Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Notes towards a definition of freedom, part 5

June 04th, 2017 by Vader

In my last post, I digressed from the main thread of my exploration of the definition of freedom to explore some interesting aspects of schools as institutions that can promote or hinder the exercise of freedom. That side thread has generated some interesting discussion, and I mean to come back to it again. But, for now, I want to get back onto the main thread of my exploration.

I have defined freedom as the ability to make meaningful and consequential choices. In previous posts, I defined ability as the proposition that humans have a free will. I defined meaningfulness as the proposition that multiple choices are set before humans, between which they can rationally distinguish. I want now to explore what I think is the most interesting aspect of my definition of freedom, namely, the proposition that those choices are consequential.

In the spirit of the recent holiday, I will begin by illustrating consequence with an extreme example.

If there was ever a just war, it was the war fought against the Axis Powers from 1939 to 1945. The airmen, sailors, and (until quite late in the war) Marines who fought under American colors in the Second World War were all volunteers. So were the merchant sailors who, while technically noncombatants, faced the gauntlet of the Atlantic U-boats. And, while it is true that most of the soldiers who fought in the Army of the United States were drafted, most were more or less willing, in the sense that very few tried to evade the draft or take advantage of generous provisions for conscientious objectors. In other words, most of those who faced the Axis in combat had some choice in the matter, and, in at least a limited sense, chose to be there.

It is difficult to imagine a more consequential choice.

Virtually every American claims to be in favor of freedom, yet I believe the United States enjoys less political consensus today than at any time in its history — including the period of the Civil War, when the two sides engaged in bloody struggle shared a remarkable commonality in their political language and political assumptions. (That is the great tragedy of that war:)

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

One is forced to the conclusion that today’s political factions understand freedom in very different ways, and it is not possible for all those understandings to be sound. This is not a case of partial understandings arising from a focus on different aspects of freedom, like the blind men and the elephant, which can be brought together and reconciled. The understandings are in direct conflict.

I believe the confusion arises from the conflation of freedom with liberty, coupled with a misunderstanding of both.  Freedom, sometimes described as natural liberty, is an inherent part of the human condition. Civil liberty, which is what I am referring to when I speak simply of liberty, is the set of social constructs that support the exercise of freedom, in part (paradoxically) by restraining certain aspects of the exercise of natural liberty. There is a tendency for voters to confuse the existence of democratic institutions with the possession of civil liberty. However, it is possible for a benevolent autocrat to secure civil liberty to his subjects, and likewise possible for a democracy to be destructive of civil liberty. The American founders chose the system they did because they were suspicious of both monarchy and of pure democracy, and believed that the best hope for maintaining civil liberty rested with a republican government in which a governing elite, jealous of its rights and privileges, would act to prevent any one man from gathering too much power to himself.

But, if we strip away the confusion between democratic institutions and actual civil liberty, we arrived at a more fundamental misunderstanding. For many Americans, freedom seems to mean freedom from consequence. I believe this is in direct conflict with the proper definition of freedom, of which a fundamental aspect is the freedom to be consequential.

This is a profound difference. It seems to me that the desire for freedom from consequence really boils down to hedonism. This is the desire to gratify the senses as fully and constantly as possible at the lowest possible cost. It is the desire to be continually entertained, to eat, drink, and be merry. It is the consumer economy.

This is profoundly at odds with the desire for freedom to be consequential. The person who seeks this kind of freedom — let us call him the Freeman, as a useful shorthand — wants the good things in his life to come at a cost. Thomas Paine is one of my least favorite among the Founders, but this much at least he got right:

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

Even Thomas Paine confuses civil liberty with freedom, so perhaps I should not be too hard on the great many who make the same mistake today. Regardless, the basic concept Paine voices is fundamentally sound.

I acknowledge that the desire to gratify the senses is a normal and healthy aspect of the human condition, so far as it goes. Our distant forebears did well to eat food that was pleasant to the taste rather than food that was bitter; the latter too often contained unhealthy alkaloids or was contaminated with pathogenic organisms.* The desire for sexual gratification is part of the drive for marriage and reproduction. The desire to avoid pain is the beginning of prudence. Likewise, it is wholesome to enjoy the fruits of each other’s labors, either by gift or by voluntary exchange in a free market. It is the inflammation of these desires far beyond their basic survival value that distinguishes the opposite of the Freeman, which I will call the Consumer.

Indeed, here we find a good example of the distinction between Freeman and Consumer. The original end of human sensuality was to warn of the consequences of choices. In our prosperous and physically safe society (and both these qualities are good in themselves) the attention paid to human sensuality seems to be inverse proportion to its consequentiality.

The reality is that choices are consequential, whether we wish it or not. To seek to be inconsequential is itself a highly consequential choice, though it does not appear to be so. There is a opportunity cost associated with being a Consumer, namely, the foregone opportunity to become a Freeman. The good German who quietly turned his back on what his country was doing from 1933 to 1945 also quietly turned his back on the Jew whose existence was threatened by that government.

