Post No.: 0246
We can be said to have standing-based justice/rights (rights that we have for simply being human, for being sentient or for being able to feel pleasure or suffering) and action-matching justice/rights (rights that we have for the things we do e.g. we have a right to be paid for the work we do, or it’s just to be punished for the wrongs we commit). These are not mutually exclusive rights i.e. we can have some of both.
We all pretty much agree that liberty or freedom is a good and desirable right. But there’s less agreement about what that exactly means in practice. Does free speech and a free press allow for the free dissemination of lies, misinformation, propaganda and hate speech? (It seems to be the case that we all support free speech… unless someone says something we strongly disagree with(!)) Does the freedom of association or assembly create insular and small-interest echo chambers? Both of these things affect whom we elect as our political representatives and what we publicly decide as political outcomes in referenda.
Some may argue that anything is fine under the umbrella of ‘free speech’, and any consequences it causes, such as encouraging someone else to commit a hate crime, are under the responsibility of those other people – but what about influencing children? (And therefore the adults they’ll eventually become?) We don’t expect children to take full responsibility for their actions and that’s why the law treats minors differently.
So words aren’t powerless. We cannot un-hear what we hear. And it’s oversimplistic to argue that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’. They can cause great harm. Words shape beliefs, which shape actions – especially if ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’! Meow.
So what freedoms should the state promote or protect and which ones should it limit or take away? For example, ones that cause harm to others in any way? Stopping people from interfering with other people’s wishes (since the freedoms of one person can impede on the freedoms of another e.g. my freedom and right to breathe clean air versus another person’s freedom to smoke wherever they want)? Or imprisoning those who break the law in order to protect the wider community? The law protects freedoms by limiting some other freedoms, such as limiting the freedom to essentially kill each other like wild animals can in the totally free and wild. Restricting some freedoms is thus civil.
Which freedoms are afforded to the individual and which to the community? For instance, the community of people could all vote in a democratic referendum and get a majority result, but that means the freedoms of the minority will be routinely or systematically obstructed, and these minority groups or their situations might exist only because of some historical injustice that has left a legacy that continues to hinder their political voice too (e.g. natives from certain countries becoming the minority after colonial immigrants (invaded and) settled there, or the subsequent generations of people who descended from slaves who were imported against their will into a particular country at one time). The goals of equality and freedom can thus clash – our votes may count equally but the majority can force the minority to go along with what is decided by the former group. This is a problem in countries that have a major religious sect that effectively oppresses a minor religious sect via democratic means, for instance. This post thus extends on Post No.: 0068 regarding equality and liberty.
If everyone can exercise their strict freedom (if everyone can do absolutely whatever they like) then we cannot all be free because some people’s expressions of freedom will impede on other people’s freedoms and ability to do the same. And so if not everyone can be free then we cannot be equal without, perhaps, everyone not being free somehow. In other words, equality and freedom are often at odds against each other. Strict individual freedom, and equality of freedom, or everybody being free at all times, are frequently at odds with each other.
For instance, a school banned selling triangular flapjacks from their canteen once because they deemed them as dangerous. On the one paw this seems like ‘health and safety gone mad’, but on another paw, who is anyone to tell what the school chooses to sell or not sell? It’s their property, or at least they’re running it, and if you don’t like it then go to another school, or at least buy and eat your flapjacks elsewhere. Who is anyone to nanny them about them nannying anyone?! Whatever their reasons, we cannot force them to sell triangular flapjacks any more than force them to sell dim sum, even if the pupils might want them. Maybe an even clearer example is uniforms imposed by schools versus the freedom for pupils to dress however they like. So these are examples of where allowing one group’s freedom (the school) means stifling another group’s freedom (the pupils), or vice-versa.
Therefore it’s easy stating what we want but much harder making it so in reality. It’s like it’s easy stating with casual or occasional armchair critique and unsolicited advice that we want a dish to be ‘delicious’ or a show to be ‘entertaining’ but much harder making it so. It’s easy to say what we want from our countries and politicians but much harder actually running a country and satisfying everybody or everything; if that’s even practically possible. Maybe too many people don’t understand many issues enough to understand that they involve dilemmas? It’s easy preaching but it’s often hard for each of us to perfectly live up to the ideals and values we claim to desire ourselves (e.g. who hasn’t told someone to shut up and wanted to deny them their freedom to speak, or been a bit nosey in other people’s private affairs, or lied, or stole something?) Many well-known philosophers themselves couldn’t live up to their own ideals, although this doesn’t mean their ideals were necessarily bad or wrong because of that.
