February 13, 2013 columns

Conceptual Claims Aren’t Moral Claims: Why Not All Freedom Matters Equally

Zwolinski continues his discussion with David Friedman, arguing that there are situations where the presumption of freedom can be overridden.

David Friedman still has qualms about the position I have expressed about freedom and property, and about moralized vs. non-moralized conceptions of freedom. To summarize, I have argued that we should use the word “freedom” to mean “the absence of interference by others,” and that thus understood, property rights interfere with freedom in some ways, while protecting it in others. And, to be clear, I think this is true of all property – both natural and created. Nothing that David has said so far has led me to believe that there is a relevant difference between the two, at least in this respect.

So, am I right in claiming that property rights restrict freedom? And if so, what follows morally? In his most recent response, David notes that property rights impose restrictions on the freedom of “rapists, sadists, and would-be slave owners,” and says that my position implies that the freedom of these nasty folks has “the same status” as any other sort of freedom. Since this is obviously an absurd conclusion – of course the freedom of rapists doesn’t have the same status as the freedom of people to live their own lives in a peaceful and productive way – the fact that my position supposedly entails it is meant as a reductio of my view.

The problem with David’s critique is that it confuses conceptual claims with normative ones. This confusion manifests itself in the ambiguous phrase, “same status.” In one sense, it’s true, I do think that the freedom of rapists and the freedom of peaceful productive individuals have the same status. I think that we can meaningfully and usefully talk about both of them as “freedom” in the sense of non-interference. A rapist who is not prevented from raping has the freedom to rape, just as a worker who is not prevented from working is free to work.

But this is merely a conceptual point. It’s a point about how I think we ought to use the word “freedom.” And as a purely conceptual point, it does not entail anything about the moral status of different kinds of freedom. Consider: when we lock up a guilty rapist in jail, we deprive him of his freedom. If we were to lock up an innocent person in jail, we would be depriving him of his freedom too. In both cases, freedom is being restricted. But, obviously, in one case the restriction is morally justifiable, and in the other case it is not. Questions about how we should use the word “freedom” are one thing. Questions about the moral status of freedom are another.

So what is my view on the moral status of freedom? Obviously, I don’t think that the freedom of rapists and sadists (to rape and be sadistic) has the same moral status as the freedom of individuals to, say, raise a family, choose their employment, and so on. Freedom, understood as the absence of interference, is on my view a prima facie good. In other words, all else being equal, it’s better that people be free from interference. There is a strong moral presumption against interfering (in certain kinds of ways) with the activities of others, but it is a presumption that can be overridden. And one of the things that can override it is when the activity in question is itself interfering with the freedom of others. That’s why harvesting the tomatoes you grew on your own land is different, morally speaking, from harvesting the tomatoes your neighbor grew on his.

So, no, I don’t think that all freedom is equal, morally speaking. And I certainly don’t think we can arrive at any morally enlightening answers simply by “adding up” the freedom of the rapists and the workers and the housewives and enacting whichever set of policies turns out to maximize the aggregate. Herbert Spencer’s idea of maximum equal freedom comes closer to getting things right, but for reasons I will address in a future post, I think even his formulation falls short.

At the end of the day, I think that questions about freedom are too complicated to be adequately captured by a pithy formula. Interfering with others in some ways (like clubbing them over the head) is bad, but in other ways (by firing them from a job they’re doing poorly) is not. Freedom is often an important value worthy of protection (like the freedom to work as an eyebrow threader without the imprimatur of the state), but in other cases (like the freedom to mutilate the genitals of one’s female children) it isn’t. And even when freedom matters, morally, it’s not the only thing that matters. We owe it to others to respect their freedom, but we also sometimes owe it to them to give them what they deserve, to meet their needs, and so on.

It would be nice if morality were easier. It would be nice if we had a formula that could tell us exactly when and how much each of these considerations matters, and to what conclusion they lead in any particular case. But as far as I can tell, we don’t. And so morality, like painting or architecture or any other skill of reasonable complexity, remains as Aristotle claimed it to be, a domain in which rules and formulas inevitably fall short, and in which ultimately there is no substitute for the experienced judgment of practical wisdom.