Skip to content

How the Problem for Freedom relates to Society, and Political Philosophy

May 23, 2014


In my last post, I posed A Problem for Freedom. In this post I want to give an idea of how the problem I formed there integrally relates to society and political philosophy, and so is important for this blog in particular.


The issue I want to address is integrally connected to an old debate between the “left” and “right” side of the political spectrum. A quote from the header of the blog of Larry Arnhart, Professor at Norther Illinois University, illustrates this issue in its original form:

The Left has traditionally assumed that human nature is so malleable, so perfectible, that it can be shaped in almost any direction. By contrast, a Darwinian science of human nature supports traditionalist conservatives and classical liberals in their realist view of human imperfectibility, and in their commitment to ordered liberty as rooted in natural desires, cultural traditions, and prudential judgments.

His blog is located here: and here is his wiki if you’re interested:


It is my contention that the issue raised by Mr. Arnhart that traditionally separated the left and the right is not so simple at all. An example that I find very revealing is in the work of the psychologists John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, who were founders of the psychological school behaviourism. Behaviourism was in a large part influenced by the work of Ivan Pavlov, who is famous for the Pavlov’s Dog experiment. B.F. Skinner in particular experimented with a process he called operant conditioning, which sought to elicit certain behaviours from subjects in large part through the means of reward given for desired behaviour and punishment for undesirable behaviour.

B.F. Skinner and his behaviourism research was considered part of the legacy of the “left”, because it saw behaviour as malleable to whatever form was desired.

First of all, I see a number of problems with this characterization, since the behaviourist technique is just that, a technique, it could be put into the service of any political camp, and as such is not really ideologically rooted.

Another issue I have with the original left-right distinction on the debate of the perfectability vs. the custom-fixed images of humanity and human behaviour is that, as can be seen in the experiments of the behaviourists: The traits such as customs, prudential judgements, and natural desires can in fact form the basis for the malleability of man itself. If, in the form of a behaviourist experiment, the situation was rigged so that the behaviour desired by the researcher was rewarded and the undesired behaviour punished, would it not be “prudential” for the test subject to make those decisions, and would it not be a fulfillment of natural desires to receive the desired reward, whatever the behaviour necessary to achieve that desire?

In other words, the traits that are considered primary by the right can be used to acheive the malleability of humans.

And it is of utmost importance to note that this is not a new trend brought about by science, and is in fact as old as society itself. The very creation of laws are meant to provide a basis for punishment of undesirable actions. The state of the laws are meant to act on humanity’s basic “prudence” or natural propensity towards self-preservation, wherein humans would refrain from committing prohibitted actions to avoid potentially harsh punishments.


Now I would like to tie this discussion in directly to the closing thought of my last post. I asked, if it is impossible to be open to the experience of everything (because to be open to the experience of closedness by its very nature negates our openness, and if we are closed to closedness we are not really really open to everything at all, and so the concept is self-defeating) and if it is only possible to be open to some things, how can we be sure that those things we are open to are not those things which we would be open to by nature, and so precede our free and conscious choice?

In classical philosophy and political thought from Machiavelli onwards, the answer to this would be that those “choices” are not really free and conscious choices at all, but a result of our instincts which leads us towards that which we desire or that which ensures our self-preservation. Our instincts and desire are posited as acting upon and reacting to the material world and our situational circumstances which are presupposed as the condition for and of our being.

If this is the case, then we are left open to the possibility that circumstances that fulfill our desires or that acheive our preservation could be manipulated in such a way as to negate our freedom, by controlling the content of our behaviour in return for the rewards we seek to acheive through our behaviour.

For example, imagine hypothetically you live in a large city where there exists no natural resources for preservation, and just for the sake of this thought experiment you are not allowed to leave the city, let’s just say that the land outside of the city is all private and in use and so not accessible. The means for your preservation as well as your enjoyment would be allotted, but only on the condition that you agree to provide your labour and conform to the customs of your city.  You would be rewarded for compliance and punished for non-compliance, either directly or indirectly. Let’s just say, as long as you continue with compliance you will continue to receive the rewards, including preservation, liesure and entertainment of your choosing and you will not face any harassment.

The questions at the heart of this thought experiment I would like to consider are, firstly, is there room in this situation for self-determination and freedom, and to what degree? And secondly, to what degree does it matter? Or, to put the question another way, at what point do the structures of society interfere with our freedom and self-determination, and at what point does that interference become an issue?


Another way that the problem of freedom influences the conceptions we are able to make of society is in considering a state of pure democracy, that is, where there is no centrallized authority and the people have the freedom to rule over themselves as they see fit. To what degree (if, for example, our behaviour was not subject to our free choice but instead predetermined by our instincts and desires) could we be expected to cooperate when necessary and otherwise live in harmony as a society?


I do not want to give answers to these questions here, but only point out how these issues can form the basis for our thinking about different kinds of societies, how we conceive of the structures in which those societies’ operate, as well as the problems that face society and the potential solutions we could conceive for them.


From → Exposition

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: