One cannot talk about ‘morality’, I answered to a Master-student yesterday, without supposing the possibility of free action. She is interested in studying dissociation, identity, and moral responsibility, and while we discussed those concepts and their relations, I was led to the articulation of a thought on the difficulty of freedom in modern society which (as it often goes) surprised me although I was the one who put it into words. This phenomenon makes one wonder who is the owner of thoughts. But yesterday we pondered the owner of acts: one cannot suppose the possibility of acting without assuming there to be someone who acts, who can be held responsible, and who thus, somehow, has to be judged to be free to choose an action.
This argumentation would have satisfied Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant: the idea of freedom, he claimed, is enough for a human being to realize his freedom. That is a nice thought, my student and me went on, but what if in fact my freedom is disturbed? I think I am free, but I am the victim of a psychotic illusion, or of blind ambition. What if I am subjected to a temporal dissociative experience, losing my purpose while trying to adapt to the complex interactions and emotions at, say, a party? Or, what if one is influenced unknowingly by some kind of voodoo-practice?
We mused about these different possibilities, and moved on to the question of the difference between traditional and modern societies. The modern person deems himself free in comparison to those unenlightened enough to reckon with the possibility of magic and voodoo, and with the influence in their lives of ancestors and gods. Those people, he thinks, are not free, as they have to visit their spiritual advisors and healers regularly, uncertain whether they are subject to evil inflicted upon them magically, or whether they neglected their duties towards the ancestors. How can freedom, responsibilty, and thus morality, play a significant role in societies where such thought is dominant?
And then I heard myself saying: ‘see it like this: we, moderns, have freed ourselves perhaps from the bonds of traditional society, which thrives on the fears of acting independently and which has stability and conformity as its main goals. But while freeing us from the fears of novelty, we enslaved ourselves to progress.’ Everything we do needs to be ‘rational’, that is, add to progress – to better health, to a better future for my children, to a better relationship with my loved one; to efficiency in my work, to higher quality, to lower cost, to better competiveness… so are we free? Fear of the gods, or of the evil eye, has been replaced by the fear of redundancy – if my acts do not contribute to progress, they are superfluous, and so am I…
When, after that conversation, I went on to ponder how the ideology of constant change and progress (common to communist as well as capitalist thought) makes morality within its parameters very difficult, while it threatens our actual freedom, I remembered Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher from the hippie age who recently gained new interest. Marcuse tried to tackle this problem. The crowbar of his theory lies in the acknowledgment that one cannot be free unless one allows oneself to value the present society against possible alternatives. To do this, one has to presuppose a judgment like: ‘human life is worth living, or rather can be and ought to be made worth living.’ If we dare not critically value society from such a critical viewpoint, we pass our potential for freedom by. And if we do that, I add, the Kantian ‘idea of freedom’ will be void of meaning, and ethical theorizing will have no real subject. Ergo: no thought of moral responsibility, of freedom, makes sense without criticism of society as it is.
Herbert Marcuse lived from 1898-1979. I cited from his One Dimensiononal Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].
Immanuel Kant lived from 1724-1804. His foundation of morality in the idea of freedom is to be found in his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (dritter Abschnitt) – published for the first time in 1785 (and has had numerous editions and translations since then).