Friday, 17 May 2019

Free Will and Judgement – on Liberum Arbitrium as the Foundation of the Res Publica.

The gradual but inexorable implosion of nation-states that we are witnessing right now - with Venezuela the most tragic example, but also Iran, Zimbabwe, Yemen, Sudan, Congo,and pretty soon Turkey, South Africa, Russia and China, though not necessarily in that order - brings dramatically to the fore of our attention the question of the Free State or Republic. Here we are proposing the latest instalment in the series "The Concept of Freedom". Hope friends enjoy this. Cheers.



We open to the very first page of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus where the Dutch philosopher lays down the fundamental conditions of human freedom, beginning with freedom of thought. And immediately we find the link that is requisite for the definition of freedom:

[1] If men were always able to regulate their affairs with sure judgment, or if fortune always smiled upon them, they would not get caught up in any superstition. But since people are often reduced to such desperate straits that they cannot arrive at any solid judgment and as the good things of fortune for which they have a boundless desire are quite uncertain, they fluctuate wretchedly between hope and fear.
[2] I think that everyone is aware of this, even though I also believe that most people have no self-knowledge.
[7] It may indeed be the highest secret of monarchical government and utterly essential to it, to keep men deceived, and to disguise the fear that sways them with the specious name of religion, so that they will fight for their servitude as if they were fighting for their own deliverance, and will not think it humiliating but supremely glorious to spill their blood and sacrifice their lives for the glorification of a single man. But in a free republic (respublica),5 on the other hand, nothing that can be devised or attempted will be less successful. For it is completely contrary to the common liberty to shackle the free judgment of the individual with prejudices or constraints of any kind.

For freedom to obtain in a society – for that society to be governed as a “free republic”, as a res publica, as a public concern -, this freedom must be founded not on “superstition” and all forms of distorted beliefs, but rather on sound “sure and solid judgement”. Because freedom as we have defined it – and as Simone Weil reminds us – is most certainly not the ability to fulfill effortlessly one’s every desire or caprice. Freedom is not caprice; it is not a whimsy. For freedom to have any sense and any value, it must be faced by the twin diametrical ne-cessities (the nec-cessare, no retro-ceding, the nec plus ultra), by the boundaries of nature on one side and society on the other. Freedom requires these outward constraints, as well as the inner self-restraint – that is to say, both the containment (by the life-world) and the contentment (of the self) – that we know in common as in philosophical parlance as judgement. For Spinoza as for Simone Weil, freedom and judgement go hand in hand. The restraint and constraint of human freedom involves judgements as to our ability to carry out our thoughts into action:

Tout jugement porte sur une situation objective, et par suite sur un tissu de nécessités. L'homme vivant ne peut en aucun cas cesser d'être enserré de toutes parts par une nécessité absolument inflexible ; mais comme il pense, il a le choix entre céder aveuglément à l'aiguillon par lequel elle le pousse de l'extérieur, ou bien se conformer à la représentation intérieure qu'il s'en forge ; et c'est en quoi consiste l'opposition entre servitude et liberté. Les deux termes de cette opposition ne sont au reste que des limites idéales entre lesquelles se meut la vie humaine sans pouvoir jamais en atteindre aucune, sous peine de n'être plus la vie. Un homme serait complètement esclave si tous ses gestes procédaient d'une autre source que sa pensée, à savoir ou bien les réactions irrai-[60]sonnées du corps, ou bien la pensée d'autrui ; l'homme primitif affamé dont tous les bonds sont provoqués par les spasmes qui tordent ses entrailles, l'esclave romain perpétuellement tendu vers les ordres d'un surveillant armé d'un fouet, l'ouvrier moderne qui travaille à la chaîne, approchent de cette condition misérable. (Reflexions, pp.60-1)

The exercise of judgement requires the presence of a formal or logical negative element – that of rationality or ratiocination – and a substantive or positive or ethical element. The rational element can only be negative in the sense that it can only inform against actions that are evidently contradictory. This is purely a formal requirement because logic and rationality cannot dictate or indicate what choices we make: they can only alert us to the fact that our proposed choices are inconsistent with or contradictory to the premises upon which those choices were founded.

