An Interpretation of Liberty in Terms of Value
C. L. Sheng
This paper discusses the nature of liberty in terms of value and starts from the nature of value. Every good has a value. Physical goods have economic or material values. Social goods have non-economic or non-material values. I find that some social goods each have a value quite different from the value of most goods in that its value does not lie in itself, but lie in its function of supporting, constraining or serving as a criterion or pattern for the obtaining of the value of other goods. For instance, the value of the moral principle or rule "One ought not to harm others" has a value not in itself, but in leaving the values for others not harmed or reduced. Thus it serves as a constraint. The principle of equality or any principle of equitable distribution, say "distribution according to contribution," is a criterion or pattern for distribution. It also dose not have a value in itself, but serves as a criterion or pattern for the distribution of income, which is the good that has a value.
In living a life, or being a particular person and doing all kinds of things, a human being pursues the values of various objects, material or non-material, concrete or abstract. The pursuit of any value is under a certain circumstance with various conditions. In order to protect the agent from unjustified interference from the environment and at the same time to prevent the agent's doing or being something from harming others or society, we establish not only a principle of liberty to support the agent, but also some moral principles to constrain her or him or to serve as a criterion or pattern, in the case where her or his doing or being affects the justice to other people.
Thus, I call the value of those social goods that support, constrain, or serve as a criterion or pattern "associative value," which is not measurable in itself, even subjectively, but has to be measured in terms of the value of the good pursued by the agent.
Liberty, as a social good, is well recognized to have a very high social value. The value of liberty, however, also has the nature that it does not lie in itself. That is, liberty must be associated with something else. We usually say freedom of survival, freedom of speech, freedom of fulfilling one's life plan, etc. Or, in general terms, we say freedom of doing or being something. Without this something that one wants to do or to be, liberty itself is an empty abstract idea. Therefore, the function of the principle of liberty is to support a person to obtain some other objects, which the person pursues and which have values for the person.
In Section 2, I describe the liberalist view of liberty and give my comments on it.
In Section 3, I discuss the associative nature of liberty. Being associated with an action, the value of the freedom of taking the action cannot possibly be greater than the value of the action. Since the value of any action is finite, the value of freedom of taking any action certainly cannot be infinite.
I classify social constraints into those on an action and those on no action. In Section 4 I discuss the former, and in Section 5 I discuss the latter.Constraints are a kind of condition. If the advocate of liberty is restricted by a condition, then liberty is by no means absolute.
In Section 6, I give some examples of freedom for illustration. The value of an unimportant freedom, say the freedom of smoking, is obviously finite. As to a very important freedom, say the freedom of expression of thought, I show that there are various ways of expressing various kinds of thought, which are different in nature, in content, in degree of truth, in attitude, in effect on society and nation, and, therefore, have different weights, importance, or magnitudes of value. Because of this comparability, the value of freedom of anything is always finite, not infinite.
In Section 7, I give some brief conclusions.
II. The Liberalist View and Comments on It
Liberty is the top-most thing that is emphasized by liberals. The root of this liberal view is their particular conception of self. John. Rawls says, "The self is prior to the ends which are affirmed by it." (1) This is also the Kantian view of the self: the self is prior to its socially given roles and relationships. Therefore, no end is exempt from possible revision by the self.
There is nothing wrong with this basic idea. In fact, all theories agree on self-determination or the free choice of life plan. But they disagree about what package of rights and resources best enables people to pursue their own conceptions of the good.
However, the liberal view of liberty is based on idealism, and uses metaphysical reasoning. This results in a conception of liberty that is absolute, supreme, and having an infinite value compared with other things.
Communitarians have several arguments against the liberal view. I consider the following two points to be of utmost importance and agree to them: (1) The liberal view of the self is empty. (2) The liberal view ignores our embeddedness in communal practices.
