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June 19, 2005

Elizabeth Anderson Will Set You Free

The full moon is out, and I'm about to change into my werewolf form and run off into the night, performing various ethical deeds. But while I'm still a mild-mannered philosopher, let me point anyone interested in political philosophy to Elizabeth Anderson's latest post. It contrasts two kinds of freedom -- freedom as non-interference and freedom as expanding one's opportunity set. The former is the one emphasized by libertarians, but the latter is the one that's worth caring about.


If the only kind of freedom that matters is that no one intentionally interfere with one's formal freedom of action, and not that one's opportunity set be large and full of worthwhile options, then freedom-lovers would have to oppose traffic laws, stop lights, and so forth, for interfering with freedom of movement... By contrast, if we give up certain formal freedoms--to run red lights and stop signs, to drive indiscriminately across lanes--we get in return a vastly expanded opportunity set, including the ability to actually get to places one wants to go, more safely and quickly than if we hadn't given up those freedoms. The point of formal freedom of movement--the right to move around, without coercive interference by the state or other people--is that it is instrumental to expanding actual opportunities to move around where one wants to go. Merely formal freedom of movement, with nowhere to move to, or nowhere worth moving to, is not an end in itself. Different configurations of formal freedom of movement--different traffic laws--are justified by the extent of the opportunities for safe freedom of movement they enable.

She's working up to the conclusion, to be unveiled in later posts, that concern for freedom will push us towards redistribution of income. (The libertarians will be so surprised!) The justification for all laws -- property laws included -- ends up being the same as the justification for setting up traffic laws. Since the justification for setting up laws in one way rather than another is to maximize people's opportunity sets, redistributive transactions that increase opportunity sets increase freedom, rather than infringing on it, as the libertarians often argue.

Now, this isn't exactly my reason for supporting property rights -- for a whole 'nother set of reasons, I'm one of those crazy Benthamite utilitarians who just cares about generating pleasure and eliminating pain. To me, an increased opportunity set is valuable only instrumentally -- because it tends to make people happier. But I'll agree that it's a more plausible candidate for being fundamentally valuable than freedom as non-interference, if only because its connection to the general happiness is much closer. Some of her other excellent work is linked in the top paragraph.

--Neil the Ethical Werewolf

June 19, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Great spin on "freedom".
This seems more of the trend to redefine those issues that you cannot win in honest debate or election. It is a selfish destruction of all in the way of the agenda.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 20, 2005 10:12:23 AM

When someone, government or not, lays their hands on you with the intent to make you unhappy, you will be wanting to care about freedom from interference. As a middle class white guy in America, I'm pretty comfy right now. Easy to forget about the fundamentality of "freedom from" because I can take it for granted all day long and it will probably never go away. Still, I believe in "first things first." For so many people, freedom from (really vicious and hateful) interference is only a dream. For those people it is still worth caring about.

Posted by: Neil Paul | Jun 20, 2005 11:04:28 AM

I know some self-described libertarians and the feeling I get is that expanding one's opportunity set is the least of their concerns unless "one's" refers to "theirs."

I have to agree with Zimmerman to a point, insofar as using this new definition of freedom to convince libertarians we are right.

Posted by: Adrock | Jun 20, 2005 11:56:50 AM

I should have added that it is a crock, similar to redefining Marriage.

Neil has the handle on this one. Adrock is willing to plow under anything that gets in the way of the agenda.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 20, 2005 12:19:47 PM

Well, look at the argument. Can freedom from non-interference really be at the foundation of the laws we should have, if it'd give us completely screwed-up laws in the traffic case? If legislating to defend the libertarian notion of freedom would turn traffic laws into something absurd, there's something wrong with the libertarian notion of freedom. So far, this argument has gone unaddressed.

The badness of various forms of interference with me comes from how dismal they'd make my choices.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jun 20, 2005 1:46:03 PM

The traffic laws example raises the issue of "public property" which is its own morass. I believe that the current traffic laws can be puzzled through on a "freedom from" basis. I am presently too busy to do so. If you want to take my laziness as proof that the freedom from side has nothing to offer with respect to stop signs, that would be fair enough.

I would look at the example of a traffic stop by the police and the 4th ammendment freedom from unreasonable searches (to the extent that the 4th ammendment even applies once you get in a car). I would not want the right to travel without being searched at the whim of any police officer to be evaluated in some free form discussion of opportunity sets. What if it is decided that the opportunity to live in a less crime area (assuming that such searches would clear criminals from the streets )trumps the opportunity to be free from search by the police? I don't want that put to a vote. I'll stick with good old freedom from, the irrational dogmatic kind.

Posted by: Neil Paul | Jun 20, 2005 2:06:20 PM

RZ,
similar to redefining [m]arriage...