Arbitrary actions not founded on logic and rationality (on the principle of non-contradiction) cannot be free because the agent is quite obviously acting pursuant to a force or motive that is either imposed by an external agent – acting upon dictation – or else pursuant to contradiction, which will result in the action not yielding the expected result. (Einstein was entirely wrong in pressing the oft-repeated definition of madness as “repeating the same action expecting a different outcome”. Madness is rather pursuing an action by adopting contradictory means, knowing them to be so or not being in a condition to appreciate the contradiction between means and ends. Sometimes even geniuses are totally and emphatically wrong!) Logic and science cannot tell us what to do; they can only warn us about contradictoriness of the means we are adopting to achieve a premeditated goal. Those scientists who pretend to tell us what to do by means of their “science” neglect to mention or forget that “science” itself does not exist because there are only “scientific activities” that are themselves a positive ethical goal that human beings choose to pursue!

Similarly, but perhaps more culpably, those late-romantics who discard the negative warnings of logic and science when pursuing their activities in the name of “freedom” (!) forget that the indispensable condition for the exercise of freedom is formally rational judgement! As Weil puts it, to exercise freedom is to dispose of one’s actions in accordance with rational judgement: -

Et disposer de ses propres actions ne signifie nullement agir arbitrairement ; les actions arbitraires ne procèdent d'aucun jugement, et ne peuvent à proprement parler être appelées libres.

Here Weil is reiterating a thought central to Max Weber’s methodology of social science which was concerned centrally with the distinction between scientifically rational means and ethical values (between Zweck-Rationalitat and Wert-Rationalitat). But how do we know when a decision is “arbitrary” and not a proper “judgement”? And so also whether the actions it prompts are “free” or “spontaneous” instead of induced or even “irrational”? This was the crucial question, the stumbling block, on which Weber’s entire methodology of social science ultimately hurtled! True, we may be able to determine logico-scientifically what proposed actions are contradictory or counter-productive: the choice of means is open to rational evaluation. But this is only a negative use of reason: what comes into play when we apply logic and scientific evidence to a projected course of action is not substantive Reason itself; rather, it is only instrumental reason or rationality. (On Weber, we refer to our “Weber and Liberum Arbitrium”.) The choice of ends, by contrast, involves the exercise of substantive Reason, which determines positively the free choice of our course of action not purely in terms of the application of existing means but also in relation to the discovery and development (“scientific research”) of future means! Clearly, that is a political problem where “the clash of wills” and “the meeting of minds” between individuals is concerned. A form of political organization is needed that minimizes conflict whilst encouraging consensus, all the while preserving as much as possible both freedom of thought and of speech as well as of action.

Given the much easier task of discerning the negative definition of freedom and judgement through logic and scientific evidence, what we call the intellect or the understanding or better still instrumental reason, it is not surprising that both Spinoza and Weil turn preliminarily to this instrumental reason as the building block for the wider definition of freedom. Here is Weil:

Quant à la liberté complète, on peut en trouver un modèle abstrait dans un problème d'arithmétique ou de géométrie bien résolu ; car dans un problème tous les éléments de la solution sont donnés, et l'homme ne peut attendre de secours que de son propre jugement, seul capable d'établir entre ces éléments le rapport qui constitue par lui-même la solution cherchée.

The problem with this negative definition of freedom is dual: first, it says nothing about what to do; second, it involves the operability or feasibility of our own decisions, but it does not involve consideration of other human actors, as Weil herself concedes:

Les efforts et les victoires de la mathématique ne dépassent pas le cadre de la feuille de papier, royaume des signes et des dessins ; une vie entièrement libre serait celle où toutes les difficultés réelles se présenteraient comme des sortes de problèmes, où toutes les victoires seraient comme des solutions mises en action. Tous les éléments du succès seraient alors donnés, c'est-à-dire connus et maniables comme sont les signes du mathématicien ; pour obtenir le résultat voulu, il suffirait de mettre ces éléments en rapport grâce à la direction méthodique qu'imprimerait la pensée non plus à de simples traits de plume, mais à des mouvements effectifs et qui laisseraient leur marque dans le monde. (Reflexions, p.61)

