Sunday, July 03, 2005

Enabling Humanity

I think that substantive freedom - that is, enabling people to achieve their goals and live the sorts of lives they want to live - is the central politico-moral value that our modern pluralistic society ought to promote.

One advantage of it is that it is so obviously desirable. It's difficult to imagine anyone rejecting this value. It is universally applicable: no matter your personal values or goals in life, substantive freedom will help you achieve them.

Negative freedom, or freedom from coercive interference, is similarly desirable, though more weakly so. Substantive freedom includes and builds upon negative freedom. There are different sorts of constraints that may impede us in our life pursuits. There are things that get in our way ("positive" constraints) and needed things that we lack ("negative" constraints). These may be "internal" to our selves, or else concerning the "external" world. They may be traceable back to the agency of other humans, or not. But whatever their nature and origin, the result is the same: an obstruction to our endeavours in life. We should like to overcome as many such obstacles as possible. Negative freedom has value in that it protects us against positive external constraints that originate from the agency of others. But clearly that is just one part of the picture, and substantive freedom will require us to take a broader perspective, recognizing - and hopefully alleviating - the other obstacles that hamper us in the pursuit of our goals.

Sometimes goals will conflict, of course. Your freedom to shoot a gun where you please will conflict with my freedom to not get shot. Such conflicts might be resolved in a utilitarian manner, so that the strongest preferences of the most people can be satisfied. Such trade-offs are unavoidable - even for the negative libertarian.

One possible challenge here could come from the naive utilitarian, who asks why we shouldn't just aim to maximize utility directly. Here I employ the standard response that utility is better served through indirect means. For one thing, on a subjectivist account of well-being, coercive moral paternalism can prove self-defeating. We might hold that autonomy and self-direction is an essential feature of the well-lived life. Further, as J.S. Mill famously argued, there are good instrumental reasons to favour liberty. Individuals tend to be more motivated to look out for their own best interests, and they are in a privileged position with respect to knowing just what those interests are. All of this suggests that the best way to promote human welfare is through enabling humanity. Help people become better educated, well-informed, and generally able to achieve their goals, and then let them take care of the rest for themselves.

So what are the political implications of taking substantive freedom as our core politico-moral value? I previously suggested:
It is not enough to leave poor children alone: by letting them starve, we do not thereby make them "free" in any worthwhile sense. The fulfilment of basic needs is a prerequisite to any form of freedom worth having. And, on top of that, education and parental love are necessary to a child's development into a fully autonomous and flourishing human being. (And, again, this is surely what matters.) Granted, the state cannot provide parental love - though it might help enable it, through family support and provisions for parental leave [from work], etc.

I have other recent posts which argue in more detail that instituting an unconditional basic income, to supplement the market economy, would have extremely beneficial consequences for substantive freedom. But the first step is for us to agree in principle, that society should aim to enable its members. Then we can turn to the empirical question of how best to achieve this goal.


  1. Here are a couple of things to think about

    1) If substantive freedom means having lots of options what if they are bad options?
    2) If it means having good options then can we say adding an extra bad option does no harm?

    3) If you present a person with a million bad options and one good option they will sometimes (often) choose a bad one due to lack of attention (for example)

    Is that drop in utility scenario a good thing? Or is enabling humanity only valuable in as far as it represents a utility gain?


    LEVEL 1 - we assume we cant properly understand what anyone wants
    result - we allow each person to be free - for example free to blow smoke in others faces.

    LEVEL 2 - we assume we can tell what people around person X want and determine we should take action on it since they may not be able to
    result - we stop smoking in others faces but we permit suicide etc (reducing personal freedom)

    LEVEL 3 - we presume we can tell what person X and everyone else want and assume we should take action on it.
    result - we prevent suicide and "wrap people in cotton wool".

    the funny thing is that net freedom may improve as you go from 1 --> 3 since it could involve preventing you from making choices that will greatly reduce your freedom (like suicide).

    One has to wonder why one would stop at 2 and not go on to 3 unless one really wanted to go back to 1.

  2. Richard,

    If you think that disputes between negative freedom should be solved in a utilitarian manner, how should we resolve disputes between utilitarian reasoning and the demands of substantive freedom?

  3. Make that "between various claims of negative and substantive freedom"

  4. Am I at risk of a slippery slope here? Perhaps we should instead resolve conflicts in such a way as to maximize substantive freedom (if such a thing can be quantified). So there would be trade-offs like in utilitarianism, but with a slightly different goal in mind. I'm not too sure about this though, it's quite a tricky issue. Any other suggestions? (Should we just appeal to utilitarianism to resolve all conflicts? That seems to overlook the lesson of indirect utilitarianism though; I can imagine it having very bad consequences...)

  5. I think just about any theory runs into the same problems.
    But it is OK for you to position yourself on a "slipery slope" as long as you know that is what you are doing.

  6. Are you sure you wouldn't really prefer to be a Rawlsian than a utilitarian (of some stripe)?

  7. Yeah, I'm pretty sure. "Maximin" has always struck me as rather stupid and irrational. (See, e.g., my posts here and here.) But I don't know Rawls all that well, so if you think I've misinterpreted him, do let me know.


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