Lecture 1: Freedom and the Free Society

Classical Liberalism

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

True, original or “classical” liberalism is the philosophy of the free society with free markets.  In these lectures my intention is to explore the foundations of these ideas. At times some of the explorations that follow may seem initially to stray far afield, but my hope is that ultimately they will prove enlightening.

1. Every human being is a distinct center of action.

We know this about ourselves directly.  We know from our experience of ourselves that being alive means being active. We are never merely passive, in the way that a rock is passive. Even perception, which is often thought of as a mere passive reception of an impression from outside, is an activity of our mind, and does not occur if we are not awake and attentive. Of course we receive impressions, but that reception is an activity of our senses and our mind. From the first our senses and our mind desire and reach out for perceptions, and it is this active readiness for them and reaching out towards them which is what makes them possible.

Action is not merely an accidental feature or quality of the mind, the way the shape of a rock is an accidental quality of the rock. Every human person is made for action.  We have this purpose or goal of activity built into us as part of our nature as a seed is made for growing up into a tree.  This is a purposiveness or directedness inherent in the mind itself. Just as the mind is made for thought, so it is made for activity, thought itself in this sense being indeed one kind of activity.  But while thought remains within the mind, we are also made for choice and decision which passes into action that has an effect beyond the limits of the mind into the world around us. Every human being has the power to initiate action in the world and has an inherent tendency to do that.

We can broaden this observation and state that life in general is inherently active.  Plants and animals, in their own way, if they are alive, by their nature desire to perceive, and actively produce effects on the world around them.  Plants seek the sun. As Plato observed, living things have the power to move themselves. We express this general truth by saying the life is teleological. It is never content to be what it is, but is always seeking to achieve a goal.  The English poet Matthew Arnold says in a well-known poem that old age and youth have this in common, discontent. But discontent is true of every living being by their very nature as living beings. The minimal goal that all living things seek is survival: to continue to live.  That is, to exist; for life is the existence of the living thing and to die is to cease to exist, vita viventium esse as mediaeval philosophers said.  But the teleological goal of the acorn goes beyond mere survival as an acorn: it is to become an oak.  The otherwise great English philosopher John Locke, attempting to understand human knowledge scientifically, misunderstood this quality of living things and influenced generations of thinkers to misunderstand it. He taught that the original mind at birth was a blank slate, tabula rasa, and was purely passive, written on only by the hand of sense experience.  This misses not only an important truth about the human mind, but about the nature of life.

In recent months we have watched dramatic scenarios in the Middle East that are relevant to this mistake, one previously made by the communists of Europe. The communists loved to talk about “the masses.”  The destiny of the masses was to be molded and shaped by the communists. The communists would be active, but the masses were thought of as passive. They were material for the communists’ experiments. Of course the communists loved the masses, or said, and perhaps even thought, they did. But they did not love the masses as individuals. They loved them as a whole, so to speak, or en masse. If a few million individuals had to be killed for the sake of the whole masse, that was ok. It followed that some people, namely the communists, were more valuable than other people, namely the masses. And so it was very natural for them to have special privileges not accorded to the masses. One day, however, in the autumn of 1989, the masses showed they had been misunderstood and were individuals after all. They acted, tearing down the Berlin Wall. Now we have seen a similar correction being made before our eyes on the streets of one city after another in the Arab world.

Nothing guarantees that the actions of these distinct centers of action will be benign. Every possibility of good is also a possibility of evil. We do not know how the revolts of the Middle East will turn out. Their last state may well be worse than their first. This also we have witnessed on our television screens in the casual horrors perpetrated on the streets of what for many of us was an unlikely place: England. Good or evil, however, each individual remains a distinct wellspring of action.

2.  Teleological or purposive causation, characteristic of all living beings, is fundamentally different from ordinary causation, characteristic of inanimate beings. 

We will understand this fact better, that every human being is a distinct center of action, if we grasp the nature of teleological causation and its difference from ordinary causation.  Ordinary or mechanical causation goes in only one direction. If I hit a billiard ball with a cue, the cue sends the ball off away from the cue, hopefully  (in my case only by way of exception) to hit another ball, and so on.  The ball does not come back and cause the cue to move. But in living beings, say a rosebush or a dog, each part of the being is both cause and effect of all the other parts of the being.  The causation is reciprocal. The roses cause the root and the root causes the roses. The dog’s heart causes its lungs and its lungs cause its heart. In this sense the rosebush produces itself out of the seed.  This reciprocal causality is what makes it a unity, in the specially intense way every living thing is recognized to be. We say the bush grows. But this growth is entirely different from the way a pile of clothing grows by having additional pieces of clothing thrown onto it. The pile of clothing does not create the additional pieces.  It does not process the carpet underneath it into new clothing. But the bush processes the soil and the air into living matter to become part of itself.

