Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Understanding freedom is hard enough. What is much harder is to understand liberation, or how we become free. We may freely choose to become free. In some the paradox is stark enough to be a vicious circle: that we must be free in order to become free. On occasion we find the paradox so starkly that the unfree are criticized, blamed, or held responsible for their unfreedom, as if they were free to become free even when unfree. It seems paradoxical to expect the unfree to use the freedom they lack to liberate themselves. Isn't it unfair to demand that the unfree free themselves? Why isn't it like asking the unjustly imprisoned to release themselves? If we discover that liberation is a vicious circle, then we will have to conclude that freedom is unattainable (at least through liberation). If we discover that the circle is not vicious, then we will have learned more about the complexity of freedom —and of the means of acquiring it.
In Elbow Room, Daniel Dennett describes a kind of free will sufficient for moral responsibility, but entirely compatible with a naturalistic world-view, in which all things —except at the quantum level— are causally determined. Though we are determined, determinism does not negate control or self-control. Moreover, the control we can exert means that the past does not control us, that we can use our control to enhance our control, that our actions cannot be predicted, at least by ourselves, and that the future is (epistemologically if not metaphysically) open.
In rejecting Kant's dual-aspect theory in favor of a nuanced determinism in which we are among the determinants of our own conduct, Dennett concludes that our characters are partly the product of determination by environmental and genetic causes, and partly the product of our own skills in making plans, pursuing them, evaluating and changing ourselves, and seeking and avoiding certain situations. These skills in turn have the same dual explanation. While our deliberation about our options and plans plays an ineliminable role in determining which life we live, an element of luck cannot be denied either. Some are born with more opportunities, and some catch more lucky breaks during life. The element of luck, however, does not rule out moral responsibility.
We make ourselves and should be held responsible for the selves that we are as adults. But clearly luck helps some and hinders others in the task of making a moral self with a desirable measure of self-control and fellow feeling. How do we evaluate the case of a man who through bad luck and perhaps also bad will made himself more vicious than virtuous?
In On Liberty (1859), Mill shows that the paradox of liberation applies to political liberty as much as to individual freedom of will. For Mill a free society is one which has overcome both the tyranny of bad laws and the tyranny of public opinion. We must tolerate all forms of speech and expression except those which are equivalent to actions in the harm they cause. We must tolerate the free circulation of falsehood, advocacy of crime, and all sorts of corrupt and immoral ideas, partly because they might be true and justified and partly because the suppression of ideas known to be false or dangerous is worse than their circulation. We must also tolerate liberty in personal conduct. The benefit of all this toleration is greater likelihood that we will discover truth and correct error, reduced likelihood that hard-won truths will atrophy into "dead dogmas", diversity and the free development of individuality.
So how does a society achieve (further) liberation? How do we advance the next increment of toleration and liberty? Mill's answer is that the small-mindedness which criticizes individuality and difference, rather than tolerating them, slowly melts in the heat of vigorous public discussion. If many different standpoints are expressed, and many lifestyles are lived, then this form of public education will slowly overcome provincialism and its accompanying inclinations to censorship, intolerance, and paternalism. In short, liberty improves us.
Liberty, then, is the path to greater liberty. Our best chance for expanding the scope of toleration and liberty in the future is to practice toleration and liberty now. Since every individual is a source of potential tyranny (through opinion), every individual must be educated to wider toleration; but this is best done by exposure to a diversity of standpoints and examples. We must be free to become freer. The process is clearly circular. The only reason it is not vicious is that Mill does not call on the utterly unfree to exercise their freedom. We needn't be free before we are free. Instead, we must use the modicum of freedom we have to nurture the enlarged freedom we desire.
For the civilized, liberation lies through paradox, but the paradox is not strong. We use our freedom to enhance our freedom —and if we don't, then good riddance to us. Over time, the increase in liberty transforms human nature from intolerance to tolerance. People in his day are "but starved specimens of what nature can and will produce".
(Adapted from The Paradox of Liberation, Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College at earlham.edu)

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