For it is only when, first, we decide on a goal to pursue and concomitantly, second, we have to consider the effects or “mark” of this pursuit on the surrounding world which includes other humans and the environment – it is only then that the ambit of the intellect ends and the judgement of substantive Reason begins! The very notion of “free will”, in its Latin version as “liberum arbitrium”, reflects the “arbitrariness” of the will in the ambi-valent sense that the “free” will can be interpreted both as “arbitrary” (capricious) and as an application of “rational judgement”. The arbiter, the referee, is the person who decides on the validity of a course of action based, yes, on “judgement” – but ultimately on an “auto-nomous” (self-ruled) decision! It is the arbitrariness of this autonomy that raises all the difficult political questions involving decision-making. An arbiter or referee whose arbitration is pre-determined from the outset cannot be “free” – and therefore neither can the will be “free” as “liberum arbitrium”. As Carl Schmitt reminds us, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”! The exception is precisely that part of the ambit of freedom that is not “negative”, that does not involve logic or science, and is therefore not technical but political because the very boundaries and limits of the will are involved due to the existence of other autonomous wills!

It is not just Simone Weil who makes the grave error to mistake “judgement” as the hallmark of freedom with the “negative” faculty of the intellect, rather than substantive Reason. Long before Weil, even as acute a philosopher as Baruch Spinoza fell into the same metaphorical trap:

 [10] Perhaps someone will think that in this way we are turning subjects into slaves, supposing a slave to be someone who acts on command, and a free person to be one who behaves as he pleases. But this is not true at all. In fact, anyone who is guided by their own pleasure in this way and cannot see or do what is good for them, is him or herself very much a slave. The only [genuinely] free person is one who lives with his entire mind guided solely by reason.

Thus far, then, we have Weber and Weil join Spinoza in making the exercise of the will as freedom dependent upon the guidance of the will by “judgement” or “reason”. But that Spinoza also confuses instrumental and substantive Reason is made explicit in all his argumentation in the Tractatus, of which we have found incontrovertible proof in the sentences that follow the previous quotation:

Acting on command, that is, from obedience, does take away liberty in some sense, but it is not acting on command in itself that makes someone a slave, but rather the reason for so acting. If the purpose of the action is not his own advantage but that of the ruler, then the agent is indeed a slave and useless to himself.

Quite unmistakably, Spinoza here makes the content and exercise of reason coincide with the utilitarian calculus of by an agent of “his own advantage”. What makes a society and a State “free”, then, according to Spinoza is the ability of the State to safeguard the private individual interest of its “subjects” so that they may accept the contractus unionis as a contractus subjectionis whilst at the same time remaining “free” simply and entirely because this “contractual subjection” (an obvious oxymoron) happens to coincide with their own selfish “advantage" – and specifically with the preservation of their utilitarian natural rights acquired from the state of nature into the new civil or political State.

But in a state and government where the safety of the whole people, not that of the ruler, is the supreme law,6 he who obeys the sovereign in all things should not be called a slave useless to himself but rather a subject. The freest state, therefore, is that whose laws are founded on sound reason; for there each man can be free whenever he wishes,7 that is, he can live under the guidance of reason with his whole mind. (Tractatus, P.201)

The definition of freedom as dependent on judgement or Reason is therefore for Spinoza fundamental to the constitution of a free human society as a status civilis, as a State, as against the status naturae, the pre-political “state of nature”. But the entire raison d’etre of the status civilis, of the State or Common-wealth, is not simply and merely the preservation of the status quo ante that prevailed in the status naturae! The legitimacy and purpose of the State cannot be, therefore, “the safety of the whole people”, the salus publica, the mere “policing” of “natural rights” that individuals presumably enjoyed in the state of nature. And the reason why the State cannot be confined to this role as Police is that a human society can never be static, because the interaction of its human members not just inter se but also with their environment will determine a constant change in their relations and in their social status through economic and other exchanges. In conceiving of the State (“the ruler”) as mere Police, as the enforcer of the salus publica, Spinoza completely misconceives the entire nature of human society and thence of the State. (Similarly does Schopenhauer, in Part 4 of The Will.) Therefore he also misconceives the entire role and nature of freedom and judgement (or Reason) in the formation and constitution of the State. It is the dynamic nature of human relations and interaction that doom Spinoza’s reduction of “reason” as the foundation of the State to mere instrumental reason, to sheer selfish calculation! A State or re-public is not just the status quo, a constitution etched in gold or chiseled in concrete: a constitution is either “living” or it is dead and buried, a museum piece. 