Not only this, but the plant or dog has the power to heal itself from injuries.  In a certain sense it “knows” how it ought to be, and it has the active power to marshal its forces to achieve that end.  It bears within itself its own design and when that design is damaged it recreates it.  Furthermore, it has the power to create a new plant or dog out of its own tissue.  Imagine a pile of clothes that had the power to produce new piles of clothes out of itself, or a rock that had the power to produce new rocks. Furthermore, if you counter a mechanistic force with an equal but opposite force, you defeat it and bring it to a standstill.  But if you create hardship for a form of life, then, provided you do not kill it, you strengthen it. It will produce new forms that enable it to cope with the challenge. Its energy will diversify and increase.

We have not the faintest idea how this happens. With all the scientific and technological resources of the modern world, no one has yet been able to duplicate these elementary processes of nature. No one has even a theory about how they happen.  (See Kant, Critique of Judgement, Sects. 64, 65, Akad. 370-376.)

At the present time scientists are searching for planets like earth that bear or have borne forms of life. They assume since certain chemicals found in living beings, organic molecules, are produced naturally by ordinary chemical interactions, that ordinary mechanical causation can of itself give rise to biological or teleological causation.  But the ease with which they make this assumption suggests they do not fully grasp the immense difference between the two.  Perhaps it will eventually prove to be the case that it can happen — we cannot prove scientifically that it is impossible  — but that is far from meaning it is something to be assumed.  It would be safer to assume the opposite.

Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s view that living things have the power to move themselves. He thought that was impossible, self-contradictory. If a dog moves, that could only be because one part of the dog, which is already moving, moves another part: the heart, already beating, moves the legs, and so on, he maintained.  The heart in its turn is caused to beat by something outside itself, which Aristotle thought was ultimately the movement of the heavens. Although in other respects he was the great proponent of teleology, applying it to inanimate things as well as animate, so that all things and not merely living ones were endowed with purposes, he apparently did not grasp the unique nature of teleological causation, but assumed, as modern scientists do, that all causation is mechanical.  His doctrine of potentiality and actuality was largely responsible for this.  He argues that a thing cannot move itself because movement, and indeed all change, is a transition from potentiality to actuality, and if a thing could move itself, that would mean it could be in both potentiality and actuality in regard to the same thing at the same time, which was impossible.  But in all this he was mistaken.[1]  At the present time biological scientists have been able to do wondrous things in regenerative medicine growing new organs. This has led many to look on living tissue as if it were just a more complicated version of ordinary material and all we need to learn is how to tweak it in the right way.  But in each case they must start with tissue that is already living, such as stem cells.

The current assumption among biologists that ultimately living things are just complicated machines and all their activities, including human activities, can be reduced to mechanical causation is nothing more than an assumption. It will become an established truth when we succeed in creating living beings out of material that is unquestionably inanimate.  In the meantime, the basis of the assumption has been the fact that for provable science it is a practical necessity. Mechanistic causation can be tested by experiment and to that extent confirmed or disconfirmed. Teleological causation is obvious enough to common sense after it has happened  — we can see that the leaves create the roots and the roots create the leaves  — but it cannot be predicted in any detail as, say, the effects of gravity can be predicted, and therefore cannot be tested by experiment.

The situation of science is that of the man in the familiar story who was searching for the car keys he had dropped. He was searching an area some distance from his car, under the street-light. Asked if he had dropped them there he replied, no. Then why was he looking there? Because, he replied, it was the only place there was light.

Nonetheless, teleology was widely accepted on the ground of common sense until Darwin.  Darwin was a great scientist. No one can study his works without admiring the thoroughness and the conscientiousness of his investigations.  Yet he has been responsible for one of the most misleading ideas in history: that life is the product of chance.  This was not the purpose of his argument. His argument presupposes that living things already exist. He aims to explain only how new species emerge out of old ones. They emerge by chance through the struggle of the existing species for existence and the survival of the fittest.  But at this point in his argument he leaves something out.  The effect of the struggle for existence is only negative: it is to kill off all those forms of life that are not fit.  How can a purely negative and destructive process produce novelty, something new that did not previously exist?  “Natural selection acts solely by the preservation of profitable modifications,” Darwin explains. (Ch. 6)   And these profitable modifications arise entirely by chance, because they depend on the surrounding conditions, which are a matter of chance.

All the immense variety of living forms on the face of the earth have developed out of possibly a single original living thing, piling up profitable modifications which occurred by chance on profitable modifications that occurred by chance through many generations.  But how can there be such a thing as a “profitable modification”?

