Positive Liberty, Inner Slavery, and the Wrong Sort of Rationalism

There’s an idea, pronounced in the history of (western) philosophy and present, though perhaps less pronounced, in popular culture, that a person can be ‘internally enslaved’, i.e. can fail to be fully free not because of external constraints but because of how their mind is internally organised.

Prominent historical sources for this idea include Plato, the Stoics, Kant, Rousseau, Spinoza, and Hegel – albeit with varying degrees of complexity and nuance. A representative quotation from Rousseau: ““to be governed by appetite alone is slavery, while obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is freedom”

And this doctrine also has a rather shady history of being put to authoritarian political uses (consider particularly Plato, Rousseau and Hegel), in which it’s suggested that since true freedom is a matter of obedience to one’s rational higher self, no loss of freedom is involved in coercing people away from doing irrational things; hence because these things I don’t want people to do are irrational, prohibiting them leaves freedom intact.

One line of criticism of this tendency (I’m thinking particularly of Isaiah Berlin’s famous Essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, though he’s far from the only example) has been as follows: this authoritarian hypocrisy is inherent in the idea of ‘inner freedom’ and ‘inner slavery’. As soon as you move away from purely external models of freedom, and start enquiring into people’s internal psychological state, you’ve entered a swamp from which you won’t emerge with any coherent or defensible politics.

I think this criticism goes too far, so here I’m going to try to argue that the potential  association between this family of views about freedom, and political authoritarianism, is adequately explained by a more specific feature that they share, namely their identification of ‘inner slavery’ as always and exclusively the enslavement of reason by passion.

In all the figures mentioned above, that presentation is consistent. They never complain about the inappropriate enslavement of the passions by reason; they never suggest that an apparently free person might in fact not be free because their own reason dominates them. I think this one-sidedness is a mistake.

For instance, here’s three simplified examples.

Firstly, consider someone whose life is blighted and constrained by their ‘animal desires’. They rationally believe that they will be better off if they don’t waste their money on expensive drugs, or don’t waste their time on unsuitable lovers, or don’t waste their mornings with crippling hangovers, and yet they keep doing so, because ‘their passions overcome their reason’. As a result, they feel ‘powerless’, as though they’re not in control of their lives.

Secondly, consider someone whose life is heavily constrained by a set of beliefs they hold. Suppose they believe that responsible people go to bed early and get up early, and that this makes them more productive, even though this particular person, for reasons of physiology, never feels tired until very late at night, and feels extremely tired until close to noon, and so each night they lie frustratedly in bed for several hours, before rising in the morning to spend several hours feeling tired and struggling to concentrate on anything.

Suppose this person also believes that respectable people take high-paying secure jobs, and so works as an accountant, despite being by temperament a thrill-seeker, and so everyday at work thoughts of more exciting employment crowd into their mind, from which they must irritably push them out. As a result, they constantly feel that they are struggling to overcome various sorts of constraint, and do not feel ‘free’.

Thirdly, for an alternative conception of ‘reason’, consider someone whose life is heavily constrained by habits of critical and reflective analysis. Whenever they face a decision, they pause, inhibiting their first impulse to “Is that a good idea?” “Why did I want to do that?” These insistent questions they take up time, are distressing, because answers are rarely forthcoming, and they render it harder, not easier, to make the decisions, because under the weight of introspection and questioning, the original responses, intuitions and desires that would guide their decision vanish. This person might well recognise their problem, and wish they could stop, could ‘turn off’ at times, but find itimpossible.

Now, all I want to say is that these three people all have an equally good claim to be ‘internally enslaved’, to lack freedom due to the influence of an internal factor. If that concept makes sense, then these should all be taken as prime examples. So why, in the ideology and philosophy of so many prominent thinkers, haven’t they?

Here’s the explanation I would propose: a subconscious equivocation on the term ‘reason’ has allowed it to seem incoherent that domination by ‘reason’ could ever be a bad thing.

On the one hand, ‘reason’ can be used normatively, to describe what is ‘rational’, in the sense of justified, reasonable, and overall a good idea. E.g. ‘to act in accord with reason’ means to act in a sensible, useful, effective way.

