Do we possess the freedom to think?

June 23, 2023 08:56
Photo: Reuters

Do we possess the freedom to think?

There are really two questions embedded within this.

The first, concerns the normative. Do we possess a reasonable claim, or liberty (both moralised concepts) to think?

The second, concerns the descriptive. Do we, in fact, have the ability to exercise our freedom to think in the real world?

On the first. A plausible reading of the freedom to think, per Susie Alegre, may be that we are capable of developing and holding thoughts without substantial manipulation, external interference with our privacy and judgments, or coercion and punishment pursued in relation to our thoughts. Should any of these requirements be violated, then our freedom to think could be said to be violated.

Why, however, should we possess such a right? What gives this right an independent normative foundation, if any at all? My suggestion is that existing arguments fail to take seriously and develop properly a standalone account of the freedom to think. Here is why:

Most existing writers attribute the freedom to the perverse harms and insidious suffering inflicted upon individuals whose freedom to think are not enshrined. For one, individuals who are coerced would be subjugated by those who can make them act in ways that contravene their own wills. Alternatively, the transgression of privacy and the personal-public divide could well induce upon individuals paralyising fears and agony. Finally, as Susan Wolf argues, manipulation precludes us from living out our ‘real selves’ - it thwarts our ability to respond to and draw upon the right kinds of reasons to make decisions that fit our true personalities and nature. The argumentative pattern is clear: some X constitutes at least a core component of the freedom to think Y. The violation of X is bad. Therefore, Y is a right.

What is well worth noting, however, is that none of these reasons, as compelling as they may be, has much to do with proving the fundamental freedom to think. Coercion is clearly normatively wrong, but it is wrong not because it violates our thoughts, but because it disrespects our wills and genuine preferences. Manipulation is awful, and that is because it prevents us from reflecting and living out our true lives (and potential) - but also as it induces us to make decisions we would, under more ideal and less distortionary circumstances, clearly regret or refrain from making. Finally, the dearth of privacy is problematic, for it inflicts sizeable psychological harms upon capable agents who perceive and react to the invasion of their personal spaces. None of these is bad because of violating the ‘freedom to think’. Following this logic, then, the freedom is think is purportedly contingent - i.e. founded - upon three composite freedoms (and rights), e.g. freedom from coercion, freedom from manipulation, and right to privacy. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into the freedom/right distinction, but that, too, is an important conceptual discussion in its own right.

I posit there is something innate in freedom to think that cannot be captured by the above triptych. That is, the concept of moral personhood has everything to do with thought. We are moral persons, because we can develop preferences, conceptions of a good life, second-order judgments that guide and shape our first-order judgments, and responsive mechanisms that take seriously all that is unfolding around us. Our moral personhood in turn qualifies us as members of communities that can be measured and bound by ethical propositions. A table, a chair, or a clock has no moral personhood, and thus does not belong to the same moral community as you and I, Madonna or Diego Maradona.

Moral persons are entitled to the freedom to think, because thought is a constitutive component that makes up and instantiates personhood. Personhood without thought is structurally incomplete. The freedom to think makes our personhood practicable - it enables us to generate, create, identify, and assign value to all objects, abstract or actual, around us. It also allows us to engage in argumentation, refutation, construction and deconstruction of viewpoints - all innately visceral and particular aspects of personhood. This is not dissimilar from the argument that teachers are entitled to the freedom to teach, because that is precisely what they are stipulated and - by design - supposed to carry out. If we accept that we are moral persons, that we deserve to continually remain moral persons, then we must also accept that we possess the freedom of thinking.

Now let us consider the descriptive claim. Do people today in fact possess the freedom to think?

Sadly, at an age where oligarchic capture of elections through money politics is increasingly prevalent in ‘liberal’ democracies, and where authoritarian manipulation and subjugation of the popular will through propaganda, systemic coercion, and embedded threats are gaining increasing traction, vast tracts of population around the world have indeed fallen into the grip of odious forces that subvert their freedom to think.

Educational systems are increasingly underpinned by pedagogical preoccupations with homogeneity and functionalism, in lieu of more open-ended and imaginative exploration of the unknown. Mass and social media alike have become inundated by narratives bolstering particular aesthetic standards and social values. Even those who ostensibly are to serve as the representatives of the people, have become little more than victims captured by the whims of populist discourses and counter-discourses across virtual, online platforms. The space and room for nuanced reasoning is dwindling - let alone nuanced thought and debate!

Until we stand united in opposition to those who seek to engineer our minds, and turn us into mere pawns and tools and foot-soldiers in their lavish conquest for power, there can be no freedom in the way we think. Manipulation, invasion of privacy, and punitive coercion would only become increasingly ubiquitous amidst a world that is being carved out into spheres of influence, large and small. We must actively resist the temptations of the echo chamber - however ‘resonant’ it may be with our deep insecurities and tendencies to form and join an ‘Us’ gang over the ‘Them’ gang.

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Assistant Professor, HKU