The anti-freedom fashion

September 8, 2010 by
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

Writing in yesterday’s London Evening Standard, Philip Delves Broughton gives his readers a preview of ‘Freedom’, the new work by Jonathan Franzen, the widely admired American novelist:

‘…This is the key theme of the book, and the reason for the title. We pampered creatures of the 21st century are ruined by our own freedom. Instead of bringing us happiness, it brings us only uncertainty. Having eschewed the certainties and disciplines of earlier generations, we find ourselves lost and adrift, propelled by the lingering emotions of childhood into futile searches for meaning.’

Questioning freedom is now all the rage. The RSA has been exploring the problems with the idea of human autonomy for some time, for example in our Social Brain project or the 21st century enlightenment speech. A critique of a shallow, individualistic, notion of freedom is also central to an essay on the sixties I have written for broadcast on Radio Four on 15 September.

I guess we should be pleased that we have caught the zeitgeist. The danger is that it looks like the RSA is now following fashion rather than leading it.

I have been reading the proofs of a new short book by the moral philosopher Mary Midgley (we are honoured to be hosting her here at the RSA on 20 September). The book is a critique of the idea of human beings as being wholly driven by self interest and is full of wonderful insights and arguments. I had heard many of these points before but Midgley’s powerful and persuasive style makes you think of them afresh. For example, if self interest is natural in humans while altruism is a cultural construct, why is it, Midgley asks, that we are often driven by our natural impulses to behave in ways which are demonstrably against our self interest?

She gives the example of someone who ruins their chances of promotion by having a furious row with their boss. As I have often discussed in this blog, much of the recent economic crisis can be put down to us following our animal impulses rather than cool calculation. It is not just social constraint that stops us being selfish but our animal passions; desire, loyalty, fear, a sense of fairness (which we now know children exhibit before even being able to speak): the crude neo Darwinian idea that selfishness is natural and altruism not is simply untenable.  It is in our nature that we have somehow to manage the individual and collective dilemmas which result from being animals driven by a combination of self interested, social and blindly emotional forces (or as Freudians might put it, ego, superego and id).   

Mary Midgley’s book is likely to be seen as another powerful assault on the ideology of individualism. But just when I was in danger of succumbing to feeling aggrieved that so many other – more esteemed – people are getting credit for making an argument we have been pursuing for several years, I had lunch with my own personal guru, Geoff Mulgan. He reminded me that the idea that freedom was both modernity’s  greatest virtue but also its greatest problem was the very first point in his 1998 book, Connexity.

There is no such thing as a new idea, especially one as big as this. Rather than trying to claim credit for an intellectual fashion, the task for the RSA is to delve more deeply and widely into the debate, to make it interesting and accessible to as many people as possible and to explore new practical applications of a more sophisticated, social, idea of autonomy.




    Thanks for this post, Matthew – looking forward to the publication by the great Mary Midgley. And while we’re on the subject of MM, can we organise some RSA lobbying to have her made a DBE? She is, with Mary Warnock, one of our greatest philosophers of the past century and remains inspirational at nearly 91.

    We need to be careful re freedom – the key is to question, as you say, the shallow version that is often portrayed as the most important kind. This comes down to Freedom of Choice – what might be called ‘freedom of consumption’, whose proponents tend to see all constraint as tedious denial at best and coercion at worst . But it is far from clear that maximising this freedom does anyone, let alone society overall, as much good as we think. (And Will Davies has made interesting comments elsewhere on the pathological nature of the very idea of ‘maximisation’ in economics.) There is a neglected freedom that comes from narrowing of one’s choices. Other freedoms are more important, and all freedoms need to be seen as virtues that we learn, rather than licence that we are granted or individual self-expression that we ‘maximise’. Freedom understood as a virtue is a matter of negotiation of desires and impulses through relationships with others in society.

