Published on
4 December 2007

How to Think about Freedom

By: Dr. Tom Pink


Dr. Tom Pink is Reader in Philosophy at King's College London, and is Director of the Centre for Philosophical Studies Seminar on Tuesday 4 December 2007

This is a large topic through which I am going to move with excessive speed. Essentially the problem of freedom is to do with the diversity of what we talk about in using the word ‘freedom’: that is, everything from the property of controlling our own actions when we think of freedom of will, to the state of the laws and institutions of the community or the free State.

Obviously those are rather different things but the notion of freedom, or the sense that we give to the term ‘freedom’, in the different contexts appears to be related. Indeed, if you look at the history of reflection about freedom, the term was used initially, prior to the Hellenistic period, to pick out the idea of a free State or a free citizen, only then moving on to the power we might have to control our actions. There is, therefore, some connection here, and we must ask what it is.

Freedom is of interest to us also because it is a central value in a dominant political school which has many varieties: the school we think of as ‘liberalism’. Part of this paper will address possible forms liberalism can take. I shall suggest that secular liberalism in the political sphere has made some rather bad errors in the way it has developed its conception of liberty. These errors are fairly recent but very marked within the English-language philosophical tradition. I shall have something to say about them as they begin with thinkers like Hobbes and are exacerbated by others like Mill.

That which has gone wrong is part of a very widespread programme in English-language ethical theory that attempts to make sense of a whole set of notions traditionally understood by reference to freedom of will, to control over one’s actions. It is a fundamental metaphysical power that we have. Trying to make sense of notions of obligation, rights, political liberty, and so forth, in abstraction from, or in a context of denial of the existence of, this freedom of will or power of action control – a central programme of the English-language tradition – is badly mistaken. I shall speak of why this is the case. The tradition actually undermines the value of political liberty properly understood and is deeply corrosive of the very value it is trying to explain.

I shall start by considering three different kinds of freedom, three different kinds of phenomena we pick out when using the term ‘freedom’.

First, there is the idea as freedom as a power or a capacity to determine our own actions and decisions. This is the metaphysical power about which philosophers worry when they discuss the ‘free will problem’.

Then there is a rather different idea of freedom as a kind of right. Particularly important here is a right not to be coerced, which I shall call ‘liberty’. Historically, the word ‘liberty’ has been used to describe free will, while ‘freedom’ is obviously used in a political context as well, but I shall use ‘freedom’ here mainly to pick out ‘freedom of will’, and ‘liberty’ for the right not to be coerced.

A third notion of freedom is the rather different one of a personal or communal goal that one wishes to retain or preserve in life. This I shall call ‘liberation’. It is a condition to be understood in opposition to its absence which is servitude or enslavement.

Those, then, are three different things. The idea of a power in us to control our actions; that of a right of liberty to be left alone by others in various ways; and the idea of a state of liberation to which we aspire to and a state of servitude that we aspire to avoid.

Considering freedom as a power over our actions, we naturally conceive of this, and certainly I find most students starting off in philosophy conceive of it, as a power we have primarily over our decisions. We also see it as a power to be exercised independently of, and very often in opposition to, passions or desires with which we have been landed by nature. A person’s will or decision-making power can, by the exercise of freedom, resist or fight against desires one finds oneself in possession of or possessing one.

It is naturally seen as a power that would be removed by determination of our decisions and actions by prior causes outside our control. In other words we naturally have a strong inclination to conceive of this power in libertarian terms. That of course makes our natural understanding (if that is what it is) extremely controversial in modern secular thought, because it seems to involve a power or capacity to determine on our part that is very distinctive and quite unlike other kinds of power found in nature.

My philosophical colleagues generally want only to admit as a power found in nature a capacity that is causal, one possessed by events and states to determine other events and states. If anything determines our actions it is not ourselves but prior events and occurrences within history which, if they precede our actions, are outside our control. If our actions are undetermined by such things – ones threatening our freedom as we naturally conceive it – then they are not determined by anything at all and are just random. The notion of a libertarian power to determine our actions that is not attached to past events and states, but which may be threatened by the causal power of past events and states, is just a fiction, one treated at present as an absurd mystery.

Consider a very early presentation of this attitude in Thomas Hobbes who says:

Commonly when we see and know the strength that moves us, we acknowledge necessity… [So if you feel the desire pushing you for example, you acknowledge necessity] …but when we see not, or mark not the force that moves us, we then think there is none, and that it is not causes but liberty that produceth the action.

This idea of freedom as will is, then, just something we introduce gratuitously when experience presents nothing else as determining our actions.

When Hobbes wrote this he was deeply opposed to a rival tradition of thinking about free will, one I associate with the Scotist tradition in scholasticism that was particularly dominant in the early-modern period. Hobbes always argued against this tradition whose most recent exponent at the time was Suárez, the Spanish Jesuit.

Suárez had a completely different attitude to this libertarian freedom as can be seen from his Metaphysical Disputations. He says we should believe in this power of freedom because we can argue from experience:

For it is evident to us from experience that it is within our power to do a given thing or to refrain from doing it; and we use reason, discourse, and deliberation in order to incline ourselves towards the one rather than the other. That is why choice is placed in our control. Otherwise as Damascene correctly observed […], this ability to ponder and deliberate would have been given to us in vain.

So, Suárez says we have a capacity to reason and deliberate about how to act and what gives this capacity its point is something else which experience represents to us, namely a power of control over our own decisions and actions which can be informed and guided by our deliberative capacities.

Freedom is not, therefore, given us simply by the deliberative capacities. The deliberative capacities are one thing, freedom quite another directly represented to us by experience. The presence of freedom gives the process of deliberating about how to act its point. That is fundamental to a Suarezian conception of what the power of freedom is. It is the experientially presented power, the point of decision-making which is about doing the right thing and avoiding the wrong.

