Thursday, 14 August 2008

"The changing face of liberty."

Although most don’t like to think so, human beings enjoy their contradictions. Human society abounds with contradictory (or more accurately, paradoxical) behaviour: morally condemning murder and supporting the death penalty; the USA’s reaction to the Georgia situation; the concept of the ‘city’ which brings people physically together and pushes them apart sociologically. This inclination to contradiction – conclination? – is perhaps why freedom is so heavily emphasised and yet our free will has been slowly transformed into something very different than traditional thinking would have it.

The key to this metamorphosis of the concept of freedom is responsibility. A looming question is can one have freedom without simultaneously having the responsibility borne of that freedom? Our society has minimised individual responsibility which has led to today’s stunted idea of free will. We have moved further away from Isaiah Berlin’s positive sense of liberty towards his negative sense probably because Berlin himself identified the positive sense with tyranny and despotism. This may not necessarily be the case.

Developmental psychology is one of the creators of diminished responsibility. Environmental factors during early development are recognised by most psychologists to have a massive impact on our subsequent personalities: rejection in childhood may lead to a fear of rejection and a needy personality in adulthood. It follows that our personalities and therefore all our choices are created by these early developmental episodes. Genetics also gives a reason to not take full responsibility: genetic predispositions can apparently cause behavioural traits. Genes have been discovered that may contribute to sexual orientation, obesity, and other factors that have an impact on a person’s choices.

Society has seen a shift since discovering these factors that make us helpless puppets of both nature and nurture. Increasingly our environment and our genes are seen to determine the course of our lives. One does not need to take responsibility for a crime when it can be blamed on bipolar disorder. A child does not need to actively pay attention when their behaviour can be blamed on ADHD.

There is also a perceived ‘litigation culture’ whereby lawsuits are seen to have become increasingly frivolous. Tabloid headlines are filled with reports of the robber who sued those he was robbing when he was injured, the obese girls who sued McDonalds, the person who trips and sues the owner of the floor tiles. Whether this culture exists or not is another matter entirely and is largely irrelevant to the public who will, in general, blindly follow the alarums of the media (another human contradiction: the desire not to be lied to coupled with the desire to believe comforting lies). The public belief system has shifted towards a belief that when one has an accident, it is not their own fault.

All these factors have contributed to a growing sense of diminished responsibility. The environment, childhood, genes, psychological disorders, other people; there is now always someone to blame. This renders someone unable to stand up and say that they made a truly free choice. Which leads to the crux of the issue: isn’t a key component of human freedom the ability to take responsibility for one’s own freely-performed action? Is an emphasis on blaming the factors around us diminishing that spirit of human free will? Isn’t true freedom the ability to do what one wants and then to accept the consequences, good or bad?

Americans love their freedom. They march for it, wave flags proudly for it, and impose it upon others. Anyone who doesn’t share their conception is an evildoer and must be stopped. Their concept of freedom however has increasingly become narrowed: while this is due in part to a restrictive and quasi-tyrannical Republican government, it is also due to this shift in attitude whereby humans want freedom but not the accompanying responsibility.

The desire for both freedom and blame. The contradiction that lies at the heart of the present liberty ethos. Until a human accepts that freedom necessarily brings responsibility, they are in a state of arrested development; locked into a contradictory idea whereby free will is the ability to move in an ever-constricting circle. I believe that people are essentially free: free to do whatever they want and perform whatever actions are within their ability. Attempts to unjustly blame actions on other people are evidence of weakness and what Jean Paul Sartre called ‘bad faith’. As he wrote (and with such gender biased pronouns: what must Simone de Beauvoir have thought!), “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Finally and proving my point about the human inclination to contradiction is the fact that this entire spiel aims at blaming a lack in freedom on blame itself. I blame an attitude amongst other people as restricting their freedom and so I shift the responsibility for freedom itself onto a prevalent idea. Maybe it’s better not to believe in free will at all.