Friday, February 27, 2009

Freedom and coercion

Martin was being mugged. His wallet was empty. He was told to get a hundred dollars from the ATM and give it to the mugger, or he'd die. He did so. I think most people would say that Martin didn't hand over the $100 freely. But here is the puzzle: We can also imagine that Martin in exactly the same circumstances refusing to cooperate despite knowing that this will cost him his life (maybe he could have acted on a motive of ensuring that crime doesn't pay).

An initial reaction to the imaginability of Martin not giving the hundred is that this shows nothing very interesting. It simply shows that there is a sense of freedom that goes beyond what one might call "alternate possibilities" kinds of freedom (and I mean that very loosely to be neutral between all libertarian options, including origination based ones; this may even include compatibilist kinds of freedom, as long as the compatibilist is willing to admit of a sense in which Martin acted freely in handing over the money). In the "alternate possibilities" sense, Martin acted freely in handing over the money. But in some meatier sense, Martin acted unfreely. Very familiar: one recalls Aristotle's discussion of the captain throwing cargo overboard.

But I still think there is something puzzling about the case. Focus in on that meatier sense of freedom, call it "freedom-plus". The idea is that Martin lacks freedom-plus when he hands over the hundred. But But now imagine the alternate scenario where Martin dies for refusing to cooperate. Did he act unfreely, in the sense of lacking freedom-plus, in refusing to cooperate? Surely not. His refusing to cooperate, while occurring in circumstances of coercion, was eminently not the result of coercion. The act of resistance was misguided, but not at all unfree.

So, when Martin was threatened, it was still up to him whether to act with freedom-plus. This means that freedom-plus does not supervene on the choice situation (the "choice situation" is easiest to describe in the libertarian case, where the choice situation is basically all the facts about the options available, the chooser's mental state, and so on, but not including what choice was made). Freedom-plus, rather, supervenes on the combination of choice situation with the actual choice (broadly understood).

This also means that Martin can actually deliberate over whether he should act freely or unfreely. That sounds paradoxical, but in the sense of "freedom-plus" it is entirely unparadoxical. In fact, we can imagine that the counterfactual Martin, who presumably sins against prudence by resisting[note 1]

So, oddly, cases of coercion, when they do not take "alternate possibilities" freedom away (they might in cases where the coerced agent panics and loses the ability to reason) are cases where it's up to the coerced agent whether she has freedom-plus.

Moreover, I wonder if it's not possible for coerced agents to have freedom-plus even if they cooperate. Suppose Martin thinks about refusing to cooperate. He likes that idea, and is quite willing to die to ensure that one does not profit from crime. He does not have any family to worry about. But while being very much attracted to that idea, he decides that to refuse to cooperate would be to sin against charity for the mugger. For he foresees that if he does not cooperate, he will very likely be shot. And if he is shot, then his life will be on the mugger's conscience. And it is a very bad thing to have someone's life on one's conscience. In acting from a set of motives like that, Martin is surely completely free in the freedom-plus sense. After all, in no sense is he acting out of coercion.

But what about a mid-way case? Martin thinks about refusing to cooperate. But then he reflects on the fact that the virtue of prudence calls for cooperation. Desiring to act virtuously, he cooperates. In this case, it seems he is acting out of coercion. But maybe not. Maybe a distinction must be made be in simply responding to threat by trying to save one's hide and thus cooperating (not that there is anything morally wrong with that in this kind of a case)—in which case one lacks freedom-plus—and responding to the threat by cooperating because that is the virtuous thing to do, all things considered, with the threat being one of the considered things. In the latter case, the decision-making process is mediated by virtue, and the action seems intuitively free in every sense that matters.

But if so, then this does not mean that when we initially judged Martin to be unfree in handing over the hundred, we were unfairly judgmental of Martin? For we had no right to assume that he wasn't moved by virtue.

On the other hand, perhaps the way out of all of these perplexities is simply to abandon any concept of "freedom-plus", and to say that our desire to call cases of coercion as cases of lack of freedom simply comes from a failure to acknowledge the freedom that we have (for whatever reason—maybe in order to hide the correlate responsibility from ourselves)?


Heath White said...

I think it is useful, in defining senses of ‘freedom’, to think about what would constitute the opposite. So, e.g. there is freedom as opposed to confinement, freedom as opposed to coercion, as opposed to addiction, as opposed to ignorance of or inability to track the good. Now it seems to me that what all these senses piled up together amount to is an ideal of action (actually, life): one which is powerful, uncoerced, strong-willed, with a clearly good aim, etc. More or less the life of God. And then we understand the absence of freedom as various ways of falling short of this life.

This has the benefit, I think, of illuminating people’s ideals of life. For a limited idea of freedom will be, on this view, symptomatic of a limited idea of flourishing.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I like that. And then it's no surprise--and indeed would have been none to Augustine--that it can be in our power to choose just how freely to act.