I think Suárez quite right about this. Hobbes is clearly not correct in supposing that this power of libertarian freedom is experientially unrepresented to us, and that it is just a guess on our part when experience represents nothing else. This can be presented very vividly in imagining the experience of a loss of control over our actions which overcomes even the best controlled of us: known in good old Anglo-Saxon terms as ‘losing it’.

I have a rather uncertain temper sometimes when administering fellow academics and occasionally, towards the end of term, when certain colleagues have failed to do something, I might telephone one of them. I can feel the anger rising as they express horrid excuses and fence about instead of doing what I want them to do. As the anger grows I feel something outside my own will pushing me in the direction of doing something like telling my colleague exactly what I think of him or her! That is clearly a causal force I feel outside my will pushing me towards doing a certain thing. I feel my control of my actions coming under threat and diminishing. If this gets bad, with my decision and action in danger of determination by this anger, I feel myself ‘losing it’.

When, therefore, experience represents something outside the will determining what we should do, it represents to us precisely our loss of control. That is how it feels to us. Similarly with terror if it should ‘overcome us’. Or again, if I am exhausted and subjected to pressure, I might feel the pressure along with exhaustion pushing me in a certain direction in the interrogation room. You can imagine yourself losing control.

A lot more might be said here for which I do not have time this evening. It suggests to me, for example, that, if there is an incompatibility between the power of freedom and past causally-determined events and states, it is probably given to us through phenomenology rather than our conceptual apparatus. I think that means a great deal of the modern ‘free will problem’ has been misconceived.

Since, however, I am not here specifically to consider the problem of free will I shall leave it there. It looks as though we have a built-in phenomenology or an experiential system that represents freedom to us as something we have over our actions and decisions but which is threatened and removed by the influence on us of prior causes if that becomes strong enough, because that is how experience represents loss of control to us. That is why undergraduates are so liable to be libertarians prior to acquaintance with refined conceptual philosophical arguments. Their experience has led them to think of freedom in that way. It seems to me, therefore, that Suárez was absolutely right.

The point of this power of freedom is to enable us to determine for ourselves that we do the right thing precisely because the power is exercised over a capacity for decision-making. That is something we all think. Why bother to take decisions about which actions to perform other than to make sure that we do the right thing and avoid the wrong? This is built in to the point that we make decisions in advance about which actions to perform.

Precisely, moreover, because we experience the causal influence on us of desires and passions outside the will as a threat to freedom if it becomes strong enough, it surely must be right that the point of this power of freedom, and of the capacity for decision-making over which it is immediately exercised, is not simply to enable us to satisfy our desires. If it were about that, freedom would not be removed if our actions were simply determined by our desires. It seems to us, however, that we should be ‘losing it’.

That the point of this power for decision-making is not simply to enable us to satisfy our desires is, I think, something we ordinarily hold anyway. We do not meet every decision to be taken with the assumption that the justifications which are going to determine it are simply about satisfying our desires. It may be true if we are making a choice between a chocolate or a strawberry ice cream that we do ask ourselves, ‘What do I want?’. If, on the other hand, I have to make up my mind about whether or not to rescue a child drowning in a pond, it would be absurd to start off my deliberation by thinking, ‘What do I want to do?’. That would be intuitively irrelevant in such a context.

Both the phenomenological presentation that the will is not at the service of our desires but rather something that can fight against them and the way we naturally conceive of what is relevant to taking a decision suggest that rational decision-making and the power of freedom that enables us to determine it are not about simple satisfaction of desire. That is surely and deeply part of the ordinary way we think. So much about freedom of the will, rather dogmatically.

We must now turn to the notion of freedom as a right, as a kind of liberty. If we do think we have a power to determine for ourselves how we act, it makes sense and is quite intelligible to suppose that we might have a right to determine for ourselves how we act, within at any rate certain limits – one that might be violated by forms of coercion, fraud, deception or other things that get in the way of the exercise of our power to determine for ourselves what we do. That sort of right is something in which we all deeply believe. Here we have moved from a power to determine for ourselves how we decide or act to the intelligibility of a right, within limits, to do so.

It has to be said, of course, that modern ethical theory is dominated by persons who are deeply sceptical about the existence of any kind of power to determine an action for oneself. If, therefore, a modern political philosopher believes in the reality of a right not to be coerced in various ways – as indeed most do, for it is part of the culture – that right is going to have to be explained other than by appealing to the existence of a power to determine actions for oneself. Most political philosophers known to me have in fact, so to speak, abolished freedom of will and have come to regard the ‘free will problem’ as just a ghastly metaphysical nightmare to be tackled in another lecture course. They have to tell a different story about why we might have a right not to be coerced, certainly not one to do with our having a right to exercise a certain kind of power.

Now this is something of which we ought to be deeply aware of when looking at political theory generally and at modern political theories of liberty in particular. I am not saying that they cannot tell such a story – indeed, I shall consider some stories that might be told – but it certainly will not be one about a power to determine actions for ourselves.

Notice that if this power is, precisely as we all really understand it, a power to do things or not do them, and in particular to determine for ourselves that we do the right rather than the wrong, there cannot be a general argument in favour, in every case, of coercing people to doing the right rather than the wrong, for otherwise they would have no opportunity to determine for themselves under at least some conditions that they do the right and not the wrong. So there should be a general window if our right not to be coerced is to do with a power to determine our actions for ourselves. There must be some general basis for the legitimacy of people being allowed to do wrong things without being coerced from so doing.

Of course, there cannot be an unlimited right not to be coerced from doing wrong things because many such actions adversely affect other people’s interests. The space we have to exercise this power to determine our actions for ourselves must have limits. It is very intelligible to think that such limits are going to have something to do with the impact of our actions on the interests of persons

Notice, I did not simply say ‘on the interests of others’. One of those whose interests can be adversely affected by one’s wrong actions and decisions can be oneself. There seems to be no general argument why if other people should be protected against you, you cannot sometimes be protected against yourself as well.

