Archives for posts with tag: freedom

Freedom isn’t free. Notoriously it costs $1.05, but generally the metaphor is assumed to mean that freedom is incessantly under attack, and therefore must be defended. There are terrorists and rogue nations who hate our way of life, and if they are unchecked, the freedom to live our lives the way we choose is imperiled. We must therefore adhere to a universal responsibility to fight wars, or at the very least, support those who fight them for us, against these existential threats. However, implicit responsibility suggests that those who adhere to this belief are not actually free: they are slaves to conflict. If we must fight, then we are no longer free to engage in peace.

There is also the freedom implied in the Free Market. No interference, no subjugation, allow the whims of the Market to dictate social direction. The ebb and flow of supply and demand will nurture and care for us. Yet, if our ability to participate in the market is determined by our wealth (either in the ownership of the supply side or the purchasing power of the demand side), then indeed social direction will be commanded by the wealthy. Voting with your dollar naturally leads to those with more dollars owning more votes. Even in the free market we are not free: we are slaves to wealth. Even the wealthy are encumbered by their duties to wealth perpetuation. If we seek responsibility toward externalities and an equality of opportunity, we will not find it in an ideology with implicit responsibility toward the profit motive.

Is it controversial to say that freedom requires submission? Bob Dylan waxed poetic that it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but we’re gonna have to serve somebody. Human beings have needs; we will always be beholden to bread. What are we willing to submit to in order to enjoy other freedoms? Who then benefits from that submission? What if we want to live in a world with freedom from conflict? What if we want to be responsible toward other human beings rather than to an abstraction? Maybe it would be nice to be responsible to your neighbours instead of responsible to a conflict with them.

Anyone who preaches freedom is preaching slavery on some other level. This is not always a terrible thing; responsibility is a necessity for social cohesion. The despots who hide its presence in their proselytizing are seeking only to deceive their listeners into accepting their shackles without critical thought. Be open about where the restraints will lie, and allow them to be justified. We were never free. We will never be free. We will always need to submit. The question is: where do we wish to place our submission?

You know who perpetually sucks? Those jerks in the out-group. They’ll never be as cool as us in our in-group. They’ll always be the Other, and as such, we will literally never care about them. At worst, we’ll go out of our way to kill every God damned one of them. Remember, it’s not because we’re jerks; it’s because they’re jerks.

Us and them have always been at odds, and that conflict has resulted in quite a lot of really tragic things, in hindsight. However, it’s a mentality that’s difficult to escape. Jonathan Haidt posits that there are five moral frameworks with which every human is imbued: harm, fairness, in-group, authority, and purity. The last three are often rejected by liberal-minded individuals, or at least not given as much weight, while all five are embraced by the conservative-minded, though the first two are generally less weighted than for liberals. Haidt suggests that while a focus on the in-group, authority, and purity can lead to terrible outcomes, they are needed for social cooperation in the long term. Cohesion requires solidarity, and solidarity requires some degree of enforceable rigidity.

We need union. We need to be a part of a group. We are social creatures. The nature of that group is important, however. Conformity within the in-group is problematic. Conformity means that abnormal behaviour, even benign abnormal behaviour, becomes stigmatized. Michael Warner describes a modern reality where gays are becoming part of a sterile “normal”, where they will be accepted so long as they blend in to the sexual status quo. Marriage is encouraged because it offers a legitimacy to a gay relationship, even if by doing so it still delegitimizes other, non-state recognized relationships such as polyamory, casual encounters, or cohabitation. Deviance is still deviant, and gays are only accepted so long as they conform to the generally puritanical sexual standards of the West. This is obviously despite the fact that homosexuality itself was once considered inherently deviant, and seeking conformity to a shaming culture belittles the underlying goals of the movement.

The shame of deviance is problematic for more than just sexual minorities. New ideas are quashed because they do not fit with the current paradigm. Information that is in conflict with the accepted group ideology is swept under the rug which means that any output generated can only be considered propaganda. Consider a political party; are they going to champion new research that disagrees with their values? Is the backbencher going to have a say if they aren’t going to toe the party line? Of course not. Social conformity on the macro level is just the expansion of partisanship to a larger ideology.

Can we have union without the perils of conformity? In truth, we cannot. There will always need to be a thread that interweaves throughout society that binds everyone together. However, the perils can be mitigated. Celebrating deviance from the norm is in fact a form of conformity. If everyone is called upon to support diversity, that is in itself a structure of conformity. Consider this quotation from Karl Popper:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

Relativism fails because it simply becomes an argument for nihilism, but absolute relativism, where relativism is itself something that is demanded, creates an ideology that can be successfully promulgated. There are of course other factors to be taken into account (universal tolerance could potentially lead to the acceptance of child molestation, for example), and to go through a full list isn’t something that I’d like to get into just now, but the basic foundation that Warner suggests is focused on personal autonomy. We decide how we behave, and society as a whole fights for our right to do so.

However, as with the paradox of tolerance, freedom is something that cannot be universal. There are two types of freedom: freedom from oppression, and freedom to oppress. I’m sure you can come up with contemporary examples of each on your own as people aren’t very subtle when they are describing the type of freedom that they are after.  The two are mutually exclusive, and society can only fight for one. Given the nature of Popper’s tolerant society, the choice ought to be fairly straight forward.

