What Kind of Freedom Do You Want ?

Free woman
Saturday, 25th March 2017

We all yearn for freedom. Instinctively nobody wants to submit to the will of others whom we cannot trust to act in our best interests. However, in today’s complex high-tech society we’ve become so interdependent that we relinquish our personal freedoms and submit to higher authorities in all our daily interactions with the rest of humanity and man-made infrastructure. Failure to conform to societal norms can often result in isolation and impaired emotional wellbeing. So freedom is a very relative concept and can only be truly understood in the context of other desirable goals we may have in our lives and in wider society such as good health, safe neighbourhoods, social cohesion, prosperity or democracy. We often confuse freedom with rights or entitlements. Access to clean water is strictly speaking not a freedom in and of itself. It’s a human necessity that keeps us alive and kicking. We may thus have a right to potable water and breathable air, but their availability depends on our ability to exploit nature either by choosing hospitable habitats or by taming erratic natural forces to meet our needs. Primitive human beings did not expect clean potable water to flow freely from taps. Our ancestors had to learn where to find sources of vital elements. We may have been free to move to inhospitable regions, but would have had to pay the ultimate price for our adventurism if we failed to gather life’s necessities. Naturally, we cannot enjoy any other freedoms until we have attained the means of survival. Absolute freedom would let us do whatever we want, whether or not it’s good for us or harms others. Both biology and culture determine what we want. Our more basic instincts are not just to survive, but to procreate, which in the case of human beings means partaking in a complex game to enhance our social status and mate with the most desirable partner. Absolute tyranny would grant us no freedom of action, speech or thought at all. We might exist, but higher authorities would monitor and control every aspect of our lives, purportedly for our own good. As a social animal, we have seldom enjoyed absolute freedom, and neither have we yet succumbed to absolute tyranny, although some societies have come fairly close. A lone hunter-gatherer in a fertile wilderness may temporarily enjoy absolute personal freedom for no other human being could tell him what to do. Visions of primordial freedom have long featured in our literature, often portrayed as the aftermath of a misadventure as in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The need to survive would constrain all his actions. He would not enjoy the freedom to lie in bed or play video games all day. Indeed they’d be no modern infrastructure at all. The only man-made artefacts would be the creations of our intrepid extreme survivalist. If one day our hero were to meet and fall in love with a woman, his personal freedom would end for cohabitation inevitably constrains your actions. Even the most primitive societies had the concept of social responsibility and rules which governed the behaviour of its members. If you broke these rules and lacked the authority of a lawmaker, you may well be banished and risk becoming yet another biogenetic dead-end. Most of us can thus only conceive of freedom once we have met all our other vital needs and satisfy a set of innate emotional and biological urges that evolved to ensure the procreation of the fittest. More important as a social animal whose young need extended nurturing all our freedoms are subordinate to community needs.

Communities may allow some activities, such as sexual liaison, only in private or in segregated settings to avoid unwanted resentment and disgust. One person’s freedom ends where someone else’s fundamental human rights begin. As soon as our actions affect other people, we are no longer free to do as we please and have to modify our behaviour to suit our social environment. In a complex society privilege thus means greater exclusivity via private ownership or temporary hire of private spaces, where one can exert greater personal freedoms without constant social surveillance. Naturally in your private space you could do good or bad things. You may partake in leisure pursuits of which many do not approve or at least do not wish to witness. Often we probably just want to work or relax without fearing social opprobrium. As soon as we leave our private space and enter a social space shared with the wider community, we adapt our behaviour and outward appearance. The range of permissible behaviours depends very much on the social milieu and level of trust. In private we may also discuss personal or business matters that may give us an unfair advantage over others. However, in rare cases where things go nastily wrong, some of us might commit heinous crimes that are obviously easier to conceal in more secluded surroundings. If you happen to own, and have exclusive usage of, a castle in a remote corner of the Scottish Highlands, you might be able to get away with murder much more easily than a typical resident of a high rise flat surrounded by neighbours and CCTV cameras. Many of us like to express our freedom through greater contact with nature, inevitably making us more vulnerable to natural predators and other humans who may take advantage of our nonchalance. Yet we can only confidently exercise such freedoms when we feel safe among others we trust. 

One of the most fundamental principles of law is the presumption of innocence, i.e. the assumption that one does not seek privacy in order to commit heinous acts and most people have essentially good intentions unless proven otherwise. The principle of innocent until proven guilty may well have been the bedrock of both Roman and many modern legal systems in what we once considered the enlightened liberal world, but it relies on a strong foundation of shared moral and cultural values and high degree of mutual trust among members of our wider society. Once this reciprocal trust breaks down in an interdependent world, the authorities have to resort to growing levels of surveillance and subtle inculcation to maintain social order.

Complex versus Primitive Societies

Anthropologists often contrast complex with primitive societies. In essence the greater the size, specialisation and interdependency of a society, the more complex it is. More complex societies tend to produce more advanced technology that both expand and restrict personal freedoms. More primitive societies may afford its members greater theoretical freedom of action, but are inevitably constrained by rudimentary technology.