Now of course secular liberalism is deeply unhappy with that thought and particularly the Millite tradition. Consider the famous ‘harm principle’ that John Stuart Mill put forward in his On Liberty:

the sole end… [Mill resoundingly declared] …for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.  The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

Now, it is not quite clear to me why Mill should suppose this. The issue is not whether our possession of a power of self-determination gives us some degree of right to be left free of coercion, for we can all agree on that. The question is rather whether the only interests that should be protected by coercion from the way we exercise our free will are those of other people. Why cannot our own interests be protected by coercion against our own actions? If freedom or respect for freedom is one value, our other interests are another value and it is not obvious why in our own case the balance cannot come out in favour of coercing us in order to protect ourselves as much as coercing us with a view to protecting others.

Notice, too, that we can easily imagine situations in which we might coerce someone for his or her own good. Think, for example, of the depressed person who wishes to commit suicide on the bridge. Most of us would automatically hold such a person back against an express will to jump. I think we would hold them back whether or not we thought they might subsequently change their mind and be grateful to us. We would not just stand there and say, ‘Well, it is your decision, and you have no dependents, so bye-bye!’. That just does not make sense. There is a general question as to why the value of respecting people’s power to determine their actions for themselves should weigh so much more when third-party interests are concerned than when it is the agent’s own interests that are at stake.

It is even more strange that many political philosophers who like the ‘harm principle’ do not even believe in the possession of a power to determine one’s actions in the first place! We have here a general mystery – to which I am going to return – as to why this principle should seem so attractive to modern political philosophers.

So we are left with the following general picture: the value of liberty in the political sphere (the importance of the right not be coerced, and various other related rights) is I think to be explained in terms of our right to due recognition, through political and social arrangements, of our power (through freedom) to determine for ourselves how we act. I take it that this recognition is owed, but surely not at any cost whatever, whether to others or to ourselves. The problem of course remains: what are we to say about the basis of liberty in the socio-political sphere if, as sceptics and many secular philosophers suppose, we have no power of freedom to determine our own actions for ourselves and the freedom of will is a myth?

So that is freedom as liberty. We come now to the third kind of freedom which is freedom as liberation. It is a central feature of both Christian and non-Christian Western thought that we do think of freedom – and I am going to call it liberation – in a context not simply of political rights or of a power we have over our own actions and decisions, but as a goal to which we want to attain. We might feel that our lives involve some degree of enslavement and what we desire is to move from that into some form of liberation. It is obviously deeply a feature of Christianity, but I think of various forms of non-Christian, secular, thought as well.

What is this idea of liberation about? It is clearly not simply about our right to political liberty being respected, for servitude is not only to do with denial of political rights. Apart from anything else, it looks as though we may be enslaved not only by some political structure or agent or social environment but also by our own inner desires and passions. We may be enslaved by our own addictions. This is a form of enslavement but it is clearly not political enslavement.

Servitude, therefore, may come from within as well as from without. Nor again should it be seen as something that simply removes the power of free will because it need not do that. It may, of course, make it harder to exercise that power well: the addict may continue to remain free not to take drugs but finds it more difficult the more deeply addicted he or she is. Here, then, we have something that need not remove the power of freedom but that can certainly make its exercise, particularly in the direction of doing what is right, difficult. Again we might be enslaved by forms of ignorance which do not directly remove the power we have to control our actions but do prevent it being informed by the sort of information we might need to do what is right. We naturally think of ignorance or error, in certain forms, as potential forms of enslavement.

What is going on? I suspect we have here a development out of the root idea of freedom as a power of free will over our actions. It is fundamental to the way we think about freedom in all its forms. Liberation and servitude may not be very precise ideas any more than is the related idea of happiness to which liberation contributes and which servitude precludes or prevents, but servitude, it seems to me, involves a condition degrading to us as possessors of the power of freedom. It can degrade either by radically denying it due recognition in the social and political sphere, or through a psychological condition that gets in the way of our exercising this power in the direction of its function: namely, enabling us to determine for ourselves that we do the right thing and avoid the wrong.

It is interesting – allowing that there are many complicated issues in play here – that some forms of incapacity, or at any rate some difficulty, in taking the decision one way rather than another are seen by us as enslaving but others not, and that we seem to moralise the notion. We feel ourselves as enslaved by addictions, things that make it difficult for us to do what we regard as right. But psychological conditions that make it very difficult for us to do the wrong thing are not regarded by us in the same light. For example, I find it very psychologically difficult to murder someone or to take my clothes off in front of a crowd of people in public or to do various other undesirable things, but I do not regard this as a form of enslavement at all. Clearly what we have here is something that is not an obstacle freedom at any rate in the direction of doing what is right.

Something like that seems to be present in the way we think about liberation, but if we are going to be sceptical about freedom of the will or about its having a built-in direction we are going to find it very hard to think about liberation in the way I have been suggesting. In fact, we shall start thinking about liberation in a very different way.

We have here two notions of the free which modern liberals badly want to go on understanding: namely, political liberty and some idea of liberation, as part of the general cultural framework. But we have also an idea upon which these other two ideas are ultimately based, the grounding idea of freedom of will that is an object of profound scepticism in modern philosophy. Certainly no one working in ethical political theory normally wants to base anything on the idea of freedom of will. Not since Henry Sidgwick has anyone really wanted to do that. Sidgwick’s method of ethics is one of the first really sustained attempts in English ethical theory to bypass the ‘free will problem’ and to do ethics without it.

What then should do we do if we wish to try to make sense of liberation and liberty without the foundational notion of our possessing a power to determine our actions for ourselves? Well, the obvious thing to do – and this is precisely what I think we do see happening in secular theory – is to introduce some sort of capacity that substitutes for freedom as we all conceive it, one that will bring in some, if not all, of the elements of this notion.