Because the consequences of choices are natural, it is very difficult to re-engineer them. It is nevertheless possible for a nation to alter the consequences of individual actions, through social pressure or legal penalties and rewards. When your nation has outlawed the consumption of liquor, the consequences of drinking are undoubtedly changed, as surely as when your nation provides unemployment benefits even when it was arriving drunk at your job that got you fired. Artificial social or legal consequences can reinforce the natural consequences of a choice, or they can reduce those consequences.

This obviously can be benign or tyrannical, depending on how the consequences are altered (in both senses). There is no simple rule of thumb here; for example, it is not always the case that the law should amplify the consequences of choices, making the consequences of bad choices worse or of good choices, better. I suggest that sound law is directed towards at least one of three ends: To ameliorate the consequences to the many of the bad choices made by the few; to substitute obvious consequences for inobvious consequences to make choices clearer to the uneducated; and to ameliorate the consequences of reasonable choices gone bad in an uncertain world. The first is the domain of civil and criminal law; the second we may label paternalism, if we can agree to momentarily set aside the pejorative connotations; and the third we may label social insurance, again, with an agreement to set aside the pejorative connotations for the present.

Each of these ends deserves a post of its own. Meanwhile, in the spirit of many past posts at this blog, I want to discuss the virtue that supports consequential choice. This is no nameless virtue: It has been recognized for millennia as moral courage.

Moral courage is, if anything, more uncommon than mere physical courage. It is the willingness to make consequential choices, and to accept responsibility for the consequences. It is the defining virtue of the Freeman, as moral cowardice is the defining vice of the Consumer.

I believe that many of our current political and social institutions are a reflection of a want of moral courage. These include the all-volunteer military; the growth of bureaucracy; the secret ballot; and the Federal Register.

The all-volunteer military may seem a strange and, possibly, offensive choice of example. But recall that physical courage is not the same as moral courage. Understand also that I recognize that there are significant virtues in this military, and it is not necessarily any lack of moral courage in its own officers that the existence of an all-volunteer military represents. It is the fact that politicians can send such an Army into battle with far fewer political consequences than they would face sending a conscript military into battle.  Also, and this is nothing new: There are troubling indications that the senior officers of the military, particularly the Air Force, are wanting in moral courage in their relations either with their own superiors and the civilian leadership. Among these indications is their passive acceptance of the use of women in roles increasingly close to the front line, in spite of substantial evidence that this degrades both effectiveness and good order.

The growth of bureaucracy has been touched on in the comments to a recent post elsewhere at this blog. Consequential decisions must be made; when there is a want of leaders possessed of moral courage to make them, the market solution is to create a bureaucracy in which these choices can be made by those who require no moral courage to make them — by those who will not themselves bear the consequences.

The secret ballot may seem like a strange choice indeed. I ask the reader to reflect on the fact that every legislature in the free world records and published the votes of its legislators, and to ponder the significance of this. I also suggest, with trepidation, that if ballots were not secret, neither Hilary Clinton nor Donald Trump would be President today.

The Federal Register is a massive exhibition in the lack of moral courage in government. Sweeping regulations are proposed — by anonymous authors. Or such is my impression; readers who actually follow the Federal Register are free to correct me.

In the next post, I will examine the role of the civil and criminal law, and the different ways these will be shaped by Freemen and Consumers.


*I cannot explain broccoli. Heaven has withheld some mysteries from human understanding.

Comments (2)
Filed under: Birkenhead Drill,Deseret Review,I can't possibly see how this could go wrong | Tags: , , ,
June 04th, 2017 14:40:56
2 comments

G.
June 5, 2017

“I believe this is in direct conflict with the proper definition of freedom, of which a fundamental aspect is the freedom to be consequential.”

Simple, but incredibly important, and for me at least, it took a lot of time and thought to figure it out. These are needful essays.

“I suggest that sound law is directed towards at least one of three ends: To ameliorate the consequences to the many of the bad choices made by the few; to substitute obvious consequences for inobvious consequences to make choices clearer to the uneducated; and to ameliorate the consequences of reasonable choices gone bad in an uncertain world. The first is the domain of civil and criminal law; the second we may label paternalism, if we can agree to momentarily set aside the pejorative connotations; and the third we may label social insurance, again, with an agreement to set aside the pejorative connotations for the present.”

Something here seems incomplete. Gotta think it over. Also, the bit about reducing the impact of people’s choices on others is less obvious than it seems. One of the most meaningful type of consequences is the ability to have an impact on your neighbors and loved ones, especially your children. That is one point that I thought was missing from the schooling and homeschooling discussion. At the same time, children brought up badly suffer consequences they themselves did not choose, and I see no good resolution of the problem this side of Heaven.


Zen
June 5, 2017

Perhaps this has been mentioned before, but it seems to me that part of the ability to make consequential choices, is not only the freedom do anything, but also the knowledge and power to do that. I am less free to play the piano because I have not practiced in years (decades?). But I am more free to think about math, because I have studied math recently. True Education is part of obtaining agency.

But one thing that is not immediately clear to me, is exactly where is the dividing line between trying to evade consequences and just trying to get the best possible consequences. I might just need to think about it.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.