Saturday, February 19, 2011

Freedom Worth Wanting

         The Importance of Freedom
        In my earlier posts on ethics, I identified freedom and understanding as the cores of that belief. I argued that ethics is essentially the act of making choices, and with greater understanding, better choices could be made. I further argued, that with regards to other people, one crucial fact that is necessary to understand is that we exert no natural authority over others, and this is self-evidently true simply by an absence of evidence for the existence of any such authority. This led me to state that an ethical maxim worth living by might be:

          Allow the greatest freedom for the greatest number.

           To remove the hints of utilitarianism, just to remove any complicating associations, we could simplify it further, without losing any of the meaning, by simply saying:

          Allow the most freedom.

          In the subtext of those posts was the remainder of the original precept, that understanding is essential to making informed choices. In less self-conscious times, this was referred to as wisdom. I attempted to elaborate on that idea in those posts, but I fear I may have gotten off track a bit, and ultimately, the first precept was left out of the final equation. So, I am attempting to fix that now, by adding to our above maxim. (I admitted an error! That right there is more maturity than any religion has shown in 4,000 years.) Thus, what I would like to propose for an ethical basis, the foundation of everything I am discussing:

          Gain understanding. Allow the most freedom.

          Here we are, back in the same predicament all ethical/ religious/ philosophical systems have faced in this same pursuit. While simplicity is less likely to be contradictory, it is more susceptible to interpretation. I have already explained how the injunction, "Allow the most freedom," does not justify, say homicide, because although the murder could claim to be acting on their own freedom, they are clearly denying a far greater degree of freedom to their victim. However, we are still required to take a little more time to look at what exactly I mean by freedom. This will also give us an opportunity to explore a little more of what I mean by "Gain understanding," but a full treatment of that will require another post.

Freedom Defined

           There are many ways to understand "freedom." Which constitute "actual" freedom, if there is such a thing, and which of these kinds are worth wanting? This could easily be the subject of an entire book, and this post is by no means meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the topic, simply a beginning (for me- it would be awfully conceited for me to think I was the first person to think about this.) Defining "freedom" like any term, is more difficult than it seems at first, since semantics is such a tricky business. We live our language, and thus, find it very difficult to organize the world without it, though it is perfectly obvious the world exists entirely independent of it. However, I will do the best I can here.

             Freedom is the ability to make choices, and act on those choices.

            If we accept this definition, we can see the inseparability of freedom and ethics, the act of making choices. Ethical behavior is choosing to allow choice-making and choice-acting in ourselves and others. This is freedom as I see it, and it is the only kind that I see as worth wanting. However, there are others who see freedom differently, overtly or not, and by examining those understandings, I hope to illuminate my point.

Freedoms Not Worth Wanting
 Freedom from Thought

            This is the big one, so we'll get it out of the way. This subject deserves its own post, which I hope to give it in the future, but I'll try to be succinct here. This sounds counter-intuitive, "Who would want freedom from thought?" but this is, along with it wicked twin, Faith, the single greatest plague ever to befall humankind. And it is everywhere. It is the reason that every -ic, -ism, -ist, and -ian, and all of the immeasurable damage these have done, exist in the world. It is the reason for the continued existence of every "holy" book and religion, every political party, every philosophy and ideology. 

            It seems to be an innate desire in our species to be handed, like stone tablets, exactly what we are supposed to think and believe. This makes perfect evolutionary sense, as one can imagine the likelihood of survival or sexual success of Rodin's thinker in the Neolithic Era. In an environment where survival was a constant struggle, and ostracism from the tribe was almost certain death, agreeing with those around you was a much more efficient survival strategy than being right all the time. 

            This is the reason you can, if you wish, turn on Fox News or NPR and hear someone tell you exactly what you were already thinking, or if it is a new story, exactly what you should be thinking, if you want to stay part of the tribe. It is the reason that people in some parts of the world can bind, blindfold, half-bury and bludgeon to death with stones a woman for the unforgivable sin of being raped, without once (or not for very long) stopping to think, "Wait, this is pretty f&%$ed up." (The Onion says it better than I could ever hope to, but I'll warn you, the link might make you nauseous. It just did for me, and I'd read it before.) 

            This is also the means by which the keepers of these ideologies, work their hidden, or not so hidden, agendas. This is how conservative politicians draw hordes of under-educated voters to the polls to elect officials who will stop the fabricated armageddon of abortion or gay-rights, while simultaneously destroying these same peoples' mortgages, insurance, pensions, right to organize, the air they breathe and the very land on which they love to hunt, fish and hike. This is how libertarians empower an otherwise despicable party that would allow economic freedom to a tiny minority, deny it to nearly everyone else, and deny nearly every other conceivable kind of freedom, of religion, of marriage, of speech, over your own body and from invasions of privacy. One hot-button issue is used to garner support, while this support is taken to mean a mandate to enact every other self-serving, short-sighted idea the elect are really concerned with.