My reasoning is not exactly the same as that of communitarians. My view of "emptiness" is based on my conception of the associative nature of liberty. That is, freedom is associated with the substance of an action, which has a value, so that the value of freedom does not lie in itself. The value of any action is always finite. It cannot possibly be infinite. Without the substance of the action, freedom reduces to nothingness. So the associated value of freedom is also finite, not infinite and absolute. This point seems obvious, and I do not give much argumentation for it.
As to "embeddedness," I agree to what Will Kymlicka says:
Liberalism emphasizes the self, whereas communitarianism emphasizes the society. My view is that the self is an organic part of society, so that they cannot and should not be isolated from each other. But, then, how are they related to each other? My view is that self-determination is of course made by the self, but in making the determination, the self should take full consideration of society and make determination within social constraints. In other words, the essence of "embeddedness" is simply social constraints.
Apart from social constraints, there are physical constraints too. But we all accept physical constraints and there is not much philosophical dispute on them. So what we are concerned with is only social constraints. Social constraints are not only unavoidable, but are also justifiable. Within social constraints, the importance of any action cannot be absolute, and so is also the freedom of taking any action. Thus, in my view, the conception of social constraints entails the conception of nonabsoluteness of any kind of freedom.
III. The Associative Nature of the Value of Liberty
The value of liberty or freedom has a special nature. I call such a nature associative nature, and call a value having such a nature an associative value.
A certain physical object, say a cup, has a value, because cup can be used for containing tea or coffee and is useful for a certain purpose. All cups, in spite of the same purpose of containing tea or coffee, have different values, because of the different qualities, different makes, different materials the cup is made of, and the different artistic refinement put on the cup. For instance, normally a cup is a chinaware, and a cup made of English bone china is more expensive than one made of ordinary china. A cup made of ceramic is less expensive than one made of china, and a paper cup is so inexpensive that it is made for being used once only, that is, it will be thrown away after being used once, without washing and preparation for use for a second time. A cup made of jade is a precious object, and probably its main use is not for drinking tea or coffee, but for appreciation. Moreover, a jade cup may be made more precious by doing carving on it, or even by putting some diamonds on it. Thus, different cups have different values. Furthermore, as I maintain, values are subjective in nature and a particular cup may has different values for different people. (3) The term "cup" is a collective noun. It represents the class of all cups. So the value of a cup, if not referred to a particular cup and for a particular subject, is usually meant the average or representative value of all cups.
No matter what value a cup may have, the value lies in the cup itself as an object. So is also the case with an abstract object. For instance, we have a moral rule: "One ought not to tell lies." A lie has a disvalue or disutility for the recipient of the lie, or the person to whom the lie is told, and is a harm to the recipient. This is why, according to most moral codes, we ought not to tell lies. Similar to physical objects, there are different kinds of lies. Some lies are not very serious, or "small," and some other lies are serious, or "big." So the term "lie" is also a collective term for all lies, and the disvalue of a lie, if not referred to a particular lie and for a particular recipient, is usually meant the disvalue of an average or representative lie.
Like a physical object, the disvalue of a lie also lies in itself, that is, a lie has a disvalue for the recipient of the lie.
The nature of the value of liberty or freedom is completely different from that of a cup or that of a lie. Freedom is something we want to have for the support or protection of something else, that is, for some action of freely doing or being. According to my interpretation, the term "action" covers this doing and being, and even also covers no action, for instance, when I rest quietly at home and do nothing, I may be disturbed by telephones, by neighbors, by salesmen, etc. So I also need a freedom of no action.
The action an agent takes has a value for the agent, and we need a freedom of taking this action to ensure the obtaining of this value. So the value of freedom lies in the action, not in freedom itself. The concept of cup covers all cups and we have a concept of average or representative cup. The concept of freedom covers all actions, but there does not exist an average or representative action, because one action may be sharply different from another action, and we cannot have the concept of an average of action or norm of action which may represent all actions. We can deal with individual actions or particular kinds of action only. Therefore, liberty should not be studied as an abstract entity covering the whole class of actions, but should be studied together with an action or a kind of action with which the freedom is associated. This is what I mean by the term "the associative nature of value."