One approach tries to hold on to the starting idea of a power or a capacity to determine. It is not, of course, to be a capacity directly attaching to us that enables us to resist desires, because if Hobbes is right – and many people think he is – we have no knowledge of such a power. Go back, then, to Hobbes’s simple picture of what action involves. What power does action involve as Thomas Hobbes thinks of action? Action is simply about doing things as means to satisfying your desires, and that only. There is no inner freedom of will. All that is going on is prior events or states or desires which causally push us into performing actions, and the point of actions is to satisfy desires. That is all that is going on.

Surely what we think of and reason about political liberty is something that facilitates, at a communal level, people getting what they want on the collective level: namely, balancing one person’s desires off against those of another. Restriction on liberty is going to be a restriction on doing what we want, a fairly familiar conception of liberty within the English-language political philosophy tradition. Liberation is going to be seen as a kind of empowerment which is simply being able to satisfy your desires without obstacles and having all the resources with which to do that.

Although it is deep-rooted within our culture, this is really a very strange idea if one thinks about it at all. Consider how far we have left behind any genuine kind of personal power of freedom. There is a power that does not attach to you, but rather to something else: the passions with which nature or the environment have endowed us, and which in fact you ordinarily experience as actually getting in the way of your real freedom to make a decision.

Moreover, it looks as though in a sense all that matters really is that these desires be satisfied. Although we talked about a power on the part of these desires to cause satisfaction it is not even clear how much that really matters. After all, provided they were satisfied, might you not be happy enough if someone else satisfied them for you without your mental states playing any role at all in the matter? By this means we attain to an idea of liberation that amounts to our sitting in a high chair and being spoon-fed. At any rate it would not be easy to say what was wrong with such a state.

The other attempt to substitute the grounding power of freedom is very different. Instead of introducing a slimmed-down, rather thinned-out, power attaching to something other than ourselves, it tries instead to hold on to the notion of independence that is clearly part of our ordinary conception of freedom: something we can exercise to determine our actions without our actions being determined by anything else. If they were determined by anything else, they would not be determined by us. There is a built-in independence to the exercise and character of the power of freedom.

We end up here with ‘autonomy’. To arrive at autonomy, one reconceives deliberation and reasoning in their ideal form, perhaps the form they would have were we to reach the state of liberation. This is of course the famous element in Mill’s conception of human flourishing in his On Liberty:

Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the chief ingredients of human happiness… He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his own plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like faculty of imitation.

What seems to going on here is that Mill has a conception of human flourishing as involving a certain kind of deliberation, one which in a way is not clear or well-defined. One forms one’s principles or values in abstraction from, or apart from, those of one’s surrounding society, namely the customs or conventions that make it up. This independence does not involve a metaphysical power of freedom being employed in relation to what one think one ought to do with that power, but it is rather some unspecified sort of independence. It is seen by Mill as involving a kind of critical attitude to any received wisdom that might be floating around in one’s culture. If you do not think in that way then you are not, for Mill, fully human.

What this involves is all very mysterious and that, of course, is part of the appeal of Mill’s conception. It sounds attractive in the same way that freedom sounds attractive. There do not seem to be any metaphysical problems with it and it presents the gratifying involvement of a critical attitude towards others which many people enjoy exercising. What does this independence amount to? What is wrong with going by received wisdom if there is an objective set of truths there about what one ought to do in certain conditions, one of which many have had experience long before my birth?

It is possible to get out of any such reliance if your view of there being any such objective values goes as follows: there are no really no objective values except one, that attached to choosing or deliberating autonomously. Then the value of autonomy makes sense because there is nothing against which it is fighting. We may then go back to make absolutely clear why paternalistic intervention in somebody’s own interest will never be a good idea because that person’s interests are wholly bound up in their attaining and exercising the capacity for autonomous choice. This is a very unattractive theory of general value, not much argued-for, but it explains I suspect whence the ‘harm principle’ is really coming.

A second problem facing this substitute for the metaphysical power of freedom as a basis for conceptions of liberty conceived in other ways is that it is deeply elitist. After all, there is something very democratic about the power of freedom which we experience ourselves to possess, if it is indeed real, for we experience it as a general property of our action except in such cases where it is clear that our actions are being causally pre-determined by something outside our will. It seems to be exercisable without any requirement for elaborate forms of reasoning or ratiocination on our part.

Imagine Fred, an armchair television sportsman. As he views he thinks, ‘Hm,… I think I’ll go and get another beer’. It is, we will ordinarily suppose and indeed he will ordinarily suppose, up to him whether he goes for another beer and he can exercise such a power of control over his actions without going in for Millian reflection at a high-order level, abstracting from his social context,  etc.  It is not very clear what is really involved in Millian deliberation precisely because the nature of the independence called for is obscure. It would seem, however, that one needs to be rather bright and critical to go in for it at all. One is, in fact, left with the feeling that the liberation of which we are talking involves a capacity possessed mainly by professors and the culturally sophisticated. The state of liberation to which it directs us is really an entrée into the senior common room, and it is of rather dubious interest to anything more than a small number of people.

Just to finish this rather dogmatic excursus over a rather large territory, it seems to me we have three kinds of freedom. We have freedom as a power over our actions and decisions which we directly experience. We certainly experience losing it and coming to hold it. We experience it as a power that would be removed by causal determination of our actions by conditions outside the will. The point of exercising it is to enable us to determine for ourselves to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, and it provides an intelligible basis for a limited right – the nature of the  limits I have not really gone into much – to determine for ourselves what we can do to exercise this power.  I have suggested that if there are limits to this right we should not think of them as necessarily about protecting others against us. I can see no reason why we should not be protected against ourselves.

Then there is an idea about liberation as the removal of conditions degrading to this power of freedom. People who do without this metaphysical belief in the power of freedom over actions are forced to make a substitution, but the substitutes are deeply unattractive. We either get a simple capacity to do what we want to do which is light years away from any genuine form of self-determination and involves the restriction of practical reason to the satisfaction of our appetites, the value of which is not obvious; or we have a substitute capacity which amounts to an ill-defined autonomy involving an independent mode of reflection. The value of this is, again, far from obvious, as indeed is its availability to anything but a relatively small portion of the human race.