         It is the same on the other side of the aisle. Liberals come out in droves to defend freedom of choice, or marriage equality, but would be cast out if they were to suggest that more government isn't always the solution, and that sometimes, even if you really want a program, if there isn't money, you just can't have it. And very few, on either side, would suggest, given our current gallop towards national bankruptcy, that maybe we actually don't need to outspend the rest of the world combined on a military that can't win a decisive victory against irregulars on the other side of the planet. Because this would be unpatriotic, and Why do you hate people in uniform so much? (If we really cared, they would be home.)

        Freedom from Thought is not worth wanting. I'll admit, thinking is hard. Weighing every issue of the day, considering all the factors, the potential outcomes, the winners and losers, the history, the moral issues, your own interest, your children's and grandchildren's interest, isn't just difficult, it is impossible. However, stapling an -ic, -ism, -ist, or -ian to your brain, and then settling into your recliner is not ethically justifiable.  If freedom is choice-making and choice-acting, it requires understanding. Freedom requires thought. Freedom from Thought is not a Freedom worth wanting.

          (And yes, I included, skeptic, atheist and agnostic in there. The only saving grace of these terms is that part of identifying with them is a requirement that you constantly reassess what you believe, these ideas included. You have the freedom to think about them, challenge them constantly. In fact, you are obliged to.)

Freedom from Choice

        Brilliance. Sheer f&%$ing brilliance. Conventional executions might have reinforced discipline, might have restored order from the top down, but by making us all accomplices, they held us together not just by fear, but by guilt as well. We could have said no, could have refused and been shot ourselves, but we didn't. We went right along with it. We all made a conscious choice and because that choice carried such a high price, I don't think anyone ever wanted to make another one again. We relinquished our freedom that day, and we were more than happy to see it go. From that moment on, we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and say "They told me to do it! It's their fault, not mine." The freedom, God help us, to say "I was only following orders."
                                                                                                             Max Brooks, World War Z

          Freedom from Choice is very similar to Freedom from Thought, and so much of what was said above applies here. The difference lies in that while the false freedom of freedom from thought means relinquishing your understanding, freedom from choice allows you to relinquish your freedom of choice-making and choice acting in exchange for freedom from guilt. The stoning example above applies here, as does this season's (season two) episode two, Missio, of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. What both The Onion article and Spartacus demonstrate, is how empty this freedom really is, because no one can truly offer you freedom from your own guilt.

          I am not arguing that there are not instances when following orders is not necessary or useful, but when one is ordered to perform an act that will likely cause you guilt, the illusion of Freedom from Choice is no help. Freedom from Choice is not a Freedom Worth Wanting simply because it doesn't exist. The choice to obey is a choice. We are never excused from the choices we make.

Freedom from Suffering, Freedom from Desire

          Things get stickier here. It is pretty safe to say that no one wants to suffer (even submissives in BDSM enjoy their pain). However, is an existence completely free of suffering even desirable, let alone possible? Many of the world's faiths and ideologies have affirmed that it is desirable, it is possible, and moreover, they can show you the way, whether it is in this world or the next. Christianity, Islam,  Hinduism, Buddhism, stoicism and many others promise that with their doctrine, one can lessen, or even eliminate one's suffering altogether. Each of these makes different promises, but some are similar to others, so we will lump them together at the risk of over-simplifying for the sake of time.

          Christianity and Islam promise a perfect paradise of bliss for believers, and an equally perfect hell of torment for unbelievers. Despite the loving assertion by Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the most respected persons in Catholic history that "in order that nothing may be wanting to the happiness of the blessed in Heaven, a perfect view is granted them of the tortures of the damned," most believers I know would not delight in the eternal torment of those they love, or anyone, who failed to make the grade. In fact, I can only imagine that the knowledge of the ultimate torment of their loved ones would be a source of unending torment for the blessed themselves. In this way, even assuming the validity of the heaven of the monotheists, I fail to see how it could be free of suffering, as long as its necessary antithesis exists.

          At the same time, it seems unlikely that even believers seeped in eternal bliss would not suffer from the tedium of the same. I can only speculate, and "with god, all things are possible," but I have yet to encounter a pleasure, in this life anyway, (and I've sampled my share) that did not grow dull with repetition. And in eternity, repetition becomes certainty.