Freedom is so important that America paradoxically conflates liberty with wage slavery and obsessive consumerism, and nobody seems to mind because FREEDOM.

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I can’t tonight. I’m actually too busy selling my labour to buy products I don’t need.

Freedom by itself, however, is merely chaos. Viktor Frankl wonders at the necessity of a Statue of Responsibility on the Pacific side of the United States to complement the well-established Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. Responsibility, and by extension morality, is not only predicated on freedom, but ought to exist in partnership. We cannot be moral unless we are free to choose, and we cannot be free to choose without understanding the moral weight of those choices. Jean-Paul Sartre based his entire ethical philosophy on the primacy of freedom, claiming that not only was morality linked to freedom, but was inextricably bound to it: recognizing the freedom of others pushes us to respect our shared humanity within it.

Today, this dyad of freedom and morality is under considerable threat. Not from radical Islamic terrorists who lurk in the shadows of political dissidence, or even from their Communist predecessors. This insidious saboteur is determinism. If the universe is primarily based on causal relationships, then all our decisions have already been preordained by the inviolable laws of the universe. We are not human beings, but an ecology. Growing like plants, we are fixed in our rigid binds, incapable of even struggling against them. Morality becomes impossible for the same reason that we don’t consider earthquakes to be capable of moral judgement.

There are those who not only accept this causal prison, but revel in it. Sam “Sam Handwich” Harris sought to illustrate how morality could still exist within a deterministic framework, and I honestly wish I had a better source for my readers here, because he failed so abysmally that I feel bad that this is my only reference. He claims that human choices can still be made, even without free will, because we feel that we are making a choice. The ontology of the universe be damned; our feelings supersede reality. This guy is supposed to be a scientist, keep in mind. Sam Handwich later goes on to say that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion, and if we really think rationally about it, we’ll realize that we don’t actually possess free will at all. This means that those feelings of choice that separate us from from the amoral grizzly bear, who kills only from biological instinct, are themselves the illusion, and Sam Handwich manages to contradict his own point a few idiotic paragraphs later. The moral solution in his determined universe is an abortion of utilitarianism which I won’t get into for the sake of avoiding a long rant. Personally I’d recommend reading John Stuart Mill or Peter Singer if you’re curious about utilitarian ethics. They at least have functioning brains.

Outside of this moron, however, people still desperately fight for freedom. Not only for the moral implications of avoiding determinism, but because freedom is simply worth having. Consider this quotation from Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

But when I see the others sacrifice pleasures, repose, wealth, power, and life itself for the preservation of this sole good which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see animals born free and despising captivity break their heads against the bars of their prison; when I see multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European voluptuousness and endure hunger, fire, the sword, and death to preserve only their independence, I feel that it does not behoove slaves to reason about freedom.

I believe that is a suitable rejoinder to Sam Handwich‘s drivel.

However, I can’t say that freedom exists just because it’s nice and has a lot of cool quotations associated with it. I can say that freedom exists because causality as we understand it doesn’t. The first argument against causality is David Hume’s theory of necessary connections. A necessary connection is something we perceive as a cause. For example, there is a necessary connection between fire, gunpowder, and an explosion. Hume argues that this perceived necessity is actually a human construct, and postulates the problem of induction. Just because something has happened before, even repeatedly, does not necessarily mean it will happen again. You ever flick a light switch that doesn’t turn on right away? Maybe it’s something weird with the electricity; maybe it’s because the causal link suffered a bit of a hiccup.

This might sound like philosophical malarkey, but some theories of quantum physics prove Hume right. The quantum leap of an electron from one atomic orbit to the next is entirely unpredictable, and the minuteness of Planck’s constant is the only barrier against the chaos of the quantum universe overflowing into our experiential realm. Functions of the brain also exist outside of causality, with the opening and closing of ion channels and the release of synaptic vesicles operating randomly. Randomness is no determinate of free will, however, as every decision would become arbitrary and equally outside of our choices. On the other hand, it does exclude causality from being the defining characteristic of our universe.

I believe that if we are looking for a quantum solution to the problem of free will, then we should not be focusing on randomness but on probability. Given the indeterminate nature of electrons, as the position of an electron cannot be measured without abandoning the knowledge of its momentum, scientists are only able to make educated guesses based on probability. Adaptive mutation fortifies this argument by showing that bacteria and yeast can evolve useful mutations rather than completely random ones (as traditional Darwinian evolution theorized). Not all bacteria develop the adaptive gene in these studies, however, which shows that reacting to stimuli is neither random nor deterministic, but based on probability.

Probability when applied to human society makes sense. Statistics show a strong correlation between someone’s environment and their behaviour, but at the individual level, one cannot look at trends and predict a definite outcome. A street urchin raised by addicts will likely become an addict, but there is no way to tell with 100% certainty. It is that uncertainty that allows for choice. We can coast with the social conditioning, environmental pressures, and biological impulses that will push us along a predetermined path, allowing us the dubious honour of simply being another statistic, or we can make choices and break the mould. There is always a choice. Some scenarios will offer fewer choices than others, and fewer choices means a lesser degree of moral responsibility. A lesser degree of morality means those of us with more choice are responsible for elevating these ignoble souls to an equitable level where we can all claim access to a full spectrum of opportunities. That is the link between morality and freedom.