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Language, Baggage, and Two Kinds of Freedom

May 29th, 2003 · No Comments

My colleague (for one more day) John Samples passed on this piece by Dr. Ian Pitchford. It’s complimentary on face, but in a subtly condescending way. It’s a bit like being complimented for tying your shoes, or eating dinner without drooling. Anyway, it begins:

Reason’s cover story for May, ’03 was “Pulling Our Own Strings: How Evolution Generates Free Will,” an interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett, who’s just published his second book on free will, Freedom Evolves (the first was Elbow Room). Of considerable interest is that Reason, a libertarian publication, chose to present Dennett’s case against traditional contra-causal free will (and for a compatibilist understanding of freedom) so forthrightly and so prominently. After all, in libertarian circles, it’s often supposed that the basis for political liberty is some sort of metaphysical, ultimate freedom – the power to choose without oneself being entirely determined to choose. Being fully caused creatures logically threatens our status as ultimately autonomous, self-made individuals who can lay claim to resources and privileges (e.g., unlimited financial rewards) because we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and thus deeply deserve what’s coming to us (the same goes for punishment, of course). That libertarians do in fact often presume they have such freedom (what philosophers have called, not entirely coincidentally, “libertarian” free will) is evidenced by some exchanges posted at Nat.Org, including a recent letter Reason kindly published in response to Thomas Szasz. For further evidence, see also a commentary on a recent op-ed piece by the fiercely libertarian Sheldon Richman of the Future of Freedom Foundation. He says, “If we come to believe that metaphysical freedom is impossible, we will hardly be in a position to complain when our political freedom is taken away.”

Reason, by giving Dennett airtime, and by virtue of the fact that interviewer Ronald Bailey offers no rebuttal to Dennett’s claims for determinism, materialism, and naturalism, is an encouraging counter-example to the stereotype I exploit above. Bailey, in fact, seems rather comfortable with determinism, both here and in another excellent piece on The Battle for Your Brain, in which he concedes we don’t need to be immaterial essences with contra-causal free will in order to be held responsible (see the section “Authenticity and Responsibility”).

First, I don’t know why libertarians are picked out as especially likely to be “libertarian” in the metaphysical sense. Philosophers of mind are increasingly converging on the conclusion that the very concept is incoherent, but the public at large, I think, takes it very much as a given that we have it. Conservatives appeal to it when they stress personal responsibility. Liberals rely on it when they valorize choice. Free will is a background assumption that the vast majority of us, whatever our political persuasion, never give a second thought.

More to the point, anyone who advances any political philosophy, or any ethical view, for that matter, is at least operationally a metaphysical libertarian for the purposes of making that recommendation. You can’t in the same breath acknowledge that all our actions are determined and begin talking about what we ought to do. We don’t have free will, but this has precisely no implications, one way or the other, for political philosophy, because you can’t start talking about shoulds without at least implicitly making the (false) assumption that we do have it. Retrospectively, of course, we can see all our actions, personal and political, as determined (or, no better, random at the quantum level). Prospectively, though, we treat actions about which we’re deliberating as “open,” even if we know that, really, what we’re going to do is fixed in advance.

If determinism makes no moral difference, then, why would anyone believe that its truth or falsehood supports or undermines their position? It’s just a wasted premise in the argument, either way. Doubtless, of course, some libertarians do at least vaguely believe in free will (since most people do), and some even think that it matters whether we have it. But frankly, I don’t often see appeals to free will in the non-Objectivist libertarian literature. And in The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek quite explicitly says that the idea of free will is a bit of metaphysical nonsense that’s nevertheless politically useful. Sheldon Richman may be confused on this point, but I don’t know why he’s taken as representative, or why it’s assumed that folks elsewhere on the spectrum are any less confused.

Later in the piece, Pitchford further claims that naturalism and determinism upset libertarian conclusions about economic justice, in that the great disparities of wealth libertarians are prepared to countenance can be justified only by reference to the idea of ultimate desert. Here, too, Hayek stands as a counterexample, and he doesn’t stand alone, either. Indeed, if you’re going to claim to know anything about libertarianism, the one book you’re expected to have read (and the last plenty of critics do read…) is Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick explicitly takes up this question, agrees that there’s not much to be said for “desert” in any metaphysically deep sense, and relies instead on the distinct notion of “entitlement.” Nobody, he points out, would claim that you have done anything to deserve being born with two functioning eyes. But most of us don’t infer from this that it would be acceptable to take one of your eyes by force, in order to implant in a blind person. You may be entitled to that which you don’t deserve.

I’m guessing that, in general, people who talk about “choice” and “freedom” in a political context don’t load those terms with all that much metaphysical baggage. “Choices” are those things we make every day when we decide what to have for breakfast, whatever their deeper nature may be. “Freedom” is the condition of not being forced to act a certain way by someone else, even though there’s surely a sense of the word in which gravity and physics are “constraints” of another sort. Maybe because libertarians use those two terms so very frequently, it’s easy for those accustomed to taking “language on holiday”—philosophers—to assume that we mean something more. But I certainly don’t, and I don’t know that many of my fellow travellers do either. As a group comprising a disproportionate number of atheists, I’d think that libertarians were as unlikely as anyone to go in for that sort of mystical weirdness.

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