tyrant has the power to require certain acts, whether by threat of punishment or by allowing only those who perform these acts to escape from deprivation (e.g., by restricting employment to such people), his subjects may choose to obey — though some may have the dignity to refuse. They will understand the difference between this compulsion and the laws that govern falling bodies.

Of course, they are not free. Sanctions backed by force restrict freedom, as does differential reward. An increase in wages, in Marx’s phrase, “would be nothing more than a better remuneration of slaves, and would not restore, either to the worker or to the work, their human significance and worth.” But it would be absurd to conclude merely from the fact that freedom is limited, that “autonomous man” is an illusion, or to overlook the distinction between a person who chooses to conform, in the face of threat or force or deprivation, and a person who “chooses” to obey Newtonian principles as he falls from a high tower.

The inference remains absurd even where we can predict the course of action that most “autonomous men” would select, under conditions of extreme duress and limited opportunity for survival. The absurdity merely becomes more obvious when we consider the real social world, in which determinable “probabilities of response” are so slight as to have virtually no predictive value. And it would be not absurd but grotesque to argue that since circumstances can be arranged under which behavior is quite predictable — as in a prison, for example, or the concentration camp society “designed” above — therefore there need be no concern for the freedom and dignity of “autonomous man.” When such conclusions are taken to be the result of a “scientific analysis,” one can only be amazed at human gullibility.

OK, there we have the arguments of two white Euro males.  We’re equally gullible, of course, when we think freedom is some absolute thing, so that if we “have” it, it can’t be “taken” from us  except by violating our “rights.”  Societies organize and provide some things at the cost of others.  It’s always a trade-off.  Security in exchange for loss of freedom of movement has been a hot-button issue for some time now, with gated communities, and recent talk of a fence across the southern U.S. border, with the Dept. of Homeland Security scanning us every time we want to fly on a plane, opening our luggage, and fondling our pill bottles and mini-toothpaste tubes.  Have I tried to take away your freedom by slanting my comments here, to influence you and nudge you in the direction I want, so I can manipulate you later on?  Do you have the freedom to stop reading right now, or send me a nasty message?  You know the answers.  But how valuable is that freedom?

Changing gears, we have the pop version of freedom in Kris Kristofferson’s song “Me and Bobby McGee.”  Here’s the chorus:

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing, I mean nothing honey if it ain’t free, no no
Yeah feeling good was easy Lord when he sang the blues
You know feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.

Is freedom “feeling good”?  To repeat, if we feel good, are we “free”?  After a medical misdiagnosis of mental illness, electroshock therapy cured my mother of some “delusions” that were actually caused by the onset of dementia, but I can’t ever say she was more free as a result.  Something in her shifted after that treatment.  It certainly sharpened the decline already under way.  It didn’t matter if she “felt good,” though of course I didn’t want to deprive her of whatever positives we could salvage from the situation.  In the other sense the song mentions, she was nearly “free.”  She had (almost) “nothing left to lose.”

But the song doesn’t exactly say that.  The lyrics assert, “Feeling good was easy when he sang the blues.”  In other words, if I have an antidote for my pain, or an outlet or expression for it like the Blues, it’s at least somewhat easier for me to feel good.  But actual freedom is a wash in this case, when I’m suffering.  Take away the suffering, and then I can begin to consider whether or not I’m “free.”  Until then, I got “nothing.”

The radically down and out, the homeless, the street crazies, the druggies — they’re free in many senses that I’m not.  Far fewer obligations, responsibilities, commitments, possessions.  Little of the self-building we do by putting on the right clothes, driving the right car, working at the right job, eating lunch with the right colleagues, and so on.  (I can see it start early, in school, with the cliques and claques and in-out groups.)

But I’m in no hurry for that kind of freedom, at least at the cost the homeless pay.

I’ve allowed myself to ramble a bit in this post, rather than arguing closely toward a conclusion. Is that freedom?

More to come in Part III.

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