Why All Freedom Includes Limits

“Anything I don’t like, Isn’t Freedom”

by Gwydion M. Williams

I put the article title in quotes, to make it clear that it is not my view.  Obviously.

You as a reader are probably certain that you too would think no such thing.  Obviously?

Almost certainly not.  Most likely you have made a big thing of Freedom, and how precious it is.  But will also be definite about things that cannot be justified as ‘freedom’.

The United Kingdom has strict controls on gun ownership.  Very few Britons question them.  But there is bitter division in the USA, with a militant minority holding that gun ownership is essential to freedom.

For me, a high probability of not being shot is much more important than any right for guns outside of the hands of carefully regulated security forces.  The difference is vast:

“The United States’ gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher…

“Compared to people in the other high-income nations, Americans are seven times more likely to die from violence and six times more likely to be accidentally killed with a gun.”[1]

The same applies to traffic safety.  Our shared right not to be injured or killed by someone else’s bad driving overrides their right to drive badly in a car or lorry.  (One can be more tolerant of cyclists.)

Also remember how much things have changed.  Male homosexuality was a criminal offence in England and Wales till 1967.[2]  Men had their lives destroyed: Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde just the most famous.  Lesbianism was never illegal, but known lesbians faced all sorts of discrimination.

There were also long arguments about whether homosexual were entitled to social equality, and what this would mean.  Some people felt that Civil Partnerships, legal since 2005, made sense because marriage was about producing children.  A majority disagreed, with Britain allowing Gay Marriage from 2014.  The Irish Republic in 2015 accepted it by a popular vote of almost 2 to 1.

There is now a fight about how far (if at all) people are entitled to claim a gender that contradicts their biology.  Also about how you class the smaller number of people whose biology is undeniably ambiguous.

Homosexuality is a particularly clear case of borders of freedom being drawn and re-drawn.  But there are many others.  Tobacco smoking has been increasingly criminalised.  The smoking of marijuana was recently legalised in Canada, and other countries may follow.  The Netherlands used to informally tolerate it, but is now moving away from toleration.

In real terms, you will believe ‘anything I don’t like, isn’t freedom’.  You would probably put it some other way, if pressed.  But would have trouble putting the matter clearly.

Consider the simple matter of censorship.  Whenever there is a dispute, you will get people saying they are against all censorship.  But I always suspected this only applied to some matters.  I therefore imagined a set of books or articles that assuredly would go beyond most people’s idea of the acceptable limits of freedom:

  • You Too Can Be a Suicide Bomber
  • Handy Tips for Muggers and Burglars
  • The Plain Man’s Guide To Committing Rape
  • A Groomer’s Guide to English Schoolgirls
  • How to Poison Your Neighbours Dog
  • How to Drug and Rape Even Big Tough Men
  • Quick Ways to Sabotage Passenger Aircraft
  • Nerve Gases – Their Manufacture and Efficient Deployment
  • How to Assassinate Your Neighbour’s Cat
  • How to Wreck a Marriage While Appearing as a Helpful Friend
  • Carry On Loving When You’ve Got HIV
  • Neat Ways to Sabotage Your Neighbour’s Car
  • 101 Ways to Kill Mockingbirds and Other Noisy Pests

If you are not English, please substitute your own cherished ethnic identity for the Groomer’s Guide.

If we believe the official British story, the Russian secret services are badly in need of a nerve-gas guide.  Which is why I really do not believe the official British story.[3]

I also pondered the idea of ‘acceptable limits of freedom’.  I once heard a pompous little story about how someone’s pet rabbit escaped, and they let it chew up their own garden.  But had to act when it moved into the garden next-door.  They summed this up as not knowing the difference between ‘liberty’ and ‘licence’.

How the rabbit was supposed to know was not explained.

Humans obviously grasp that they have ‘areas of freedom’.  You could not live in any sort of human society without being aware of this.  Without sometimes making an error and correcting yourself.  Or sometimes rejecting a limit that the society tries to put on you – we have had a lot of that since the 1960s.

I am all in favour of sensible challenges to whatever limits that the society tries to put on you.  But let it be sensible – a debate on whether the borders between ‘liberty’ and ‘licence’ ought to be drawn.  Don’t start ranting about being treated as a slave, just because someone dares to hold a different opinion about where the barriers should be.  Don’t start calling it ‘equivalent to jack-booted Stalins thrusting their way into the privacy of your own bedrooms’, just because some new regulations are considered.

People naturally think of ‘liberty’ as being the things they themselves want to do, and would allow others to do.  But to analyse anything, you need to remember that you have to co-exist in a world, a society and a community along with others who may see things differently.  Or who may be either more relaxed or more strict about applying rules you do agree with.

I’d not discourage anyone from demanding ‘freedom’ and protesting about its denial.  But when the matter gets debated, it ought to be remembered we are talking about where the borders should be drawn.  About the difference between Freedom, FREEDOM and ‘freedom’, if you like.

Language is inherited, and often misleading.  We freely speak of ‘the sun rising’, although we are aware that what we actually see is the Earth both turning and orbiting, bringing into view the sun.

You do get some half-wise remarks about ‘surely it is all relative’.  In fact it is not.  If you’ve ever looked at a weather map and wondered why hurricanes and other low-pressure zones turn anti-clockwise, this is down to the Coriolis Force produced by the rotating Earth.[4]  South of the equator, it all reversed and hurricanes spin clockwise.

The orbit and rotation of our planet give us the appearance of the sun rising: 23 hours, 56 minutes and four seconds of rotation, with the remainder of our human-defined 24 hours based on our orbit round the sun.  The objective reality is not quite what we see.

