Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Three levels of freedom

There are at least three different levels or arenas of the freedom debates. Much of the heat in a debate springs from the argument shifting midway from one area to another. Please accept this as a first poor attempt at mapping out the ground.

1. Collective freedom

Struggle between groups. Groups of people who have some common identity and feel oppressed or insufficiently involved in the power structures that govern them. E.g. national sovereignty vs the EU, the suffragette movement, the abolition of slavery. Sometimes, as in the last two examples, there is significant support from outsiders in their struggle.

This debate is generally about fairness.

Factual argument will be about how one group suffers more, or benefits less, than another, in terms of personal income and wealth, longevity, health etc.

Moral argument will be based on the sense of unearned privilege or luck of those outside the group.

The counter-argument to this is that the privileged pay for the difference by protecting and succouring others (e.g. treating servants kindly, providing for them in sickness or age, educating their children, giving to charity, leaving bequests in wills, administering justice in peacetime, leading in time of war). Another compensation is to accept additional restrictions on their personal conduct, or voluntarily to risk greater misfortune or suffer extraordinary pain (e.g. Aztec kings dragged ceremonial knotted ropes through holes in their tongues). In some cases, there is an appeal to (false?) identification: the privileged are allowing the less fortunate to live through them in imagination.

The counter-counter-argument is that the difference is never quite paid for in full.

Contradiction: when a group wins, it sets terms for those who disagree. Freedom of speech is limited to protect minorities; Marxists impose equality of wealth by suppressing enterprise, at the same time allowing Party members material privileges to buy their loyalty. There is no freedom for all unless all think the same way.

In commercial terms, the underdog can eventually become the oppressive overdog. Thus a certain outstandingly successful supermarket grew by offering benefits to its customers, but latterly has (allegedly) attempted to buttress its position by exploiting its suppliers to the point of financial ruin, buying land around its stores to prevent competition from springing up, worsening the contracts of its lorry-drivers etc.

2. Individual freedom

The individual's desire for more leeway in their personal conduct (e.g. to smoke in pubs, engage in certain sexual practices, take currently illicit drugs, go everywhere in the nude).

This debate is generally about harmlessness, at least with respect to others.

Factual argument will centre on statistics relating to mortality, morbidity, economics, health and crime on others (neighbours, partners, children, the public at large) and the costs to society of treating or preventing these undesired side-effects, which shade off into claimed wider and longer-term consequences (e.g. health effects of secondary smoking).

Moral and political argument will be about whether society in general should be involved in mitigating harm to third parties (e.g. should social workers intervene in families of alcoholics, wife-beaters etc). Should society save the "victims", punish the "offenders" or leave altogether alone?

There will also be an appeal to social or religious norms; some will say that the individual must accept certain behavioural restrictions so that the uncodified patterns of behaviour and expectation that are felt to hold society together are not weakened. Thus some will argue that it is important to set a good personal example, or not to set a bad one (this has implications for professions such as teaching); similarly, certain behaviours are felt to have the potential to provoke socially disruptive reactions and measures are instituted to limit them (e.g. sumptuary laws, rules on what may be said about others in public - or even in private).

The individualist may dispute the fact as far as possible, and beyond that appeal to the principle that every other individual must take responsibility for their own responses. Norms will be represented as arbitrary and unnecessary for human happiness; it will be claimed that society will hold together without them.

To set oneself against others is to make oneself vulnerable, so the individualist will attempt to form (often uneasy) alliances, and raise the debate or struggle to the level of a collective-freedom issue. Thus with the groups effectively defined by their "oppressor" we will find some groups who are self-defined by some chosen issue.

But the fundamentalist individualist may not bother to ask society's permission at all. In the first place, getting rules changed is an uncertain and long-term project; secondly, to ask permission or to gather collective approval is (in principle) to cede one's personal power to others.

Contradiction: the individual may turn his dislike of others' power over him, into a mission to get power over others. At the extreme end we get Mao, Stalin etc. On a lesser scale, we get what is said to be the statistical over-representation of psychopaths in senior positions in politics and business.

3. Psychological (or spiritual) freedom

This is about conflict within the individual. Our desires are often contradictory; and sometimes there are demons hiding in one's background, waiting to finish business from long ago. Then there are patterns of expectation driving one to unsatisfactory aims, so that (e.g.) abused children often seek to start families of their own, long before they are capable of nurturing a child emotionally.

If you accept the insights of psychologists and prophets, failure to sort out the mess at this level sometimes results in drives and disasters at levels 2 and 3. Think of Citizen Kane and "Rosebud".

In this context it will be interesting to hear what Russell Brand has to say in his BBC Three TV documentary tomorrow. He is often seen as a poster-boy for indulgence, but actually is now an advocate for abstinence and for analysing one's reasons for wishing to indulge.

But this is about more than consumption-desires. Many of us (most? all?) are a mass of scores trying to be settled, patterns trying for completion, the expectations of family, friends or society, or unrealistic aspirations for ideal iconic life-moments that end forever with credits and closing music.

Contradiction: the fractured individual is afraid to be healed. Change is a kind of death. Creative people often fear that they could lose their motive force - e.g. Roald Dahl as reported by his daughter Tessa:

He hated the idea of therapy, analysis or psychiatry, as he said all his friends – Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett and the rest – ‘could never write after they had had all their nooks and crannies flattened like pancakes’. He was convinced that drugs were the answer (they didn’t flatten you like a pancake?). I believe he did not want to face his inner demons. So he told Anna to medicate me instead.

As the prophet Mohammed said (and he is far from the only one to say something like it), "Holy is the warrior who is at war with himself", i.e. who is this "I" and why does it want this thing?

But if the "I" is enigmatic, self-contradictory, untrustworthy and potentially destructive to self and others, by what shall we regulate our lives?

So we could get to another contradiction: voluntary submission. "To enter in these bonds is to be free," said Donne, enjoying the contradiction. The doctor and sometime Spectator contributor "Theodore Dalrymple" has more than once had prisoners tell him they prefer being "inside", where they don't have to make decisions. Round and round we go, like the worm Ouroboros. But surely here is where we begin.

I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.


James Higham said...

Well delineated, Sackers.

Sackerson said...

Thanks, a word of appreciation makes a difference.

CIngram said...

I find part three especially interesting, and the Mohamed quote and your explanation of it are very good. I can see I must incorporate a new perspective into my ramblings on the subject (to be posted in the fullness of time...).

Sackerson said...

Thanks, look forward to reading you on this one.

Andrew said...

Sorry, I'm not going to comment (much) as I can see it's a work-in-progress and I'd like to see where it naturally evolves to (I've subscribed to your blog via my RSS reader).

I like the emphasis on psychological freedom, it's something that's not explored enough.

I believe it's important because our thinking drives our actions, so if our thoughts are messed up that will affect how we act.

As well as looking to heal adults, great good would be done by ensuring children don't get psychologically damaged in the first place. So I think freedom really starts at home with good parenting.

Hopefully the next version of this will see you move from noting common arguments for and against freedom to your own conclusions.

Sackerson said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Andrew. We spend too much time looking under the bonnet of the Ferrari and not enough looking at the driver.