Discussant – Russell Wilcox:

Thank you very much for that fascinating paper.

One thing I recalled when you were talking about the following of inclinations was the adage, ‘being free is doing what you really want’. That, I think, is not necessarily to disagree with what you have developed this evening, for the key word here is ‘really’ – what you really want, not just what you happen to think you want. Freedom is parasitic upon a notion of the good in the sense that we human beings have both higher and lower inclinations, or, to put it more metaphysically, we have inclinations that relate to the immaterial and inclinations which relate to the material. Being really free is about ordering our lower inclinations, the material inclinations that can be satisfied by material goods, in a such a way that they do not interfere with attaining to our higher inclinations, those which can be satisfied only by immaterial goods.

In a sense it is precisely because we have this capacity or drive to go after immaterial goods that we have a capacity to choose between limited or material goods. Putting it in a traditional manner, if we were to be presented with an unmediated and absolute good – an impossibility in our present existence – our will would instantly adhere to it, lacking even the possibility of not adhering to it. Because, however, we live in a physical world, a world which presents to us individual or particular material goods, we are never faced with an unmediated or absolute good. In that sense we have to attain to the true, the good and the beautiful by making sure that we select prudently between lower or material goods in a way that our choices do not inhibit satisfaction of our higher inclinations.

I want to focus a bit upon this notion of freedom as liberation and to transpose it into the social sphere. It seems very interesting that the traditional view is that if we live a virtuous life, if we cultivate virtues or good habits, we open up possibilities and have a greater range of options open to us as human beings. We develop a habit of choosing the good and in so doing we act in a manner that is in accord with our nature and which is, therefore, free. That has a knock-on effect of enabling us to have the largest range of options that might possibly be available to us. Of course, virtue and vice, being the internal principles of human action, have a parallel in the external principles of human action commonly known as the principles of natural law, or of practical reason.

Now it is interesting that virtue and vice are spoken of as habits and I think Aquinas writes of us developing a habitus by which we are predisposed to act. Even if you are an addict, even if you have developed very vicious habits, you still have a capacity to choose between different options. It has just becomes very difficult to make the right choices. It is hard to choose contrary to the direction in which an addiction is directing you. Habitus refers to the dispositional framework in which we operate as moral beings.

There is a French thinker who assaults this notion of habitus but I, for one, think there is something in his effort to transpose it to the social level. He writes of institutions or of society developing a certain habitus. Linked to this is the notion that certain institutions enable us to cultivate our virtues as a society and others inhibit the same. Given that we as persons are inherently social beings this seems to me a fruitful way of developing the notion. In other words, at any given point, a society has a series of structures resulting from collective human actions in the past. Whilst such structures never remove the capacity of any individual agent to act contrary to the indications (or the social habitus) they embody, they do at times make it very difficult.

If someone works in a profession and does not adhere to the norms it has laid down for practitioners then he or she is at risk of being expelled. Such norms may be for or against the interests of human flourishing. Consider whether or not a doctor is obliged to perform an abortion. Depending upon the particular norms operating in the institutions of the medical profession it may either be easy for that doctor to escape and to do the right thing or it may be difficult not to perform, or become complicit in performing, an abortion. If a doctor refuses to play any part in the process he or she may be seen as in breach of standards laid down by the profession and in risk of expulsion.

Transposition to the social and institutional level shows that, just as may be the case in one particular institution, society’s institutional nexus as a whole may help or hinder our living fully human and virtuous lives. I believe one can speak of institutions as vicious or virtuous, as facilitating or barring freedom.

Dr. Andrew Hegarty (Chairman): Would you like to respond to Russell’s remarks straightaway, Tom, or pick them up later in the discussion?

Dr. Tom Pink: Well, very briefly, there are two issues raised by what Russell has been saying upon which I have not wanted to commit myself to taking a view, but they were certainly profound questions within medieval Catholic thought.

Assume we are presented with the power of freedom that has an inbuilt functional orientation, the point of which is to enable us to determine for ourselves that we do what is right. Does that mean that the nature or power of freedom is structured or determined by the nature of the good, or that it is determined in some other way? That is, of course, one of the big controversies between the Thomist school and, for example, other more Scotist or Suarezian thinkers. It looks as though for Aquinas, just by being presented with a series of finite goods we are free to choose between them by their very nature as finite goods, whereas if one is presented with an infinite good, one is not free to act on account of its nature as an infinite good.

But it might be perfectly possible to respond, ‘Well, No: the structure of practical rationality may leave room for freedom but actually to have such a power to do one thing or another requires more than a simple set of available values’. Nothing in my paper rules out such a Suarezian attitude, one to which I am inclined myself.

Related to that is the possibility, supposing a dispositional set-up, of an effective arrangement that leaves us no chance of doing wrong. That might look like a kind of liberation. In that state of affairs at any rate, what is involved would seem to offer no obstacle to exercising freedom or free will in a specifically good way.

Then again, if there is absolutely no chance of our doing the wrong or the naughty thing, would we still have a power to do or not to do? In relation to the naughty, is the function of free will to bring us to a state of liberation and then, in a manner of speaking, to get left behind in some measure? In a certain view of free will, the power is in fact heightened when there is no chance of doing the naughty thing.

Suárez and others would respond by saying that such a power is about doing something or not doing it; about making alternatives available to us. For them, if the chance of doing what is wrong thing is removed, the power is gone. It may have been replaced by something better, say deliberation, but it has gone. Nothing I have said in this paper seeks to pre-judge that question.

Russell Wilcox: Of course, one might take an alternative view: the fact that you always have a capacity for free will (metaphysically) means it is never the case that we cannot choose what is wrong. We never get to that point because we always have an irreducible core of free will.

Dr. Tom Pink: That impinges once again upon theology, a reason I did not want to approach it in this paper. Theologians often test the limits of certain secular theories. When we get to heaven – should we be so lucky! – will we have the chance to do the wrong thing? Most of them, I believe, think not. Is such an absence of any chance of doing the wrong thing a reduction of your freedom qua free will? Opinions differ.

