11 March 2008

"Freedom to" vs. "approval of"

Like many people, our Prime Minister seems a little unclear about the difference between the freedom to choose whether to do a thing (= liberty) and the moral desirability of that thing. (This lack of clarity may of course be intentional.) But I wonder whether some libertarians also have difficulties in this area.

Confusing the two is a common mistake. Nietzsche probably made it, at least on occasion, as Celia Green suggests in the following passage.

The speed with which the psychotic* leaps from "there might be other criteria for action than social convention" to "what everyone would really want to do in the absence of social convention is to kill people" is informative ... In discussing Nietzsche with psychotics one finds that they show an intense awareness of those portions of his writing in which he sanctions (or may be taken to sanction) cruelty to other humans.
It may well be, of course, that Nietzsche was not free of this reaction himself; he said "I will see through human society", but did not distinguish between "I am free to murder if I choose", and "Murder is a thing that should be chosen". (Advice to Clever Children, p.59)

The existentialists appear to have suffered from a similar confusion between liberty and indifference. AndrĂ© Gide, for example, talked about 'actes gratuits' — actions which were so arbitrary that no moral evaluation could be imputed to them.

Against social hypocrisy Gide staged his doctrine of "actes gratuits" — of gratuitous and free actions ... Gratuitous actions are the keystone of his ethics and the consistent conclusion of his plea for individual freedom. They set aside causation and motives in conduct and proclaim the right of every man to invent ex tempore his actions. They are, to his mind, an efficient weapon to break the moral and social structure and evade what is called responsibility. When he saves a girl from fire or throws an old man out of a train, Lafcadio [the hero of Les Caves du Vatican] can neither be rewarded nor punished, since he acted without intention.
An interesting idea, and one which, I suppose, could be linked to the postmodern rejection of values. Whether it is psychologically realistic is doubtful. The choice for most people is between one sort of morality or another, or perhaps — in extreme cases — complete desensitisation, which is not the same as freedom from morality. When writers claim to be free of morality or ideology, they are usually more trapped by a value system (however bizarre) than usual, not less. De Sade had an alternative morality, not no morality at all.

* * * * *

I have no wish to publish views or images that are offensive. And there are many views and images whose publication I would condemn. But I do wish to be free to publish them if I choose. And I am willing to defend the right of others to do so, even when those views or images seem to me bad or even harmful.

If you think it is inconsistent to (a) condemn some publications, and to suggest that more self-censorship should be exercised, while (b) vociferously insisting on freedom from legal restraints on expression, then you haven’t understood the principle involved.

This, after all, is what it should mean to be a ‘liberal’ — i.e. tolerant of viewpoints at variance with one's own — though sadly it no longer does.

* * * * *

Another point of confusion for some libertarians, as for most others with enthusiastic views about the right way to run the world, is the false dichotomy between 'everything is fine' and 'collective action is required'. It is in fact possible to hold a third position, namely that:
(a) the world is imperfect
(b) a legal framework which upholds private agreements is a good thing, because it helps to exploit the benefits of exchange (this principle is usually abbreviated into 'free markets')
(c) specific market failures may require collective action (defence is definitely one; education and medicine definitely aren't; other putative market failures are a matter for debate)
(d) apart from providing a safety net, trying to address any other imperfection by means of government action is to be avoided, if for no other reason than that it invariably involves some form of coercion.

There is a tremendous psychological pressure in contemporary society to jump from 'something less than ideal is happening' to 'the state must intervene'. In fact, it is more than a pressure, it has become an unconscious automatic connection.

Some libertarians appear to have a need to believe that (d) can most easily be held by downplaying (a), probably because this appears to be the logical opposite of the position adopted by most 'liberals'. However, there is no necessary connection between recognising that the world is not ideal and demanding that the state do something about it. The promotion of this important principle (i.e. the absence of a necessary connection) is given little or no priority in modern education (and under 'education' we should include the output of media corporations such as the BBC), whereas the opposite idea — that social problems require collective intervention — is given plenty.

I am not sure what label a position of agnosticism such as this should have. Perhaps once it was identified with the term 'Conservative'. I fear, however, that this is no longer the case.

* By ‘psychotic’ Green means, in this passage, the average ‘well-adjusted’ human being.