Is freedom the capacity to choose rightly?

Freedom as distinct from rationality

Michael Liccione has recently proposed identifying freedom as the capacity to choose rightly – see his post on Philosophia Perennis of September 9, 2008.  (It is fair to add that he makes this identification with an important qualification, to which I will turn later.)

It seems to me that to identify freedom, the control that we ordinarily think we have over our decisions and actions, in these terms is very problematic, and remains so even with the qualification he provides.

To identify freedom as a capacity to choose rightly is to identify freedom as one instance of the capacity for rationality.  For (I take it) a capacity to choose rightly is a capacity to make decisions or choices that are justified, because and for the reasons that justify them.  A capacity to choose rightly is a capacity to be rational in one’s choices and decisions.

But freedom, while it may necessarily require an accompanying capacity for rationality, is not to be identified with it.  And that is because freedom is a very special capacity.  It is, as Anselm (whom Michael Liccione quotes) rightly saw, a power – a capacity to determine.  Though what view we should take of the precise nature of this power is something we must now discuss.

Capacities, powers – and rationality as a second level capacity

A power is a special case of a capacity.  A power is a capacity to determine or to influence what happens.  A clearly has a power over B if A has a capacity to determine what happens to B.  That’s why we associate causation with power, and talk of specifically causal power.  Causes determine or influence the occurrence of their effects, and so are thought of by us as possessing power over their effects – a power to cause them to occur.

Not all capacities are powers, or capacities to determine.  Some capacities are the reverse of powers; they are capacities to be determined, rather than to determine.

And the capacity for rationality, considered just in itself, is neither a capacity to determine nor to be determined.  Rather a capacity for rationality is something very different.  It is a capacity to exercise other capacities, be those capacities powers or not, in a rational way.  Rationality is a second level capacity – a capacity exercised in relation to other capacities, such as for desire, belief, action, or indeed freedom.  Rationality is a capacity to exercise those capacities in a certain way – a way that is responsive to reasons or justifications.  And these capacities that are to be exercised rationally need not themselves involve the possession and exercise of power over anything.  Far from being capacities to determine, they may rather be capacities to be determined.  So that in those specific cases, the exercise of rationality may be a mode, not of exercising power, but of being subject to it; and rationality will be exercised in a way that excludes freedom or control rather than permits it.

Take the cognitive capacity exercised in everyday belief for example. When I believe, as I do, that I am sitting in my study and am surrounded by tables, books and chairs; that outside my study, and extending far beyond what I can presently hear or see, is a whole city with millions of people in it – all this is a perfectly good exercise of my capacity for rationality.  These beliefs that I form are a fully reasonable response on my part both to the evidence of my present experience and to what I remember of the past.  But I certainly do not have the capacity to determine for myself what I specifically believe about my surroundings.  It is not up to me whether I believe that there are chairs in my room and that there are millions of people outside.

What leaves what I believe about these matters so clearly beyond my power to determine?  My own capacity for reason is a crucial part of the story.  It is my very rationality, given the nature and function of belief, the capacity that is being exercised so rationally, which imposes these beliefs upon me.  My rationality imposes these beliefs on me as so obviously true, that it simply is not within my control to think otherwise.  In the case of these beliefs about my surroundings, far from freedom being the same as reason, freedom – a power on my part freely to determine what I shall believe – is something which reason helps prevent.  For in relation to beliefs such as these, reason governs not a power on my part to determine, but rather a capacity on my part to be determined – by the facts or the reality that the beliefs are about.  Rationality ensures that this capacity functions properly so that, far from what I believe being left up to me, my beliefs faithfully track the evidence.  Thanks to my rationality, my beliefs are determined, not by me, but by the very reality they serve to represent.

So exercising rationality has nothing directly to do with exercising power – with determining as opposed to being determined – unless, of course, the particular justifications to which one is responsive are justifications for exercising a power.  But if they are, then the power, such as the power of freedom, has to be supplied.  It is a further and distinct element beyond the capacity for rationality.

To refer to my capacity to act rightly is no more to identify a power on my part to determine how I act than to refer to my capacity to believe rightly in relation to my surroundings is to identify a power on my part to determine what I believe.  I may possess a power, such as freedom, to determine how I act – but the power still remains to be characterized.  And what the power of freedom involves must, obviously, be characterizable other than by appeal to the second order capacity for rationality that enables us to exercise it and other capacities rationally; and to exercise those capacities rationally whether those capacities are powers or not.