Russell Wilcox: Is that not in a sense linked to the notion that it is parasitic upon the good? If you take that view, it works.

Dr. Tom Pink: Everyone thinks, and I believe we naturally think, that freedom is parasitic on the good. Let us go back to our everyday way of thinking upon which I wanted to base this paper. We naturally think we are in control of our actions because we have a capacity to reason and deliberate about other things. We do not think sharks and mice have a power of control over their actions such as we have, precisely because they are – to put it bluntly – too thick. They simply do not have our deliberative capacities.

In most theories about reason and about how to act there is some connection between having some access to an intellectually apprehensible good and the power of freedom. How exactly we should unpack that connection is much less clear. That goes back to the initial issue I raised about whether it is the very structure of the good that gives you freedom or that it is merely a condition of freedom actually given you by something else.

Dr. Andrew Hegarty: Perhaps we should now throw things open. Doubtless our Speaker will wish to revisit some of these matters in the course of round-the-table discussion.

General Discussion

Dr. Gunnar Beck: I wish to make two points. The first refers to what Russell said and is a variation of what you suggested in response to him. Given that one conceives of liberation as a social enterprise and that the capacity to liberate is interdependent, it follows that the greater the degree in which freedom is achieved by others the greater would be one’s own degree of achieving it. At the same time it is not at all clear what the value of liberty is relative to other values and human goods. I am not saying that it is problematical but it is not obvious that liberty always trumps other values.

Secondly, the kind of freedom about which you spoke preoccupied most classical philosophers. Among them perhaps the most consistently preoccupied with the interrelationship between these notions of freedom is Immanuel Kant who starts off with the idea that free will as an independent determination by causal powers is absolutely essential to morality. He concedes that it cannot be shown, and proceeds ultimately to identify free will with conformity to, or compliance with, certain ideals. I suppose that is what is meant by freedom being parasitic on the good. Essentially, the free will becomes the rational will, which is also the will to do the one and only good thing.

In the end, then, we have the first conception of freedom, namely free will, identified as an achievement of the third, which is liberation, and the reason for that is that, since free will cannot be shown, it needs to be identified with something, invariably something good. Autonomy in the sense of free will has two dimensions. On the one hand it requires positive freedom in the sense of conformity with the good, but on the other one has to achieve that voluntarily. That is the basis for the right to negative liberty, as you have called it.

I think that in particular the inference from the good to the right of liberty is extremely fragile for two reasons.

Firstly, as Russell indicated, if the process of liberation or autonomy is in fact a communal or interdependent one – that was in fact argued by Kant’s successors Fichte, Hegel and Marx –, we simply cannot afford to leave people free because if they strayed that might endanger the whole project. It is, therefore, necessary that all co-operate.

Secondly, it could be argued that one need not necessarily espouse such a collectivist notion of freedom as a collective enterprise of development although I do think that follows logically from the seemingly innocuous language Russell chose to use. One could ask, ‘Well, what is lost if one is forced to say that he will act autonomously and voluntarily?’. The first term would refer to freedom in the proper sense, the second merely to freedom from restraint. The distinction between good and bad will, free and un-free will, is retained and one is merely forced to behave as if one wanted to act virtuously while inwardly rebelling against it. One would remain metaphysically un-free. We do not really diminish the goodness of the person who would have voluntarily chosen to do what is right, for he does not feel the coercion felt only by one who would not have done the right thing.

It is not clear, therefore, what need there is for a right to liberty unless – and this is where Aristotle would come in – because of the imperfections of our nature it has an educational function such that we are more likely to do, and to want, the right thing if there exists also the possibility of going wrong. That is constantly experienced.

Dr. Tom Pink: Kant is, I think, in a sense, quite bad news because essentially he has given up the ghost, at any rate insofar as it might be possible subsequently to defend the reality of the power of freedom. Clearly the phenomena theory he will produce is going to be hideously problematic. It involves the denial of what Suárez rightly claims, precisely that we know about freedom and believe in it because acquainted with it through experience. Kant surrendered to Hobbes as regards the picture of phenomenology and that involves paying a huge price in terms of the metaphysical plausibility of such a power.

As regards forcing people to be free, if we are going to think of the right to liberty as a sort of social/political recognition of our possession of this power to determine our actions for ourselves, and we experience this power precisely as a power over our alternatives, certainly I am very suspicious of a conception of political freedom entirely detached from allowing some people, at least sometimes, to do the wrong thing. It seems to me that if we have a right to political liberty it is going to be a right in determining our actions for ourselves and that is going to be inconsistent. For we experience the power of this freedom – actually a libertarian view – and that is inconsistent with being forced to do the right thing. That does not necessarily mean it is wrong to force people to do the right thing, but being forced to do what is right is something our power of free will should limit by its very nature. (The precise nature of the limits I have not explained, and have put it very vaguely.)

Secondly, the notion that it does not matter whether your external actions are limited provided you have inner freedom of will is a very old one, going back to stoicism. Epictetus had the idea that it does not matter if you tie me up and put me in chains, for not even Zeus can take away my power over my decisions and that is what really matters. That, I believe, cannot be quite right. The point about taking decisions, the reason we want to take them, is to do the right thing at the point of the action decided upon. When one deliberates about what decision to take one’s attention as a practical reasoner is not concentrated on what is going to be the best decision. One is rather looking at one’s decisions by way of the options of one’s external action that those decisions are going to determine. One will deliberate whether to go to the bank or to stay at home, or to give money to the tax man or to try to swindle the tax man, or whatever the options are. The point of the decision is to get yourself to do the right thing at that external point or action. You cannot really respect the power of free will if you simply allow it to go on inside someone’s head and at the same time deny it all expression under all conditions, morally loaded conditions, where one is right and one is wrong at the level of external action

Dr. Gunnar Beck: The only ‘down-side’ it seems to me is that one does not quite know how one would have decided. If we cease to be curious, the loss is not obvious to me. Unless…

Russell Wilcox: There is something else to be considered here. If one is leading a virtuous life, the idea is surely that the maximally virtuous life is also the life that maximises the opportunities available. One can maximise one’s capacity for living a varied and diverse life. The point here is that one is not being forced to be free, but rather prevented from being un-free, or, slightly different, one is prevented from doing something that would be un-free.

