Yesterday was the anniversary of the opening of the Statue of Liberty. But what is liberty? And if we’re all for it, why do the two parties here seem so at odds with each other? One common explanation goes back to Isaiah Berlin and the distinction between “negative freedom” (freedom from coercion) and ‘positive freedom” (possession of resources necessary to attain one’s goals). This distinction is certainly relevant to the fact that the advocates of larger government and redistribution have called themselves “liberals” and in response, classical liberals have had to rebrand themselves as “libertarians.” The historical experience that lies behind the entry of this conflict into American politics is probably the defection of some classical liberals from the Democratic Party in the wake of the New Deal, triggered by FDR’s unprecedented decision to seek a third, and later, a fourth term, and perhaps only prevented from an endless reiteration of this un-Washingtonian stance by death. But I think there is a deeper historical experience behind the conflict. (I also think that political concepts and ideals are created by historical experience rather than discovered in them, which is why I place such an emphasis on history here, but nothing will turn on this in what follows).

The ancient Greeks experienced political life as lived in city-states. There is much to be said for politics at this scale: much smaller and there’s too much you can’t do effectively (including defend yourself) and much bigger and the organs of state begin to drift away from the control of those whose state it is. Empires, from the Persian one that tried to subjugate the Greeks on down, have always sought to conquer such cities, to govern and tax them. When that happens (and it is still happening, as witness Hong Kong, right now) the ability to control the political affairs in your community dwindles, for it is at best self-government with permission, and your influence comes to depend not only on the support of your neighbors, but on your connections to the foreign empire and its local agents. There are also some advantages to empire (as Monty Python memorably pointed out: the aqueducts, the roads, etc.) but something vital is lost.

In one sense of the word, we can say what is lost is freedom. But notice that the freedom lost is not primarily individual freedom, or if it is, it is so derivatively. It is my city that is not free, and as a citizen of it, I am therefore not free. One of the central obligations of a citizen of a city-state is to do their fair share to prevent such a loss of freedom, and if necessary, what they can to regain it. The goal, simply put, is to send the agents of the empire away, to send them back home, so that one can say “no one rules us here, no one but ourselves.”

This is both an ancient and a modern experience, whether it is Greek cities warding off Persians, German tribes warding off Romans, Americans warding off the British, or any number of modern, non-European societies warding off colonialism. The freedom earned is the freedom of collective self-governance. It is not “libertarian” freedom, which is freedom from government, regardless of its domestic or foreign origins. And it is this notion of freedom, even deeper than the Rooseveltian freedom from want, that inspires liberals in the United States, and why liberals return, repeatedly, to the issue of campaign finance reform, because in so doing, they wish to assert that: no one can buy our state, no one rules us here, no one but ourselves. It is also at the root, deeper than any twentieth century ideology, of many liberals’ and progressives’ revulsion at foreign adventures; for how can one experience pride as a self-governing people and at the same time lord it over others who live far away? Won’t one be obliged to treat others who fight for their freedom as criminals or worse? Won’t the revulsion right-thinking people feel at a bully become self-revulsion?

It is a notorious fact about this kind of freedom that it is compatible with forms of subjection within the self-governing city. This is not just an American experience (i.e., slavery). It is a recurring experience throughout history that some who suffer under their own governments cannot help but be pleased by the thought of the destruction of their own government by some empire’s conquest. Because this is a genuine phenomenon, conquerors for I don’t know how long have characterized their conquests as “liberation” and sometimes they are right. Napoleon was greeted by many of the non-French he invaded as the solvent of local and antiquated forms of subjection. Even Hitler was initially received by some in this way (recall that he warred with another  totalitarian state), until he made it clear that he came as a solvent, not of local oppression, but of everything that is.

