Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Freedom as a Political Good

Historically the Catholic Church has had, or has been perceived to have, a rocky relationship with "freedom" in the sense that the term has come to be used in a political and cultural sense since the Enlightenment.

Freedom in the modern sense is often taken to mean, "I'm free to do whatever I want without anyone telling me what to do." The Church, on the other hand, generally takes freedom to mean, "Freedom to do that which is good." The Church sees sin as enslaving and as reducing one's capacity to choose freely in the future, and as such even where acting contrary to the good is in no way forbidden, doing wrong is not seen by the Church as exercising "freedom".

So the in the moral sense, the Church does not hold "freedom" in the sense of simply doing whatever you want to be a good. Rather, the Church holds doing the good to be the good, and freedom to be the means of achieving that.

I speak above in the moral sense. However, let us look now at the political question of freedom. There are several senses of "freedom" that one can speak about politically. Sometimes we talk about a country being "free" in that it is not a dictatorship or more specifically in that it has a free press and a moderately democratic form of government. However the sense that I'd like to examine is "freedom" in the sense of "not legislating morality" or more generally erring on the side of not restricting personal action even in cases where one is sure that the action in question is wrong.

The argument for using the state to restrict people from doing things that are wrong is pretty straight forward: Generally when we refer to something as being "wrong" we are talking about something which causes injury to others, or at least to the actor himself. For example, it is wrong to steal, and it is illegal to steal because stealing causes injury both to the person who is stolen from and also (though this is of more interest to the moralist than the lawmaker) because stealing causes damage to the person who steals as well.

Generally, when people argue against making something destructive illegal, they do so on one of two bases:

1) Outlawing the activity would cause social destruction greater than the activity itself.

2) Outlawing the activity would set a dangerous precedent because of disagreements in society as to the definition of what is destructive.

A good example of the first of these is the debate over whether the ban on drugs causes more damage than simply having drugs legally available would. This is an interesting prudential debate, but what I'm interested in looking into more deeply is the second reason.

One of the classic examples that occurs to me in this regard is the sort of case that comes up every so often in which parents with religious beliefs against some particular medical procedure are in conflict with doctors who want to save the life of their child by means of the forbidden procedure. Now, from my position as someone confident that the parent's beliefs about blood transfusion or chemo therapy or heart surgery or what have you, my initial thought would be that the parents should be prevent from inflicting the damages resulting from incorrect beliefs upon their child.

However, given that our society has an ever decreasing degree of consensus as to which beliefs are erroneous and which are correct, this strikes me as a dangerous precedent to set. If today I support the strong arm of the government being used to overrule the beliefs of another set of parents because I am certain their beliefs are erroneous, it's not inconceivable that at some point in the future the majority of the population will decide that my beliefs are erroneous and take away my ability to make decisions about my children.

The Church learned this the hard way in regards to religious freedom. For much the Church's history in Europe, it had strongly supported governments providing their backing to enforce tithing, stamp out heresy, etc. This seems a right and obvious thing to do when the societal consensus was that the Church represented theological truth -- and thus only erring sects suffered pressure from the state. However, when the Reformation and Enlightenment brought other religious groups and anti-religious groups into power, the Church found the tradition of using the state to stamp out error turned against it.

Given that modern society has seen the increased breakdown of social consensus on a wide variety of moral and religious topics (or a vast increase in diversity, depending on how you want to spin it) and at the same time an ever increasing ability of the central state to regulate everyday life, it seems necessary to ask: Should we consider political freedom (defined as the refusal to use the power of the state to regulate behavior) to be a positive good, or should we simply consider it a temporary compromise to be used in those areas where we are concerned that the societal tide is shifting away from us?

To take the latter position is to open ourselves up for accusations of hypocrisy, though the difference between pragmatism and hypocrisy is sometimes narrow. To take the former is admit to ourselves more bluntly than we are often willing to do that we as a state and a society are unable to "stamp out evil" in our midst -- because we are unable to agree on what evil is.