It might be the case that if one was going to do something obviously un-free which will have the consequences of diminishing everyone else’s freedom, that this should be stopped. From a practical point of view, nonetheless, it is very difficult to stop a person from doing everything that might potentially reduce the overall amount of freedom, including his or her own. Given that one is practically limited, as is the political community at large, the danger is that in trying to stop a man doing something that will close down his freedom or other people’s freedom, one might end up taking action that will itself close down freedom. One can only act to limit or prevent or coerce somebody from doing something un-free or lead to ‘un-freedom’ when it is absolutely clear that it will lead to that.

Bart Dunlea: What you have described seems to me recognisable insofar as it describes the drama of life. It is all about doing and achieving and deciding. Sometimes we are successful, and at other times not, but it is all about activity, all about attachment. Is there any concept of freedom you would describe as absolute? Here I think one has to explore the world of stillness or non-attachment, and, perhaps linked with that, the divine will. What is the divine will, and the natural law which is an expression of it?

Dr. Tom Pink: There are two aspects to your question. One is the nature of the relationship between divine freedom and human freedom. There must be a connection because we naturally think of ourselves as bearing the image of God, and God’s freedom is therefore some perfection of ours. To some degree that takes us back to the issue of the relationship between our human freedom which standardly involves a power over how to do right or wrong, and the availability of those alternatives with divine freedom which is customarily thought not to include those alternatives but in a sense is not to be less of a freedom for that reason. Perhaps what Russell has been saying about the more good you are, the more possibilities you have, is part of that story

Bart Dunlea: I feel it important to move away from the notions of possibilities and achievements. That is why I wish to explore the ‘non-attachment’ idea.

Dr. Tom Pink: Well, one of the things which distinguishes God is maximisation of possibilities, so to speak, and I am by no means sure that I wish to get away from that thought. It is a way of thinking about God that seems to me very attractive. What will certainly be true of divine freedom is that it will not involve change. Perhaps that may be what you have in mind with ‘stillness’. What is very characteristic of our understanding of freedom is that it involves change by its very exercise. We move from ignorance about what we will do to a decision that informs us about what we will do. Anything like that is absent from the Divine life. We have to apply to an unchanging entity a notion of freedom normally involving deep form-change in our own lives. I have no answers in this area, but I think you are right to suggest something should be said about it.

One very important issue is that of what ways of removing the chances of doing bad things do and do not threaten freedom. This is linked with one deeply important element of free will about which I have not said very much, namely freedom as a mode of self-determination. When we are free, we are determining ourselves. When we are un-free, something outside of us is determining us at a very fundamental level.

Each of us removes chances of doing certain things simply by taking decisions. When I decide to go to the bank this afternoon instead of staying at home, I remove the chance of my staying at home. But what removes it is memy will, and not something outside of me. It is very noticeable that we tend not to look upon that as a threat to our freedom. One does not think, ‘Oh my gosh! I have imprisoned myself through my own will’. Nor would one think that in order to have the freedom to act otherwise, there need be an actual chance of so acting.

God is, of course different…

Russell Wilcox: In fact, maximal activity…?

Dr. Tom Pink: Yes. Well, it is certainly all internally generated, and, within certain metaphysical systems, that would be a theory of pure act.

Oliver Bloor: This may sound simplistic, but it seems to me that at the heart of what Suárez had to say was that the ability to ponder and to deliberate would otherwise have been given us in vain… If given to us, as something which is absolutely in God, it was given for a purpose. The answer to the question about whether we still have freedom when we go to heaven is that the purpose of having freedom is to choose the good and when we get to heaven we do not need that any longer because the purpose has been achieved. We do not need to travel when we have arrived.

Dr. Tom Pink: I think that is exactly what Suárez thinks of intention. In a sense we do not need free will in quite the way he would have put it when we arrive, but we do need it to acquire merit (he is very Tridentine in his feelings on this matter, and indeed unrepentantly so). So part of the point of freedom is not only to enable us to do the right thing but also to acquire merit, and the desert of reward in so doing. Without this, doing the right thing would be more or less pointless or would at least lose much of its point.

Peter Adams: I wish to raise what is really a point of information. I am a scientist and so looking at things from that point of view. How does the notion that free will is a myth enter in? Might that have come through science? It is certainly a notion I find in scientists who think everything is determined. Perhaps the latest developments in science will show that it is not. How, then, has this come into philosophy, and how is it maintained there?

Dr. Tom Pink: It does not come from the thought that everything is causally determined about which most philosophers know enough to regard it as dubious for the reason you mentioned. Most problems to do with free will are internally generated within philosophy, and have not come from science. I know of no empirical findings in science that seriously undermine libertarian freedom.

Opposition to libertarian freedom arises fundamentally from a model, dogmatic and not based on experience, of the kinds of powers to be found in nature. If there is any power in nature, it is causal and attaches itself to happenings. Our actions, if they are going to be determined by anything at all, will be determined by a prior happening. Otherwise they are not determined by anything and merely random.

In any introduction to the ‘free will problem’ in a text-book – since Hobbes and Hume – you will read that there are only two alternatives: either one’s actions are determined by one’s desires, in which case they are intelligible actions, or they are just chance events. In neither case does libertarian freedom exist, but why worry? Clearly, if action is to occur at all, there needs to be determination by prior desires, the alternative amounting to unintelligible jerking. There is no science whatever in that. It is just a very dogmatic assumption about what kind of powers are available in nature and it seems to me a complete negation of the manner in which we actually experience our own freedom.

