FREEDOM FOR THE FUTURE: THE INDEPENDENT VALUE OF FREEDOM IN LIGHT OF UNCERTAINTY – Part II



By Phin Upham

Part II

Freedom in the Face of an Unpredictable Future

At the root of the idea that freedom is independently valuable lies “an awareness of the unavoidably of human ignorance and fallibility” (Carter 1995, 833). If the future is unknown, then freedom can be seen as a means to reach a certain type of goals in ways that cannot be anticipated or valued beforehand. Such goals must be open-ended: examples include “progress,” “growth,” “civic responsibility,” and certain conceptions of “self-fulfillment” and “happiness.”

Hayek, for example, believes that human progress is a valuable end, and that it is conducive to progress if people have freedom. This is because Hayek (1960, 29) maintains that “the advance and even the preservation of civilization are dependent upon a maximum of opportunity for accidents to happen,” since progress “consists in the discovery of the not yet known” (ibid., 40).

Like Rawls, Hayek focuses on the freedom conferred by wealth. But for Hayek, wealth is a means to a presumed good end, the progress of civilization—not, as with Rawls, a means to any end people may choose. If we are ignorant of the specifics of the future, the freedom of choice conferred on us by money has non-specific instrumental value, such that we are rational to try to hoard it in order to make our securing of future goods more likely. In doing so we treat money as independently valuable. It is not that we value money intrinsically, which would mean valuing it beyond the value of all the good ends it can possibly be used for. Instead, the value of money is the value of these ends in only a generalized (nonspecific) sense.

All freedom of choice, it can be argued, functions in a similar way. It is not irrational to value freedom without any specific good attached to it, since you may be unsure to what use freedom might be put in the future. So, ceteris paribus, more freedom is preferable to less. Again, though, if the value of freedom is to remain independent rather than intrinsic, one must assume that, overall, people’s free choices will serve good ends. Thus, one must assume that open-ended goals such as progress or happiness really are good.

Freedom and Ignorance

Human ignorance is relevant to that assumption on two levels, according to Carter. On the individual level, freedom is independently valuable because people need to be able to change their plans and take new actions in response to new circumstances that may arise in the future. In the present, however, one is ignorant where such opportunities will present themselves. Thus, one cannot guarantee, or at least maximize the likelihood, that one will be able to achieve the open-ended aims that are presumed good unless one allows oneself to be able to choose actions in the future based on desires or means of pursuing them that one cannot now predict.

A second form of ignorance afflicts governments, according to Carter. Governments can have only a statistical understanding of people’s interests (such as what makes them happy). The best governments can do is provide people with the means for satisfying their desires; then people can use the dispersed personal information that is available only to a given individual at a certain time and place. In this respect, one can derive from Carter’s argument a political prescription that dovetails with Rawls’s: that political systems should be organized so as to increase and to “spread” wealth. But, once more, this is important only if we have reason to think that wealth will, overall, be a means to good ends—not, as for Rawls, a means to any ends an individual might choose. The difference can be seen in the role played by governmental ignorance of particular personal circumstances. It is crucial for Carter but would be irrelevant for Rawls that governments are necessarily ignorant of what might make any given individual happier, because happiness is not Rawls’s aim—since if any specified end were the aim, it would open up paternalistic possibilities whenever governments did know better than individuals how to achieve that end.

On the other hand, if ignorance were subtracted from the human condition, the value of freedom could also be seen as simply instrumental, since for those who do not consider freedom intrinsically valuable, the value of freedom might be reducible to the value of those specific things they would know that it could bring about. Carter (1995, 833), however, assumes that ignorance is necessarily part of our world. He quotes Hayek: “If there were omniscient men, if we could know not only all that affects the attainment of our present wishes but also our future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty.” The key to the non-specific instrumental value of freedom is uncertainty about the nature of its realizations. Once this uncertainty is removed (for example, if we had perfect information about the future), so is the independent value of freedom.

While Carter focuses on human ignorance, he overlooks another reason that freedom may be valued independently—a reason that does not depend on the future being uncertain. People might not only acquire new “progressive” or “happiness-inducing” desires in the future, but they might reassess how they have been trying to achieve old ones. Thus, people can change their minds. Freedom allows them to exercise this ability. Again, for this to be something other than an argument for the value of whatever free choices people might make, one would have to assume or demonstrate that when people change their minds about how to pursue, say, their happiness, they are likelier than not to move in a more successful direction after they have changed their minds (e.g., they change their minds because they have genuinely learned from experience; cf. Friedman 2006, 477-81).