Thursday, April 10, 2008

Practical Monadology
Perhaps because I’m doomed to be a philistine anyhow, I’ve embraced programmatic philistinism as a way of rethinking philosophical concepts. For example, I propose to consider human freedom, not as an edifying postulate that can only be defended by complicated transcendental maneuvers but as something that becomes merely obvious once you stop imagining that freedom is evidence of our celestial provenance. So far from evincing our kinship with the angels, human free will is an intensified version of the functional autonomy that goes along with being an animal.

I got to thinking about human freedom most recently while watching a cable show about a maximum-security prison. In one sequence, six or seven burly guards had to equip themselves in elaborate armor to safely subdue a not particularly large man. Even with all their gear, they had a terrific struggle on their hands. It simply happens to be the case that human beings are extremely hard to control by direct means, a fact which, like our descent from some sort of monkey, ought to be as clear to parents as to prison guards.

Except for the most extreme and uncharacteristic situations—high security prisons and locked insane asylum wards—people are ruled by rewards and punishments. Even when the rhetoric in play involves whips and hot pokers, people have to be persuaded by enticements and sanctions. No society could afford to manage the behavior of very many individuals with the physical methods used at Pelican Bay. Short of simply annihilating people, the worst tyrant in the world is obliged to address the purposes of his victims, though the purposes at issue may be mere survival or the avoidance of present pain. A forteriori, no one get useful work out of workers by main force.

You are out of luck if you’re looking for a magic kind of free will that is as uncaused as the decay of a neutron and yet intimately rooted in the personality of the willer. That kind of free will is a conceptual chimera, an Unding, useful only to inspire Sunday homilies or give the executioner a good conscience. Chasing such metaphysical dreams may distract us from noticing the zoological reality of garden-variety freedom or exploring its very significant implications. It matters very much that the individual components of human society interact primarily by final rather than efficient causation. We may not inhabit the kingdom of ends mandated by the ethical system of Immanuel Kant, but we aren’t pool balls on a pool table either and that’s simply a fact.

No comments: