Monday, May 10, 2010
Set Me Free!
What is freedom? Much of our political philosophy as Americans is based on the presupposition that all people yearn to “breath free.” This is what it means to be created in the Image of God. We are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the trinity of choice. Freedom, we reason, must therefore be the absence of obstacles to doing what we want. But what if freedom has a much more stringent moral dimension?
Much of human activity vis-à-vis our notions of freedom involve seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. But this way of living is not really free – it is simply serving our desires. Let me give you an example. Last week two of my students took me to Yogurtland – a new, self-serve frozen yogurt store. They have multiple flavors, and you are “free to choose” any flavor or combination of flavors. Here are some flavors I could choose from: vanilla, strawberry, pistachio, peanut butter, green tea, and pumpkin pie. Of those flavors, the only ones that appealed to me where strawberry and pistachio. In yogurt form, the other flavors are nasty! So my “choice” at the yogurt stand was simply satisfying a built-in preference, a preference which I never chose to begin with. There is nothing wrong with acting according to our built-in preferences and desires, but it is not acting freely.
So, can one be held morally responsible for actions that fall outside of our ability to choose freely? Suppose I am pushed from the roof of a ten-story building and land on another person and kill that person. I cannot be held morally responsible for their death since I cannot choose to not follow the law of gravity. Think about the language you speak? Did you choose English? Did someone who was born in Russia choose to speak Russian? Of course not! What about your set of beliefs? What about your religious identity? Given that we inherit genetic defects from our parents, do we really choose to be healthy – or obese, or depressed? The truth is that we have far less choice than we realize.
But how far can we take this way of thinking about freedom and choices vis-à-vis moral responsibility? If someone is molested as a child, for example, can they be held morally responsible for deviant behavior as an adult? Here, then, is the link between freedom and morality. To act freely in a moral sense is not simply to choose the best means to reach a pre-existing end (the satisfaction of built-in desires). To act freely is to choose a new end for its own sake. This ability to rise above our instincts is what sets humans apart from animals. Back to Yogurtland. True freedom of choice is rejecting my desire to eat pistachio over pumpkin pie, walk out of the store, fast for a day, and then send $50 to feed hungry children in Africa.