On the other hand, ‘reason’ can be used descriptively, to pick out a certain faculty, or creatures that have that faculty: what we might call ‘abstract thought’ or ‘reflective thought’. Adult humans, in this sense, are ‘rational’, while lungfish are not, but this doesn’t mean that all actions taken by humans are always ‘more rational’, in the normative sense, than actions taken by lungfish.

Now, to talk about internal psychic dynamics, different aspects of the mind controlling or dominating each other, we need to use ‘reason’ in the second, factual, sense – ‘rational and ‘irrational’ parts of the soul are something like ‘reflective and unreflective’ parts.

But if we let ourselves sneak in the normative sense of ‘reason’, then ‘reflective and unreflective’ parts become, in essence, ‘correct and incorrect’ parts: a person’s ‘reason’ is not just their ‘abstract thinking’ but their ‘doing the most reasonable thing’. And almost be definition, it can’t be bad to do the most reasonable thing – if it was bad, that would be a reason not to do it, and so it wouldn’t be reasonable.

This makes a person’s complete domination by reflective, abstract thinking appear like it can’t possibly be a bad thing, even though (as the examples above sought to show) it probably can.

This sets up an inherently authoritarian dynamic: a certain faculty, which can be named and identified in factual terms, is automatically correct – there’s no question of whether what it enjoins is actually the rational thing to do, or whether the urgings of unreflective passion are in fact more rational, because ‘reason’ is alwways ‘rational’. That is, a certain part of the mind is given absolute authority: it must be obeyed simply on account of what it is.

This, it seems to me, explains why doctrines of freedom like Plato’s or Rousseau’s have an authoritarian flavour – they conflate the normative and the descriptive in such a way that one faculty becomes automatically correct, hence possesses unlimited authority. This is particularly irritating to me, since I’m quite fond of certain doctrines that might be called ‘rationalism’, and this equivocation enables a sort of ‘rationalism’ which I very much want to avoid.

That means that an account of freedom that took internal slavery seriously need not share that authoritarian flavour, if it’s equally attentive to all forms – slavery to ‘reason’ as well as slavery to ‘passion’.

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6 Responses to Positive Liberty, Inner Slavery, and the Wrong Sort of Rationalism

  1. latinist says:

    I like this a lot (and I’m very glad this blog is back in action!) but of course it opens some major questions. In particular, if we keep the idea that different parts of the psyche push us in conflicting directions, but give up on the idea that “reason” should always win those conflicts, then how do we distinguish inner slavery from inner freedom? That is, if “reason” and “passions” are in conflict, then if passions win, we can call that slavery to our passions, and if reason wins we can call it slavery to our reason; or, if we prefer, we can call either case “freedom.” I suppose we could fall back on normative “reason,” carefully distinguished from reflection, as the measurement, but then doesn’t “inner slavery” turn out just to be a fancy way of saying “making bad choices”? What would a useful distinction between inner slavery and freedom look like?

  2. lukeroelofs says:

    That is indeed a very good question. I’d suggest maybe the following: whenever we have some inner conflict, and one side ‘wins’ and frustrates the other impulse, that’s a restriction of our freedom, a form of ‘constraint’.

    But just as in the political case, not all forms of constraint count as slavery. If, say, a legal prohibition on individual violence serves to promote greater freedom overall, despite removing some freedoms from some people, then it’s justified, though still constraint. And other times, a law might be unjustified, and hence an evil as far as it goes, but still be too minor an effect on us to count as a serious wrong – e.g. suppose you are a Millian about personal freedom, and think that there shouldn’t be laws to force people involved in risky activities to take simple safety precautions: you still, surely, wouldn’t call such a law ‘tyranny’ or ‘enslavement’, because the interference it produces is so minor.

    So analogously, perhaps, we are often imposing/suffering internal constraint, which is a loss of freedom so far as it goes, but when things are going well these will either be so minor as not to be worth bothering over, or will be justified by increasing our freedom or satisfaction in the long run. E.g. if I give up chocolate now in order to get money to buy twice as much chocolate later, I am to an extent dominating my desire for chocolate, and since it’s a part of me I am thus also being dominated and constrained myself. But in the long run it serves to gain greater satisfaction for that desire. That at least would be a first attempt at an answer.