Neil Pickering: Is the inversion of freedom and truth the root cause of the consequentialism now found in ethics, uncoupling the relationship between freedom and the good, and opening the way to realpolitik?
Dr. Tom Pink: Well that is a vast question. The sources of consequentialism are various.

One thing that is clearly important to it is the thinning out of individual moral responsibility. Consequentialism is the doctrine that the right action is the one which maximises the good: one is supposed to do whatever maximises the good. That allows for all sorts of situations, familiar within the modern subject. One cannot just say, ‘Well, I will not do that because I will not be responsible for doing that. If it happens, someone else is responsible.’ That blocks the matter off because the notion of moral responsibility no longer bears the distinctive weight it once did when the idea that one has a distinctive power over one’s own actions was taken for granted.

Now we see attempts to make sense of moral responsibilities involving not much more than the capacity to act as one wants or a generalised capacity to exercise rationality, neither of which involves a very strong notion of independence. My own view is that this is crucial to the appeal made by a lot of consequentialist reasoning. But there is a lot else going on in consequentialism. I do not think it is simply a conception of the good. I would stress the consequentialists’ downgrading of the individual’s responsibility and his or her right to say, ‘Well, I know that if I refrain from that it will lead to certain consequences, but that is the fault of another person who brought about the situation’.

Michael Moore: The response you gave to Peter just now that many of the philosophical problems conjured up within the ivory tower of philosophy seem to amount to assertions – assertion upon assertion, upon assertion. Why are these so attractive, and why have they been made?

Dr. Tom Pink: Well, in replying I was perhaps rather weak in defence of my fellow professionals. One has to start somewhere, if one is going to make some assumptions about what might be a plausible evidential base for believing, and for something being part of the furniture of the world. One will have to allow that some sources of information may be more reliable than others. One has to make some initial assumptions.

If you want to ask why these particular assertions, often deeply unattractive ones, then that is different. In Hobbes’s case, a lot of what is going on is not very empirical. Actually, Hobbes is a profoundly aprioristic reasoner and most of his conclusions about the nature of causation are not based on any form of experience. Thomas Hobbes had a completely dogmatic allegiance to the principle of sufficient reason, rendering it very hard for him to make sense of freedom as a power. Suárez, on the other hand, tried to make sense of it as a kind of causal power that can operate to produce alternative possible effects – with free agents as free causes, with just this power to produce a variety of possible effects. That means that there is a sense in which there is not just one way in which we have got to act such that our very presence is sufficient reason for that effect occurring rather than another. For me the principle of sufficient reason has never had much appeal. It always strikes me as a dubious principle and difficult to support with any plausible degree of reasoning. It is generally just asserted as an axiom by those who believe in it.

Dr. Andrew Hegarty: Was Hobbes just being bloody-minded in response to the very powerful impact that had been made by the Metaphysics of Suárez throughout Europe, regardless of confessional divides, by the middle of the 17th century?

Dr. Tom Pink: Hobbes picked his targets. I think he was bloody-minded, but he was also sometimes willing to agree with others, in a condescending manner! I do not think he disagreed with Suárez on this point simply because Suárez was important; he disagreed rather because he thought about causation in a different way. I cannot explain why.

Michael Moore: It seems to me that many more people today are acquainted with the views of Hobbes than with those of Suárez.

Dr. Tom Pink: That is certainly true. Hobbes was happy to play the village Protestant. He was arguing against an Anglican Bishop, Bramhall, an amateur Suarezian, and he loved embarrassing Bramhall by declaring that he had taken all his ideas from a Spanish Jesuit! Luther and Calvin would never have said such a thing. I think it is rather cruel!

It is wrong, however, to think of Hobbes as an atheist, for he has a powerful religious vision. It may have something to do with the appeal of determinism for the finite world. Hobbes envisages God as an almost unintelligible power which turns everything. He was happy to back that up with arguments taken from Calvin, but actually a lot of the structure of his theory of freedom is hard to reconcile with Calvinist theology. Hobbes was offering a general picture of metaphysics with a tactical wave at religion.

Jack Valero: I found your explanation very convincing and yet, with all the relativism that there is about us today, many seem to have a concept of freedom amounting to a freedom of indifference which allows that any option is as good as another. What is your take on this very widespread outlook?

Dr. Tom Pink: I believe that it is a manifestation of a certain way of packing autonomy in the general culture. One way of making it really matter is that you form your principles independently of everything else. Then one can declare, ‘Well, you have your perspective, and I have mine’. That is deeply part of the culture.

It seems to me that there are ways of tackling this. One is to wait for those who hold such views to get into situations where they really do care very deeply about what decision is made. I recall an academic at Cambridge who was always spouting scepticism about the notion of obligation. I used to think to myself, ‘Just wait until someone steals his fine musical collection! There will be plenty of blame and talk of obligation then.’

Of course, if there were even more metaphysical scepticism about value, that would affect the value of autonomy itself. Then the whole thing would become self-refuting

Dr. Andrew Hegarty: As Chairman I should like to offer Tom, and Russell, a few last words by means of which they can draw together interesting matters arising.

Russell Wilcox: Well, it may seem rather facile, but I should like to point up the inversion of means and ends. Freedom exists for a purpose, and if autonomy becomes the goal in and of itself then it is completely evacuated of all meaning. As is my comment!

Dr. Tom Pink: Let me return to the value of the exercise of freedom and the point about where decision-making lies. Clearly decisions matter a lot, and there is a sense in which we should like to think that if we get decisions right, we have really done right in a fundamental way. But the whole point of taking the decision is to get ourselves to perform one external action as opposed to another. So we have a strong inclination to think that the point of decision-making, the point of exercising freedom, is to be found beyond the will in the external world. The Stoics were deeply wrong to think that all that mattered went on in our heads. I think that one of the most interesting problematics within the theory of freedom but also the theory of value: working out exactly how to make sense of two opposing thoughts – that the will matters, but that it matters in a sense less than what is outside the will, or not in itself.