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On free will and libertarianism 3: freedom and politics

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Canto: So I’ve tried to establish my claim that free will just doesn’t exist, which will of course be rejected by those who are obsessed with the notion, who go on at length about freedom from government, the ‘system’, conformism, gender norms, religion, taxation, and so on. Of course, it would be highly unusual to hear any humans asserting their freedom from being human. We all seem to recognise that we’re stuck with that constraint. So, what is it, to be human?

Jacinta: Well I’m not sure if you’ve succeeded in convincing me about a complete lack of free will. It may be a product of complexity – that’s to say, we just don’t know what all the determining factors are, they’re so mind-bogglingly complex that the sense that we’ve made a particular positive or negative decision through the processes of unconstrained thought is probably the best explanation we can make in many circumstances. Isn’t that more or less the compatibilist argument?

Canto: Well, maybe, but I don’t think we’re the best judges of our own decision-making processes, just as, evidence shows, we’re not the best judges of our own abilities, our sex appeal, and so forth. For obvious evolutionary reasons, we’re inclined to think better of ourselves than others think of us. It helps us to keep afloat. But let’s turn now, for a while, to political libertarianism. First, it’s based, it seems to me, on the concept of rights, which is rather recent, though undoubtedly useful in trying to outline for individuals the needed conditions for a fruitful life. 

Jacinta: Inauspicious beginnings, as we’ve discussed before, but perhaps coming of age as a useful guide with the Universal Declaration. But there’s an obvious problem with basing our ethical and political values on individual liberty when we’re clearly the most hypersocial species on the planet. 

Canto: Yes, and that hypersociality has involved the development of somewhat coercive hierarchical state systems such as the feudal system in its various forms throughout Eurasia. These dominance systems, however, have been phenomenally successful for the spread of our species and for our own overall dominance of the biosphere. 

Jacinta: And a domination based on control of land has since morphed into a dominance based on markets. But it’s much more complicated than that. State control has integrated people in terms of language, customs, religion and so forth. As we’ve already pointed out, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, our jobs, our education, we didn’t create any of these as individuals but acquired them as part of an organisational structure that existed long before we came into being and will continue long after we pass. Isn’t all this rather problematic for libertarians?

Canto: Yes, I’ve pointed out before that libertarianism is really a product of the success of the state system, of hypersocial civilisation. The individual, who is in many respects the product of all this social construction, has been so benefitted by it that she feels she owes it all to her own striving, somewhat like the ungrateful offspring of an all-giving mother. 

Jacinta: Who’s she, the cat’s mother? But it’s interesting that a lot of disadvantaged people, really quite poor people, are stridently anti-government. Look at so many Trumpet types. His buffoonish incompetence predictably led to dysfunction in every sector of government, to the total delight of his supporters. Would you call these people libertarians?

Canto: Well I doubt if they would call themselves libertarians or have much idea of what the term meant, but I’m sure many of them would be in the category of those who rarely or ever vote, who would see, and suffer from, the inequities of society, which are of such a complex nature that one of the easiest targets for their ire would be government. After all, those in government aren’t poor by their standards.

Jacinta: “Don’t vote, it just encourages them”. Yes, these are people without easy connections to big business, higher education, or political clout. Constraints on free will, you might say?

Canto: The politics of resentment, as you realise that particular avenues don’t seem to be open to you, and you might not have even known those avenues existed until it was too late. So these people shouldn’t be labelled as libertarians – their plight is too complex to be pigeon-holed in such a way. The ‘real’ libertarians base their position on the evolution, over the past few centuries, of the concept of rights. They’ve taken the Universal Declaration, based squarely on the individual…

Jacinta: Having at last, in the 20th century, expanded on the ‘man’ part.

Canto: Yes, and they’ve run with it, especially with regard to restraints on individual freedom which affect others, from freedom from taxation to freedom to drive dangerously crappy cars, own hand-guns or go about unmasked and unvaccinated during a pandemic.

Jacinta: Not to mention freedom to exploit others in employment. Doesn’t the USA have about the lowest minimum wage rates in the WEIRD world? Not to mention low rates of what they call ‘unemployment insurance’, which is taxable and of limited duration. “Stop scrounging off the government, get out there and get exploited like us…”

Canto: Yes, we love USA-bashing. But of course libertarianism is far from an exclusively US ideology, anyone can indulge in it. But it does seem to rely heavily on individual freedom as a right, and since free will is a myth, IMHO, that’s a bit of a non-starter. But here I want to talk about rights. I think the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a great advance, not because of its promotion of rights particularly, but because it was a first attempt to be fully global about the conditions for human flourishing. These conditions will always need to be tweaked, because humanity is evolving. Rights are a useful human construct but we need to be aware of their fundamental artificiality. This artificiality can hopefully be more easily uncovered when we note that they’re based on the individual, an entity that simply doesn’t exist outside of the society or culture that brought it into being. You can, of course, isolate a human being, just as you can isolate a chimp, a bonobo, an elephant, a dolphin or a crow, but you cannot understand or explain or define any of these creatures without understanding the species, sub-species, culture or community they belong to. If we were to talk about the ‘rights’ of a crow, for example, we would have to talk about the conditions required for a crow’s flourishing. And it’s those conditions that really matter, not the crow’s ‘rights’. So ‘rights’ talk is really a way of talking about something else, something much more important. 