Now, you have often complained about people "redefining 'traditional' 'marriage.'" In fact, marriage has changed a lot over the last few thousand years. A lot, a lot.

It is true that many think that the single most important aspect of marriage is the gender of the people participating. Many others disagree, thinking that the salient feature is a loving, committed relationship. The latter definition contains as a subset most of the former definition (many male-female marriages are loveless and full of adultery, I'm sure you know), while the former excludes many, many people.

If you're all about freedom, RZ, why aren't you for the latter definition: it would not prevent heterosexual couples from marrying.

If you're worried about the "defiling marriage," I would, like many, many others, point out that we heteros have done a pretty great job defiling marriage (cf. the atrocious divorce rate and the incredible incidence of spousal violence, and infidelity).

If you're worried about "changing" the definition of "traditional marriage," over what period of time are you under the impression that marriage has been constant and consistent?

Posted by: TJ | Jun 20, 2005 9:50:50 PM

If you're interested in questions about the concept of marriage and how broadly it applies, please allow me to point you to a post I wrote a few months ago, titled Marriage for gay people and magic horses. There's a bit of technical jargon in there, since I was writing partly for philosophers, but I think I pretty clearly establish the point that talking about "gay marriage" doesn't involve any changes in our definitions.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jun 20, 2005 10:15:09 PM

Please tell us all when, in the ever changing nature of marriage, it included homosexuals...

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 21, 2005 2:13:00 PM

RZ, when in history did marriage cease to be a transfer of property? When in history did love become important in marriage? When in history did divorce become practicable? When in history did women gain the right to end abusive marriages?

RZ, you're saying the salient feature of marriage is the sex of the persons involved? Those other things (love, commitment) aren't so important to a marriage, then?

Posted by: TJ | Jun 21, 2005 3:26:01 PM

It is and always has been the most basic of requirements. No arguement.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 22, 2005 10:10:14 AM

And here is the kicker. Eleven states unanimously passed state constitutional amendments prohibiting homosexuals from marrying, most through referendum.
You are on the fringe, boy.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 22, 2005 10:13:17 AM

Is- to you, and to some, though not by any means all, other people.

You should know better than to think that always has been is any kind of argument. After all, think of the way things have always been with regard to ownership of humans.

Eleven states unanimously passed state constitutional amendments prohibiting homosexuals from marrying, most through referendum.

So? Since when does "approved via a democratic process" mean "morally correct?" Remember Comstock laws? Legal segregation?

Posted by: TJ | Jun 22, 2005 11:08:30 AM

TJ,

In the future, we may determine that wearing of leather or eating cows to be a barbaric practice. At that time, would we retrospectively call Martin Luthor King, Jr. as class A a-hole in the history books or would we simply say that the exploitation of animals was the standard of the era?

This is the big mistake of those like yourself who are outraged in retrospect. The democratic process utilizing today's standards is all we have since we cannot loook into the future. We use it in the judicial system to determine right and wrong, innocence or guilt. To say that democracy is wrong to use to decide these issues is ludicrous. There will be times when those on the fringe will have, in retrospect, been right all along but, in most cases, that has not been the case.

So now we must decide if we are to go with democracy, or TJ and his band of merry men.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 22, 2005 12:05:12 PM

RZ,

I think you take my point, then- that institutions change, and that "because that's the way it's always been" is not necessarily an argument in favor of the status quo.

While you are right that we determine the way we must live using the democratic process, that tells us very little about the way we should live, and you are conflating those things.

Posted by: TJ | Jun 22, 2005 1:12:59 PM

While you are right that we determine the way we must live using the democratic process, that tells us very little about the way we should live, and you are conflating those things.

Should is subjective. It depends on your set of values. Well, I have news for you Sunshine, not everyone shares your values so, in essence, you have no argument.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 22, 2005 2:21:57 PM

No, RZ you are confounding a normative and positive statement. I accept that not everyone shares my values. However, a large number of people don't share yours, either.

Posted by: TJ | Jun 22, 2005 3:36:42 PM

However, a large number of people don't share yours, either.

And an even larger amount of people reject yours.

While you are right that we determine the way we must live using the democratic process...

Well, there it is.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 22, 2005 4:13:00 PM

Must vs. should, my friend. Important distinction.

Posted by: TJ | Jun 22, 2005 4:27:07 PM

Yeah, the KKK also thinks their way is the best. In that respect, you are no different.....an elitist with no respect for others.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 22, 2005 4:39:09 PM

Yes, that's right! Advocating for equitable treatment of commited relationships is very much like lynching uppity negros.

Posted by: TJ | Jun 22, 2005 8:24:17 PM

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 16, 2007 9:49:41 PM

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