Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 23 October 2015

Freedom; a moral imperative

I wrote something about freedom recently, in answer to a question posed in Philosophy Now (Issue 108, Jun/Jul 2015) regarding What's The More Important: Freedom, Justice, Happiness, Truth? My sequence of importance starting at the top was Truth, Justice, Freedom and Happiness based on the argued premise that each was dependent on its predecessor. But this post is about something else: the relevance of John Stuart Mill’s arguments on ‘liberty’ in the 21st Century.

Once again, this has been triggered by Philosophy Now, but Issue 110 (Oct/Nov 2015) though the context is quite different. Philosophy Now is a periodical and they always have a theme, and the theme for this issue is ‘Liberty & Equality’ so it’s not surprising to find articles on freedom. In particular, there are 2 articles: Mill, Liberty & Euthanasia by Simon Clarke and The Paradox of Liberalism by Francisco Mejia Uribe.

I haven’t read Mill’s book, On Liberty, which is cited in both of the aforementioned articles, but I’ve read his book, Utilitarianism, and what struck me was that he was a man ahead of his time. Not only is utilitarian philosophy effectively the default position in Western democracies (at least, in theory) but he seemed to predict findings in social psychology like the fact that one’s conscience is a product of social norms and not God whispering in one’s ear, and that social norms can be changed, like attitudes towards smoking, for example. I’ve written a post on utilitarian moral philosophy elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on it here.

The first essay by Clarke (cited above) deals with the apparent conflict between freedom to pursue one’s potential and the freedom to end one’s life through euthanasia, which is not the subject of this post either. It’s Clarke’s reference to Mill’s fundamental philosophy of individual freedom that struck a chord with me.

An objectively good life, on Mill’s (Aristotelian) view, is one where a person has reached her potential, realizing the powers and abilities she possesses. According to Mill, the chief essential requirement for personal well-being is the development of individuality. By this he meant the development of a person’s unique powers, abilities, and talents, to their fullest potential.

I’ve long believed that the ideal society allows this type of individualism: that each of us has the opportunity, through education, mentoring and talent-driven programmes to pursue the goals best suited to our abilities. Unfortunately, the world is not an equitable place and many people - the vast majority - don’t have this opportunity.

The second essay (cited above), by Uribe, deals with the paradox that arises when liberal political and societal ideals meet fundamentalism. One may ask: what paradox? The paradox is that liberal attitudes towards freedom of expression, religious and cultural norms allows the rise of fundamentalist ideals that actually wish to curtail such freedoms. In the current age, fundamentalism is associated with Islamic fundamentalism manifested by various ideologies all over the globe, which has led to a backlash in the form of Islamophobia. Some, like IS (Islamic State) and Boko Haram (in Nigeria) have extreme, intolerant views that they enforce on entire populations in the most brutal and violent manner imaginable. In other words, they could not be further from Mill’s ideal of freedom and liberation (Uribe, by the way, makes no reference to Islam).

In Western societies, there is a widely held fear, exploited by many right-winged and nationalist movements, that Islamic fundamentalism will overthrow our Western democratic systems of government and replace it with a religious totalitarian one. The reports of extreme human rights violations (including genocide, slavery and internet posted executions) in far-off politically unstable countries, only adds to this paranoia.

There are caveats to Mill’s manifesto (my term) on individual freedom, as pointed out by Clarke: ‘Excepting children and the insane, for whom intervention for their own sake is permissible…’ and ‘Freedom for the sake of individuality does not allow the harming of others, because that would damage the individuality of others.’

It’s this last point: ‘that would damage the individuality of others’; that I would argue, goes to the crux of the issue. Totalitarianism and fundamentalist ideologies should and can be opposed on this moral principle – political and social structures that inhibit unfairly the ability for individuals to pursue happiness should not be supported. This seems self-evident, yet it’s at the core of the current gay-marriage debate that is happening in many Western countries, including Australia (where I live). It’s also the reason that many Muslims oppose Islam extremists as they affect their own individualism.

On another, freedom-related issue, Australia has for the past 15 years pursued a ruthless, not-to-mention contentious, policy of so-called ‘border protection’ against refugees arriving by boat. Both sides of the political spectrum in Australia pursue this policy because our politics have become almost completely poll-driven, and any change of policy by either side, would immediately damage them in the polls, due to the paranoid nature of our society at large. This is related to the issue of Islamophobia I mentioned earlier, because a large portion of these refugees are from the unstable countries where atrocities are being committed. Not surprisingly, it’s the right-wing elements who exploit this issue as well. But it’s hard to imagine an issue that more strongly evokes Mill’s demand for individual freedom and liberty (except, possibly, the abolition of slavery).

As I said in an earlier post (the one I reference above), freedom and hope are partners. It’s the deliberate elimination of hope that drives my government’s policy, and the fact that this has serious mental health consequences is not surprising, yet it’s ignored.

Imprisonment is the most widely employed method of punishment for criminals because it eliminates freedom, though not necessarily hope. The Australian government’s rationalisation behind their extremely tough policy on asylum seekers is that they are ‘illegals’ and therefore deserve to be punished in this manner. However, the punishment is much worse than we dispense to convicted criminals under our justice system. It’s a sad indictment on our society that we have neither the political will nor the moral courage to reverse this situation.