To be free and able to make good choices, we need basic economic well-being and education, and many agree that the state can ensure these things for, in particular, the less well-off, via ‘distributive justice’. How free can very poor people be when their options are limited and they’re ripe for easy exploitation and coercion by people much wealthier than them? For example, you can either take this low-paid and unstable job in dangerous conditions, or starve. (This is why some rich and powerful individuals or organisations prioritise liberty or the freedom to do whatever they want without interference. They don’t care about equality because life’s unfair – to their advantage – and they want to keep it that way.)
And you can be free but uneducated. For instance, you can be free to stick your own claws in electric plug sockets because you never learned about the dangers of mains electricity, but that’s not really want we want! Yet should the state protect our freedoms and ability to make good, or at least not bad, choices, in the sense that, for instance, addictive recreational drugs impair the brains of individuals from making good choices (according to consistent scientific empirical evidence) if they take them, hence should people be protected from taking such drugs? Should people be protected from bad decisions and behaviours that result from their own lack of education or good judgement?
Individual freedom can also be meaningless or impossible if one is part of an un-free and subjugated community, so we must also consider freedoms at the community or group level too. In a way, you cannot be free unless the whole community you belong to is free from oppression first. We are socially embedded and connected with each other, and many things cannot be achieved alone either.
Now should the state only intervene to prevent (direct) harms from one person to another, or should it also promote benefits, happiness and welfare in society too? The usefulness of states or governments include preventing harm between people (laws and enforcement that uphold the peace and provide justice), solving or minimising collective action problems such as free-riding with public goods and the tragedy of the commons (e.g. national defence or looking after the air we all breathe and must share), and possibly improving the welfare, happiness and capabilities of its citizens and distributive justice.
If all people were inherently honest, kind, moral and good then all we’d need and want is a light government, but not all people in reality are. And almost any kind of political system would arguably work fine if only everyone at the helm or with the power were fully trustworthy and well-informed – from benevolent dictators to incorruptible judges, non-oppressive majorities to a well-educated electorate on all subjects including politics, economics, sociology and law. But again that’s not the reality either.
Socialism, capitalism, utilitarianism, libertarianism and other political philosophies – they all actually have the same aim of maximising or optimising society but they differ in their beliefs and approaches to reach this goal for the citizens of a polity. So the approach is where they mainly disagree, not their aim for society. None of these philosophies are inherently ‘evil’ or even misguided. They’re not always mutually exclusive anyway. In the main, for most well-rounded philosophers and economists at least, it’s not an issue of pitching ‘good versus evil’ ideologies.
The best modern philosophers and economists, in my fluffy opinion, are not hardcore socialist, capitalist, utilitarian, libertarian or hardcore anything – they explore and test out all possible routes in thought experiments or real-world experiments, and constantly review and re-review the real-world data, before settling on a conclusion; yet maybe only provisionally so for always looking out for even newer data and ideas. And they may do this for each situation on a case-by-case basis too. For example, they understand that sometimes more regulation is evidently needed and sometimes self-regulation works fine.
Even in the natural sciences, where things are far more objectively black-or-white, or ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ – constantly looking out for new data and ideas is the standard practice (e.g. the exact expansion rate of the universe was once thought to have been solved, but there’s currently a disagreement between cosmologists and astronomists). There’s (generally) no ‘clinging onto specific ideas to the death’, as if ‘our faith/worldview depends on it’, here. And if mistakes are made then these are accepted without loss of face and beliefs are updated.
So the best modern philosophers, personally, don’t sit uncompromisingly in one camp of thought – just like a good mixed martial arts fighter will have a mix of styles in her/his locker and will pick and choose what’s best to tackle a particular opponent or situation rather than be a one-trick pony. (Well I once knew a pony who could breathe sherbet flames, dance Gangnam Style and backside quad cork 1980!) Diversity (of thought and ideas in this case) improves adaptability.
Too many people hold political philosophies like it’s their cult or religion (e.g. ‘I’m Objectivist’ or ‘I’m Marxist’), when I believe they should be taken more like scientifically testable, or at least potentially testable, hypotheses with no personal identity attachment (like e.g. ‘this is string theory’ and ‘this is loop quantum gravity’). It’s not about sitting on fences and I understand that there’s credibility in holding a consistently-held philosophical stance rather than picking and choosing whatever suits a particular agenda but, for me, it’s strange that people can be so adamant, aggressive and attached about views that are so morally or ethically dilemmatic and thus subjective.