3. Ordinary causation has no implications of “good” and “bad,” but teleological causation always has both. 

If I put sugar into water, it dissolves. Nothing suggests that this is either good or bad, so far as either the water or the sugar is concerned.  The sugar does not benefit from being put in the water, and it is also not harmed by it.  You cannot benefit or harm sugar, or for that matter water.  You can change them, but that is not the same as benefitting or harming them.  The concepts of good and bad simply do not apply of themselves to inanimate chemistry. But as soon as a living being arrives on the scene, immediately the ideas of good and bad become applicable. It is good for a dog or a rosebush to survive. I mean, from the viewpoint of the dog or the rosebush, and not just from my viewpoint as their owner. It is also good for a weed to survive, from the perspective of the weed. The dog regards being alive as a good thing and dying as a bad thing; it wants to live and will do everything it can not to die, and a rosebush or a weed in its own way likewise strives to live.  The concept of value does not apply in the inanimate world, but in the world of living beings it is always in question.

What does it mean, then, for a modification to be “profitable”?  Rocks also undergo modifications. Rocks exposed to the weather change their molecular constitution. They are subject to constant radiation from cosmic rays which can also induce changes in them. Many rocks contain radioactive substances which produce alterations in them internally.  Are any of these changes are profitable to them?  No. Nothing can be of profit to a rock. A profit means something good or beneficial, but nothing can beneficial to a rock.  The reason is that the rock is not alive, it is inanimate.  But the first canine, out of which all subsequent dogs evolved, was alive. This was the small point that Darwin forgot to mention.  Consequently he left out of his explanation of why new species emerge what Plato had seen many centuries before, that living things change themselves.

4. Darwin’s argument, even if entirely valid, still leaves open the possibility that design may be manifest in other aspects of the world. 

Even if Darwin’s account of how evolution happens should be true, then, it does not follow that life itself is a product of chance. Nor does he claim in his published writings that it does. Even though he forgot to mention it or to draw attention to its significance for his theory, he recognized that his theory of evolution by natural selection only applies to beings that are already alive. If we leave aside the changes that living beings go through once they exist, according to Darwin’s account of evolution, and consider solely the fact of life in itself or what it means to be alive, which Darwin does not examine, life is clearly highly organized, since it creates organization. Even the most primitive living things we know of already exhibit organization. This shows itself in the fact that every living being is governed by an impulse to stay alive, to survive. In this it is very different from a rock. Rocks have no impulse to survive.

One of these other aspects of the world where design may be manifest is the existence of laws in nature, such as the law of gravity or the laws of chemical composition. The ancient Stoic philosophers argued that law is the product of mind, and if the world existed by chance, it would not be governed by laws, as it manifestly is. A second aspect, in light of our current knowledge, would be the structure of the atom. With its complex nucleus and its encircling electrons, it can well be considered a model of intelligent design. An equally obvious candidate for being considered an example of design is the one we have just been discussing, the phenomenon of life itself.  I don’t claim that they are examples of design, but that they are manifestly candidates for that position and are worthy of examination.

To recall, I have been discussing this question of teleology and the nature of life in order to counter the widespread assumption among scientists that human action is fundamentally a form of mechanical causation.  I have been arguing that this shows a misunderstanding of the nature of life itself, which is not mechanical but teleological.

5. The power of choice and decision which makes each person a distinct center of action from every other person is their will. 

The human body produces different kinds of activity. Some proceed more or less autonomously, like digestion or the beating of our hearts. Others are reflexes, as when our hand jerks itself away from a hot stove. We sneeze and cough.  We breathe mostly without thinking about it. None of these are the kind of activity that makes us distinct centers of action. Nor do our powers of imagination or memory.  Each of us is a center of action distinct from everyone else because of our will. It is our will, more than any other feature of us, that individualizes us. By an “action” we normally mean only those activities we carry out because we will to do so. Actions that are involuntary, like the others I just mentioned, do not qualify properly as human actions. When I act voluntarily, I choose or decide to act. Consequently the action is my action, it belongs to me.  We say the action can be imputed to me. I am responsible for it and its consequences in a way that I am not responsible for the other activities of my body.  The German philosopher Hegel quotes an old German proverb, “A flung stone is the devil’s.”  Once I fling the stone, it may go anywhere and do anything, but I am the one who did it. If it breaks a window, I broke the window.

The causative power of the will is not ordinary or mechanical but teleological.  Only living beings can have a will.  More, only persons can have a will, in the proper sense of the word. The will is not something distinct from the person but is just the person choosing and deciding, just as the mind is not something distinct from the person but is just the person thinking and understanding.  The morality of a moral action, or the immorality of an immoral action, lies exclusively in the person’s will. Prudence is will, justice is will, temperance is will, courage is will. Weakness of will is will. And evil is will.

6. Resistance. 

It is our nature as living beings to seek to be active, then. As soon as we begin to be active, however, we encounter resistance and restraints. I reach out my hand, perhaps only to stretch the muscle, but encounter the wall. But this constraint is only a limit. The wall is not hostile to me and does not try to hurt me. The wall itself does not experience restraints. Restraints are experienced only by living things, because they have inherent goals.