For now, I think my own conclusion is perhaps closer to the latter, though with deference to the former: If the state is at all to be seen as a protector of the common good, it must at times restrict the freedom of people to do what they want, based on a social consensus that what they want is bad for them and for others. However, we must be hesitant to use that power too much, and principledly so, because it is a weapon that can at any time be turned back upon us on our dearest beliefs. And so we must always be seeking the correct balance between combating the most socially destructive wrongs, while being hesitant enough to restrict others' freedom that we can avoid being oppressed overmuch when we find ourselves in the minority.

9 comments:

j. christian said...

That's a tough one. These days all the talk about liberty is as an end in itself. The more basic problem is the first issue you raised: How do we define freedom? Increasingly it means the freedom to do whatever I want (as long as no one gets hurt). How do we constructively move the conversation to that problem in a way that contemporary ears will listen to it?

DMinor said...

Is one who is forced to do the right thing actually a good person? Without the freedom to make the wrong choice, a person cannot be responsible for making the right choice.

Case in point: If I am taxed, and my taxes go to help the poor, the poor are helped but my conscience is not -- the money was taken from me without my choice.

However, if I am free to donate the money (or not), and I do donate the money, I have helped both the poor and my conscience.

Darwin said...

DMinor,

I agree. I'd had a whole section on how one may successfully restrict freedom to do wrong, but it never works to restrict freedom in order to make people do right (example: one may ban child abuse with mdoerate success, but one certainly cannot legally force good parenting) but I could never seem to find a good place to fit a paragraph or two on that topic in.

Myron said...

I think the distinction is whether coercion is an acceptable way to achieve "good" ends (whatever those might be regarding an issue of your choice). Ideally, I think citizens should be allowed to make their own choices as much as possible. The problem is that at the moment many of their choices are uninformed, and it is difficult to quickly get "up to speed" on a topic in a way that lets you make a truly informed decision, because (being new to the topic) you are unable to evaluate the many sources of information available on it, the number of which has exploded now that it is becoming cheaper and easier for people to post information on the public Internet.

I think that having strong state structures legislating and enforcing "good" behaviours took the obligation off of citizens to influence each other. In a "free" society where government allows citizens to act as they please to a greater degree, new methods of social regulation are required, which have not yet reached full maturity. Each citizen is required to process more information and make more decisions, and also (on issues he or she considers important) to make his/her opinion known.

To build cohesiveness in such a free society, I think it becomes part of the role of the government to provide consistent information to its citizens. The consensus can be built not around common rules and practices, but around a common body of knowledge from which everyone makes decisions (and from which common best practices will naturally flow by choice, rather than coercion). The problem is that at the moment we have both increasing freedom of choice, and a more heterogeneous base of knowledge. When a person wants to understand an issue, they are left to their own devices, often relying on biased Internet sources or the opinions of friends and neighbors who are in turn relying on biased Internet sources.

I think it would be very helpful if on the issues of the day, governments made a concerted effort to search out the opinions of experts on all sides of each subject, and provide an online information source with some reliability and consistency, with briefs at various levels of detail and designed specifically to be easy to learn, using educational design principles. In this way, when citizens wanted information on a topic, they would all learn at least certain basic facts in common.

One source for this information is already in existence, and the information would just have to be retooled slightly, but the effort would not be insurmountable. Where legislation is being drafted, it should be the responsibility of the government to provide the information and opinion upon which the legislative decisions are being made. This could then be linked together so that on any current issue, citizens have the same access as politicians and bureacrats to good information. Politicians have trained expert policy analysts who write briefs, summaries, and policy papers for them, so that they can quickly understand the issues they are required to make decisions on. It seems to me that this information could be made public, so that (1) the decision making process is more transparent, and (2) the effort that policy analysts put in can benefit society to the greatest possible degree. This also takes some of the burden of searching out and evaluating sources off of the citizenry, and flattens the learning curve on the topic. I wouldn't censor anyone from posting any opinion they like, but having a vetted body of knowledge specifically designed to help time-pressed citizens to make informed decisions is, I think, an important duty of government in modern society which (since this whole freedom thing, particularly the freedom of information allowed by the Internet, is relatively new) has often not been addressed.