Technocratic Paradox

Undoubtedly most of us in modern European and North American cities enjoy easy access to better technology than our ancestors or the hapless denizens of cultural backwaters still clinging to outmoded ways of life. Our forebears had to survive without the benefits of modern telecommunications and comparatively inexpensive travel. Our day-to-day lives would be a never-ending tale of hard work and thankfulness for our anecdotal daily bread. Freedom never meant entitlement to a life of workless leisure and endless self-obsessed exploration. It meant first and foremost familial independence, i.e. the right of each viable family to manage affairs in their best interests and raise the next generation as they see fit. Under feudalism such freedoms were always constrained by land rights and punitive fees. Early capitalism transformed the nature of exploitation, so workers gained the freedom to compete with each other for breadcrumbs. Only later as technology improved could better educated and more specialised workers demand higher wages and better working conditions that also granted them greater individual freedom. Yet we tend to conceptualise our freedom of action only in relation to the dominant cultural paradigm of our era. Car owners may appreciate greater freedom to drive where they want, but such freedoms ultimately rely on massive infrastructure, advanced technology and regulations that prevent accidents and ease traffic flows. One may well enjoy the illusion of free movement on a desolate highway surrounded by wide open spaces, but when stuck in a traffic jam on a multilane motorway with no easy escape route, one may wish for alternatives. Indeed in many congested metropolises the mega-rich bypass overcrowded trains and gridlocked roads by helicopter. Hyper-consumerism has morphed into an arms race, where the same machines that once seemed to liberate us trap us into a high-tech rat race. Before the era of mass motoring urban children would happily play in the streets. Now their parents dare not let their offspring out not only for well-founded fears of road traffic accidents, but also because of a breakdown in communitarian trust and media reports of rampant child abusers and grooming gangs. Young children may be free to hop in their parents’ car to the nearest shopping mall, sports centre or school, but are often no longer free to explore their neighbourhoods unsupervised. My point here is a higher material living standard does not necessarily beget more freedom. Better and more accessible technology may enable us to do things that our forebears could only dream of, but also impose other constraints. We may have the freedom to fly to Tenerife on holiday, but once there our actions are constrained by the thousands of other tourists who have taken advantage of cheap air travel and the facilities needed to support their lifestyle. To gain greater personal freedom you either have to venture off the beaten track and forgo many of the luxuries we now take for granted or buy access to exclusive resorts. Today’s mega rich may profit from an increasingly globally integrated economy, but use their immense financial wealth to escape the excesses of mass consumerism and ubiquitous surveillance. We have thus commoditised freedom. If you like the commercialised hubbub of shopping and leisure centres with their incessant promotion of ephemeral products and synthetic experiences, then you have probably relinquished any true sense of self. Had I never visited a shopping mall, I may find the experience of temporary interest. Likewise I don’t regret visiting the Great Mosque of Al Quayrawan (Kairouan) in the interests of anthropology, but I would not convert to Islam or agree with many of its practices. All activities organised by higher authorities restrict our freedom of thought, expression and action.

Free Will

In theory at least we are all mere carbon life-forms. Human emotions and culture would be inconceivable without our evolved intelligence that helps us learn new skills and concepts. To an animal behaviourist, a herd of cattle act in highly predictable ways responding largely biological impulses and environmental variables that may affect the availability of edible grass and potable water. They can easily explain aberrant behaviour in terms of disease or bad ecology. Most zoologists do not expect one cow to seclude itself in the corner of a field to write a philosophical treatise, compose a symphony or invent a new kind of manger. Neither do they expect groups of cows to gather to discuss how to free themselves from their human overlords. Yet our bovine cousins still have independent brains and some limited sense of self, albeit as part of a larger collective. We know this because most animals, except under extreme stress, act in the best interests of self-preservation. Without a sense of self, life and breeding serve little purpose other than to propagate one's species to the detriment of other life forms. Here we note two competing procreative strategies, known to ecologists as r/K selection theory. Lower animals with less evolved brains tend to maximise their procreative potential through r-selection and are limited only by their habitat’s natural restraints. Such animals tend to rely more on collective intelligence than individual insights. Higher or more intelligent animals tend more towards K-selection with much higher investment in raising their young and much more selective mating strategies. However, a given species may adapt its procreation strategy to match environmental or cultural changes. Although human beings tend to more to K-selection, when compared to more prolific species, our rapid cultural and technological evolution has changed our procreation strategies and consequently the relative importance of individuals versus the collective. Our modern high-tech society would not be possible without hyper-specialisation and the creativity of a relatively small number of pioneering scientists, engineers, mathematicians, philosophers, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Without a highly evolved sense of self our ancestors could never have innovated or challenged the old status quo. Critical thinking means understanding that the real world has many inconvenient dilemmas and paradoxes, e.g. should I satisfy my temporary desires by eating more ice cream or keep to a strict diet to maintain a healthy body shape and avoid unpleasant illnesses? Such a choice is an act of free will, a battle between biological instincts that evolved in Palaeolithic times and rational evidence-based behaviour. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers may well have feasted on nuts and berries to give themselves a much-needed sugar and fibre boost while stocks lasted. We evolved to crave things that were good for us or our longer-terms survival in most circumstances. But as we modified our environment through the invention of tools, farming and machines and we colonised habitats to which naked humans would be ill-suited, our instincts gave way to reason and culture, ways of life that evolved through trial and error. Ultimately everything we do or say can be reduced to biological instincts, but describing as human beings as mere carbon life-forms makes about as much sense as defining books as wood pulp products. Paper is a mere medium for advanced concepts expressed in complex human language. Free will is thus the intersection between physical reality and our intelligence. It is the act of conscious thinking when we consider conflicting options. We can exercise our free will to help ourselves, our loved ones or wider society. We are also free to make mistakes or follow the wrong advice. Without free will, independence is a mere figment of our imagination.