A “good invader,” however, reaches around the local powers that subjugate locally, to protect the interests of the least powerful among the conquered. To some degree, Napoleon was a “good invader” but the best invader of this sorts in our experience was Abraham Lincoln. And Abraham Lincoln was not exactly a staunch advocate of local rule. He became a symbol of the liberation of the individual from local subjugation, and by virtue of his influence (and the influence of those more radical members of his party who tried to revolutionize the South after conquering it) brought into our tradition the idea of freedom for the individual from his own government. It is the peculiar optics of nostalgia which makes us think that the Founding Fathers wanted freedom from their own government. Rather, those who thought of the new federal government as their own government saw little need to be free from it, and those who wanted to be free from it saw no reason to think that it would ever be their own government. Or so I claim.

It is one of the great ironies of our history that when a faction of liberal Democrats concluded that FDR had gone too far, they came to seize on this Lincolnian tradition, came to champion the individual’s freedom from his own government, and eventually called themselves “libertarians.” For, having to choose a party, many of them fled to the Republican Party. And when the Democratic Party decided to take up the long neglected cause of revolutionizing the South a couple of decades later, the South, for largely unsavory reasons, also fled to the Republican Party. And Southern conservatives have been championing the individualistic conception of freedom, and casting their predominantly white selves as slaves, and characterizing the civic republican, collective self-governance ideals of the Left as “socialism” ever since.

I do not tell you what to do. I show you your tangled and confused history. The task is, to create something worthy out of its legacy. A good starting point, if you have the trust and optimism necessary for it, is to realize that as a political being, you and your opponents are in a conversation about the meaning of freedom, and the meaning of freedom is a complex, obscure, and contestable thing. To do that, however, would mean to recognize your political opponents as fellow citizens, as those who dwell with you in a common, self-governing “city”. That may beg an important question, but even if it didn’t, I see almost no one strong enough, generous enough, hopeful enough for it, today.

Strategic Faux Self-Criticism

The handful of people who have read anything here know that I’ve been attacking what I call “politicism” for a long time. But  most of this “attacking” is probably too low-key and too convoluted to do much good as anything other than self-expression and navel-gazing. This guy seems to be pretty clear and direct, i.e., better. So read him. The only thing I keep wondering about is why we continue to idiotically look for genetic predispositions for Red Tribalism and Blue Tribalism (insert every criticism of heritability of IQ research HERE) and not even begin to ask the more obvious socioeconomic questions about who benefits (my own hypothesis is that “what’s the matter with Kansas” is that you keep exploiting it, and suffer from self-deception all the while). My own attempt to start making sense can be found here.

Rational Intemperance

There’s this phenomenon studied by public choice theory called “rational ignorance.” That’s when people do not seek out information in a civic-minded way: we are tempted to think them irrational, but if the costs of obtaining the information outweigh any possible benefit to them individually, then becoming informed is irrational. When an aggregate of rationally ignorant voters vote, this can be a problem. Further light is shed on that phenomenon when we ask “what are true beliefs for, why have them at all?” Presumably a big part of the value of true beliefs is that they help me make rewarding decisions, which is why I want to know what time the bus is coming, but not the next time there’s going to be an election in Belgium. OK, but not all irrationality is about beliefs; the Stoics especially were aware of this. Part of practical reason is being able to control your emotions. Why? Because morality aside, yielding to passion can cause decisions that incur costs to the decision-maker (breaking a prized possession in anger, and then regretting not having the prized possession). This suggests an analogy: there is such a thing that we might call rational intemperance. There are costs and benefits to being intemperate – feeling good temporarily, but breaking things you’ll want later. But what about being verbally intemperate towards total strangers on the other side of the country, or the world? Need we ever worry about “breaking” our cherished relationships with them? And the political interest of this should be obvious: just as rationally ignorant voters in a democracy can cause harmful policies, rationally intemperate voters can cause: excessively punitive laws, partisan gridlock, wars, etc. etc.

But especially wars.

Binary Star System

Occasionally one will hear someone talk breezily about how all of philosophy is a struggle between Plato and Aristotle. This seems to me to use a painting from Raphael, and a small piece of it to boot, as a substitute for historical inquiry. The fact is, the picture of philosophy as a binary star system owes more to the accident that the third, fourth, fifth etc. great figures’ texts have disappeared, along with the fact that interpreting things in terms of team sports seems to be an inveterate tendency of the human mind. In any event, once this binary opposition is in place it can be superimposed on all sorts of dualisms. For example Ayn Rand and Lyndon LaRouche both agree on the “two sides, locked in eternal combat” picture, but for Rand, technology belongs to Aristotle and environmentalism to Plato; for LaRouche, it’s the other way around. Whatever.

