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Political Freedom: No Metaphysics Required

January 1st, 2007 · No Comments

For a long while now, philosophers have had what I consider damn-near-unassailable reasons for rejecting the idea of a radically free will: It’s one of the few areas in philosophy where there seems to be something approaching a genuine consensus on a once contentious metaphysical issue, even if the details remain much disputed. But, perhaps rightly, it’s only when neuroscience seems to be coming to the same conclusion that people perk up and take notice, as The Economist recently did in a piece wondering whether liberalism could survive without this metaphysical buttress:

Nor is it only the criminal law where free will matters. Markets also depend on the idea that personal choice is free choice. Mostly, that is not a problem. Even if choice is guided by unconscious instinct, that instinct will usually have been honed by natural selection to do the right thing. But not always. Fatty, sugary foods subvert evolved instincts, as do addictive drugs such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine. Pornography does as well. Liberals say that individuals should be free to consume these, or not. Erode free will, and you erode that argument.

In fact, you begin to erode all freedom. Without a belief in free will, an ideology of freedom is bizarre. Though it will not happen quickly, shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.

This is where you might wish they’d talked to some philosophers, as they’ve had a while to consider how serious a problem the denial of free will presents for liberalism. One perfectly plausible answer—the one I tend to hew to—is “no very serious problem at all.” (I take a glancing stab at the topic in this 2004 book review.) A central error the Economist piece make is to conflate the absence of radical freedom with what Dan Dennett has dubbed sphexishness, which is to say, a particularly crude and stupid way of being determined. But these really have nothing to do with each other. Imagine we thought free will were a coherent concept. People could surely still make ill-informed or thoughtless “free” choices to consume cocaine or fatty foods. Nothing interesting here turns on radical metaphysical freedom. And more generally, nothing about an ideology of freedom in the sense of autonomy, a life shaped primarily by one’s own desires and preferences and plans, is made “bizarre” by the admission that we can’t be utterly free in the sense of not having those desires and preferences and plans themselves be determined by extrinsic forces. If you rehearse the kind of familiar argument for liberal freedoms advanced by, say, Mill, you’ll notice that such implausible metaphysical assumptions just play no role. “Choice” and “freedom” are whatever corresponds to our ordinary use of those terms—things we all experience directly and understand well enough at the practical level. That kind of “freedom” is all we need for liberalism to be defensible.

Tags: Moral Philosophy