Tuesday, April 27, 2010

There is an interesting post today at “The House of Erathothenes” about freedom. It is actually a link more than a post but the article it link’s to is interesting. It presents a very clear and well written summary of the Objectivist definition of freedom which the objectivism claims begin with property rights. There is a lot to like in the article and on many levels I find myself agreeing with the Objectivist in day to day matters. Except that its premise is wrong.

The foundation of all other freedoms is not the right to property as the Objectivist claim. I believe that because the foundation of the argument is wrong the entire argument is, in fact ultimately wrong. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some truth in the argument just that ultimately the argument will fail to provide a satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon it is justifying because it is built one level too high in the logical chain. The Objectivist’s believe that there is only this life and then you die. Thus, what you do while you breathe is of utmost importance. Goodness or virtue is only a means to an end, greater material happiness.

Another novelist, like Ayn Rand who had philosophic pretensions was George Orwell; he came closer to the truth in his book, 1984 when Winston Smith says that “The basis of freedom is the ability to say that 2+2=4.” This gets closer to the root of what freedom is. Indeed, it is close enough that if George were here talking to me he could perhaps convince me that the difference is a simple matter of semantics; but, in philosophy, perhaps more so than any other field, word choice is often extremely important. It isn’t the ability to a say that 2+2=4 that makes you free, it is the ability to not believe that 2+2=4 that makes you free.

The essence of freedom is the ability to believe or not believe anything of your own freewill. It is even the right to not believe in freewill. It is this ability to accept or repudiate any statement without fear of undue coercion or force, the ability to imagine the world in a different way. It is this that makes us as free. This is a freedom that we, as humans are born with. You may argue that it is given to us by a deity or something we have attained by an evolutionary process but this is the fount of freedom, to say “No!” or to say “Yes!” It has nothing to do with living, dying the pursuit of happiness or property. The proof of this is that the Objectivist, the Communist or the three-year old can look at me and say “I don’t believe that is so.” The very act of refuting freedom affirms it. I am free because I can always say “No” even if someone kills me for it. There is no other or greater freedom than this and cannot be. It is a linguistic and moral impossibility. “Cogito ergo sum” is not only a declaration of sentience but of freedom. I am free because I think, imagine and consider.

If I believe that there is more to life than piling up things, or comfortable chairs, fast cars, hot women and cigars then freedom takes on a different tint. If I believe that life does not end at death then the ability of persons or the state to end this life becomes less important. Freedom in that case becomes not a means to an end but something Holy, a gift from God or the highest goal of evolution. It is freedom not things that gives me dignity. And it is freedom defines me as human.

Where I agree, in a sense with the Objectivist is that I believe humans, at least most humans, trade absolute freedom for convenience and safety. I give up my freedom play loud music because in doing so my neighbor then gives up his right to boil sulfur in his living room. My music bothers him and the sulfuric fumes bother me. But each of us realizes that it is in each others interest to limit our more extreme desires in order to live near each other and obtain the benefit of each others expertise. This is the essence of the Social Contract. When it becomes a larger group than simply my neighbour and I we have a government.

What is important is that a government should realize the choices it asked individuals to relinquish are, in a very real sense, the only thing that they own. That is a major reason why as society has developed (Notice I didn’t say advanced) humans have come to see the efficacy of a representative government. If a government marginalizes the individual choices that have been sacrificed for its existence then that government has become oppressive and evil.

The real reason that the government in the PRC is evil is that the party attempts to deny the individual the choice on how they re governed. The whole “Harmonious Society” slogan is an affront to freedom because they are asking in a none too subtle manner, for me to relinquish my right to say “No.” The reason that functional constituencies in Hong Kong are evil is that they bypass the voices that say No in favour of pro-government voices that say “Yes.” The tyrants are in a sense in complete agreement with Ayn Rand. I may own my home, my car and furniture. I may move to wherever I can afford. I may pile up possessions until the floor in flat sags and I have more wealth than I can count; but I still might not be free because as long as the government says “I give you these rights to life liberty and the pursuit dim-sum” but reserves the ability to take those choices away from me then I have given up my right to be free and am only a slave in a gilded cage.

Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The Blogger who is fond of saying "no"

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