Monday, April 14, 2008

Is freedom a necessary condition for human flourishing?

I believe that freedom should be viewed as a necessary condition for human flourishing because human flourishing is inherently a self-directed process. Adult humans have the capacity for self-direction and they cannot flourish unless they are able to exercise that capacity. Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl explain this point as follows:
“Since there are no a priori, universal rules that dictate the proper weighting of the goods and virtues of human flourishing, a proper weighting is only achieved by individuals having practical insight at the time of action. They need to discover the proper balance for themselves” (“Norms of Liberty, p 87).

It seems to me that two things follow from this. First, in order to flourish people have to be free to choose how they live their lives. Involuntary restrictions on self-direction constrain human flourishing. It may be possible for slaves to feel happy or even satisfied with life (if they feel that they have some control over their lives) but they cannot flourish according to their potential.

Second, if people are to be allowed to flourish to the maximum extent possible without infringing on the flourishing of others, then we need a political/ legal order that will not favour some varieties of human flourishing above others. Rasmussen and Den Uyl make the point as follows:
“By protecting liberty , the possibility of agency or self-direction, which is central to any and every form of human flourishing is socially preserved. The moral propriety of individualism and the need for sociality are reconciled”(p 78).
In effect, freedom is necessary for peaceful coexistence of people with different views about what constitutes the good life.

What reason do we have to believe that free people can flourish? We have Adam Smith’s key insight in the Wealth of Nations that when people are free to pursue their own interests, in mutually beneficial exchanges with others, their activities are coordinated by market prices to produce a cooperative effort that can be beneficial to everyone. Smith pointed out that “no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient” to perform the task of “superintending the industry of private people, and directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society” (“Wealth of Nations”, 1776 IV.9.51).

Smith acknowledged that individuals could be prodigal and imprudent under the “momentary and occasional” influence of “the passion for present enjoyment”. He considered, however, that most of the time most of us are more strongly influenced by the “principle of frugality” stemming from “the desire of bettering our condition”, which “though generally calm and dispassionate, comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till we go into the grave” (II.3.28). Smith’s claims about the strength of the desire that people have to better their own condition were supported by his observation that: “Great nations are never impoverished by private, though they sometimes are by publick prodigality and misconduct”(II.3.30).

Empirical evidence relating to these claims is considered in other posts.

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