Democracy: The Philosophic Principles and Mechanisms Part III
Part Three – On Freedom and Liberty
by John M. Joyce (June 2008)
I stated in my last essay that democracy has incorporated freedom and liberty into its very fabric and made them essential components of that type of government selection process. Obviously, I must now justify that statement but before I do it is important to understand what is meant by those two terms. What is freedom? What is liberty?
In this third essay in the series, I am going to advance a way of starting to address freedom as a concept within our modern and democratic polities. I will address briefly the various types of freedom and liberty, such as the metaphysical, the inter-personal and self-determination and autonomy.
Freedom and liberty, in all their various strands, run through, and are at the core of, our modern Western liberal approach to living a life in our democratic polities and it is our freedoms and our liberties, together with our democratic ways of selecting the governments of our polities, which are under threat today as never before. In our polities today various disparate groups of people are trying to establish that their beliefs or ways of doing things must be placed on a pedestal and never criticised or analysed. Muslims demand that Islam must be placed beyond criticism and outwith rational analysis. Some other religions, encouraged by the Muslim stance, demand the same for their beliefs. Various immigrant racial groups refuse to give up certain ways of doing things and state that there can be no criticism of their methods for such methods are part of their culture and to criticise is to be racist. Many homosexual people assert that certain aspects of their social behaviours are born out of their innate sexual preference and that these should not be questioned or analysed. Everywhere we look in our polities today some group or another is demanding that special treatment: men’s groups, women’s groups, blacks’ groups, children’s groups, prisoners’ groups, straights’ groups, gay groups, thin groups and fat groups, Islamic groups and Christian groups, these, and many, many more, demand that they and their worldviews must be placed beyond criticism and analysis. They demand this in the name of freedom and liberty and, let us face the facts, they are to some very small extent justified in their demands. However, the justification, much as these groups would wish to argue differently, does not arise from, nor is it relevant to, freedom and liberty. Protection for the rights of minorities is a matter of law – it is not a matter of freedom or of liberty.
The concepts of freedom and liberty guide and influence the creation of law and law, the law, protects individuals, and groups of individuals, from the potentially excessive demands which may be placed upon them by others in the polity; but freedom and liberty are one step removed from law and protection. Freedom and liberty guide the creation of law in our modern democratic polities; these concepts underpin law and attempt to make certain that the law is just and that the burdens of living a life under the law renders us all, note that ‘all’, equal before the law but freedom and liberty, as concepts, do not allow special pleading or a privileged status for one group or another. The law may allow this, in which case it may be a bad law which will have paid scant regard to freedom and liberty in its formulation, but freedom and liberty cannot allow such special cases for where special cases are permitted to exist then freedom and liberty for all, again, note the ‘all’, is denied.
However, before describing just how freedom and liberty work in our democratic polities’ selection processes today, and the way that these two concepts underpin the law and laws in our polities, we need to know just what we mean by these two terms.
There is ‘libertarianism’, for example, which is the theory that we have freedom of the will; that we are not constrained by fate or some godly predestination such that no matter which decisions as to our forthcoming actions that we seem to take for ourselves we have not really taken a free decision, for some god or other, or the universe, has known since the beginning of time that we would decide in the way that we did, or, in the case of the universe, that our seeming free decisions are nothing more than an almost infinitely complex chain of cause and effect which started with the big bang – ‘determinism’. It is generally argued that if freedom of the will is the case then it is possible to advance arguments about, and definitions of, the moral responsibilities of individuals (without, in this essay, defining what is meant by moral responsibility). The other side of the argument is that the cosmos is deterministic: that we play out our allotted roles and everything we do, or think, or conceive of probably doing (the totality of our actions) is ordained by the very nature of the cosmos. For some philosophers this would seem to indicate that there could be no moral responsibility for anything that happens, for any action taken by an individual, is inevitable and beyond choice or control. The natural corollary of this point of view is that if there are no moral responsibilities then there can be, or should be, no consequences for actions taken by an individual, but, of course, it could be argued that the consequences would have been predetermined anyway. If we continue with that line of argument all we end up with is a muddle of reasoning which leaves we humans either as nothing more than automata or as free willed creatures adrift on a wild sea of uncertainty. Determinism is generally not accepted by the peoples of the democratic polities when examining or determining the mechanisms of the polities they live in; we prefer to believe in free will and we incorporate that belief into our general notion of freedom and, thereby, assert that we believe in the ability of individuals to choose their actions and take the consequences of those actions, and law is predicated as desirable on that basis, amongst others.1
I am aware that there are compatibilist2 arguments about freedom and determinism, as I am aware of Calvin’s theory of predestination. I do not propose to address compatibilism here for, although it is an important thread of argument, it is, in my opinion, only very marginally relevant to the issue at hand, nor have I anything to say, in this work, about predestination, excepting that I would argue that it is just a special (in this case theological) example of determinism. I am also aware of the Muslim use of the phrase “Insha Allah” but I do not know enough about the philosophical theology of Islam to know whether this is indicative of Islam being a deterministic faith at core or whether the use of the words by Muslims merely expresses a resigned attitude to the things in life which are impossible for the individual to change – similar, perhaps, to our own Deo volente. Science, as yet, has not progressed sufficiently far so as to be of much use in this discussion but it should be noted that it is making a significant contribution to the debate about determinism nonetheless, usually using examples drawn from quantum physics.