          The parallels here are less direct, but there are similarities between Buddhism, Hinduism and stoicism.  I am far less an authority on any of these than I am when discussing the monotheisms (though I am somewhat familiar with stoicism), so I will try to stick to what I know. The relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism is mostly historical; the Buddha offered a different, and far more logical, path to achieving nirvana and escaping  Hinduism's cycle of rebirth. Buddhism and stoicism also share historical, and even more, ideological roots (a knowledge which I am indebted to Mr. Smith for). While Hinduism promises an end to suffering in the ultimate obliteration of the self, Buddhism and stoicism and are chiefly concerned with enabling the individual to lessen their suffering in this world, chiefly through freeing the individuals of their desires.

           I am not able to offer as tidy a philosophical refutation of these ideas as I generally try to, and this is in part because I see a great deal of wisdom in what they teach. However, I can explain why I, personally, don't believe I would want the "freedom" they offer, even if it was as easy as taking a pill in The Matrix. There are several reasons I feel this way, and as I said, these are far more personal than I usually rely on, but they are, for me, compelling reasons nonetheless.

            The definition of freedom given in Buddhism and stoicism is the freedom  obtained by a certain state of mind. It postulates that if you are able to reform your desires, you will have the ability to always obtain what you want and always avoid what you want to avoid. "To be unhindered in their execution of thought and action." I disagree. I would argue, to rephrase Daniel Dennet, "If you make your desires really small, you can have anything you want." Well, yeah. In other words, we can limit our desires to the point that what's left really isn't all that desirable anymore, even if we know we can have it. This is roughly equivalent to never wanting to be wrong, so never speaking up at all. Desiring things, even things beyond our reach, is an exercise of our freedom. Disallowing certain desires is, by definition, a diminishing of freedom, not an increase, whatever state of mind it bestows.

           For more trivial reasons- One can make a strong case that without suffering and desire, we would have no art, or at least less, and less interesting art. We can make the mistake of over-romanticizing desire here, but it is difficult to imagine, just in the past century, The Wasteland without T.S. Eliot's sexual frustrations, Fire without Jimi Hendrix's intense desire for sex and drugs, or Heart Shaped Box without Kurt Cobain's many demons. All of these things, and countless others, exist because an individual "suffered from desire." If the existence of unquenchable desires in the world, my own included, are the price to be paid, so be it.

          It is often argued that without its opposite, many things could not exist. The monotheisms understand this in the necessity of the existence of hell, not mere obliteration, for the damned. I would argue that the same is true of joy and happiness. While for some, happiness may come from not wanting anything one can't have, this is, to me, a meaningless kind of happiness. As a minor example, in Maine, where I live, one of the few reliefs from the interminable winters used to come in the form of Hampshire Special Ale, one of the greatest beers ever brewed. The onset of the bitter snow and ever-deepening snow was mildly lessened by the seasonal release of this incredible brew. As the moment approached, many of could hardly wait to see it on the shelves, and when we finally did, would drink sixer after sixer, until it was pulled again in the spring. Then, several years ago, the brewery began releasing it twelve months a year. I hardly buy it anymore. Without the temporarily unsatiated desire, the joy was gone. The same could be said of the seasons mentioned above. I have lived in climates with long, perfect summers. They are never as sweet as the ephemeral summers of Maine, because the relief from the interminable winter, and muddy spring, amplifies their beauty.

           These are but a few examples, but they constitute, for me, some of the reasons why I do not believe Freedom from Suffering or Freedom from Desire are a Freedom Worth Wanting. While much of the idiocy and unnecessary suffering in the world is the result of people desiring more than they need or could really have, this does not mean that suffering and desire are universally undesirable. As with almost anything, a viable practice in moderation loses its validity in its extremes. While the heaven  of the monotheisms is the ultimate wish of many, it is something that I do not see the appeal of. Similarly, for many, relief from the "suffering" their own desires impose on them is in itself desirable (hmm...), but to it seems to me like the creation of a problem to impose a salable solution on.

Freedom Worth Wanting

           So what kind of Freedom is Worth Wanting? I would argue that it is the antithesis of all of the above false freedoms. It is the freedom to exercise my freedom. It is the freedom to pursue the line of thinking that makes the most sense, in any particular circumstance, without being beholden to a doctrine or ideology of any kind. It is the freedom to choose and the freedom to act on that choice. It is the freedom to want what I want, even if the desire goes unfulfilled and causes me suffering. It is the freedom to choose suffering, if I so desire.

           This could easily be mistaken for relativism, but it is certainly not that. What we do with this freedom still matters. If we are to follow the above maxim: Gain understanding, Allow the most freedom, we will, I believe, be led down one of very few paths. Understanding comes from honest questioning of our beliefs and inquiry in the world. Allowing freedom means not taking it from others. But an absolute adherence to any doctrine, no matter how sensible it may be, is, by definition, a relinquishing of some of our freedom. Freedom is the right to change your mind. Freedom is the ability to always choose.