Lloyd Gerson argued that late antiquity thought Plato and Aristotle more alike than different. One can put oneself into that state of mind, though whether that makes Plato seem more sensible and harmless or Aristotle less dull and uninspiring remains to be seen. All I know is that this jumbling together produced Neoplatonism, and that everything that is gorgeous and everything that is methodologically suspect, from Augustine to Heidegger, is indebted to it.


Sometimes I criticize progressives for a boutique-ish approach to oppression that sidesteps the class system altogether. I only do this when I’m feeling especially brave because what I’m doing thereby is (1) telling progressives that they’re fundamentally unserious, (2) telling conservatives that there really is a class system, (3) telling liberals that they have met the oppressor and it is them, and (4) telling radicals that they have thoroughly and catastrophically failed. When I feel cowardly, I talk about building bridges and shit instead.


Why am I dismayed when I see American friends get emotionally involved in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? Because discussion among outsiders of this conflict is a part of a two-sided propaganda war driven by the simple fact that neither side can ever possibly hope to win unless it succeeds in mobilizing moral support outside the conflict, and to some extent both sides know this (it is characteristic of the state-actor in these sorts of conflicts to falsely believe it can prevail by military means alone, and for the non-state actor to falsely believe it can prevail by winning popularity contests by masochistically orchestrating atrocities against itself). But neither side can hope to win this propaganda war either. That makes outside sympathy a form of enabling. Matters become hopeful only when both sides lose all hope. When I was a child, I remember thinking (being a rather strange child) that two things will last forever: the Berlin Wall, and fighting in Northern Ireland. I think people would benefit from looking very closely at why I along with much of the rest of the world was wrong about those two things, as there are generalizable lessons to be learned from both of them. And the lesson is not “nuke Moscow” or “kill every Catholic in Northern Ireland.” I think we should probably look at both of these stories because in a sense, both are relevant.

Harris and Dennett on Free Will

A disclosure: my own thinking about free will was strongly influenced decades ago by Dan Dennett’s defense of compatibilism, Elbow Room. Like almost 60% of professional philosophers, I find myself inclined towards some such view. For those unfamiliar with this expression, the basic idea is to dissolve the conflict between free will and determinism by reconceiving free will as not really in conflict with determinism. Once this view is on the table, we seem to have three menu items instead of two: those who believe that free will is incompatible with determinism and thus end up committed to the existence of free will on some non-natural basis; those who believe that free will is incompatible with determinism and, rejecting any possibility of a non-natural basis for free will, end up determinists who reject or want to radically reform our moral practices; and those who don’t think they are incompatible on closer examination. This lay of the land is well-known to philosophy people and has been for a very long time.

The only reason why I’m writing at all, is because of qualifications I would want to make to Dennett’s otherwise essentially correct, if exceedingly civil response to Harris here, and make some meta-comments about the discussion itself. First as to Harris: Harris is notable for dichotomizing the world into things that are pro-religion and anti-religion, in order to give the pathos of his opposition the widest possible scope. Despite the predominantly secular character of contemporary analytic philosophy, Harris has made an antecedent judgment that professional philosophers are basically indistinguishable from theologians because they don’t simplify, heighten contrasts, cut to the chase, demonize opponents, etc. as he does. This is to mistake self-possession and intellectual curiosity, which he largely lacks, for treason. Thus it seems obvious to him that a view which is not that far from his own must in fact be its opposite. He wants to get those who refuse to be pinned down by him because they think they are being confronted with a false alternative to shut up and embrace the false alternative, and take sides as his ally or enemy–either will do, as either are the source of some satisfaction. Thus were culture warriors always, regardless of their cause. By contrast, Dennett is a professional philosopher, but also something of a popularizer, and from the beginning, his work on free will was driven by a desire to understand and clarify.