Let me now re-state the important point here: when it comes to deciding what mechanisms should be present in our democratic polities we all act as if we are libertarianists even though some of us may suspect that we live in a deterministic cosmos. This, then, is the first building block in the foundational edifice of freedom which we use in our democratic polities to underpin our decisions on the mechanisms that we put in place in them – that individuals are completely free to make choices. We cannot prove, objectively, that such a part of freedom exists but neither can the determinists prove that they are correct. Free will appears to work so we all consent (or are pre-determined to consent?) – there is that word again3 – in believing, in a pragmatic sense, that it is a fact.
However, over the course of many centuries – the centuries which have seen our modern concept of democracy evolve to its present state – we have subtly changed our idea of what freedom is. In the ancient Greek city-states a man felt himself to be free if he could take part in government: to quote Sir Isaiah Berlin4 “the laws were valid only if one had had the right to take part in making and unmaking them. To be free was not to be forced to obey laws made by others for one but not by one. This kind of democracy entailed that government and laws could penetrate into every province of life. Man was not free, nor did he claim freedom, from such supervision. All democrats claimed was that every man was equally liable to criticism, investigation, and if need be arraignment before the laws, or other arrangements, in the establishing and maintaining of which all the citizens had the right to participate.”
Now, contrast Sir Isaiah’s succinct summation of ancient freedoms with Benjamin Constant’s5 thoughts about freedoms in a life as lived almost two millennia after the societies which Sir Isaiah was examining had ceased to exist. He stated that there is such a part of life as ‘private life’ and that public authority has no place therein (excepting in unusual conditions). Once again drawing heavily on Sir Isaiah’s thoughts on the matter “The central question posed by the ancient world is ‘Who shall govern me?’ [...] In the modern world an equally important question is ‘How much government should there be?’ We, in our modern liberal democracies, have answered the first question – at least to our own satisfaction and for the time being – but we have not answered the second one in any complete way. In each democratic polity matters are arranged differently. Sometimes the differences are slight and sometimes major, but we all agree that there is a question to answer.
The ancient Greeks viewed life as a whole and saw nothing wrong with government and law covering all of it. So, why do we see life differently from them and in the same way that Constant did? Is it because we had to struggle so very hard over the last two hundred years or so against absolute monarchs and various tyrannies and theocracies in order to bring our democracies into being? In that struggle did we develop a concept of private life in order to have a place wherein we could, in secret, work to subvert those old orders? I think so. However, now that we have our democracies why do we still maintain the concept of a ‘private life’ and insist upon it as a natural right? (I made plain in a footnote to my last essay exactly what I think about the concept of ‘natural rights’, namely, that such a concept is a nonsense. In a future essay I’ll explain why I think that.) I think that we still maintain the concept of ‘private life’ for two reasons. Firstly, because it appeals to some part of our natural being to have private space in our lives – a space in which we are the only arbiters of our thoughts and actions. Secondly, because our societies have become so large and complex we have developed again a sense that we are struggling against many of the institutions which hold sway over the non-private parts of lives – not tyrannies but large corporations, not theocracies but the beliefs of others nonetheless. Once again, it could be argued, our private lives are the spaces in which we can now plot and scheme ‘in secret’ against whichever institution we perceive as dangerous (and some of us even see our own democratically elected governments as dangerous).
There is a question here: how far can a democratic polity allow any citizen to go in exercising complete freedom in his or her own private life? Certainly not so far as to injure other citizens in some way, but can we allow a citizen to injure himself in his private life – for example, should we intervene if a citizen wishes to spend most his private life in drinking far more alcohol than is good for his body and mind? If we separate such a citizen from his supply of alcohol are we not in some sense limiting his freedom, constraining him to a course of action which we see as good but he does not? After all, compulsion, no matter how well meant, is compulsion and not liberty.
The opposing view is that freedom is just one liberty amongst many and curtailing freedom to make room for another benefit – another so-called ‘natural right’ – such as the good health of my theoretical dipsomaniac, would be desirable and advisable.
In general, many philosophers would argue that the greater the number of constraints placed upon private life then the greater the likelihood is that the polity is becoming less democratic overall. Others would argue that that is not necessarily the case as long as all citizens consent (again, that word) freely to such constraints. One should be able to see by now that the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ cannot just be used loosely, or trotted out as mere slogans, for they port a wealth of meaning and argument. We all think that we know what they mean but in reality most of us have only the loosest grasp on their meanings and implications and we are all too inclined to yell them at anyone we happen to disagree with.
So, having established that ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ are complicated subjects, philosophically speaking, exactly which aspects of these two words, these two concepts, which have been used interchangeably throughout this essay, are brought into play when we select our government in the democratic way? The first is freedom to choose. No one constrains our choice in electing a fellow citizen to represent us. The second is the liberty to speak freely about the process, the candidates, the system and the outcomes.
