Saturday, October 30, 2010

Freedom vs. Autonomy

Coming back to a well worn topic.  But just recently read a discussion by Rahner on this issue and so have been thinking about it a bit more.  Also, paper that I wrote for a conference last year on free-will is about to be published in a journal put out by Yale!  So musing again on the issue of free-will:

Freedom needs to be contrasted from brute autonomy.  Typically, especially when the idea of free-will is being critiqued, this distinction is collapsed, which I think is an illegitimate, straw-man argument.  Brute autonomy is the supposed "ability to do otherwise," the claim that at any particular junction, any point where we have to make a decision, we can actually choose either option that seems to be available to us.  The critic of free-will argues that such an ability, such a "contra-causal freedom," results in the denial of all influences and collapses into a kind of nihilism in which the world is a fantasy of our own making.  The critique is, I think, a good one.  But I don't think it addresses true freedom.

Karl Rahner makes a very helpful distinction between the transcendent essence of our being and the categorical accidents of history in which our being is situated.  Rahner is operating within a Kantian framework- there is a difference between the world as it is and the world as we perceive it.  The real realm of reality is transcendent to us because we are perpetually subjective beings- we always see things from our own first person perspective which means that we have no way of objectively knowing how things actually are beyond ourselves.  Our essential being falls into this category, Rahner argues.  Our lives as we perceive them are categorical- they exist in a particular historical situation and are mediated through particular actions which we perceive from our subjective,  first person, perspective.  But this perspective is not who we actually are.  Who we actually are, what makes up our essential being, is transcendent.

The ins-and-outs of the metaphysics of that claim are not particularly important to the point that I want to make.  Rahner may or may not be right about his metaphysical musings, I'm not going to hazard a guess on that right now.  However, what I think he does accomplish is a very interesting distinction in terms of how we can view freedom.  Freedom, Rahner wants to argue, and I want to agree, is the ability to mold who we are in our essence and thus to be responsible for who we are in the deepest part of our being.  This has, actually, very little to do with the individual actions that make up our life.  Many of those actions are not "free" in the sense of autonomy.  In fact, what Rahner is arguing is very similar to Robert Kane's model of Libertarian freedom in which our freedom comes out in a few "self-forming actions" in which the course of our lives hits a significant cross road and we must make a decision that will shape many future decisions, in effect a decision about the kind of person we will be or the kind of life we will live.  This is, more or less, what I think Rahner is getting at (and it is a distinction that I think can stand apart from his metaphysical claims about the person).  It is not that we are completely without influence in the decisions that we make, it is not that our actions are marked by a kind of "contra-causal freedom" but that our essence, what makes us who we are, is something that we are ultimately responsible for.  Freedom, then, is most basically equated with responsibility for one's self.

Two implications from what we have said thus far:

First, a clever compatibalist will try to come back at this point and say "that is exactly what we think!"  They would argue that responsibility for ourselves, the freedom that I am describing, does not require any "alternative possibilities" to ever exist- that we can maintain this kind of freedom while also maintaining that God has ordained (or determined) every event that will ever happen.  Two responses have to be made.  One is that I don't think compatibalism works on a strictly philosophical level.  That will have to be saved for another post, but essentially I think compatibalism faces a dilemma of either ultimately denying personal responsibility (because God will determine our essential selves, not us) or with reducing our essential selves to a meaningless, epiphenomenal existence.  The second response is what the main thrust of my paper is about, which is that I do not believe we can be rational without alternative possibilities.  Most people, I think, would agree that rationality is a pretty essential part of how we determine who we are and in how we understand the world in general.  Eliminating rationality, I think, results in an absurdity that makes any sort of determinism invalid.

Second, and the real point that I want to make in this post, is that this freedom is not a "goal" to be obtained but an essential fact of our being.  We are responsible for the kinds of persons we are.  This cannot be denied by any political or economic system.  No external force can eradicate this essential freedom.  The Modern, Western project of establishing "free" political or economic systems, then, is not so much based on establishing freedom, which already exists, as in establishing brute autonomy which I would argue is in many senses neither possible nor necessary.  The history of "free" and "Modern" Western societies is marred by a great many tragedies- racism and genocide stand out prominently among them- which act as explicit denials of the brute autonomy on which these societies are supposedly founded.  The impact of making these societies "free" is to say that the responsibility for the character of these societies lies explicitly on all the members of the society and not merely on a few.  Yet I would argue that this description exists inherently in the society because the people who make it up already posses that freedom regardless of how oppressive or "coercive" their political environment is (and, ironically,  whenever the character of the society changes for the good, it is usually the result of a few people taking responsibility for changing their society and not a society wide change in attitude).  Now am I attempting to justify a communist/authoritarian dictatorship through this comment?  Certainly not.  What I am saying, however, is that what makes a healthy society is not the explicit creation of freedom in the sense of brute autonomy.  What makes a healthy society is when the inherent freedom that people already posses is used constructively to build a better society for others.  Freedom is not the goal, it is the presupposition which enables other goals to be set and accomplished.  And that presupposition exists in any and every situation around the world- it is inherent in being a person.  This also means that inherent in being a person is responsibility for what kind of person we become and what kind of society we create.

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