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



By Phin Upham

Part 3

Even If Freedom Is Necessary, It May Not Be Sufficient

Carter’s argument depends on accepting a logical step from nonspecific instrumental value to independent value. Carter claims that (1) freedom may be a means to nonspecific valuable ends. (2) If something is a means to nonspecific valuable ends, then it has independent value. Therefore (3) freedom has independent value. Carter’s argument is open to two major sources of criticism. The first weakens the relationship between freedom possessing nonspecific instrumental value and its possession of independent value, contra (2). I will suggest in this section that even if freedom has nonspecific instrumental value, it could be insufficient to sustain its independent value if there are other necessary elements in independent value that freedom lacks. Second, Carter’s definition of freedom is too loose. One can easily imagine circumstances where an addition to one’s set of choices is not valuable as a means toward a good end, and therefore should not qualify as an addition to a freedom that is valued independently (or instrumentally) rather than intrinsically, contra (1). In the next section, I propose a more loaded understanding of freedom in the hope of solving this problem.

Freedom need only be a means toward a nonspecific value, in Carter’s argument, if it is to have nonspecific instrumental value. But this requirement may be too weak to justify according independent value to freedom. Other elements may be necessary for freedom to be valued independently. In such a situation, while freedom would be the means toward a nonspecific and valuable end, it nevertheless would not add to the satisfaction of (good) desires. Since the value of an independently valuable thing is never more than the potential value of its ends, the independent value of the added freedom would be zero.

For example, imagine that one adds freedom to an asylum that houses the criminally insane, in which the inmates’ freedom has been severely constrained. Does the newly added freedom have independent value? Carter might argue that it does, but that its independent value is outweighed by the negative consequences. But if the inmates are insane enough, it is questionable whether the freedom would be independently valuable at all. In order to use freedom to bring about any valuable end (where, as we have assumed from the start, value is objective, and is not merely revealed by people’s preferences, whatever they might be), then those who receive the freedom must have a certain level of rationality if they are to use their newfound freedom to satisfy some valuable desire or goal.

The larger point is that if circumstances make it structurally impossible for freedom to be used effectively, then while freedom remains a necessary means to valuable ends, it cannot have independent value, since in such cases, freedom is a necessary but not a sufficient means to those ends.

The Problem of Intrinsically Valuable Freedom

Carter’s definition of freedom “reduces all the dimensions of freedom to freedom of movement” and “measures freedom in terms of the sheer quantity of available options” (Carter 1995, 824n13). This definition seems too broad, because if every option is valuable, then freedom has become intrinsically valuable. Some potential options must lack value if freedom is to be independently, rather than intrinsically, valuable. To put the point differently, Carter’s overboard definition of freedom makes the ends that it serves too nonspecific. Therefore, a theory that began by taking note of people’s ignorance about future means to good ends is unwittingly transformed into a theory that values freedom to pursue any end at all.

In support of his broad definition of freedom as the indefinite expansion of options, Carter cites Amartya Sen (1988) and Thomas Hurka (1987), who maintain that we always value more choice over less. One would prefer to be admitted to Harvard and Yale, rather than being accepted to Harvard alone, and one would prefer even more to be admitted to hundreds of other colleges—even, Sen and Hurka would argue, if one had already chosen to attend Harvard (if admitted to it) over all the other options, including Yale. Sen and Hurka further maintain that we value not only the ability to say yes to the choice we make, but the ability to say no to all the choices we refuse. This, in Carter’s eyes, illustrates “the value we place on our agency—on our ability to make an impact on the world. . . . We value more choice rather than less—the more times we are able to say no, the more impact we will have on the world when we choose, and, hence, the more value there is in our situation” (Carter 1995, 831). Carter, Sen, and Hurka all rely on a rich set of choices. Imagine in contrast that, like Buridan’s Ass, one has to choose one among ninety absolutely identical (but valuable) objects. Is this better than choosing among eighty identical objects, or eight, or two?

The answer seems to be no. Consider how one might go about making such a choice among identicals. Perhaps one will choose to throw a dart among the eighty identical options to get on with one’s life. Throwing a dart among ninety or a million identical options would not have been any more valuable, and throwing a dart among two choices would not have been any less valuable. We should keep in mind that in these examples, the choices, while identical, are still valuable. One has a reason to want to do the one thing available, even if it is available twice or ninety or a million times. Similarly, imagine that you have two different valuable options, A and B, between which your choice is therefore not random (throwing a dart would be an irrational way to make this choice). However, suppose that I could offer you duplicates of these options, so that your choice set expanded from A and B to A, A, B, and B. If an increase in options increases freedom, and if an increase in freedom has nonspecific instrumental value, then it should also be true that the exact replication of options has nonspecific instrumental value. And that, according to Carter, leads to an increase in independent value. But there does not seem to be any increase in value in the expanded choice set in this situation—except intrinsic value. That is, if freedom to choose is intrinsically valuable, then it may be better to have more choices than fewer, even if the new choices themselves are not more valuable than the old ones.