Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Only Position? Part II

I’m sorry it’s taken longer than I said it would to get this out. I’ve been fighting fatigue from sinus pressure and an indignant back. I still have these, but they’ve mostly lessened in intensity. Plus, I slept in from training this morning. The sleep helped. I feel like I can properly talk about all this now.

Part I of this topic is [HERE].

Thank you for your comments both on and off the blog! I appreciate your support in allowing me to put this very complex question on the table and, in the process, call beliefs into question.

I started this next step originally by thinking about human rights. In researching the idea of rights and the idea of liberty, however, I quickly discovered that there exists a dichotomy. Allow me to explain:

Imagine you are driving to an interview for a job you want very much. You come to an intersection and turn right. For the record, and to avoid any appearance of underhandedness, let me make clear that there is no other traffic and there are no detours or police roadblocks--the point being that nothing was preventing you from going left or straight ahead, instead of right. As a driver, you appear to be completely free, right? Well, perhaps not. The situation looks quite different if we add that that the reason you turned right is that you're addicted to nicotine and desperate to get to the convenience store before the interview. You’re very nervous, you see, and smoking calms your nerves. Rather than driving, you are being driven because your urge to smoke leads you to turn the wheel to the right, even though you’re perfectly aware that doing so means you'll be late to the interview. You wish you could be free of this irrational desire not only because it’s bad for your health, but also because you recognize that it’s getting in the way of your doing what you know you want to do.

This story contrasts two ways of thinking of freedom. On the one hand, one can think of freedom as the absence of external hindrances. You are free, in other words, if nothing is stopping you from doing what you want to do. In the above story you appear, to the person observing you from the sidewalk at the intersection, to be free. On the other hand, we can also think of freedom as the presence of control on the part of the person. To be free in this sense, there must exist some manner of self-determination--that is to say, you must be able to control your own destiny or act in your own (presumably best) interest. If we consider the story above in this light you appear to be “unfree” because you are not in control of your own destiny; you are unable to control a behavior (one you would undoubtedly prefer to be rid of) which is preventing you from realizing a decision that you recognize to be in your best interest. We might say that while the first view of freedom is about how many doors are open to you, the second is more about going through the right doors for the right reasons.

Isaiah Berlin, a Russian-British philosopher, called these two concepts of freedom negative and positive respectively in his work Two Concepts of Liberty (1969). The idea of negative liberty (I’ll use the terms "freedom" and "liberty" interchangably, for the sake of this discussion) refers to freedom by the absence of something (barriers, constraints, interference). Positive liberty, by contrast, requires the presence of something (control, self-mastery, self-determination). We might also distinguish between the two concepts by saying that negative liberty is subject generally to external factors, where positive liberty is subject generally to internal ones. Thus, the dichotomy I mentioned earlier is created.

Is this making sense so far? It took me a couple of days to wrap my brain around this, but it proved to be really helpful in terms of what follows.

All this research led me to look for a single definition that synthesized both positive and negative aspects of freedom. What I found was put forward originally by American legal philosopher Gerald MacCallum (1967).

MacCallum’s basic concept of freedom is a relation between three things:

1. The “agent” (I was tempted to say “person”, but I don’t want that to get misconstrued later);
2. Any obstacles, hindrances or preventing conditions;
3. The agent’s own intent to do or become.

It is important to point out here that this concept of freedom consists not merely of the possibility of doing certain things (because there no constraints on doing them), but in actually doing certain things in certain ways (because one is engaging in self-examination or is thinking critically and making well-informed decisions). This idea is rather broad, but it works well because it emphasizes that liberty is not simply license. In other words, the right to do something does not come without obligation.

In taking this concept of freedom and applying it to the corollaries in Part I, I am confident that there are no incongruities. People should have control over their bodies, but that freedom must include taking responsibility for the decisions they make. People should be able to have sex free from outside constraints, but that doesn’t mean that people should not exercise constraints individually on their sexual practice. Politically, we’re tempted to examine the idea of reproductive rights simply through the lens of negative liberty. What rules, constraints, limitations are proper to impose on what people can do when left to themselves? This question often frames the discussion of human rights (and, especially, reproductive rights). It seems like looking at the question of human rights in light the obligations implicit in the paradigm of positive liberty seems, at best, an ineffectual philosophical undertaking without any practical value. Yet, I cannot escape the thought that a consideration of human rights from the point of view that freedom must include a positive element of control would help to bring about some compromise to a contentious abortion debate.

I’m going to explore that more in the next post.

What do you think? Should freedom come with obligation, or does freedom equate to license without restriction? Is MacCallum’s concept of freedom flawed? As always, your respectful thoughts are welcomed.


Mrs. Chili said...

Human beings live in societies. In order for those societies to thrive, we must agree on certain standards of behavior (specifically, as our actions or behaviors affect those around us). That being the case, is it possible to have absolute freedom? I think that only those who disregard or reject their membership in society (or those who are incapable, for whatever (mental or physical) reason, of participation in a society) are able to act with absolute freedom.

Wayfarer said...

That is a brilliant truth! A defender of positive freedoms would conceive that he is not just an individual, but part of an organic social whole — “a tribe, a race, a church, a state, the great society of the living and the dead and the yet unborn” (to quote Isaiah Berlin). The true interests of an individual with this view must be reconciled with the interests of his societal whole, but this puts things on a slippery slope.

I haven’t spent enough time on this to reconcile the ideas, but I think it’s an important part of the discussion of how, practically, to bring both sides together.

Thanks for that!

the passionate hairdresser said...

I have to say, I agree with your other favorite me, absolute freedom sounds really scary...I guess I've got too much control to appreciate that! I like rule, regulations, and laws, and expect everyone else to at least obey them, even if they don't like them. While I wouldn't necessarily exercise my right to have an abortion, I'm glad the option is there. May it also be there when Katiekatherine is of that age...I'd like to think she wouldn't have one, either, however...the option should be there. My job as her parent is to make sure she understands what all this is about...making good choices and making intelligent, informed choices. Am I making any sense?? I'm really tired right now, so I apologize for the excessive rambling.