  • rhian

    hello matthew, thought you had disappeared from the blogosphere!
    tell me what you’re thinking it says above. Well…all I was thinking is how ironic it is that we fortunate westerners have the luxury – (or stupidity maybe) to start agonising and worrying about how free we are!! Another thing for over-educated, over-stuffed intelledtuals or novelists with too much time on their hands to start beating themselves up about! Why not ask a woman in Afghanistan or Iraq whether they would like to swap places with us! Surely the point is to make the most of our individuality, enjoy the many choices we do have to live life to the full whilst also overcoming self-interest (when we remember) to give something back and help others to have the choices we do…I thought the carbon footprint was enough guilt for this century? I thank the Gods every day for the fact I live in a free society and I long for the day when everyone has as much freedom as we do…to me freedom of choice is a sign of an evolved society and not something to wail about! That novelist should go do some charity work or anything useful maybe instead of wasting trees on moaning about how free he is etc.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Sartre famously said that man is condemned to be free. He believed that man is free to do what he wants, but also resposible for the world and himself.
    Christianity has also the concept of free will. After studying the subject 30 years, Daniel C. Dennett also agrees. And modern neuroscience shows that free will does exist.
    Human beings can choose their actions, but they cannot choose the consequences. Human beings are notoriously bad at long-term planning.
    Richard Dawkins says in The Selfish Gene that we no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with deep problems like is there meaning to life.
    And Stephen Hawking may be able to explain how the universe started, but he cannot tell why.
    And as Paul Davies has stated, the meta-laws themselves remain unexplained.

  • Sam McLean

    Interesting comments.

    Three things:

    First, I don’t think free will does exist. It’s certainly not self-evident. It’s a metaphysical construct that should probably have died along time ago. Sartre was basically wrong on this. His philosophy around the time of Being and Nothingness is based on a fatally flawed interpretation of the early Heidegger of the 1920s (i.e. Being and Time). See ‘Letter on Humanism’, an essay where Heidegger say’s pretty much this.

    Second, Dennett doesn’t believe in free will as such; certainly not the philosophical understanding of it you find in say Descartes, Kant or Husserl. And Dennett and the early Sartre certainly have a very different understanding of what free will means. Dennett is a ‘compatibalist’, i.e. he doesn’t see a contradiction between free will and determinism. His book, Free Will, seems to me more or less clear on this issue.

    Third, freedom as the capacity to do or be what one wants is a conception of freedom specific to liberal political philosophers, say Locke or Mill, even Rawls or Sen to some extent. Hegel or Aristotle, for example, would not see a critique of individualism as a critique of freedom because they are different things. Freedom is as much an expression of collective factors, as it is individual self-determination. This is why I rather like the concept of ‘autonomy’.

  • Matthew Kalman

    Hi Matthew,

    Just found this blog post by some Australian folks who’ve watched your RSA Animate on empathy – and share some of the values testing results they’ve been doing, since 1988, monitoring the trend taken by ‘empathy’.

    Do take a look at their graph of empathy over time:

    Here’s a snippet from their blurb:

    “How then is empathy unfolding in society? We’ve been tracking the value priorities of people since 1988. The chart below plots the priority placed on empathy and rights/respect, relative to the other 126 values, over this time interval.

    From 1988 until 2000 the priority people were placing on empathy relative to other values was increasing. The global world-view shift which occurred after September 11 seems to have resulted in a decrease in the importance of this value. This is possibly due to people choosing to associate more with people similar to themselves and to have less interest in building bridges with people different from themselves.”

    I guess I might as well re-state my general point that some of the energy we spend on debating what *might* be happening, ought to be spent on actual empirical research on what *is* happening.

    Whether it’s monitoring how self-authoring/Modernism is progressing in the UK (use Prof Kegan’s tool?), or the value of empathy (using perhaps one of the Minessence, Brian Hall or Richard Barrett models, or Inglehart/Schwarz, or Pat Dade’s?).

    Oh, by the way, I think both the Brian Hall and Minessence organisations have software that could process your 21st Century Enlightenment text and graphically depict the actual spread of values in what you wrote!

    Aren’t you intrigued to see that? ;-)

    You could then assess the individual values of your staff, and see if they’re in tune with your 21st Century Enlightenment vision….!

    Now wouldn’t that be fun ;-)

    Ditto with the public at large, perhaps…

    I wonder if Minessence would do it for free, for a bit of PR?

    Matthew K

  • Matthew Kalman

    I should’ve included this link:

    … which depicts the somewhat different spread of values in speeches given by the two Australian politicians who were seeking to be elected PM.

    Matthew K.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Sam McLean. Arthur Schopenhauer in his The World as Will and Representation claimed that the world is what we recognize in ourself as our will. According to him subconscious will dictates our lives.
    Benjamin Libet discovered that unconscious processes in the brain precede conscious decisions.
    We may commit to decisions before becoming aware of them. But modern neuroscience shows that there is still room for free choice between the intentions and actions.