The difficulty with Spinoza’s account of the constitution of the res publica is that he cannot explain how the selfish utilitarian agents who inhabit the status naturae can ever overcome their instrumental reason – the negative utilitarian calculus of profit and loss or “advantage” – so as to be able to erect a “public thing” that must be founded obviously on a common interest that cannot be merely “the preservation of their pre-existing natural rights in the state of nature”, that is, their “safety” as Spinoza styles it. A State that is mere Police is no state at all! Something more than instrumental reason or intellect must be involved in the formation and constitution of a free State. And this something more is substantive Reason.

Of course, in outlining his theory of the constitution of a State – a State by institution and not by acquisition because he allows of a state of nature, unlike Locke where the state of nature already contains ready-made all the ingredients for the formation of the liberal State -, Spinoza is simply regurgitating the political theoretic principles that Hobbes had outlined much earlier. With a fundamental difference: - that the Englishman’s political theory is vastly superior in its consistency and elaboration than that of the Dutchman. Whereas Spinoza assumes quite erroneously that instrumental reason suffices to establish the terms of a contractus unionis as well as subjectionis , Hobbes’s greatness lay precisely in denying that Reason – instrumental or least of all substantive – has anything at all to do with the institution of the status civilis or politicus from the status naturae! Hobbes was too fine a dialectician and too refined in matters political (as Descartes conceded to highlight the contrast with his gaps in scientific and mathematical knowledge) to overlook the evident contradiction in founding the Common-wealth purely on self-interest. As we know, Hobbes’s State is founded when self-interested individuals seek to protect them from the anarchy of the state of nature not pursuant to their Reason, however conceived, but – precisely! – owing to their fear! And specifically “fear of violent death” at the hands of other self-interested human rivals! It is the irrational instinctual metus mortui that founds the Hobbesian Leviathan – this deus mortalis, opposed to the strong theological slant of the Dutchman -, once the individuals of the state of nature decide through fear to alienate their original anarchical free-dom they possessed in the bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all) of the state of nature.

In this regard, among many others, Spinoza’s political theory is of a disarming simplicity when compared with Hobbes’s. Yet, Spinoza – the philosopher of Love, of the amor intellectualis Dei – is entirely right to seek in Reason, not in fear, the cement that binds human beings together. Because fear – the most negative of instincts – can only lead to flight or fight; it can never lead to a human community worthy of the name – least of all a res publica. The reason why Spinoza cannot go beyond instrumental reason as the foundation of the State is quite simply that – like all philosophers before and many after him – he sees human beings from an ontogenetic perspective as against a phylogenetic one.

So far, as we have seen, both Weil and Spinoza envisage a negative definition of freedom and of the social bond – one in which (a) human beings are taken as self-interested individuals, (b) freedom is as devoid of the necessity of collaborative labour as is conceptually possible, and therefore finally (c) human beings need other human beings as little as possible. (In Hobbes, of course, freedom ceases to exist as a political category, in foro externo, because the contractus unionis becomes instantly a contractus subjectionis that shrivels freedom into a purely psychological internal state, in foro interno.) 

It is this last aspect of freedom in human society, in the status civilis, that Spinoza tackles with greater attention. We have seen already that Spinoza’s political theory tends to assume away – let alone even explain away! – all the conflicts that are evident in human society and therefore in the formation and constitution of a res publica. That is at least one reason why Bertrand Russell justifiably called him “the most lovable of philosophers”! The same could not be said of his coeval Thomas Hobbes, of course, or of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, for whom the “clash of wills” - the will to power, the universal Eris or Heraclitean polemos – is absolutely central not just to political philosophy but indeed to the very understanding of ontological reality – to the very essence of the life-world, of physis, of nature itself!
We shall deal with this aspect of Spinoza’s work next.

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