Myron said...

I wouldn't mind legislating that, say, every citizen spends one hour (or even half an hour) per week listening to government-provided information on current events/decisions that are being made (and all citizens get the same information - you don't get to choose to listen to whatever you feel like). Sure, it sounds like propaganda, but if the objective is to inform and educate (and allow people to have a conversation about the propaganda that was presented this week, either objecting to it or agreeing with it is fine, which makes it different from typical propaganda :) ) then I don't think it necessarily harms anyone.

Either way, in a society where the people have the responsibility for making decisions about how the society is to run, we need to put more effort into making sure the people are well informed. And we need some mechanism of building social common-ground. Having everyone go through a curriculum covering certain basic facts in childhood is fine (although we're not doing a great job of even that) but the process of homogeneous education needs to continue throughout life, or as people move on from their "learning years", their opinions will become increasingly differentiated from each other as time goes on and they self-select their sources of information, often to support their current viewpoint rather than understand others'.

DMinor said...

Myron,

I agree that an informed populace is essential to a properly functioning republic. However some items in your comments disturbed me.

First, you appear to rely on the government exclusively for "good" information. While I am not one of those who believes anyone from the government lies anytime he moves his lips, I do not believe that the government has a monopoly on good information. If it did, there would be no use for opposition parties or sources of information. Although our current model of "too much information available to the apathetic masses" is not ideal, I cannot think of any other model that wouldn't be much worse.

For example, let's assume that the "good guys," whoever they may be, are in power. The information they provide during the mandatory 60 minutes is flawless and balance, with minimal bias. They report, we decide. But, in the following year, by some accident of fate, the "bad guys" come to power and their version of the 60 minutes is dubious in its accuracy and biased to their point of view. The law we have crafted for the education of the masses has now become a tool for our undoing.

Finally, would the designation of "good information" from the government mean that other sources would be removed from the public conciousness? It would be easy to lose the truth by silencing critics for the sake of consistency. Even the most noble of governments would not be able to be right 100% of the time (which is why we have elections, term limits etc,.).

Lenin knew that to control the people, one had to control its access to information. In his day, that was control of the newspapers. We must be very careful to whom we give power over our information, and we must remember that the owner of that power could change against our wishes.

Also, it is very tempting to think that everyone, given the right information, will make the right decisions, but it is just not the case. At one time or another, we all sin and fall short.

Myron said...

First, you appear to rely on the government exclusively for "good" information.

No, that's not what I was saying. I think the government has a duty to provide good information, but I don't think they are (or can be) a sole source for it. Also, in a democratic society, if the government doesn't provide balanced coverage of a certain issue, freedom of the press ensures they look worse than if they had provided no coverage at all. My view is that (assuming the government is biased) if you start out with a biased government-issued viewpoint, and the other side of that issue then has the freedom to respond, what you've got is a populace who understands what is being responded to, instead of a small minority who are paying attention to the issue, and then the majority who are just confused.

The legislating an education time per week thing was just an idea I had as I was writing and thought I'd post up for reaction, not something I've thought through (as I'm sure you can tell :) ). Even without that, a requirement to provide well-designed educational information to the populace (which they can choose to either read or not) would be beneficial, I think.

Finally, would the designation of "good information" from the government mean that other sources would be removed from the public conciousness?

Absolutely not. I wouldn't silence anyone, and would try to build safeguards into how this worked so that all sides had an opportunity to be represented. I was thinking that while it may not be possible to legislate what decision people make, it's entirely reasonable to legislate measures that encourage citizens to be informed to a certain basic level, as a matter of civic duty. Also, I think it would be reasonable to have a process that goes on before information is released as "officially government sanctioned" where opposing voices are allowed to comment, revisions can be made, and interested civil society groups can request to have links to their alternative take on the subject included in the "official" materials. This way, it is legally impossible (or much more difficult) to silence dissent, because respect for dissent is built into the process that makes the information "official".

Also, it is very tempting to think that everyone, given the right information, will make the right decisions, but it is just not the case. At one time or another, we all sin and fall short.