Freedom consists initially in the removal of a restraint.  The dog is let off the leash.  Now it can perform without hindrance the action it wishes. Since only living things are teleological, are inherently active and seek to achieve goals and therefore experience restraints, only living things experience freedom, and it is thinkable that all of them in some sense do.

7. Of course there are big differences between human beings and other living things. 

I have been arguing that to some degree all living things are centers of activity.  But this is far truer of human than other beings, because human beings have the power of mind and will.  Only human beings have the ability to be conscious of moral values, and to recognize that we are subject to the moral law.  Animals cannot do actions that are morally good, nor morally evil.  We are destined by our nature for a higher level of action, we have a higher natural goal.  Our teleology is not merely for survival but for moral goodness.  Survival is a value, but moral value trumps survival. Moral value is the highest kind of value.  There are other, intermediate values: wealth is one, beauty is another. We will have occasion to say more about this later, in exploring what it is about human beings that enables them, and even requires them, to act morally.

8. Although we have no trouble recognizing this truth about ourselves, that we are a distinct center of action, it is not so easy to recognize it with the same clarity about other people.

We are very conscious that we ourselves are distinct centers of action.  We are conscious of our ability to initiate action. But we are easily inclined to view others as passive recipients of our action.  We see ourselves from the inside, the mental and subjective side, but we see others only from the outside, their physical appearance. We do not see the interior wellspring of action, their will, that leaps up invisibly in them just as much as it does in us. We do not see it until we see them actually act. Then we discover they are resistant to our intentions.  Not only that, but they often wish to act on us, and can do so in ways that are not only beneficial but harmful to us.  Unlike the wall, they can be hostile to us.

There is a big difference, then, between the restraints that nature imposes on us, which are only boundaries to our action, and those that come from the wills of other persons. In the view of classical liberalism, the most urgent form of freedom is freedom from the restraints imposed by the will of other persons. Nature has given me a mind or intellect to enable me to overcome the restraints imposed by nature. But restraints imposed by the will of other people can negate, contradict, cancel out and trample on my will.

9. Fulfillment.  

Our nature as a human being and a distinct center of action creates in us the natural desire and impulsion towards fulfillment. Fulfillment is a teleological concept and it cannot be understood in terms of mechanical causation. Being human is not only a fact but a task, a lifelong goal to be accomplished.  Although in one sense we are born human, in another sense we are always under the necessity to become human, to realize and fulfill our nature. To accomplish it we need freedom, especially freedom from the restraints imposed by the will of other people. Freedom is inherently attractive to us because it opens the gate to self-fulfillment.  In the course of history there have been two main theories about self-fulfillment. The modern view is that our self- fulfillment depends on the fulfillment of our desires, especially our long-term desires.  Plato’s Socrates and Aristotle maintained instead that desire is ultimately fatal to self-fulfillment because it is self-centered, and our fulfillment depends rather on our achieving harmony with the demands of reason, even when those demands go against our desires. In either case it remains true that freedom opens the way to self-fulfillment.

By the same token, however, as we shall see, the potential for goodness usually involves also a potential for evil, and the project of acquiring freedom can go tragically wrong.  As Kant said, there is nothing that is always and everywhere good except a good will. Everything else can be a disaster.

But self-fulfillment does not seem necessarily at bottom or in the first instance to arise either through the satisfaction of desire or through agreement with reason, though it may show itself through both of these. When we encounter something deeply fulfilling, for example if we have the experience of falling in love, or when we have a child, we often recognize the fact of fulfillment straight away. It simply becomes plain to us and beyond question that it is so.  It is more like finding the missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle.  Suddenly I have a sense of a marvellous completion. And this may occur even though I was not aware,  up to that moment,  of being incomplete. The sense of incompleteness can come together with the sense of completeness. And this gives rise to conscious desire.

The completion that self-fulfillment brings is not merely a factual one. It is not at all adequately described, as it is often described,  as added “complexity.”  We experience self-fulfillment not merely as something complex but as something good.  Self-fulfillment is a  goal inherent in our nature. Just as the rosebush has the goal inherent in its nature of producing roses.  It is true this goal is often frustrated.

The good of self-fulfillment is not only a psychological good, such as happiness. It has a moral dimension.  As we shall see in greater detail, this consists in the respect that we give to others and to ourselves. The respect that we give both to others and to ourselves comes from the same roots, namely the acknowledgement that we are distinct centers of action, each with his or her own will whose freedom must be respected.

In the next lecture we will discuss the controversial subject of the freedom of the will.
a general explanation was discovered apparently by Socrates. It does not give us knowledge, but understanding. See Phaedo.

[1]  Teleology as a general explanation was discovered apparently by Socrates. It does not give us knowledge, but understanding. See Phaedo.