  3. B.e. says:

    I certainly have no control over my passions, in the sense of being able to modulate what I feel, or adjust basic instincts (barring training certrain reflexes etc.). My thoughts, on the other hand, are my own; I can think about what I choose. My thoughts are me. I do not identify with passions, even my own. It isn’t a conflation of different aspects of a word: it is a different concept of personhood.
    I don’t take germs and parasites to be part of ‘me’, even though I have some sort of control, especially with modern medicine, over what they do to me. Why add in passions as part of my identity?
    On the other hand, I agree with some authors you’ve quoted that we shouldn’t make windows into men’s souls. Their internal freedom is not ours to judge, and we should allow for the possibility that they have it.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      So to begin with, it’s not true that your thoughts are entirely under your control. My third example above was precisely a person who finds thoughts entering their mind constantly, against their will. In general, the appearance of thoughts in our mind typically involves both an element of volition and an element of just ‘coming to us’ (I suspect we’d be very boring if the only thoughts that ever appeared in our mind were the ones we had previously ‘ordered’).

      Secondly, determining what ‘you’ have control over can’t be prior to determining what counts as ‘you’. Maybe your thoughts can’t control your passions – but if your passions can’t control your thoughts, why not conclude that your thoughts also aren’t part of you, except on the basis of having *already* decided that ‘you’ are your thoughts, and hence the relevant criterion is what your thoughts can control.

      Moreover, your own comment seems to suggest that our degree of control over something is not the determining factor for whether it’s “part of us”. As you say, the germs in your body aren’t part of you, and nor are the tools you use or the car you drive. That at least is the common-sense view. So if voluntary control isn’t sufficient, what else is? It seems it can’t just be that you choose to “identify with” certain things and not others, for then it seems you could change what counted as part of you on a whim, or from day to day.

      Conversely, why isn’t it relevant that you experience your ‘passions’? That you act on your desires, or suffer your sufferings, etc.? Why ignore that criterion in favour of a control-based criterion that you yourself admit would,, taken on its own, have implausible consequences about what counts as part of you?

      • B.e. says:

        If we’re talking about internal enslavement, I’d have thought that self-control would be an essential feature of the discussion. If I am merely bundles of experience, then I am indeed enslaved. [insert famous quotation from Epictetus]
        When it comes to thought coming unordered, I’m not so sure that’s relevant. I can order information from a database, or command a cross-reference, without knowing the outcome. Nonetheless I did order the outcome. Similarly, if my undirected thoughts bubble and churn up related or unrelated ideas I’m not experiencing a lack of control unless this is all I can do even when I will myself to think about something.
        The way to be master of oneself is to ensure that thought, which can be controlled, is never subordinate to passions. Hence so many authors value ‘reason’ over passion. When it comes to defining my identity, should I include those aspects of my life that are inclined to enslave me? Perhaps I should self-indentify with drugs, capitalist oligarchs and inspiring music?
        I observe passions just as I observe trees. They change my mind in the same way: because I choose to act on my observations. And yet I don’t include trees in my identity.

      • lukeroelofs says:

        “If I am merely bundles of experience, then I am indeed enslaved”
        Could you explain why this is so?

        “Similarly, if my undirected thoughts bubble and churn up related or unrelated ideas I’m not experiencing a lack of control unless this is all I can do even when I will myself to think about something.”
        Rather like my third example case, who can’t prevent a certain type of thought entering her mind.

        “If we’re talking about internal enslavement, I’d have thought that self-control would be an essential feature of the discussion…When it comes to defining my identity, should I include those aspects of my life that are inclined to enslave me?”
        What counts as self-enslavement, or enslavement more generally, may well be decided based on what we count as part of you. So if we determine what’s part of you on the basis of what you think can enslave you, we run the risk of reasoning in a circle.

        “I observe passions just as I observe trees. They change my mind in the same way: because I choose to act on my observations. And yet I don’t include trees in my identity.”
        Again, I’d suggest that many people would think it relevant that you consciously experience your passions, while you don’t consciously experience the tree (though you may experience perceptions of it). Your passions are, as far as I can tell, entirely constituted by being events in your mind. That seems, at least, prima facie, to differentiate them from trees, oligarchs and music.

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