  • Pingback: Plundering the Classics: How to think about the “self-interest” brigade « Bad Conscience()

  • Jonathan Rowson

    It is important to disaggregate political freedom from metaphysical freedom. I may be free by law to do what I like, but this ‘I’ can still be chained and conditioned in various ways. What is missing in democratic discourse is the idea that freedom is something the individual achieves through spiritual practice.

  • Livy

    Once again a comment from Rhian makes me smile.

    Jonathan Rowson:

    Exactly – I’m with you. But many people feel unnerved by the mere mention of ‘spirituality’ as it’s an area that scientific discourse has traditionally ceded to religious authority. It’s also one of the reasons for the incredible hostility towards secular writers from fellow secularists: a disinterest or failure to explore some of the most powerful psychotropic episodes in people’s lives can be misconstrued as insensitive, and science writers can therefore sound shrill. The real trick from here on will be to try and separate the numinous from the transcendent; the awe-inspiring from the supernatural.


  • Sam McLean

    Olli. Thanks for your response.

    AS was a genuinely great philosopher. But there are two problems with your use of Schopenhauer in this context. First, he develops precisely the metaphysical understanding of the will that I think is highly questionable. Second, I don’t think his philosophy is a philosophy of free will. If sub-conscious will dictates life then action cannot be said to be a consequence of free will.

    “Benjamin Libet discovered that unconscious processes in the brain precede conscious decisions.We may commit to decisions before becoming aware of them.” Precisely! This is a critique of free will as a philosophical category.

    “But modern neuroscience shows that there is still room for free choice between the intentions and actions.” I’m not sure what this means in relation to our exchange. I absolutely believe in the human capacity for freedom. But I don’t think our being free comes from something called a free will.

    Jonathan. Yes, absolutely agree with that distinction. And I really like what you say about freedom being something we achieve through spiritual practice. But what do you mean by ‘spiritual practice’? In the last years of his life and later lectures, Foucault develops a concept of freedom very similar to this. You should read Vol 1 of his Essential Works, which has lots of short pieces, interviews etc, which you’d be interested in, if you haven’t got them already.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Kant, of course, said that a man has always free will.
    Libet says that between will to do something and conscious decision, there is 0.5 seconds. But there is another 0.5 seconds before any action. So there is always a possibility to interrupt the intended action.
    Finally, quantum mechanics at least offers us a possibility that our world is not determistic.

  • Sam McLean

    Hi Olli. But what does your last post mean in relation to my questions?! I’m not saying people aren’t free. I’m saying that free will doesn’t exist.

  • nano

    Such an ancient topic, very broad and very fashionable – all of which should set the warning lights flashing. Thank you Rhian, Jonathan Rowson and others. The debate really needs disaggregating to be digestible.

    Good luck to anyone who fancies attempting it. We’ve already heard here from the political, the philosophical, the metaphysical and the neurological frames of reference… so how about throwing in some evolutionary biology, such as population genetics, rather than talking about ‘our animal passions’? Here’s an example: a couple of weeks ago I came across a paper in the scientific journal Nature which outlined how the evolution of eusociality (read altruism) which underlies complex social organisation in some animals could in theory be driven by very simple genetic variation between individuals in their pro-social tendencies. For example, in social insects the inclination either to stay at home and support others or to leave the colony and do their own thing (teenage insect free will! :) ). The genetic differences within the population would persist over time because a mix of both tendencies maximises population sustainability, e.g. in defence of the colony against enemies.

    So no paradoxical altruism mysteries, no need for kin selection payoff matrices for calculation of maximum individual benefit. No default selfishness. No ‘bad’ selfishness and ‘good’ altruism, or vice versa. Just a balance between different genetic tendencies which presumably shifts over time within a population in response to conditions and to chance. So, the twisted version of ‘the selfish gene’ theory, which Matthew mentions and was a crutch for some arguments in favour of individualistic policies, is itself clearly changing.

    Sounds neat? There’s lots of interesting stuff there which I am failing to get across. But I’m being a bit offhand because of course this is as dangerously simplifiable and as furiously debated as any other angle to this topic. It could be plain wrong but at least it shifts some of the debate from the purely philosophical towards the empirically testable.

    Access to the Nature paper is by subscription but see summary and readers’ comments at, even if only to convince yourselves that Matthew’s blog readers are an uncommonly polite and pro-social lot!