The crux of their debate, really, is over an empirical question: what do ordinary people think? Dennett claims that ordinary people are implicit compatibilists (and, unlike Harris, marshals some actual empirical evidence to support this). Harris thinks that it’s obvious that ordinary people are incompatibilist indeterminists, his primary evidence for this being that people seem to say they are. Harris could avail himself of further evidence: that people make moral judgments, which one could argue implies a commitment to incompatibilist indeterminism, but  for the fact that he too wishes to make moral judgments (boy does he!) and hopes to save that practice from criticism (just like a compatibilist–this appears to be Dennett’s main evidence for thinking that Harris is a compatibilist despite himself).

Two related things seem to have gone off the rails in this debate. First is the assumption that anyone has a view clear enough and explicit enough to be pinned down and criticized, whether we are talking about Harris himself, or the ordinary folk he hopes to Enlighten. The second is that what we need here is The Truth in anything like the sense that natural science furnishes truths. I think that Dennett largely gets this latter point, but unfortunately his pragmatist clarity is obscured by his residual desire to figure out what people really think, and what is correct to think. At the risk of being pegged a nihilist for being a more thorough-going  pragmatist, I don’t think there is a fact of the matter as to what people really think in this area, and that there is no need to get people to think “correctly” about it. What philosophy can do here, at most, is provide clarity, or, if you prefer, alleviate an intellectual cramp induced by a certain illusion. But what it cannot and need not do is furnish “truth.”

Here’s what we know: we are animals, and presumably as animals we have no non-natural parts. This far, Dennett, Harris and I agree. We are not unusual in being social animals who seek to influence each other by various forms of encouraging and discouraging behavior. What is unusual about us is the degree of intelligence and foresight we display, and the fact that our sociality is pervasively shot through with linguistic activity. Consider the following episode.

“Which of you took the cookies? They’re almost all gone!” asked Mom of two children assembled. A long silence ensues, until one of them, with a hang-dog expression, replies “I did. I’m sorry. I know you told us not to.” “Go to your room,” Mom replies, “no cookies for you for the rest of the day.”

The whole discussion between Dennett and Harris begins from the assumption that everything in that tableaux is a physical system and thus deterministic. So far so good. So what’s the problem? Really, from a pragmatic perspective, there isn’t one yet, not at all. Mom’s doing her job, and let’s assume she’s doing it well. Mom only directs her attention towards what Skinner called “operant behavior,” what a physician would call “voluntary movement” and what the folks call “choices.” Classifying one set of bodily movements as falling under one of these labels, and distinguishing it from reflex movements, epileptic seizures, the effects of external jostling and the like, seems to carve nature at the joints. I have no doubt that operant behavior has a distinctive neurological signature that shows up on an MRI (though it may be the case that finer-grainedly described kinds of operant behavior such as “ordering a milkshake” may not have their own distinctive neurological signatures).

The crucial point is, everything is in order as it is. Mom’s task is not impaired by a fundamentally wrong or confused way of classifying bodily movements. She’s not raising her voice at epileptic seizures or reflexes. She seems to be doing just fine, and in the fullness of time, so will her kids, who will not only learn to be able to avoid cookies, but engage in some “herding” behavior of their own, not only of their own children, but of their peers as well.

Now Dennett and Harris have views about what, metaphysically, Mom believes. Dennett especially should appreciate this point, but I think Mom doesn’t believe a damn thing. She believes in the same way that a person, when pressed, “desires” what they ordered on the menu at a restaurant (this is Dennett’s own example, I don’t recall from where). In this case the pressing comes from a philosopher to pick from a menu of philosophers’ characterizations of what she thinks. Philosophers have been doing this since Socrates, and it always struck me as unfair to foist an interpretation on someone, get them to endorse it, and then attack them for holding it. Undoubtedly the second book of Plato’s Republic would read differently if Thrasymachus had written it.