Oddly enough, philosopher Karl Popper actually uses ‘the sun rises’ as one of his unquestionable facts.  From what I’ve read of him, he was also less than precise about the limits of the ‘Open Society’ he makes such a big thing about.  For me, he was definitely applying the rule ‘anything I don’t like, isn’t freedom’.  As does George Soros, who claims disciple-status on the grounds of having been in Popper’s class as a very ordinary student at the London School of Economics.

In the wider world, at any given moment it will be sunrise somewhere on planet Earth, and sunset somewhere else.  Defending on how precisely you define these two on-going processes, there would almost certainly be some human eyes also seeing it – but it would be there anyway.  And for part of the year, people in the very far north would have ‘midnight sun’ or ‘arctic night’.[5]  Also equivalent and opposite for the Antarctic, but very few people see that.

So how do we decide?  For me, it is useful to explore the double meaning of ‘how do we decide?’.  Not just ‘what decision should we make’, but also ‘how do humans actually make decision?’.  How do animals?  Is Free Will even real?

I tried splitting these matters, elaborating my concepts into no less than eight layers:

Level Zero No decision, or a random choice.  Physio-chemical laws apply under fixed rules.
Level One Living creatures, reacting instinctively but favouring their own preservation.  (Or that of the species.)
Level Two Conscious repetition based on success.  We’ve always done it this way.  It works.
Level Three Selfishness.  I personally will benefit, either in terms of goods and services, or with emotional satisfaction.
Level Four Selfish for my family or community, sometimes at my own expense.
Level Five We sympathise with strangers, but not if it is seriously at the expense of our own people.
Level Six We favour one or more defined groups that includes many people we do not know personally.  (Your nation, religion, club, corporation, regiment etc.)
Level Seven Everyone matters.  And some things are inherently the right thing to do.  It may include being highly religious, or highly committed to some non-religious creed such as Marxism.

Like 24-hour days, this is subjective, but based on objective facts.  I had previously done a long study justifying the common-sense belief that what I now call ‘Level Zero’ is very different from the rest.[6]  This analysis flows from it.

I will add that life shows itself very different from self-propagating entities like fire or crystals.  Only living creatures do unlikely things that make the survival of the species more likely.  Not always the individual: mating and then laying eggs is risky for many species.  Some exhaust themselves.  Some neglect their eggs once laid, but others devote a lot of work to caring for those eggs or young individual.  And on the whole, it is the more complex organisms that have a lot of parental care.  Much of this is seen as instinctive: a programmed action.  Humans definitely have a lot of conscious thought about which unlikely things it would be a good idea to do.

As another way to see the distinctiveness of Level Zero, imagine a BBC weather forecaster saying:

“Some vicious thunderstorms are trying to invade our dear island.  A valiant little area of high pressure is holding them off.”

No one would say that, though Professor Dawkins became famous writing about ‘selfish genes’.

Now imagine an historic essay that says:

“In the 1920s and 1930s, Mr Bufton Tufton would always take a winter holiday in Spain.  Except during the Spanish Civil War, when he took his holidays in Portugal instead.”

We assume that he didn’t want to get involved, but chose another similar destination.  Portugal at that time was a right-wing dictatorship, but peaceful.

We assume that humans have motivation, and rain does not.

The rain in Spain would have taken no notice of the war, one assumes.  There is a strange claim that rain is more likely after big battles.  It has been credited to cannon-fire, but I found exactly the same in Plutarch’s Life of Roman general Marius.  We might credit God, fate, the din of battle, the release of sweat and blood or just disbelieve the story.  We would certainly not give rainclouds a motivation.

Migrating birds that normally crossed Spain might notice the fear and violence and avoid it, or might not.  Something to be investigated.

We would expect people in the habit of visiting Spain to be aware of the war.  Obviously a human who didn’t wish to join either side would avoid visiting Spain, and might leave if they were already there.  Author and poet Robert Graves did exactly that: he had been living in Majorca and left at once, only returning many years later.[7]  But it is highly plausible that someone who liked Spain would switch to Portugal, which has a similar culture and language.

In answer to questions about Free Will, I’d say it applied to anything above Level Two.  But there is a lot more that could be said, and I plan to go much more deeply into the matter in future.  Thoughts on the matter received with interest, if they are more than re-stating what is already well known.

What I’ll say here is that human society is a compound of all of these levels, and would not be human if it were not.

‘Rational’ economics leaves out everything except Level Three interactions based on money.  Commerce can get to be like that, but few people like it.  And it’s not very rational.

What it is very good at is undermining all other values.  That’s why since the 1980s, when ‘rational’ economics was sanctified and glorified, all of the supposed moral principles of the centre-right have been undermined.

There was also the hopeful notion, inherited from Adam Smith, that people encouraged to stick to Level Three selfishness would somehow still meet Levels Four to Seven, guided ‘as by an invisible hand’.  It does work, sometimes.  Much more often it does not.  That’s why a Mixed Economy system, with the state regulating business according to its own notion of ‘the right thing to do’, worked better than systems that gave greater scope to selfish desires.

And also was more robust than Marxism, which hoped that everyone could get motivated by Level Seven ideas, or else that the Level Three selfishness of workers would keep them safely attached.

This is worth a whole issue of Problems.  But for now, I will use these ideas as an introduction to things I wrote before I had the ideas fully worked out

This first appeared in a magazine called ‘Problems.
Issue 36, 4th Quarter 2018. November 2018

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-u-s-gun-deaths-compare-to-other-countries/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_by_country_or_territory#Western_Europe

[3] https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/the-soviet-past/3151-2/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coriolis_force#Meteorology

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midnight_sun

[6] https://gwydionwilliams.com/99-problems-magazine/in-a-hole-in-a-hole-dwelt-a-nothingness/

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Graves#Literary_career