The value of an action, or of a kind of action, varies from action to action, and from kind to kind. Moreover, it is always finite, and cannot be infinite. The values of some actions or some kinds of actions may be small, and those of some other actions or other kinds of actions may be large. Similarly, the values of the freedoms associated with the various actions or kinds of actions may be small or large too.
IV. The Constraints on an Action
A human life is full of actions, or, more accurately, we may say that a human life consists of a sequence of various kinds of actions. These actions are not necessarily one after another. The are very often intermingled or time-sharing, that is, before the finish of an action, A1, a person may start a second action, A2, and after performing a part of A2, s/he may come back to A1. For instance, if you smoke, you may light a cigarette when you are writing a paper. You may smoke once and then write a couple of sentences and repeat this cycle until the cigarette is burnt out. Then, after half an hour, you may light up another cigarette and smoke again. So the actions of writing a paper and smoking are intermingled. The intermingling of actions does not affect the discussion of a particular action. We may discuss a particular action without considering the other actions intermingled with the particular action at all.
When we take an action autonomously, it is understood that we prefer taking the action to not taking the action. Naturally, we also prefer to take the action without interference, or to have the freedom of taking the action.
However, no one has absolute freedom in doing anything. There always exists one or more constraints. That is to say, anything that you do has to be within the limits set by the constraints.
There are two kinds of constraints: one being physical and the other being social. By a physical constraint I mean a constraint caused by the physical environment, which you are unable to overcome or neglect. For instance, we all laws of physics, there is a limit to the height to which we can jump. A flea is able to jump to a height of, say a hundred times the height of its body. A cat is able to jump to a height of, say ten times the height of its body. A human being is able to jump to a height of, say the height of her or his body, or at most twice this height. An elephant, however, may be able to jump to a height of only about a half of the height of its body. As another example, human beings have no wings, and cannot fly. It we want to fly, we can only resort to external instruments, such as airplane, glider, or helicopter, through the advancement and invention of science and technology.
Physical constraint is not the thing we care about, because we know well that it is a given condition which is beyond human power and effort to change. So we have no dispute on physical constraints and no more discussion is needed.
By a social constraint I mean a constraint imposed by a rule of society, such as law, morality, or any rule of tradition, religion, custom, convention, or etiquette. Such a rule of society is established for the good or utility for society and, hence, in turn, for all members of society. This good is of two different kinds: one being positive good or utility and the other being the prevention of a negative good or disutility. As is well known, the latter is more important than the former. We now discuss the former kind first and leave the discussion of the latter kind to the next section.
Any action, without control or constraint, has a possibility of producing a harm to others or society. A main basic objective of morality is to prevent or blame harmful actions. Most actions are in the interest of the agent. So any agent has a desire to take an action s/he has decided to take with freedom or without interference from others or society. Since some actions have the possibility of harming others or society, very often there exists a potential conflict between the interest of the agent and the interest of others or society. On the one hand we advocate the freedom of doing certain things and claim liberty as a basic human right; on the other hand we delineate a boundary beyond which no actions are permitted to take. Then where should this boundary be set? It is a problem of optimization with both the interest of the agent and that of others and society taken into full consideration. For this problem utilitarianism offers the most direct and clear-cut solution-to maximize the aggregate or social utility. Therefore, there is no sense in claimingan absolute freedom, or a freedom with infinite weight and without boundary.
For example, smoking is a personal action. Years ago, a smoker had an almost complete freedom of smoking, meaning that you might smoke anywhere and at any time. But now there are no-smoking signs in almost all public places. In some places, say an airport, there is only a very small restricted area where smoking is not prohibited, and in some airplanes there is no smoking area at all. This is because years ago we did not fully realize the harm of second-hand smoke but, after any years of extensive and intensive research, we now fully realize that the harm of second-hand smoke to people is large enough to justify the prohibition of smoking in most public places. The prohibition of smoking is a constraint on the action of smoking of everybody, and it shows an intervention of the freedom of smoking. It further shows that the freedom of smoking is by no means absolute and fixed. Instead, it is flexible and is determined by society and government with a consideration of the interests of all the people.