  1. As someone mentioned and writing a book on this very topic of course I have to chime in. As my topic is the Buddhist/Stoic version, I'll focus my comments on that. First I think it's a mistake to lump Hinduism with Buddhism and Stoicism- as Hinduism has nothing to do really with freeing one from desires, it's a polytheistic religion that for the most part believes the purpose of being is essentially to celebrate itself through this complex cosmic dance of immutable souls that pass from one life to the next filled with celestial cosmic drama. Despite all the time I've spent in Hindu countries it doesn't make a bit of sense to me.

    As for the stoics and Buddhists, I think you miss the point entirely. Their inquiry starts with what you assess as freedom, the ability to choose. What their investigation is about is becoming good at making choices, especially the stoics, this is their central concern. It's about understanding choices and freedom as you interpreted it, at its most basic level. For instance we can choose to want to win a race- great good for you but that's not up to you- it's not your choice so it's kind of misplaced. What is our choice is preparation, training, getting ourselves in as good a position to win a race as we can and preforming to the best of our ability. If you do that and still lose- what are you upset about? Sure you can still want to win the race, and anyone in those philosophical traditions would grant you the ability to do so, but the question would be why?

    Both philosophies allow for the fixation of thought on the impossible, but both also saw that nothing fruitful or advantageous came from it. More importantly it often comes with a false understanding of what the extents of our choices and reach of freedom is- and this is the larger danger- that we see things that are not up to us as something with which we have control over.

    Both of those traditions taught that it was once we gained understanding that we would find freedom. With understanding the practitioner naturally loses a desire for things beyond their volition because there is simply no good reason to pursue them. The shrinking of desire was not done merely to fit into some philosophic maxim, but a result of clearly analyzing the reality of the human condition, of studying choice and freedom and becoming a virtuoso in its execution. Further, with the stoics, if you really did reason everything out and found that "by golly want to choose to suffer", then most of them would have said have at it- do it with both eyes open as to what you're jumping in to. They might have just questioned the process you used to get to that conclusion.

  2. Well, I just sent you an email in reply to your email, but for the sake of anyone else reading this, I'll just reply to what you said here.

    In the half-dozen times you've explained the same point, you have, patiently, tried to show me that I just don't get it. I hope that you would have more faith in me than that, but it may be my own fault for not clearly articulating my own position. It's really not that I don't get it; it's that I just don't care.

    Being told "To achieve freedom you HAVE to do this," is to me the opposite of freedom. If I HAVE to do it, then it isn't any kind of freedom I want. Somethings that make perfect sense from the inside make less sense from the outside.

  3. And as for the analogy of the athlete, I think a dose of real-life will help me make my case.

    Yes, the runner could be very logical, he could say, "I trained, I tried, but the outcome of the race is not something I control. I have no reason to be upset." But, although you would surely try to argue differently, I would seriously question his likelihood of winning the next race, of achieving any kind of excellence other than the one he has tied himself to.

    To take just one real-life example, though there are many, when asked what made him so good, Michael Jordan replied, "I hated to lose. I liked winning, but mostly I hated losing." Was this emotional? Yup. Irrational? Yup. Did he regret things over which he had no control? Absolutely. Was he the best ever? Probably.

  4. I'll agree to disagree with you. The point at which I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding is that you keep taking what these positions have to say as "you have to do X to be free." Language is the impediment here as there are several different uses of the word freedom being thrown around. Man is free every moment of his existence by his very nature- on this point you and these philosophies essentially agree. What these philosophies are arguing is because the way everything is, this is what you do if you want to be good at being free and making choices. It's not about the nature of freedom but what a well practiced freedom looks like. On the matter of how it's best practiced, I'm happy to agree to disagree.

  5. This article proves to me, and the comments made, how much I really don't understand anything. Listening to this reasoning is so much out of my league, it would be the same if I sat with Eistein, and and tried to discuss or calcultate out the theory of Relativity, or the theory of Everything.

    In short, I'll let you more intelligent people figure it all out, and I'll do my best to keep an open mind, try to understand and Pay it forward. I'll try not to fuck the content up to much in the passing of knowledge.

  6. While my ego might momentarily like to entertain that thought, I think your confusion stems more from the fact that you are reading snippets of a conversation that has been going on for months concerning a book Mr. Smith is writing that I have had the honor of trying to edit and offer some hopefully helpful criticism and devil's advocacy on.

    And besides, the acknowledgment that you don't really understand anything puts you in the company of every enlightened person since Socrates.