Tuesday 27 March 2012

Freedom, Religion, etc.

This began as a reply to Peter's post on Catholicism, but quickly grew too lengthy for a comment, and so I'm posting it with a new subject, but I encourage you, dear reader, to read Peter's post first, and then, if interested, to read this.

In the simple terms proposed by Philosophy 101 courses, there are two kinds of freedom:
  • 1.       Freedom From: from oppression, tyranny, unlawful incarceration, slavery, etc.
  • 2.       Freedom To: to express oneself, read anything one wishes, choose to be a monk or a lawyer or a physician or an alchemist or a political scientist (contradiction in terms, but let’s let that one pass anyway), leftist, rightist or centrist, etc.
We have to be careful with these definitions, and always remain aware of the blurred lines of gray between them, and also aware of, in to paraphrase Alan Borovoy and the title of his wonderful and provocative book, “When Freedoms Collide”. The problem that arises when Freedom To collides with Freedom From.

Freedom To does not include the freedom to enslave other people, since that alleged freedom denies those victims their right to freedom.  Nor does it include the freedom to impose one’s religious or political beliefs upon other citizens. Some nations and many people believe that Freedom To includes the right to acquire and hold unlimited wealth, for example.

Freedom From does not include the freedom from ethical and political and social responsibilities; c.f. freedom from one’s obligations to pay alimony, child-support, income taxes, etc.

The lines between these freedoms gray at their edges, to the point where the intelligent person must weigh individual cases rather than general examples. Given some fictional or factual state which permits the freedom to own slaves, are those slaves free to rise up in protest and if necessary, confiscate the lands owned by the slave-owners and redistribute the ownership of same? I say Yes. Some might say No. I acknowledge that.

Numerous nations face a serious problem of economic distribution of wealth. Classic cases include the Philippines, El Salvador, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Canada, the USA, the UK, the modern Russia, and numerous others, in which about 1% of the population either owns outright or at least controls 99% of the wealth in said jurisdiction. In such places, one might contest the right of that 1% to own or control the 99%, or alternatively, one might adopt the “laissez faire” position, and suggest instead that this is God's will, and/or that the market will ultimately sort out itself, just as it did in the age of the Robber Barons. To politicize Supertramp, “Right, right, you’re bloody well right, we know you’ve got a lot to save.”

Does freedom of speech include the right to deny the Holocaust, to say that 13 Sicilian rabbis control the planet, that either the Israelis or the Palestinians have a just cause (or worse, both)?

The closer we examine these boundaries, the murkier they get. I have no clear-cut distinctions to profess, yet I try, despite the myriad difficulties and complications.
Recently I have begun to re-read Thucydides, and deem him perhaps the smartest, most incisive political journalist who ever lived.  In fact, I consider him the founder of political journalism. His "take no sides, just document what occurred, no matter whom might be offended" writings have stood the test of a couple of millennia, and stand up still. He describes the brutality of war in the most objective terms then, and perhaps now, possible.
In the age of propaganda, this standard is difficult if not impossible to meet. I venture that Noam Chomsky is about as close as we have come to the standard set by Thucydides. The thing about Chomsky is that he buttresses all his arguments with hundreds if not thousands of citations.
I could write about Freedom From and Freedom To for at least a book, and join the thousands of others who have addressed this topic, but I’ll let the subject go at this.
These are difficult questions, and as Alan Borovoy suggests in his brilliant book, When Freedoms Collide, these questions are not easily decided. Freedoms collide, and with them perspectives upon reality: not only what exists, but what ought to exist. And there lies the rub: how do you and I reconcile these opposite values? How do we accept or refute what exists versus what ought to exist?
I have no easy answers to this question. Despite that, I shall not let it go, nor to succumb to anarchic/relativist beliefs. Difficult as it may be to sort out, I remain steadfast in the belief that it can be done, that we can sort out the Freedoms From and the Freedoms To, and figure this out.
This started out about the alleged freedom of Roman Catholics to forbid/deny/condemn those who believe that the right to abortion ought to belong to the pregnant woman in question. Once I heard proposed an argument against the right to abort, expressed by a Roman Catholic nun; at best I can paraphrase her argument, as follows:
To focus upon individual rights is to negate both the path of God’s will and the path of evolution. In the former case, God had a plan, and even if a woman’s pregnancy was a result of rape, that was part of God’s plan. In the latter case, a focus upon the individual misses the point of evolution of the species, which is not concerned with the rights of any individual but rather on “The Selfish Gene,”  as propounded by Richard Dawkins.
If one is to take Mr. Dawkins seriously (and I do: guilty as charged), It is not about what you or I want, but rather what our genes want: we are the vehicles of our genes, and have little or no power over where our genes take us. To put it another way, we are the passengers on our genetic train, not the layers of those tracks. 
Who can predict the next thought one is likely to have? Despite my powers of concentration, in the middle of trying to create an algorithm, I’m suddenly in the throes of remembrance of something awful I said in a conversation 20 years ago – it only lasts a few moments, but I could neither predict this nor defend against it. Recall happens, and I am powerless to prevent it. I am the passenger on my thought-train, absolutely without the power to re-lay the tracks, left to follow the random sequence of stations, thence departing after a two-minute stop: something awful I said to a girlfriend when I was 14; some record I shoplifted when I was 17; some sexual indiscretion I committed when I was 31. 
I am powerless to prevent or invite the re-emergence of these painful memories, no matter how inappropriate they may be to the immediate problem: an algorithm, an argument with a girlfriend, a discussion with the police about an incident I witnessed. Extraneous faces impede, and I am not in control of what I am going to ponder in five seconds, even despite my attempts to concentrate upon the matter at hand: this or that algorithm, this violent event, the next line in the poem I am currently crafting. 
I am most definitely not the engineer who laid the tracks of my thought-train, nor do I have control over where they may lead. It could be to Bisbee, or London, or St. Petersburg, or Winnipeg. I don't know, and cannot know, until the train stops at some station.
I think that the whole idea of self-directed concentration is a myth. Or perhaps I am the only one so unable to re-channel the railroad upon which I am riding.

1 comment:

  1. I can sympathize with, though, for obvious reasons, not accept, the nonsensical arguments which appeal to some understandable, metaphysical purpose or plan bestowed upon humanity by a certain divinity - God.

    I cannot, however, ignore the irony of using that argument in conjunction with a similar personification of Evolution, as if such a theory were a natural extension of religious faith.

    I wonder what if feels like suffer incessantly from cognitive dissonance, and how high a barrier a mind can build between its rational input and its stubborn tendencies before blowing itself up? Surely, in today's public discourse we are pushing those limits.