Irami Osei-Frimpong

Sep 5, 2020

5 min read

Against Choice

The idea that choice is the same as freedom is a disaster. I’m going to explain why in three minutes.

Choices are degrading if you aren’t reflected in the options among which you choose. It’s like a vegetarian who walks into a restaurant that only serves beef, chicken, and fish. Or a pregnant woman choosing to get an abortion, compelled by the knowledge that she doesn’t have access to the resources to raise a thriving kid. Or an abused spouse who has the choice to take the kids and run — thereby literally risking her life — or stay with the abusive spouse because the abuse isn’t bad if she doesn’t fight back.

All of those are choices. None of that is freedom because in both horns of the dilemma, you are choosing into your alienation. If this were chess, the world has put you in a fork. In order to be free, have you to choose among options that have been structured to accommodate you.

This can’t be done with nature because nature doesn’t accommodate you. Americans romanticize nature because we’ve domesticated it. My dad is from Africa. There is no illusion that nature is freedom there because nature eats you. Americans are confused because we’ve domesticated “nature” here into an accommodating garden, and what we call nature is just a park.

So if the world has to accommodate you in order for you to be free, then a freedom that is universalized is going to come from participating in a human system of mutual accommodation.

There are only a few different ways this shakes out. Either we are talking about external stuff or interpersonal behavior. When it’s external stuff, i.e. I agree to let you claim this stuff, and you agree to let me claim that stuff, we are talking about property rights. By the way, rights are just the way that freedom gets into the world.

When we aren’t talking freedom that is not about stuff, we are talking about interpersonal relationships. Interpersonal accommodation is going to come in two different forms. We can accommodate each other immediately, or we can have a mediator between us. That’s it. It’s important to understand that that’s it, and everything else spins out of this. Either interpersonal relationships are immediate, or they are mediated.

When we look at relationships of immediate mutual accommodation, we’ll see why Hegel considers family relationships as potential institutions of freedom. They are potential spaces for immediate accommodation. This is where I’m immediately thinking about you when I present you with options with how we should go forward, knowing that you are immediately thinking of me in the same manner as you consider and present options about how we go forward. We have a shared fate because through this immediacy, there isn’t a real distinction between us. We are yolked. That’s a great form of freedom, which is why it’s legitimately safeguarded, but that’s still not individuality. In addition to having the freedom of being in a relationship with someone who immediately shares my fate, I want to be able to act without caring about you, too.

In order to get to individuality, yet retain mutual accommodation, you need a mediator between the persons involved. That way competitors don’t have to care about each other at all, e.g., in professional basketball, the Lakers don’t have to care whether the Celtics are morally degraded by the loss. The presence of the league and the refs mediate the relationship between the teams so that the totality of the interaction is an institution of freedom. I don’t have to care whether the guy selling me a car is going to make a big enough commission to pay his mortgage. Or relationship is mediated by the dealership and a host of other factors.

The difference between mediated and immediate institutions of freedom is why one team can cheer and the other team cry and feel betrayed at the end of agame, and it still be a fair and just competition. However, if one person is cheering and the other person is crying and feeling betrayed at the end of sex, you’ve done the whole thing wrong.

How do you figure out the fine distinctions between mediate and immediate institutions of freedom? Politics. Politics is what decides that spouses get to visit each other in the hospital, but they don’t get to call each other’s therapist to get the dirt. Yet when you engage in politics, it’s mediated by a public process and rules, and it’s not merely self-serving because the aim of politics is to set down rules and decide questions about the whole nation as a nation, in addition to clearing up the distinctions between how to secure immediate and mediated institutions of freedom internal to the state.

I can go on, but here you have the freedom of a spouse, the freedom of a civilian, and the freedom of a citizen. All with different structures and different concerns, all deeply relevant because “choice” is a fundamentally insufficient, unless I somehow get to interact in a meaningful way in forming the options among which I choose.

Species of Freedom

All of these forms of freedom are legitimate forms of freedom. They are also specific, which means that they can’t be reduced to each other. There is a reason why you don’t want marriage to be treated like a commodity you can return on the market once it doesn’t meet your fancy. Such regard degrades the peculiar freedom that comes within marriage, e.g., the freedom to lose your job but not also lose your spouse.

The Autonomy of Freedom

All of these forms of freedom are autonomous, which means that they can negate each other if the institutions are not organized appropriately. If I’m a hiring manager, and I know that a lot of the candidates are in hierarchical families, and I also know that I’m going to have to sink 100k in training whomever I hire, I’m going to be very cautious about hiring someone who at any point can come to me and say, “My husband prayed on it and decided that I should quit.” So that’s not only going to punish certain job candidates, that’s going to punish anyone who LOOKS like they may marry into that kind of family, which then degrades the freedom of everyone on the job market.

The Answer

Since these forms of freedom are specific and autonomous, the whole game is figuring out how to get these differentiated forms of freedom to be mutually re-enforcing. This isn’t even an exhaustive list of the autonomous and specific forms of freedom drummed out by the logic of freedom, I just wanted to convey a sense of the problem.

Again, these problems aren’t even noticed as problems as long as we entertain the juvenile notion that choice is the same of freedom.

Lastly, the most contentious arguments about freedom are going to weaponize the autonomy of these different specific forms, using a unmodified but legitimate form of freedom to negate the realization of another specific form of freedom. For example, it’ll use the legitimacy of the family in order to degrade political rights or the legitimacy of civil society in order to degrade property rights.