In the comments to a recent post, “G-man” wrote:
Consider . . . the fact that our current values are by no means the values we *should* have. Does that mean, then, that if our values can be adjusted (say, for instance, the desire for sex or the desire for personal freedom), would there be anything wrong with that state of affairs? I can't think of any reason why it would. Of course, I have a personal aversion to losing my desire for freedom and for sex - but it's still worth a thought, I guess.
There are things to be said on both of these issues – the desire for sex, and the desire for freedom. Today, I will give my comments on the desire for freedom. Tomorrow, I will talk about sex.
The Loss of Freedom
Freedom has some unique properties whereby a loss of freedom is bad even for the person who does not value freedom per se.
To start with, I would like you to consider a law that outlaws swimming in the methane lakes of Titan for the next 10 years, or imposes a fine on altering the gravitational constant by more than 1 order of magnitude. In some overly technical sense, this may be considered a loss of freedom. However, in a more day-to-day sense, no freedom has been lost at all. These prohibitions do not prevent people from doing anything that they would otherwise have done.
A more meaningful loss of freedom prohibits people from performing actions that they might have otherwise performed. Imagine an individual facing a choice between two options; Option A and Option B. People choose those actions that fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires, given their beliefs. Our individual, in a state of freedom, would choose Option A. However, if Option A is prohibited – if the individual is denied his freedom – then that individual has been denied the opportunity to fulfill his desires, given his beliefs.
This might not be a bad thing where agents have false beliefs. A person might desire to take arsenic, thinking that it cures the hiccups. A prohibition on taking arsenic would prevent these people from doing something that they would not have chosen if their beliefs were true. Each individual seeks to act so as to fulfill his desires, so such a law would give people what they want, even if it denies them what they would choose.
The Value of Liberty
The ultimate case for freedom comes from the 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill, in the essay “On Liberty,” which I discussed in the third part in a series on the value of truth, “True Beliefs III: Liberty of Beliefs.” He gave two principle reasons why we would want the person who directs an individual’s life to be that individual.
I’m going to give his arguments a slight desire-utilitarian twist. (It is just a slight twist because the only difference between desire utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism is that desires are particular types of rules written into the brain.)
Value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Specifically, each agent seeks to create states of affairs in which their desires are fulfilled. If we are going to try to maximize value, then we need to assign the job of running each person’s life to an individual or group who (1) has the best information on what those desires are, (2) has the best information on which states of affairs will fulfill those desires, and (3) is the least corruptible agent when it comes to fulfilling those desires.
In other words, the person who is best qualified to run any given individual’s life in a way that fulfills the most and strongest desires is that person. There are, of course, known exceptions such as young children and the mentally incompetent. However, among competent adults, this is generally true.
The Love of Liberty
This argues that liberty is useful. However, in this post I am interested in showing that the love of liberty is useful.
Imagine that you are a loving parent with a vulnerable child. You have a choice between moving into two neighborhoods. In one neighborhood, people value the well being of children to the degree that they can be convinced that it is useful to do so. We convince them by telling them that those children could grow up to be doctors, lawyers, architects, landscapers, and, in other ways, skilled and useful adults.
In the other neighborhood, people value the well-being of children for its own sake. They have come to desire that children are safe and well cared for independent of its usefulness. It’s like eating chocolate – something that some people may pursue even when it is not useful for them to do so – even when it conflicts with other interests – simply because they like it. The people living in this neighborhood like a neighborhood where children are safe.
To the degree that you are interested in your child’s safety, I would recommend the second neighborhood over the first.
For another example, consider the case of exercise. Exercise is useful in that it promotes health which an individual can reasonably expect will promote the agent’s ability to fulfill future desires. However, exercise is hard work. You are given a choice. You can be made into a person who does not like exercise and exercises only when (and to the degree) that it is useful to do so, or you can be made into somebody who values exercise for its own sake. The second type of person will exercise even when she cannot calculate any use for it, because she likes to exercise, and she insists on doing what she likes.
Again, an argument can be made that it is better to be the second type of person – the person who exercises for the fun of it. This person does not need to be reminded that it is time to job or run. She will exercise (rather than watch television) precisely because exercising is something that she values more than watching television.
Similarly, when it comes to securing liberty (and I have already established that each of us have reason to secure liberty – because no other person is going to do a better job of directing the course of each of our lives than that person), our liberty is better secured in a neighborhood that loves liberty, than in a neighborhood where liberty is valued only for its usefulness (and easily discarded the instant it ceases to become useful).
One of the conclusions that we can draw from the Bush Administration is that they have no love of liberty. If they care about liberty at all it is only insofar as they find it to be useful. They will toss it aside the instant that it ceases to be useful. This is why convincing them to abandon torture and arbitrary imprisonment, or to restore the right of habeas corpus, seems to require an argument as to the usefulness of doing so.
You do not need to convince somebody who loves chocolate to eat chocolate because of its usefulness. In most cases, you do not need to present a person with a case for the usefulness of sex to get him to have sex. These are things that people value for their own sake. You can know this because of the fact that they pursue these ends without regard for their usefulness, simply because they are desired.
So, we know that the Bush Administration has no love of liberty. Because we have placed our liberty in the hands of those who do not love liberty, but who value it only insofar as it is useful to them, our liberty is now far less secure.
Now, please note that I have not premised this argument for the value of the love of liberty on anything other than the fact that each individual is best qualified (most knowledgeable, leas corruptible) person to direct that person’s life. It does not depend on what a person likes, he can almost always do a better job of directing his life towards that end. It is one of the qualities of liberty that it is useful (among such individuals) regardless of what other desires a person has.
Restrictions on Liberty
The love of liberty argues for a presumption in favor of liberty – but a presumption that can be outweighed. In a trial by jury, it argues for a presumption of innocence on the part of the accused – but a presumption that can be overridden by proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In law it argues for a presumption in favor of personal freedom and against government interference – but a presumption that can be overridden by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
If a person desires to set off a nuclear weapon in a city, then we will prevent him from fulfilling the more and stronger of his desires, given his beliefs. However, we know (quite reliably) that the desires that would motivate a person to set off such a bomb in the middle of a city are desires that tend to thwart other desires. People (whose desires would be thwarted) have reason to inhibit the formation of desires that tend to thwart other desires. They have reason to interfere with the actions that such a person might perform.
So, yes, laws do thwart liberty.
However, in desire-utilitarian terms, they only restrict the liberty of bad people. A good person (a person whose desires tend to fulfill the desires of others) would have such an aversion to detonating nuclear weapons in a city, rape, theft, murder, robbery, and the like, that, to them, committing one of these actions is not within the realm of possibilities for a good person. "I could never do something like that," is a real-world truth when it comes to real-world good people performing such an action.
The love of liberty means that a person is going to need 'proof beyond a reasonable doubt' that the restriction of a particular liberty is necessary. In terms of laws against detonating nuclear weapons in cities, killing and maiming others, rape, theft, and other forms of violence, we have our proof beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the person who advocates restrictions in liberty without proof - based on a 'preponderance of evidence' or 'it seems like a good idea' is like the person who will vote 'guilty' on a trial because the accused, 'just seems guilty to me.'