Verso rh: Critical Review Vol. 21, No. 4
Recto rh: Phin Upham * The Independent Value of Freedom

By Phin Upham

Part 1

ABSTRACT: Both classical and modern liberals tend to treat freedom of choice as if it is intrinsically valuable—regardless of what is chosen. They fear that treating freedom as, instead, instrumental only to good choices might open the door to paternalism if a polity were to decide that people were making bad choices. A middle course would be to treat freedom as independently valuable. On the one hand, the independent value of freedom does not treat all choices as good as long as they are freely made. On the other hand, it does not reduce the value of freedom to the known, or predictable, good ends to which a free action may be conducive. Following from Hayek’s acknowledgement that we are often ignorant of what the future may hold, freedom may have value because it will allow us to make decisions whose positive consequences cannot now be predicted.

Phin Upham, is the editor, inter alia, of Philosophers in Conversation and All We Need Is a Paradigm and is a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

An action or property that is instrumentally valuable is, to that extent, reducible to the value of the consequences to which it leads. We often value books, games, physical movement, even conversation for the ends they can help us realize. By contrast, an action or a property that is intrinsically valuable must have some value apart from the consequences to which it leads. Many liberal philosophers suggest that individual freedom has such a value.

For instance, Rawls’s theory of distributive justice treats “primary goods” such as wealth as valuable because they are instruments to ends of the individual’s own choosing (Rawls 1971, 92). But the ends themselves are intrinsically valuable, regardless of what they are, solely by virtue of having been chosen freely. Therefore, Rawls’s theory of justice treats freedom itself—freedom of choice—as intrinsically valuable. Similarly, many libertarian philosophers, such as Robert Nozick (1974), value freedom of choice regardless of the consequences to which people’s choices are instrumental.

The aim of both contemporary liberals such as Rawls and libertarians, who style themselves “classical” liberals, is to guard against the paternalistic imposition of values that are deemed to be objectively good. Thus, the utilitarian John Stuart Mill struggled mightily to fit himself into “classical liberal” garb, because his underlying doctrine, which identified human happiness as the ultimate end, always contains the potential to treat freedom as, at best, instrumental. Insofar as freedom does not meet the test of leading to happiness, then, in principle a utilitarian may recommend curtailing freedom paternalistically. Liberal philosophers seek to preclude this outcome by treating freedom of choice as intrinsically valuable—leaving the choice itself, in the eyes of many critics, an exercise in arbitrariness (e.g., Sandel 1982, 180).

In contrast to both instrumental and intrinsic value, the independent value of freedom is not tied to its consequences, yet it is also not inherent in an action or in the freedom to take it. Ian Carter (1995) calls the independent value of the freedom to take an action “nonspecific instrumental value,” by which he means that it is not intrinsic to the action or to the freedom to take it—but that it is also not derived from the specific ends that we know a free action will realize. In this way its value is “independent” of the consequences to which we know it will lead.

The value of freedom to act is “non-specific” when all the various consequences to which a free action may lead are not predictable. Given a choice between an action that satisfies ends A and B and one that satisfies A and B and possibly C, where A, B, and C have positive value, one would prefer to perform the latter action. It is the added value in the latter action—the potential instrumental value of C—that is “nonspecific”; and it is this nonspecific value that makes the freedom to choose C independent, rather than being either intrinsic to the choice or instrumental to specific ends.

It seems clear, Carter argues, that freedom has both instrumental and independent value. We value freedom because it allows us to do something that achieves a value (A or B) right now. That is its instrumental value. But, Carter points out, we also value freedom so that, in the future, we can pursue valuable ends through means we cannot now specify. Contrast Rawls’s assignment of instrumental value to means that could be used for any ends, regardless of their (objective) value. It would not matter to Rawls if we knew what ends people might use primary goods to pursue, because the value of the ends is derived from the individual’s choice of them, and an individual can choose any end at all. The ends are thus so nonspecific that freedom itself may be considered the only intrinsic value left.

If freedom has independent value, however, it is not because the consequences of freedom—the ends achieved—are irrelevant. Rather, the aim is to increase the achievement of good ends only, and ends are not treated as good if they are merely chosen freely. If they were, then the addition of C to the choice set (A, B) would be valuable even if C itself were not valuable.

A Rawlsian political philosopher is indifferent to the ends chosen; that they are freely chosen suffices. By contrast, a straightforward utilitarian (such as Jeremy Bentham rather than John Stuart Mill) would contend that the value of freedom is reducible solely to whether it is used to achieve the good end of happiness. If, however, freedom has independent value, it is not because we know that it will serve a good end, or because we are indifferent to whether it does, but because we do not know the future. Thus, we should value freedom as a way of keeping people’s options open should conditions change.