Jacinta: So… let me be clear about this. Have you just demolished rights as a fundamental concept?

Canto: Haha, well I’ve just tried to establish, or promote, a more fundamental concept, which goes back in history well before the concept of rights. Aristotle used the term eudaimonia, though whether it was his invention, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter really. Think of it as the conditions for flourishing – whether for a human, a guppy or a tardigrade. They all need their own species to keep on keeping on, as a species. 

Jacinta: Ah, but group selection is a myth isn’t it?

Canto: No, not group selection. The individual, being part of a group, or species, seeks to mate with other members of that species, which is not a sacrifice for the group, far from it. The individual is in some very strong sense motivated to replicate itself through reproduction, which indirectly benefits the species.

Jacinta: So these conditions for flourishing take into account individuals as individual members of something larger, a culture, a species, etc? 

Canto: Yes precisely, that membership of a larger whole, which for humanity has become a more global, hypersocial whole than ever, due to our capacity for destruction – nuclear arsenals, destruction of habitats, greenhouse gas emissions, the production of waste and so forth – makes a mockery of the individual’s claim to freedom of action, when they simply can’t and don’t exist outside of that hypersocial, productive and destructive community. We just need to understand what has made us human, and it’s not what libertarians seem to think it is. And that’s really fundamental. 

Jacinta: Well that’s interesting. Libertarianism really seems to stand and fall on rights, unless there are some types of libertarianism that take a different tack. 

Canto: Yes I’m not really sure if I want to explore the topic any further.

Jacinta: Haha well then that’s all for now. 

References

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/libertarianism/

the anti-bonobo world 1: the BHT

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 14, 2022 at 8:09 pm

on free will and libertarianism 1: introducing some issues

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I vaguely remember this book annoying me 35 years ago

Canto: So I’ve wanted to get back to this issue for some time, as it’s been on my mind, to connect an increasingly prevalent political ideology (or so it seems to me) with an increasingly tenuous philosophical position with regard to free will, but I’m not sure whether to start with the politics or the philosophy.

Jacinta: Well I think I can dispose of it all quite quickly. Free will’s a myth and individual freedom, however defined, has gotten us nowhere as a species. That’s it – so it’s off to the pub?

Canto: Well, that might be an interesting starting point, but I think we might need to put some flesh on the bones of those arguments, if I may cannibalise a cliché, or whatever.

Jacinta: Hmmm. So you really think there’s more to say?

Canto: Well I do feel the need to account for my change of position over several decades. Of course I’ve always been a determinist – the whole cause-effect relationship underpins our understanding of all human and non-human behaviour. I don’t think even quantum mechanics disrupts it too much, and to the extent it does, it certainly doesn’t do so in favour of human free will. But way back in the late seventies, when I was first introduced to the topic, ‘hard determinism’ as the term was then, was so out of fashion, and seemed to allow so little wiggle room for our actions, that I kind of assumed it was the province of attention-seeking extremists, or something. And of course it did seem a bit deflating to the human spirit, and all that.

Jacinta: So now you don’t mind a bit of deflation?

Canto: Well, over time, I reflected on my background, and perhaps also on the backgrounds of the philosophers and academics putting forward the compatibilist arguments – that somehow free will is compatible with determinism and even dependent on it. I found this later in Dennett’s book Elbow room, and I think there was some of it in Pinker’s The blank slate too. What I found was a kind of disdainful, and dare I say upper-middle class, attitude to ‘wrong-doers’ who need to be held accountable for their actions. And as a person who grew up in one of the most working-class and disadvantaged suburban regions in Australia, I felt defensive for the people around us (our family were better off than most), their bootlessness and despair. It certainly rubbed off on me in my teen years. I didn’t exactly bear a grudge against the world, but I certainly never had any inspiring teachers or adult figures who encouraged my scintillating intellect.

Jacinta: Okay, enough about you, what about the argument?

Canto: Well let’s look at free will first. The compatibilist argument is that free will is itself a determining factor in the decisions you make. You weigh the pros and cons in your mind, without undue influence from other sources, and determine to have tea with your breakfast instead of coffee, for the first time in months. Of course you’ve done this of your own free will, just as you’ve chosen to feed the dog instead of throwing her out of your 10th storey window, etc etc. The favourite term is ‘you could’ve done otherwise’.