Thus, the question is no longer whether there should be a constraint on a certain kind of action, but is where the constraint or boundary on freedom should be put and how to justify this constraint. But this is a controversial question. Its answer varies from time to time, from place to place, and from situation to situation. Normally it depends heavily on the political and economic system of the society and country. In general there are more constraints in a socialist country than in a capitalist country. Also there are more constraints in war time than in peace time, because during a war a nation is usually in a more vulnerable position and martial law is usually executed.
V. The Constraints on no Action
In the previous section I discussed constraints on an action. In this section I discuss the constraints on no action. The question may be put in this way: "Should we have a complete freedom of not doing anything, without the interference from others, society, or the government at all?" It seems that a harm can be produced only by some action, and not doing anything will certainly produce no harm to others and society. So the freedom of no action, if not absolute, is at least wanted more often than the freedom of doing something.
I agree that the freedom of not doing anything, in general, is wanted more often than the freedom of doing something, but it is still not absolute. As is well known, there are negative duties and also positive duties. A negative duty is a duty of not doing something bad or harmful to others or society, and a positive duty is a duty of doing something beneficial to others or society or doing something preventing some harm to others or society. As I discussed elsewhere, morality is flexible in some situations. (4) For some actions, such as charitable actions and supererogatory actions, a person is completely free as to whether or not s/he will take the action, and also as to which action to take if there are several alternatives to choose from, because a charitable or supererogatory action is not a moral requirement. (5) However, there are positive duties that one is obligated to perform, and there are also some other things which it is not one's duty to do but one still ought to do. (6) (I call these actions ought-but-not-duty actions.) For example, paying income tax is a positive duty. Everyone has to take the action of paying income tax. If you do not pay income tax, the government will suffer a loss. So your paying income tax is to prevent the government or society from suffering the harm of losing your income tax. Therefore, you do not have the freedom of taking no acting so far as income tax is concerned.
As another example, consider military service. In a country with a large population, sometimes soldiers may be hired. But in a country with a small population, conscription is the normal practice and every man (or even every woman in some countries) has to participate in compulsory military service, for otherwise there may be not enough people to establish a national defense system. This is particularly so during war time, because during a war more people are needed for national defense. In such a case, no citizen or resident is exempt of the duty of military service, or nobody has the freedom of no action so far as national defense is concerned.
I have explained this situation through the use of a reference or datum point. Normally the level of no action is regarded as the reference point, but under certain special circumstances, the reference point may be raised from no action to some action. (7) I use donation as an example for illustration. Normally donation is a charitable action. You are completely free whether or not to donate, and nobody cares whether or not and how much you donate. Now suppose that there is a flood somewhere in the country and the situation is very serious. The association of professors of a certain university passed a motion that it is suggested that each faculty member donate one day's salary to help the sufferers of the flood. The resolution is still not mandatory, but a professor would feel embarrassed or guilty conscience if she did not donate at all. My explanation of this situation is that the reference point has been raised from the level of no donation to that of donating one day's salary.
From the above examples, I conclude that, although the freedom of no action seems to be wanted and enjoyed more often than that of taking an action, it is still not absolute and its value is still not infinite.
VI. Examples of Freedom Having Various Values
In this section I give some examples of actions which have values of various magnitudes. I will show that no matter how important an action, or the freedom of taking such an action, may be, the value of the action and, consequently, the value of the freedom of taking such an action, is always finite.