Agreed, even with good information, some people will still make bad decisions. But without good information (by which I mean accurate and providing a balanced view of the main arguments with regard to an issue, and the facts supporting each) making good decisions is much more difficult.

Anyway, the basic principle is that in an information-saturated age of rapid technological change, where government is (supposed to be) run by the people, the government has a new responsibility to help the populace be and remain informed. How exactly that happens is up for debate, but I think it needs to be done.

DMinor said...

Myron,

Many thanks for the clarification. I do still have some questions.

I think the government has a duty to provide good information, but I don't think they are (or can be) a sole source for it.


I guess the question I have is "provide information on what?" The gov't is the best source for information on what is going on inside the government. For other fields, there are experts and institutions on which to draw. Contrary to the belief of some, the government (federal, state and local) is a finite resource which cannot look at all subjects.

Also, in a democratic society, if the government doesn't provide balanced coverage of a certain issue, freedom of the press ensures they look worse than if they had provided no coverage at all.


The government doesn't provide coverage. It releases information on its activities. Things outside the purview of government are covered (subject to resources and percieved interest) by the press. In your model, does the government release information on subjects unrelated to its activities?

if you start out with a biased government-issued viewpoint, and the other side of that issue then has the freedom to respond, . . . .

I do not understand how this differs from the current situation. It has not resulted in the edification of anyone who is not inclined to pay attention to issues. The confused majority are a result of their own apathy or their preoccupation with making a living.

Even without that, a requirement to provide well-designed educational information to the populace (which they can choose to either read or not) would be beneficial, I think.

What you appear to be talking about is best approximated by public service announcements. While they are often maligned, I think the ones concocted by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service are pretty good. They include, of course, propaganda, but I don't see how that could be avoided.

I was thinking that while it may not be possible to legislate what decision people make, it's entirely reasonable to legislate measures that encourage citizens to be informed to a certain basic level, as a matter of civic duty.

Civic duty does not ensure 100% participation. For example, the civic duty that registered voters have to cast a vote was accomplished only to the 60%+ level this past November. The civic duty of attending to jury duty when called is often dodged through loopholes. Do you imply a penalty for noncompliance?

Also, I think it would be reasonable to have a process that goes on before information is released as "officially government sanctioned" where opposing voices are allowed to comment, revisions can be made, and interested civil society groups can request to have links to their alternative take on the subject included in the "official" materials. This way, it is legally impossible (or much more difficult) to silence dissent, because respect for dissent is built into the process that makes the information "official".

This passage confuses me. As one who is familiar with the workings of bureaucracy, my first impression is that the clearance of information would take an inordinate amount of time. Congressional hearings are already held on a number of issues, and they take much time and effort. Oftentimes, the result of these hearings is that each side on the issue becomes more entrenched, and, if the issue is entrenched enough, the debate is continued in the press.

Would our new Bureau of Official Information address topics such as the following:

- The earth's orbit is roughly 93 million miles from the sun.

- The genetic make-up of a human embryo differs enough from its mother such that it can be identified as a separate individual.

- The theory of evolution adequately explains the origin of species on planet earth.

These issues have differing elements of political charge, and, in fact, one issue does not deal in fact. What would the implications be of the government assigning official status to any of theses suppositions. Would we expect the official status to change with the change of administrations.

Hylomorphic said...

"Should we consider political freedom (defined as the refusal to use the power of the state to regulate behavior) to be a positive good, or should we simply consider it a temporary compromise to be used in those areas where we are concerned that the societal tide is shifting away from us?"

You should think very carefully about what you're proposing.

Coming at this from a different perspective, I find the fact that you're articulating this viewpoint at all to be somewhat frightening. For a thousand years, not only was it illegal for someone in Europe to express that they were even in the same religious category as I am, but there was active persecution. Why? Because polytheism and "idolatry" fall outside the moral vision of the Church.

On what basis would you distinguish, on a legal basis, between the moral evil of homosexuality and the moral evil (from the Church's standpoint) of following the wrong religion? (Or no religion, for that matter.)

Perhaps merely "following" the wrong religion could be exonerated, but what about attempting to spread it?