Michael Liccione adds to his characterization of freedom, that it consist not just in a capacity to choose rightly, but to choose rightly ‘without being predetermined to do so by any factors beyond one’s control.’  Does this supply the power of freedom?  I think not.  For lack of determination by factors other than the agent amounts only to the lack of, or non-operation of, one kind of power – a power attaching to factors beyond the agent’s control to determine how he acts.  It does not amount to the actual presence of any other power; and in particular it does not amount to the presence of a power on the part of the agent to determine how he acts.  In fact, on this description, it could to a degree be mere chance how the agent decided, his decision being undetermined by anything.  And as philosophers such as David Hume and his successors have reminded us, freedom cannot amount to randomness or mere chance.  Or as I would put it, one power (such as freedom) cannot be constituted by the mere absence or non-operation of another (such as a power attaching to factors beyond the agent’s control).

What is freedom?

In the case of decision and action, we do think we have a power to determine for ourselves how we decide and act.  Our natural conception of this power is, of course, freedom.  Freedom is the power that we report when, contrasting action to the desires that come over us, or the beliefs about the world that memory and our senses impose on us, we claim that within the general limits set by our intelligence, strength and resources, how we act is up to us.  Freedom or the up-to-us-ness of our action is the power which we think we possess to determine for ourselves which actions we perform.  It constitutes a control over how we act, leaving alternatives by way of action available to us, so that we determine which of these alternatives we do.

Notice how we specify this power to determine our actions for ourselves.  It is not a capacity to act rightly.  That, for the reasons we have mentioned, does not supply a power – a capacity to determine.  The power is specified rather as control.  We can determine for ourselves what we do in so far as which way we decide and act is up to us.  Take away the idea that we can determine which actions we perform, and it is not obvious what is left of the idea that we can determine what we do.

So in the case of action, exercising rationality does involve the exercise of a power.  But that is only because in the case of action, in addition to our capacity for rationality we also have a power over what we do – a power that our capacity for rationality enables us to exercise aright.  This power cannot be specified as the capacity to do what is right – that is not to specify the power itself, but merely the capacity to exercise the power well.  The power itself is understood by us, as it has to be, in other terms – as its being up to us which actions we perform.  Freedom is a control over alternatives.  And in so far as we do have that control, so it makes sense to think of ourselves as able to determine what we do.

Freedom and the freedom to do wrong

So in the absence of control over whether one does A or not, there seems no basis for the thought that one has the capacity freely to determine one’s doing of A if A is what one does.  True, even in the absence of any capacity to act otherwise, one may in doing A be exercising a capacity to act rightly.  But just to be acting rightly, for the reasons given, is not to be exercising a power – a capacity to determine what one does.

Hence if it is not up to me to determine whether I act rightly or wrongly – and perhaps this is not up to me or within my control simply because I lack any capacity to act wrongly – then while in acting rightly I may be freely determining that I do one right thing rather than another right thing, I cannot be determining freely that I am acting rightly in the first place.

It seems then that an agent incapable of doing wrong is in one respect less free than one capable of so acting.  They have in one respect less control over what they do, since there is one freedom that they lack.  It is not up to them whether they do right or wrong.

But what of the traditional thought that a freedom involving the capacity to do wrong is a lesser freedom than one involving the lack of that capacity?

There is a perfectly good way of interpreting this thought.  We have identified freedom as involving control over alternatives.  And this is to describe freedom in terms of its constitution – in terms of what constitutes its essential nature.  But besides describing freedom in terms of its constitution, one can describe freedom in terms of its point.

Freedom is a power we possess over our decisions to act and the actions that those decisions motivate and determine.  It enables us to exercise control over which among the options by way of action available to us we decide upon and adopt.  Now some options are not in themselves worth having in the first place, so that just the capacity to pursue them is an imperfection.  And these are the options it would be wrong and unjustified to pursue.  To be free to act wrongly, one must be capable of acting wrongly.  And to be capable of acting wrongly is a defect, not a perfection.  So a freedom that involves the capacity to pursue those options is not, at least considered in itself, a freedom worth having.  The point of a power of freedom worth having in itself is to allow us to determine for ourselves how we pursue goods, not to enable us to do wrong.

Of course the freedom to act wrongly is a genuine freedom, in that it gives us a perfectly genuine form of power or control over what we do; and, for the reasons given above, the freedom to act wrongly is essential to our having the capacity freely to determine for ourselves that we act rightly in the first place.  But it is also freedom in a form the possession of which is, just considered in itself, valueless.  The greater freedom is surely freedom in a form that is unqualifiedly valuable, and that involves no imperfection in its possessor.  And the only unqualifiedly valuable freedom is a freedom that is limited to control of which right thing one does, and that brings with it no capacity to act wrongly. Here a freedom to – a freedom to do this or that – is combined with a freedom from – freedom from capacities that constitute an inherently valueless defect or imperfection.