Identity Politics and Personal Freedom

A free person does not need a label to define or justify his or her behaviour. As long as our behaviour does not unduly limit someone else’s freedom, without their express consent, then our predilections are a matter for us alone or other people with whom we choose to share such experiences. We have devised two dominant ways to deal with the complexity of an increasingly interconnected and transient society. The free market, in theory, allows competing cultural paradigms to coexist and find their own niche in a rapidly evolving world. By contrast a socialist utopia would replace competing cultures with a universal super-culture that would seek to eradicate practical inequalities between individuals. Equality and diversity may sound virtuous, but in practice cannot coexist, unless we redefine diversity in terms of ethnic background, gender identity, sexual orientation or non-conformist personality traits. Indeed we would never have progressed beyond the Stone Age if we had all conformed to societal norms. Some of us needed to think out of the box to devise new ways of overcoming natural constraints, while others had to nurture our prehistoric inventors. Natural diversity, especially of the intellectual and vocational kinds, spearheaded human development. Sadly such natural differences are also grotesquely unfair. A maladapted person without an opportunity to flourish is an evolutionary dead-end. Hence we descend mainly from the survivors of past civilisations with high infant mortality rates. Anyone with extremely dysfunctional behaviour would either not have survived to adulthood or would have been shunned by the wider community. As a result only more advanced, mainly post-agrarian, societies could afford a degree of specialisation that would take full advantage of the rare intellectual skills that saw the development of writing, mathematics and applied sciences, without which our modern world would be unthinkable. We have seen neither the triumph of Smithsonian laissez-faire economics nor a transition to a command economy with full public ownership. Instead we have the growing dominance of large transnational corporations closely tied to global banking cartels who work symbiotically with millions of smaller service providers and suppliers. These conglomerates not only bankroll the world’s most influential media outlets, they fund myriad third sector organisations to lobby governments and promote the kind of lifestyles that suit their long-term business interests best. Many of today’s leading businesses invest more in marketing, advertising, lobbying and law than they do in research and development. Any large hierarchical organisation, however classified, is much more concerned with bending the will of its subjects, whether citizens or consumers, than empowering others. That’s much easier task if you can split your subjects into a plethora of interdependent identity groups. Your freedom to consume has to be balanced by other freedoms, such as financial independence or privacy.

Traditional ethnic, religious, professional and biological identities have recently given way to new identities based on lifestyle choices, personality profiles, erotic preferences or ancestral traits such as skin colour. It may matter little whether you are Portuguese or Polish, but it seems to matter more whether you chose to stay in your home region or migrate to a wealthier country, identify as an avid gamer, suffer from OCD, are allergic to nuts or enjoy erotic exchanges with members of the same sex. An almost endless array of circumstantial and behavioural traits can divide people into thousands of subcategories that justify special treatment and new regulations that affect the rights and freedoms of others. Corporate globalisation is commodifying thousands of years of gradual cultural evolution into a set of marketable flavours and identities that mainly serve to subjugate us to their domination. In this bizarre brave new world we are no longer free to criticise a religion that considers homosexuality evil or to challenge the fashionable view that sexual orientation is an immutable inherited trait. We are no longer free to challenge the theory that human activity has caused climate change or to challenge the logic of mass migration. Now I don’t dispute that mass consumption has environmental consequences or sustainable migration can be of mutual benefit. I just want the freedom to investigate and discuss the evidence for these propositions.

Freedom to Breathe Fresh Air

I value the freedom to walk in the countryside undisturbed by vehicular traffic, noisy machinery or rowdy behaviour. Yet such freedoms can only be guaranteed by limiting the freedoms of others. You may believe the freedom to cross national boundaries untrammelled trumps all other freedoms such as the freedom to walk your dog in the park without getting mugged or raped. In a complex and unequal world we cannot grant everyone universal freedoms that do not inevitably counteract each other.