The Progressive Degradation of Freedom

November 10, 2013

By Daren Jonescu

 There are Chinese towns near the border with North Korea that send rice across the Yalu River in exchange for girls to marry.  It makes sense.  North Korea needs rice, because communist farming is a failure.  China needs girls, after thirty years of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide.  And this neat little arrangement in an obscure corner of the East holds an important lesson for what is left of a Western civilization looking down the barrel of a gun of its own aiming: the feeling of self-determination can be reduced to the satisfaction of having a daughter to sell for food.

As totalitarian dreamers of both the one-party and multi-party varieties have long understood, and have come to count on, humans have an almost infinitely elastic ability to accommodate themselves to conditions that seem inescapable or predetermined.  Our natural desire for self-preservation virtually guarantees it — there is almost no degradation that men cannot learn to live with, given enough time.

“Learning to live with it,” however, is both a natural reflex and a great danger.  For although self-preservation is not at all the same as acquiescence, the former can devolve into a rationalization of the latter due to the slackening of will and reason that results from battle fatigue and the stretching of the soul’s moral cords by’ the constant pull of inescapable conditions.  And when this slackening of the soul occurs, men may become bound to oppressive rulers more firmly than could ever be achieved with mere chains and fences.  For what they are losing is a faculty of perception less obviously vital to our bare existence than others, and therefore easier than others to survive without, namely the capacity to feel free.

I am convinced we are born with a “freedom sense,” a mental faculty which perceives the degree to which our lives are grounded in our own will and judgment.  This is not the same as the desire to be free; rather, it is the capacity to perceive whether we are free.  It is therefore related to the desires as are all our perceptual faculties, namely as nature’s means of revealing our proper goals.  Freedom would therefore stand in the same column of human goods as the beautiful and the euphonious, things which are desirable because they satisfy the natural purpose, or obey the innate “rules,” of the faculties to which they correspond.

This freedom sense is also something distinct from what academic philosophers and psychologists have taken to calling the “sense of agency,” i.e., the mere ability to perceive ourselves as physically in control of our movements.  The difference may be clarified by way of the old observation that a man with a gun to his head still has the capacity to make a choice, namely to choose whether to comply or be shot.  That is, a man under the most extreme coercion is still fully capable of experiencing himself as an “agent.”  In fact, many of our most admirable examples of moral agency occurred under precisely such conditions — and will have to do so again if we are to climb out of the present morass.  But we would not call a man in such conditions “free,” except in a specialized, apolitical sense.  We would say that the man’s will may be free, as a matter of human nature, but the man himself is not.

The precise faculty to which I am referring is related to the innate self-preservational intentions of a rational animal — the inner necessity which gives rise to what we moderns call our natural rights, which is to say the moral constraints our existence imposes upon other men.  What this faculty perceives, then, is specifically the extent to which those moral constraints are being observed or violated.  It is not an inwardly-directed faculty of self-consciousness like the “sense of agency,” but rather the conscious awareness of one particular aspect of our relations with other humans, namely whether those relations are consistent with our natural rights.

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