Dennett wants to tell Harris that it is far from clear that Mom is committed to the Cartesianism Harris wants to foist on her the better to lump her in with the sermonizers he reviles; at most she is committed to the concepts necessary for certain action-ascription behaviors. I sympathize. Harris, by contrast, finds it unlikely that Mom has as complicated and sophisticated a view as Dennett attributes to her. But I also sympathize. Mom acts like a compatibilist not because she’s committed to it but because it describes her behavior. But Mom could probably be induced to assent to Cartesianism if pressed in the right way, which would tell us exactly nothing about what she really thinks and what, if anything, about that needs to change.

The better question is not what’s going on with Mom’s linguistic behavior, but rather, what’s going on with Harris’ and Dennett’s. Harris wants to flog Cartesians. Fine. They exist, and he’s probably right to think that they exist in certain religious communities especially, because religion, like philosophy, provides interpretations of what we do, including things we’re perfectly capable of doing without any interpretation at all. But to suppose that Mom is an implicit Cartesian, and to take as evidence of this that she would agree to a menu item at a metaphysical club, that you could induce her to say “then I guess I’m a Cartesian” tells us little about what she thinks, and tells us nothing about the value of her behavior in the cookie scenario, because her behavior there is not itself a truth claim in metaphysics. Unless Harris wants Mom to radically reform how she raises her children (and I don’t think he does, assuming that she is effective and humane) then it seems what he wants to do here is teach her how to say “I am not a Cartesian” before anyone else can get to her and teach her how to say “I am a Cartesian.” Seen from afar and with a pragmatist lens, this all seems rather silly.

So I’m with Dennett still? Not quite. Because I still think Dennett wants to tell us the truth about the will, and I don’t think there is a truth about the will to be told. I think there is a more helpful way to think about this, and that it is very close to what Dennett is doing in Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves. What is the free will-determinism problem at bottom? Is it a metaphysical question? I would submit that it is, instead, a funny kind of practical problem. The problem has the following contours. Among the things we do is reinforce behavior in accordance with rules, “punishing” “bad choices” as we call one form of it. But sometimes, following a kind of exception clause, we do not. The “bad choice” is “excused.” The Martian zoologist would say that it is pointless to lecture people for bodily movements caused by neurological disease, for example. The problem is that the language we use in these contexts sounds like “he couldn’t have helped it” and the like. And it is precisely this language that the incompatibilist determinist misuses, to act as if he is trying to induce the no-reinforcement response to behaviors which do not fall under the rule governing excused behavior. Sometimes he is quick to add that he isn’t trying to actually change our behavior, other times he insists that he is. The problem is that the blaming and excusing practices work just fine as they are if you view them not as the expression of theories but patterns of activities, and simply refuse to give them any interpretation of interest to a philosopher at all.

What Dennett and other compatibilists want to do, ultimately, is to restore the status quo ante of smooth social action before it was disrupted by the confusing effects of Cartesian and anti-Cartesian interpretations. But they think the best way to do this is through a theory of their own. If the goal is to participate in social conversation among philosophers, that’s fine, but that is not what lends interest to the topic. The better goal is to nullify the disruptive effects of the other philosophical interpretations, by whatever means available. For example, every time someone started to engage in philosophical interpretation, you could wrap their knuckles with a stick, like some Zen master trying to provoke inner silence. That might work. Or you could carefully retrace the confused footsteps of analogy and emotion that led to the interpretations, until the other sees the under-motivated and unhelpful character of that path, in something like the spirit of the later Wittgenstein, who insisted that he held no views at all.

Free will/determinism is what I call a “puzzle,” but it is unusual as a puzzle because it links to our moral practices and in particular confuses us about our excusing practices. Harris’ response to it is to enlist it into his culture war on behalf of secularism, by uncharitably attributing a certain interpretation to most people, the better to attack them. Dennett’s response is to charitably attribute a more plausible interpretation to most people, the better to justify leaving them alone. I propose instead that we leave them alone by not attributing interpretations to  them at all, for the most charitable thing one can do in the face of the panoply of human conduct is to say nothing.