Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Freedom and Autonomy

In my previous post I discussed how freedom might be understood in relation to constraints. This is the basis of 'negative liberty', though I argued that the typical analysis was impoverished because it was concerned only with positive external constraints. A richer understanding of freedom results if we also recognize the importance of negative and internal constraints.

But there is a different way to approach the concept of 'freedom', and that is in terms of autonomy (sometimes called 'positive freedom'). We call an ex-colony "free" when it rules itself, attaining formal independence from other powers. This idea of freedom as self-mastery can be extended to people. The core idea is that the free individual is sovereign over himself, slave to no other, nor to his inner passions.

There is something very right about this idea. Self-directed agency is an important part of freedom. It's no use removing constraints if there is no agent able to choose and engage in actions. If I merely do another's bidding, rather than deciding matters for myself, then I am a puppet, not a free man. It's also important to recognize the possibility of internal constraints to freedom, as I argued in the previous post. Mental illness or 'phobias', for example, can seriously constrain our freedom. It is a great insight of 'positive freedom' to recognize that our freedom may be constrained from within, as well as without.

We can take these new insights and integrate them into the argument of my previous post, to yield a unified concept of 'freedom' as a 3-place predicate which relates an agent (S), an overcome constraint (X), and a goal (Y). That is: S is free, from X, to Y. The apparently different concepts of freedom simply arise from focusing on different aspects of this more fundamental underlying concept. Autonomy focuses on the agent (S), whereas negative freedom highlights particular forms of constraint (X). I maintain that the enabled choice (Y) is most important, but the above formula shows how this ties in naturally with the other sub-concepts.

(As a brief aside, I note that 'positive liberty' is sometimes identified as 'freedom to' rather than 'autonomy'. Indeed, the two are often conflated, even by Berlin. But it should be clear that this is a mistake. As my previous post showed, 'freedom to' is intimately connected with 'freedom from', unless you artificially restrict what may count as a 'constraint'. Autonomy is less obviously connected to the other two, though I aim in this post to bring all three into unification. Anyway, discussion of 'positive liberty' has traditionally tended to focus on autonomy rather than 'freedom to', so I will continue to use it in the former sense only.)

So far so good. But the concept of positive liberty is often pushed further - quite inappropriately, in my opinion. Rather than considering the person as a whole, some theorists posit a "true self", or rational ego, imprisoned within our vulgar minds. This "true self" is then contrasted with the empirical (vulgar) self, so as to discredit the claims of the individual. Thus the worst of tyrannies may be excused in the name of "liberation", and any objections dismissed as "inauthentic".

But it should be noted that such abuses are not instrinsic to the concept itself. Even supposing that I can be mistaken about my real desires/interests, it does not follow that anyone else knows better. And even if they did, it does not follow that benevolent paternalism is somehow making me more free. Paternalism might make me more well off, but this is at the cost of autonomy! It is thus the very opposite of the positive liberty ideal.

Isaiah Berlin characterizes negative liberty as wanting to curb (external) authority, whereas positive liberty seeks to invest (internal) authority. There is something to this - especially when we add the parenthetical clarifications! Rousseau, perhaps the most notorious proponent of positive liberty, suggests that "the impulsion of mere appetite is slavery, and obedience to the law one prescribes to oneself is freedom." It thus appears that he sees freedom in terms of imposing constraints on ourselves, in stark opposition to my earlier analysis. However, I think this idea is instead best understood as freedom from internal constraints (weakness of the will, and so forth) to act as we choose. If I'm right about this, then the unified analysis can be plausibly maintained.

(By the way, I offer a sympathetic exploration of Rousseau's philosophy of freedom in this essay. I find Rousseau a fascinating thinker, though I would not want his ideas to actually be implemented!)

2 comments:

  1. Oh no, the pain. The pain! ;)

    The core idea is that the free individual is sovereign over himself, slave to no other, nor to his inner passions.

    There is something very right about this idea.
    There is something that seems right about most truisms. Your problems is that you distinguish between a person and their inner passions. When you see that inner passions are mere properties of a person, it is obvious that there is no candidate object "master" for the inner passions to belong, and no "subject" to be ruled over. There is just the person.

    Again, your use of the phrase "slave to no other" is no argument, but mere definition. One is either free xor one is a slave - one cannnot be a free slave.

    Rather than considering the person as a whole, some theorists posit a "true self", or rational ego, imprisoned within our vulgar minds. You mean, just as you yourself did when you called a free person "sovereign over himself"? or do you mean it in some other way?

    We can take these new insights and integrate them into the argument of my previous post, to yield a unified concept of 'freedom' as a 3-place predicate which relates an agent (S), an overcome constraint (X), and a goal (Y). That is: S is free, from X, to Y.Impossible. I cannot turn magically into a goat. Yet there is nothing preventing me. There is no obstacle X which, if removed, might then allow me to become a goat. Your description, while applicable to many circumstances, fails in the face of nominological reality.

    It is like saying that 1 + 1 is not free to equal 2, or that the shortest distance in two dimensions is constrained to be a straight line. There is no obstacle, other than reality itself, preventing 1 + 1 from equalling true.

    In the case of a priori truths (a dubious concept at best, but anyway), it is not even logically plausible for some things to be. For example, it is not logically plausible that I could think without existing. This stands logically sound, awaiting only evidence. There is no sense in which it could be said there were any real obstacle to be removed which might allow me to think without existing.

    Unless of course I am the greatest God. Because we all know the greatest god overcomes the greatest challenge to action, and that, of course, is not to exist at all...

    -MP

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  2. (I'm afraid I cannot take the credit for the unified analysis; I like it very much, and the particular approach taken in this post is my own, but the fundamental idea comes from Feinburg, as mentioned in my previous post.)

    The laws of nature prevent you from turning into a goat. If there was truly nothing preventing you, then you would be able to do it. This conceptual truth follows necessarily from the broader understanding of constraints (including 'negative' ones, etc.) discussed in my previous post.

    As for your "true self" comments, it should be clear from the main post that I largely agree with you. My talk of individuals being 'sovereign over themselves' may be contrasted with paternalism, where other people run our lives for us. There is also the issue of internal constraints, which are undeniably real, but I do not think one must commit to the idea of a hidden "true self" in order to recognize this. (Compare this to physical illness or disability - the paraplegic is constrained by their condition, which poses limits to their freedom. A property of a person may still constrain that person.)

    I'm not sure why you're so critical of the "slave to no other" phrase; it was used more as a way to shift our perspective of freedom from talk about 'constraints' to talk about 'autonomy' - a framing or pedagogical device rather than an 'argument' in itself. Besides, the issue is not so trivial as you seem to think. A slave might be free to do all sorts of things, if they have a liberal master. (As Berlin notes, 'who rules me?' and 'what am I free to do?' are logically distinct questions. Similarly, as I've pointed out before, a benevolent dictator might afford citizens greater civil liberties than a participatory democracy would.)

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