Sunday, September 23, 2007

J. S. Mill Sez: Fly That Freak Flag, And Rock On

Photo by Kirk Carter. (use licensed under Creative Commons).

They say when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. Well, I've got a new hammer.

I have written before about my general approval, but occasional ambivalence, over the freedom-obsessed, free-choice-loving ways of early 21st century North America.

It's the kind of thing that when it's great, it's great, and when it's not, well, you know.

My hammer has three parts. The first part is freedom. The kind of freedom we tend to value around here is that described by the 19th-century philosopher J. S. Mill. In his eloquent and simple way, Mill said,

"The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it." (From On Liberty).

That is: You get to do whatever the hell you want, until you get in someone else's way.

The second part is what is sometimes called the "adaptivity of preferences". When people make choices, they make them under particular circumstances, under particular pressures, with a limited range of options. And these factors can't help but influence our choices.

In "sour grapes" cases, we may come not to want what we cannot have. A woman whose culture does not allow her to work may say she "prefers" to stay at home anyway.

In less extreme cases, our choices are just highly influenced. A career-oriented woman who is under great family pressure not to work may decide that she wants to stay home. A teenager might go on a crash diet to fit in at school. An otherwise health-minded man who is surrounded by other men with super-large muscles may start taking steroids.

These choices are adaptive to circumstances, and in that sense, are not quite freely made in Mill's sense: they do not reflect a person's pursuing his or her own good in his or her own way.

The fact that choices can be adaptive is sometimes thought to justify curtailing Millian liberty in practice. Such liberty, some might say, need not, or even should not, protect the choices of a woman who "chooses" to pose, say, for pornographic photographs, if her choice is only made in response to a debased, anti-feminist culture. Rather, we should change our cultural surroundings so she would not so choose.

But pursuing such a line means distinguishing "true" preferences from adaptive ones in a fairly precise way. There's always a danger we'll get it wrong; there's always the possibility that what we're really getting into here is a kind of paternalism. I know what's best for you, honey, just trust me.

Even the air of paternalism sucks.

But we needn't take the curtailing line. Because there's another way to fit this all together.

The third part of my hammer is "opting out." Intuitively, there is an imperfect but close but relationship between our making a choice freely and the costs associated with opting out of the relevant activity. The higher the cost of opting out, the less likely a choice is to be free, and the lower the cost of opting out, the more likely. If it's really really hard to say "No," you're not really free when you say "Yes."

It's like braces for teeth. Before braces were widely available, crooked teeth were common and it was no big deal. Now that everyone gets their teeth fixed, a person with a bad overbite looks odd. The pressure to give your kid braces is enormous.

So here's the idea. The more people opt for X, the higher the cost of any individual opting out of X; so great participation in X reduces the likelihood that anyone can make a "free choice" to do X.

The more common some practice is, the more it is expected that one will engage in it, and the more likely one will be deemed a weirdo for not participating; thus the higher costs.

This means that exercising your freedom to do things may reduce the freedom of others. If enough other people are doing the same things.

This, in itself, violates the Millian principle, since you are infringing on another's liberty. So you may, in some vague sense, have a moral obligation not to do things if you think creating adaptive preferences for them would be bad. A kind of "cultural obligation."

I'm going to save the hammering and so on for another post. But here's a teaser. My hammer can be used to explain the sense a lot of people have that even though it's "your free choice" to get, say, liposuction, a world in which everyone who could possible afford it got liposuction would suck. Because, you know, one of the possible "side effects" is death. So you wouldn't want to feel pressured into anything.

This mean you don't have to have to believe in the general stupidity of liposuction, or even be against it at all, to say coherently why getting it is maybe bad. You don't have to be against fashion to worry that, hey, when you're expected not to go out of the house without getting your brows waxed, there's something fucked up about that.

Oddly, some of these cultural obligations might just be to be different: to stymie the world's attempts at establishing a status quo, so that more choices can be freely made.

Mill didn't think in terms of "adaptive preferences," but he was very aware of the tyranny of majorities and the necessity of diverse ways of life. Think of him next time you're not sure whether to fly your freak flag, and rock on.