This is not to deny that some perfect and perfectly good creator might deliberately create and equip some creatures with the freedom to do wrong.  But the explanation for such a creation would have to lie either in that creator’s sovereign will and pleasure, or else in some further end that might somehow be advanced or attained by those creatures being equipped with and exercising such a power.  The point or purpose of making creatures with the freedom to do wrong could not, I suggest, lie in the value of such a freedom considered in itself.


6 Responses

  1. Funny that nobody has commented on this one. This is far and away the best post so far. For the moment, anyway, I find it persuasive. I wonder, though, about how considerations of dignity and responsibility fit into this view. From my superficial acquaintance with Pink’s work, I’m guessing that responsibility comes only with freedom. But what about dignity? Many defenders of human dignity argue that it is based in our rational nature, but they fail to distinguish clearly between reason and freedom, as Pink does — so that, while it is obvious that, say, Lee and George (in their recent book on Body-Self Dualism) think that freedom is important for dignity, it isn’t clear whether they think that dignity depends conceptually on freedom, or if rationality without freedom would do.

  2. I wrote on this topic before also. See .

    R. Novak put it better here . (see below, esp. the thought of “Lord Acton”)

    “Vulgar relativism is an invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving. The most perilous threat to the free society today is, therefore, neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism.

    Freedom cannot grow-it cannot even survive-in every atmosphere or clime. In the wearying journey of human history, free societies have been astonishingly rare. The ecology of liberty is more fragile than the biosphere of Earth. Freedom needs clean and healthful habits, sound families, common decencies, and the unafraid respect of one human for another. Freedom needs entire rainforests of little acts of virtue, tangled loyalties, fierce loves, undying commitments. Freedom needs particular institutions and these, in turn, need peoples of particular habits of the heart.

    Consider this. There are two types of liberty: one precritical, emotive, whimsical, proper to children; the other critical, sober, deliberate, responsible, proper to adults. Alexis de Tocqueville called attention to this alternative early in Democracy in America, and at Cambridge Lord Acton put it this way: Liberty is not the freedom to do what you wish; it is the freedom to do what you ought. Human beings are the only creatures on earth that do not blindly obey the laws of their nature, by instinct, but are free to choose to obey them with a loving will. Only humans enjoy the liberty to do-or not to do-what we ought to do.

    It is this second kind of liberty-critical, adult liberty-that lies at the living core of the free society. It is the liberty of self-command, a mastery over one’s own passions, bigotry, ignorance, and self-deceit. It is the liberty of self-government in one’s own personal life. For how, James Madison once asked, can a people incapable of self-government in private life prove capable of it in public? If they cannot practice self-government over their private passions, how will they practice it over the institutions of the Republic?”

    This is a very important idea. It is the basis for “liberty in law” and to tell people that they can’t do something for the benefit and freedom of all, including themselves. For many people now a days, this idea that freedom is to do what one ought is downright paradoxical. (I would say the Truth is paradoxical, look at Christ.)

  3. Can we hit our own nose?
    Reverting back shortly through mt blog.

  4. Freedom, beyong any authoritative priscription, implies to the state where there is no choice. Choice itself, is a binding.So can we hit our own nose to redefine the course?

  5. Dr. Pink,

    Excellent post. I see very little in your presentation with which to disagree.

    However, even though Dr. Liccione has not responded, at least in one respect I think you are in more agreement than it may originally seem. It is true that the freedom to act or not to act, to act this way rather than that way, is necessary for exercising our freedom as the capacity to choose rightly. Perhaps for simplicity we can call the former “metaphysical freedom” and the latter “moral freedom”.

    I don’t think Dr. Liccione needs to deny the importance of metaphysical freedom. What he is trying to emphasize, ISTM, is the final cause of metaphysical freedom. Why do we have metaphysical freedom in the first place? So that we can act rightly in relation to God and to our nature–which brings us back to the question that Dr. Liccione asks. In this respect I don’t see your positions as contrary, but two sides of the same coin. Moral freedom assumes metaphysical freedom, and metaphysical freedom is ordered towards moral freedom.

    Again, thanks for the post.

  6. it was a freedom that no one can forget about it the capacity the power of act. will free is a think that people naturally is a can of i think that people can does one needs to woke to being to freedom……I like read about freedom because i think about so many think in the hand .

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