First, consider an action having a small value. For instance, suppose that a man, M, smokes. He went to a familiar restaurant for lunch, but he found that the tables in the smoking area were all occupied, while some tables in the non-smoking area were available. Then M had two choices: One choice was to take a seat in the non-smoking area, and the other choice was to go to another restaurant. To save the trouble of going to another restaurant, M chose to take lunch in the non-smoking area, thereby losing the freedom of smoking and, in turn, the pleasure of smoking during this lunch period. This means that, by comparing these two choices, M thought that the disutility of not smoking during the lunch time was less than the disutility of the trouble of going to another restaurant.
This example shows that the disvalue of losing the freedom of smoking for the lunch time is finite, and is fairly small. In general, infinite quantities cannot be compared. If the value of freedom of something can be compared with some other value, then it implies that the value of freedom of this something is finite.
Next consider an action that has a very large value, say the expression of thought. The freedom of thought is undoubtedly one of the most important kinds of freedom that we advocate and pursue. So I will discuss this example in some detail.
Thought is something in the mind. If you do not express it, others will not be able to know it. During the communist rule of the former Soviet Union, and in the early stage of the communist rule of the People's Republic of Chin, particularly during the cultural revolution, sometimes the people were forced to frankly write down everything in the past life, including thought, and to admit their mistakes, so that they would be punished according to their mistakes. Nowadays, however, it rarely happens that one is forced to disclose one's thought to others. Therefore, it may be said that all the people in the world already have a freedom of thought. What liberals now advocate and pursue are actually such things as freedom of speech and freedom of press, which I call freedom of expression of thought. This freedom is certainly very important to everybody. Although being a utilitarian, I advocate and pursue it too. However, even though freedom of expression of thought is very important and has a very high value, this value is still finite rather than infinite.
There are various ways of expression of thought, and they have different values for the people. First, there are personal talks. Everybody wants to talk to some people, including family members, relatives, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, and in the talks one sometimes naturally expresses one's opinion, attitude, view, or position regarding certain things, and this is a part of one's thought. The freedom of thought in these personal talks is basic and very important, because naturally everybody talks and expresses her or his thought in the talks. So undoubtedly everybody cares much for this kind of freedom.
Second, there are public talks, which are the talks a person presents to a group of people in a public place and occasion, such as the talk given at a meeting or conference, or a speech delivered to an audience. The freedom of public talks is of course important too. But not everybody gives public talks. For the majority of the people, one rarely talks to a group of people in public. So, compared to the freedom of expression of thought in personal talks, the freedom of expression of thought in public talks seems to be less important.
Third, there are published books and articles published in newspapers or magazines. These books and articles may convey a part of the author's thought. This is expression of thought in a written form. It is of course also important, particularly so far as politicians and intellectuals are concerned. However, writing books and articles is limited to only a small group of people, and an ordinary person rarely writes except diaries and letters. Even a professor may just teach but write few books or articles. So the freedom of expression of thought in written form is restricted to still fewer people than public talks, and its importance is naturally still smaller.
By saying so, I by no means slight the importance of the freedom of expression of speech and press. I only want to emphasize that, the value of freedom of something has a magnitude, may be compared with the value of some other thing and, therefore, is always finite.
So far as the content of expressed thought is concerned, it consists of three kinds of things: (1) a description of facts or phenomena, (2) comments on or criticism of what other people say or write and of public policy or public action of the government, and (3) an appeal to the public to encourage the people to do something. I discuss these three kinds of content separately.
A description of facts may be true, may be false, or may be partly true and partly false. In general, human beings are rational, or supposed to be rational. However, occasionally a person may be irrational, or may be emotional to the extent of being irrational. When a person sees something bad, s/he tends to exaggerate or even distort it. It is controversial whether one should have the freedom of expression of thought in the form of over-exaggerated or distorted descriptions of some facts of others, society or the government, because such an over-exaggerated or distorted description borders on libeling, which is illegal and is prohibited.
