Reclaiming Freedom

by Chris Horner

A Task for the Left

‘Freedom’ must be about the most popular term in the world of politics, and not only in that world. But what does it actually mean, in social and political terms? How should people who want to be broadly progressive understand it?  Too often the Left finds it hard to articulate just how they stand in relation to it and the effect is to cede the term to the Right. This is important, as the word, vague as it is, carries enormous affective force. It matters to people, because it represents a vital human aspiration. And so it’s too important to be abandoned to the people who are, for all their rhetoric, actually the enemies of freedom. On their account of it, freedom is just about individuals having more choices. This is a very weak account of freedom that ought to be met head on and refuted. It won’t do to change the subject, or talk vaguely about equality and solidarity: the Left needs make it clear what freedom is, what it isn’t, and what it could be. If it doesn’t, it risks being portrayed as being ‘against’ freedom, and in favour of mediocre uniformity and regimentation. So we end up with two caricatures, one about freedom and the other about its supposed enemies.

2020 had plenty of examples of this weak version of ‘freedom’. The Covid pandemic led to masks being rejected, vaccines shunned and lockdowns attacked and breached, all in the name of individuals’ rights and freedoms and ‘freedom of choice’. Beyond Covid, in the UK the freedom flag has been waved in support of Brexit, which apparently also means freedom, via the sloughing off of regulations. In the UK and US the word is hardly ever out of the mouths of Prime Ministers and Presidents. Hardy perennials of the right continue to be diatribes against against Health and Safety at work (‘red tape’), tax (the freedom to spend the money one earns as one pleases) and of course, in favour of arrangements that allow ‘flexible working’ – supposedly to free up the choices of employer and employee, but which in fact confirm the precarious status of hundreds of thousands of workers. Then there are ‘free schools’, free markets and much more. It’s an extremely long list. The Left is generally cast as the enemy of all this, the enemy of aspiration, of social mobility, of the opportunity to become a billionaire. It just wants equality, which stifles freedom.

How should one respond to this? Read more »

The Age of Freedom and Enslavement 

by Christopher Horner

We have it in our power to begin the world over again —Tom Paine

How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes? —Dr Johnson

That the Age of Revolution and Rights was also the Age of Slavery and Empire is well known. Less obviously, it was also the time (roughly 1775-1835) which a template was established for the control and exploitation of citizens and subjects which has lasted into our own day. The rhetoric of liberty and equality accompanied a reality of control and subordination. It still does.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt commented that the French  Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789)  marked a historic turn: a claim that man was now ‘emancipated from all tutelage and announced he had come of age’ [1]. It is an echo of Kant’s 1786 answer to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’: for him, it is the end of tutelage, casting aside the would-be guides (and gaolers) in the shapes of priest and King, in order to achieve maturity which Kant takes to be thinking for oneself. He adds that this must involve the free use of public reason, the uncensored exchange of opinion between citizens qua citizens  – as distinct from the use of the private reason of the specialist, bureaucrat, etc. Kant’s message then, and that of the Declaration, is anti-paternalist, invoking the ideal of a mature citizenry. A core meaning of the politics of Enlightenment: free citizens, deliberating together without the miasma of superstition, taboo or state censor. But this is a kind of promise, not an accomplished fact, a statement of what might be about to emerge. Read more »

Existential Choice

by Chris Horner

 At the heart of French existentialism – and especially the version associated with its most famous representative, Jean Paul Sartre – was the notion of radical freedom. On this view, when we choose, we choose our values and thus what kind of person we are going to be. Nothing can prescribe to us what we ought to value, and the responsibility of freedom is to accept this fact of the human condition without falling into the ‘bad faith’ which would deny it. The moment of existentialism may have passed, but the view that we are radical choosers of our values persists in many quarters, and so I want to consider how well this idea holds up, and what an alternative to it might look like.

Sartre’s account in Existentialism and Humanism,[1] of the young man who comes to him for advice is well known, but may bear a brief recounting here. Sartre recounts the (he says true) story of a man, one of his students, who, when France falls in 1940 has a dilemma. Should he leave the country to join the Free French forces or stay with his widowed mother? Either course can be represented as the right thing to do. The commandments of the Christian religion are no help in making the decision – love thy neighbour leaves it quite undecided who is the neighbour here: one’s family or one’s fellow patriots. And if the Kantian approach to ethics is to be recommended then it remains unclear how ‘act according to that maxim which you could will as a universal law’ would apply. The maxim ‘protect your mother’ or ‘loyally defend your country’ could both be contenders.

And so the young man comes to his professor for advice. But as Sartre points out, we tend to go to the person whose advice we are already disposed to take. In any case, the responsibility to take advice, to listen to another and follow their advice, is still one’s own. One cannot escape responsibility that goes with choosing to act. Read more »

Let’s Keep God out of Ethics

ScreenHunter_03 May. 10 12.24 When a television network has a porn channel in the pipe-lines voices of outrage sound. When a television-series mocks a dead religious figure, knives are being sharpened and fingers are being shaken. Picketing outside abortion clinics, fighting against end-of-life alleviation, marching against free expression (do they never see the irony?) – we can usually count on the faithful to raise an outcry, on our behalf apparently, for things they consider to be sinful and, therefore, immoral. But what is sinful is not necessarily immoral. They appear to have some insight we do not about morality and ethical deliberation. But upon critical scrutiny, we soon discover that all the noise is a mask for shallow deliberation.

When did we hand over our moral autonomy – that is our ability to look critically for ourselves at moral dilemmas – to the lecherous hands and myopic vision of religious leaders? When did we say that we wanted guardians stationed in moral outposts, peering into the world with outrage-telescopes and hysterical megaphones? I certainly did not and I hope, regardless of your belief in god, you didn’t either. Ethical deliberation is something we all must face as part of our epistemic duty in this world, filled as it is with problems and a continuum of moral actions. To ask simply whether something is good or evil is often to trivialise ethical dilemmas: they are often not simply about choosing between right and wrong, but between two conflicting attitudes which are both apparently the right thing to do. Do we kill the fat man to save the lives of five others? Are we obligated to each sacrifice one kidney, which we don’t need, to save others who do? Do we give up eating meat, which we do not need for survival, to end the suffering of other animals?

These dilemmas are secular, in that anyone can come to them regardless of religious belief, and find in them a moral problem. However, with the blurring between morality and religion in today’s world, some “moral” problems become problems merely because of the arrogant bullying by religious groups who claim to “know”, better than the rest of us, what is moral. Homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion would most likely not be such hysterical moral dilemmas if not for tawdry metaphysical beliefs on the part of the believer. A good case can be made for any of these being moral dilemmas in purely secular terms, but it is unlikely that death or violence would ensue because of disagreement. The ferocity and vernacular of the dilemma would not be one spurred on by self-righteous believers who are defending god’s laws; or defending “babies” from evil, pincer-wielding doctors; or trying to maintain “family values” because of the “moral decline” in society. A lot of these dilemmas could be carefully deliberated upon in a safe, public platform, using the weapons of words and the shield of a podium, rather than bullets and knives to make one’s point felt. We have given into the worst reasoning to justify moral decisions, that is: raising your voice and making the loudest noise. And best of all if you can use god as a backing – since this still has moral force today, though it should not. Just because so many people are outraged by gay-marriage does not make it immoral anymore than everyone believing the earth flat would alter our planet’s shape. Turning something immoral merely because the majority view it as such is part of John Stuart Mill’s notion of 'tyranny of the majority'.
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