In reality, choice is constrained by the very nature of our modern and large polities but we consent to such constraint for there is no alternative if we wish to keep our existing polities intact. Our free speech is also constrained, but by invented law not by circumstance. Law forbids us, even in such an important process as the selecting of the few to govern us, from uttering lies about a person, or a group of people, from gratuitous insult, from falsifying verifiable facts and from a whole range of other natural human behaviours. Thereby, the law encourages we citizens to make dispassionate judgements based on fact and seeks to help us to negate self-interest and prejudice. We consent (!) to the law constraining our speech in these circumstances. Why? Would we be worse served by government if all constraints on speech concerning elections were to be removed? I don’t know, but speaking as someone deeply committed to democracy I cannot philosophically approve of any legal constraint whatsoever being imposed upon speech when it comes to the selection process for, it is that very discussion which keeps democracy on track, which keeps democracy from decaying into something less. Anything, anything at all, which places constraints of any type upon that discussion, must be viewed with suspicion. The liberty to speak freely about every part of the selection process, even if that means uttering calumnies and downright lies, is, in my opinion, an absolute prerequisite for a democratic polity. The process of selection of the few who govern us has to be completely free of interference or we do not live in a democracy but in a controlled democracy, a lesser freedom – a democratic polity which has taken the first step on the road to its own extinction.
The law may reach into our private lives. It may constrain and limit our actions therein, but it must never be allowed to extend its reach into the freedom and liberty which underpin the democratic processes. In our large and complex modern polities we have come to rely upon our mass media – newspapers, television, radio and the internet – to further the discussions which are necessary for the democratic selection processes to function correctly and to survive. British law does not recognise these processes as being of the utmost importance; it merely equates them with all other processes and frequently seeks to impose its own limited, and limiting, standards upon the necessary discussions surrounding the processes of selection. It is unaware of this necessity – free discussion – for the survival of democracy and it has no understanding that there can be no limits to free speech when it comes to the processes of democracy. The law has, in my opinion, terrorised our mass media into the banal and thereby jeopardised our democracies. The law has no place in the selection processes excepting, and it’s an important exception, in ensuring an honest count of the ballot and an honest holding of the ballot. In all other things concerning elections the law must be excluded – otherwise we risk losing our democracies. Freedom and liberty underpin the law; they are the standards by which the law must be judged. However, they are greater than the law and the law must bow down before them. No democratic polity should place law above freedom of choice and the liberty to speak freely when it comes to the selection processes – the elections. That many of our democratic polities do so is not to our credit as vigilant citizens, for that has placed our polities in a very vulnerable position.
Not only is freedom of choice routinely and deliberately confused with immorality (whatever that might be) by some enemies of democracy (fundamentalist Muslims, for example), but our liberty to speak freely is often (and usually by the same people) also held up to be immoral because some of us utter opinions at variance with the perceived, currently politically correct, norms. Some of us even dare to question the philosophical validity of the values of those who attack us and our polities’ ways of doing things and we are frequently met with counter-arguments which at best, and I’m being charitable here, wouldn’t even grace the debating club of a primary school.
Freedom and liberty are truly complex concepts and I couldn’t begin to elucidate their relationships to our modern democracies in one short essay. Instead, I have chosen to give you an introduction to the philosophical concepts surrounding those terms – perhaps not even an introduction, maybe just the preface! However, let me assure you that future essays will fill in the philosophical terra incognita and slay the dragons marked on your maps. In the meantime, please consult the bibliography appended to this essay and enjoy the thoughts of some of our greatest minds.
1) See Eccles, J.C. and Popper, K.R. The Self and its Brain,
2) Compatibilism is a viewpoint on determinism which states that we are sometimes free and responsible in a moral sense even although everything is causally determined. It’s a nonsense, obviously, but see Honderich, T. as cited in footnote (1) above.
3) See New English Review, April 2008, Joyce, John M. Democracy: The Philosophic Principles and Mechanisms. Part One – The basic definition for the use of ‘consent’ in this context. I hate citing myself but it does save long-winded explanations!
4) Sir Isaiah
5) Henri Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (1767-1830). See Constant, B. Political Writings, translated and edited by Biancamaria Fontana,
Apart from those thinkers and authors cited in the footnotes (above) I’m indebted also to the following writers who have coloured my thinking so far on the subject of ‘freedom and liberty’:
Adler, M.J. The Idea of Freedom,
Gray, J. Liberalism,
Miller, D. (ed.)
Moore, G.E. Ethics,
Norman, R. Free and Equal,
Nozick, R. Anarchy, State, and Utopia,
Rawls, J. Political Liberalism,
Singer, P. Hegel,
Of course, I owe also a huge debt of gratitude, as any philosopher of my generation does, to the late, great Sir Isaiah Berlin – probably the greatest political philosopher and historian of thought that the twentieth century, or any century so far, has ever produced. Read any of his works – they cannot fail but to enrich your intellect and enlighten your thoughts. You don’t have to agree with him – he’d hate that were he still with us – but if you are challenged by his works then that is all that he would have asked of you. See Wikipedia for a start point. Enjoy!
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