Even if a description is completely true, it is still controversial whether a person should have the freedom of telling such a true fact of others, society, or government to the public. A person has privacy, and s/he naturally wants some of her or his private affairs not disclosed to the public. A bank or an enterprise may have a financial crisis. If the financial crisis is kept undisclosed, the bank or enterprise may be able to tide over the crisis gradually, but if the financial crisis is disclosed to the public, the crisis may cause bankruptcy of the bank or enterprise. So, naturally, the bank or enterprise wants to have some facts not exposed to the public. A nation also has some secret information, which, if disclosed, would cause harm to the nation. Even in scientific and technological research, some research results, especially those most advanced achievements in national defense, are classified and kept strictly secret. So even if a description of facts is completely true, it is still questionable whether it is justified to have it fully disclosed to the public.
As to comments or criticism on public policy or action of the government, some are from a good or positive attitude and, hence, are constructive. But some other comments or criticism are from a bad or negative attitude and, hence, are only destructive. A government has an overall consideration and has its difficulties. A bad public policy or action may be the only feasible choice, or it may be the best among several feasible choices, which are all bad. There is a Chinese saying: "Out of two harms, vices, or injustices, take the lighter one." Simply criticizing a bad public policy or action without suggesting any feasible better alternative is sometimes more harmful than helpful. Even in a modern democratic country, the people do not have a complete freedom of criticizing the government destructively. This is why the representatives of the people in the congress or legislative organization are granted an extra right to free criticism of the government without legal constraint and responsibility, which is not enjoyed by the ordinary people. However, in some so-called democratic countries where the integrity and level of the representatives are low, destructive criticism turns out to be scolding and fighting.
As to appealing to the public or to calling on the people to do something, it sometimes turns out to be instigation, with an intention of throwing down the government, and is close to rebellion or revolution. In the history of humankind, there have been many good and successful revolutions. But a revolution has its background and necessary conditions, without which a revolution is doomed to failure and a big harm to all the people.
According to what I have discussed above, it is seen that the freedom of thought is of course very important, but it is still subject to a precondition that the action of expression of thought should be beneficial, not harmful, to the people, society, and country. The judgment of the value of the action is very difficult. Usually it is different in different countries, depending on general background, culture, political system, etc. The discussion of this point is not the main thesis of this paper. What I want to express and emphasize is that, even a very important kind of freedom, such as the well-known and generally-accepted freedom of expression of thought, is still not absolute, because it is associated with the action of expression of thought, which has only a finite value with a magnitude and is comparable with other values.
From the above discussion and analysis we can arrive at the following brief conclusions.
(1) Any action, no matter how important it may be, has only a finite value, because it is subject to some social constraints or conditions, in addition to physical constraints.
(2) The determination and justification of constraints is a difficult problem and views vary widely. However, the utilitarian method of maximizing aggregate or social utility offers the most direct and clear-cut criterion.
(3) The value of liberty has a special nature called associative nature, because the value of a freedom does not lie in freedom itself, but lies in the action with which the freedom is associated. Since the value of any action is finite, the value of the freedom of taking some action is naturally bound to be finite too.
(4) Because of the associative nature of the value of liberty, this kind of value cannot be studied as a collective abstract entity, because, unlike the values of other objects, there does not exist an average or representative value of liberty. Only the value of freedom of taking individual actions or kinds of actions can be studied.
(5) Since the value of liberty is finite, the metaphysical conception that liberty is something absolute and supreme seems nonsensical.
(1) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971), 560.
(2) Will Lymlicka, Contemporary Pliltical Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 208.
(3) C. L. Sheng, A Utilitarian General Theory of Value (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi International Publisher, 1997), 33-44.
(4) C. L. Sheng, "On the Flexible Nature of Morality," Philosophical Research Archives, Vol. 12 (1986-1987), 125-142.
(5) C. L. Sheng, "On Charitable Actions," in C. L. Sheng, Philosophical Papers (Taipei: Tamkang University Press, 1993), 131-153.
(6) Joseph Raz, "Right-Based Moralities," in Utility and Rights, ed. R. C. Frey (Minneapolis, Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 42-60.
(7) See note 4.