Jacinta: But you didn’t.

Canto: And the feeling that you could’ve done otherwise is also determined, as is the feeling of regret that you quit that job when you should’ve stayed on, that you didn’t make that move interstate, that you didn’t keep in touch with person x, etc. The sense that we could have been better than what we are, could have done better than what we did, these are everyday feelings that we’re never free from. But getting back to compatibilists, they try to have the best of both worlds by claiming that the self is this autonomous determining factor in decision-making. It all revolves around this self. Presumably the developed self, since obviously the two-year-old self is not fully responsible for her actions.

Jacinta: Ah yes and there’s where it all falls apart. Where does this ‘self’ come from? We start as a fertilised egg, the width of a human hair. No brain, no heart, no belly, no skin, just genetic potential. Clearly we’re not making decisions. Nine months later, we’re born, fortunately with all those organs. But surely we’re not making our own decisions at this stage. And we’ve been subjected to a lot in this period, nutrients of all sorts, twists and turns, bumpings and grindings, the sounds of laughter, tears, music, shouts, squeals, long silences, all of which may influence our patterns of neural development both inside and outside the womb. All of which lay down the pattern of our future self, our future ‘free will’.

Canto: Yes, and from that time on its ‘meet the parents’, or caregivers, and/or our siblings and our homes, the furniture of our early lives. Not our choices. I think the no-free-will argument can be most persuasive when you can persuade the opposite side of the most obvious limitations, which are all big ones – for example you don’t get to choose your parents, your place or time of birth/conception, or even the species you were born into. So with those huge limitations accepted, you start to home in on the wiggle room the freewillers have left. Presuming they’re compatibilists, that’s to say determinists, they must accept that all that ultra-connecting and later trimming of neurons in early childhood has nothing to do with personal choice. And yet they try to argue that after all that connecting and trimming, when they’re a ‘fully determined self’, this self goes into auto mode, that of a self-determining self. Which presumably coincides with ‘adulthood’.

Jacinta: Right. As if our courts, or our laws, have solved the free will problem.

Canto: Yes, but it’s a bit like those claims for perpetual motion machines, that can produce output with no energy input. They’re as mythical as free will. The self is essentially only useful as an identifier, and it’s obviously very useful for that. And every self is unique, and perhaps that’s what confuses people. A person can be eccentric, ‘exceptionally different’, in good or bad ways, and we say ‘she’s really her own person’ or ‘she goes her own way’, and strictly speaking that can be said of everyone, whether human, fish or fowl, or of the plants on our balcony, or the jacarandas on our street, each one of which is unique, but not of their own free will.

Jacinta: We mistake complexity for free will, perhaps. Complexity is everywhere on this life-coated planet, but the human brain beats it all for complexity. We carry those things around, we feel it, and so we feel free, to possibly do anything, be anything, learn anything, commit anything. And feel proud when we do the ‘right’ thing, make the requisite effort and so on.

Canto: It’s arguable that this feeling of free will is important for our success. Or our striving. It’s up to you to work hard to pass that exam, to build a successful business, to become a regular in the first team, whatever. The sense of freedom can be exhilarating, though it might be just as obviously caused as the health-giving freedom ‘experienced’ by a plant moved from a nutrient-poor soil to a nutrient-rich one. Something in our environment makes us more successful than the guy down the road, or in Africa, but we don’t want to place too much emphasis on that environment, especially if we know we’ve put in an effort to succeed.

Jacinta: Okay, so what about punishment? As you’ve said, we might claim too much credit for our successes, isn’t a corollary that we place too much blame on those who ‘fail’, who give in to their peers’ world of violence and contempt? Punishment is mostly about deterrence, they say, but isn’t there a better way to treat people than this?

Canto: That’s an interesting question, and of course a complex one. We should talk about it next time.

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 7, 2022 at 8:07 pm

Supporting Hong Kong 3: it’s all about freedom

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shades of Tiananman – tanks on the Hong Kong border

As I begin to write this, I’ve learned that Hong Kong developments and tensions are playing out here in Adelaide too, as well as elsewhere in Australia. Supporters of Hong Kong’s independence and its freedoms have turned out in unexpected numbers, but they’ve met with violent pro-Chinese opposition, chanting ‘Hong Kong belongs to China’, a slogan that, of course, misses the point completely. Hong Kong would be delighted to belong to China if the mainland people enjoyed the freedoms that Hong Kongers have become accustomed to over the years, but that ain’t gonna happen in the foreseeable.

In preparation for this piece I’ve been reading the fulsome Wikipedia article, Human rights in China, and it truly makes the heart sick. I’ve already written about the Uyghur people of the Xinjiang ‘frontier’ (as many as a million of them are in prison), as well as the bullying, and worse, of (pretty mild) feminist activists by the Thugburo, but there’s also virtually no freedom of the press or the internet, limited freedom of movement within China (especially for the poor), regular repression of ethnic minorities (there are over a hundred of them), selective repression of religions (the Falun Gong have been bizarrely targeted, and organ-harvested), imprisonment and torture of political dissidents, application of fake and damaging ‘psychiatric’ treatments to non-conformists, and wide-ranging use of execution – China still executes more of its own citizens than the rest of the world combined (though global rates are thankfully falling, and Iran executes more on a per capita basis).

Of course, as far as Hong Kong is concerned, the one human rights ‘event’ that dominates all others is the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, as tanks are currently taking up positions around Hong Kong. So one has to wonder, considering this grim history, and considering that the controversial extradition bill which set off the protests has been shelved, why Hong Kongers are courting disaster in this way. One reason must surely be the initial success of the movement re extradition. Another is likely to be safety in numbers (illusory or not). Hong Kong is no Tiananmen, it’s far far bigger. Even so, if the PRC acts decisively and brutally, can anybody see the international community responding to save the people of Hong Kong? It’s more likely there will be a great deal of impotent outrage, and a weak round of sanctions before hastening back to business as usual.

And yet. Another huge difference between 2019 and 1989, of course, is the democratisation of recording technology. It’s another difference that has doubtless emboldened Hong Kongers. It’s also playing massively on the minds of a government that has taken media control to an extreme never before seen in human history. The PRC has made a habit of demonising ‘western values’ in recent decades, and it knows full well that a frontal attack on Hong Kong will demolish their claims to moral superiority overnight. Smart Hong Kongers also know this – so it’s a fascinating, frightening stand-off situation. I’ve had a number of Hong Kong students over the years, and many of them are still in Australia pursuing further studies. I can’t imagine what they’re going through at this point.

The hope we should all be holding to is for a peaceful resolution, but there are questions as to who should be negotiating for each side – and particularly for the people of Hong Kong. The protesters have made five ‘formal demands’:

  • the complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill
  • the removal of the use of “riot” concerning the protests
  • the release of arrested protesters
  • an inquiry into alleged police brutality, and
  • genuine universal suffrage

All of these demands seem reasonable, prima facie, unless of course there were protesters guilty of brutal acts etc, but in any case it’s highly unlikely that the Grand Poohbahs of the Chinese State would demean themselves by negotiating with mere protesters, especially after labelling them as ‘terrorists’ according to Thugburo convention. Leading protesters are also reluctant to identify themselves, as they know they’ll be immediately targeted by the PRC government. That leaves the Hong Kong administration, and its Chief, Carrie Lam. It’s interesting, and perhaps surprising, that protesters didn’t include her resignation as one of their official demands – though many are unofficially demanding it, and it’s implicit in the universal suffrage demand. She has apparently warned recently that Hong Kong may be on a ‘path of no return’, a comment as frightening as it is vague. Certainly such warnings don’t seem to be working; student demos are being supported by general strikes, and specific actions by lawyers, civil servants, hospital workers and others. Most of these actions have been peaceful, but there have been violent incidents, and the role of the Hong Kong police in suppressing/exacerbating such incidents is crucial, and concerning. Police tactics have become more aggressive, but they don’t seem to be dampening the determination of the protesters, who’ve had enough of increasing PRC interference in Hong Kong affairs. They’ve also developed smart tactics, such as ‘being water’, flowing from place to place, continuous and uniform, without leaders or followers. This and other tactics were born from years of experience of failed and partially successful protest movements of the past. Perceived and documented police brutality has also been harnessed for the cause, as in the photo of a women hit in the eye, apparently by a police ‘bean-bag round’ a non-lethal form of ammunition. Women throughout Hong Kong and Taiwan are now sporting ‘bloodied’ eye-bandages in solidarity.

Unsurprisingly, those of us who’ve been around for a while are hardly sanguine about how this will end, and our greatest hope is that the PRC will see that the cost of engaging in what would certainly be a bloodbath, carried out in front of the world, would be greater than any economic or other foreseeable long-term benefit for a nation whose economy is already the envy of most nations. The Hong Kong and Taiwan protests are undoubtedly a smack in the eye to PRC pride, as, inter alia, they expose the lie about ‘Asian values’ the PRC is keen to promote in its battle with ‘the west’. I suspect that what will happen in the near future is a war of attrition, with the Chinese hoping that some sort of over-reach by the protesters will justify anti-terrorist ‘action’. The noises from the international community thus far haven’t by any means convinced me that the PRC won’t get away with mass slaughter when the time comes.

Written by stewart henderson

August 20, 2019 at 1:49 pm