Wednesday, May 24, 2006

de dicto / de re

"A nation's true values can be measured in how it treats the poor, the weak, the damaged, the unconnected. For more than 30 years, the answer of the U.S. power structure has been clear: You lock them up, shut them up, grind them down -- and make big bucks in the process." (Chris Floyd, CONTEXT - This Week in Arts and Ideas from The Moscow Times)

"'From the early days in the Tetons to the rebelliousness of Yosemite's Camp 4, every generation of climbers has had its run-ins with government regulations that attempt to restrict climber's freedom of expression.'" (Mike Jones, Utahnia, "Patagonia clothing company is lame")

WHAT, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society? (John Stewart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 4)

Someone who does not know that the morning star is the planet Venus, for example, could believe the truth, de dicto, of the proposition, "The morning star is larger than Venus," even though no one would believe de re that Venus is larger than itself. (Garth Kemerling, The Philosophy Pages de dicto/de re")

I was listening to the BBC Arts podcast this morning. They were engaging in a healthy debate on the "nanny" or "paternalist" state/government. Basically they started with the notion that from John Stewart Mill that an individual has the liberty to do whatever she wants to do to herself so long as it doesn't harm others in the process. Of course this is a very complex issue that doesn't lend itself to any easy solutions. Personal freedom or liberty without implication on others is a very difficult thing to achieve in that whatever we do as individuals seems to have impact on others. As Buddhism and a modern Christian philosophy, among others--is the label paticipatory sin, Kendrakoo?--suggest everything is connected and what I do ultimately has an effect on others. For example, if I purchase coffee from a vendor that exploits the people who grow/harvest the coffee I have a hand in that exploitation. Ultimately this seems like a reasonable connection to make and it seems like good personal policy to avoid buying products that have shady production standards and exploit fellow human beings so egregiously.

This personal or communal action, of course, does not make the product itself illegal (although governments seem to regularly consider banning such products.) For example, the folks (mainly the government) so hot-and-bothered by drugs and drug users make similar paticipatory connections. Pot smokers are seemingly responsible for Columbian drug lords and murders, child abuse, and rampant murders in the street. So the product they use and others akin to them are banned: production and possession of them is criminalized. The other side (in this case smelly, dirty hippies--had to make sure you were still reading!) then claims that their personal freedom is being abused by the government and works to undermine said laws etc claiming, among others, the benefits of such products (note the hemp movement). The Liberal notion of liberty (a la Mill), it would seem, is at the heart of the matter. Marx just a few decades after Mill, of course, came to the conclusion that Mill's "liberty" is just a bourgeois concept to exploit the proletariat. In other words Marx suggested that the bourgeois saw their freedom as paramount to the freedom of others; be free as long as you have the money to back up that freedom (sound familiar?) This, of course, is the basis of modern socialism; individual liberty is still seen as a myth invented by a specific class to give license to their personal actions and to exploit other classes and to profit from that explotation.

Now where the hell am I going with all this? Nowhere, other than I wish to explore the topic/idea of personal freedom. I never really understood, for example, why Reagan got people so worked up in a lather over "liberals" when he and the conservatives seemed to be talking about are Liberal notions--i.e. personal freedom, free market, etc.) Maybe "Liberal" sounds worse than "Socialist" does, so he chose that word to pick on? Or maybe "socialist" was a dead horse that they couldn't beat any more? Nevertheless it seems that the socialist notion has been accepted by the modern conservative movement in that personal freedom is not really possible--one could site various examples of this, but I grow weary of this topic. Yes, it seems those who throw around the F word (freedom) are often the ones who try to restrict the freedom of others the most and then label "liberals" as freedom-haters.


  1. I'm going to be a cop out and just quote Janice (well, Kris really):
    "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. Nothing don't mean nothing honey if it ain't free."

  2. I read a really interesting commentary on Mill in The Prospect whilst traveling. I just checked--it's the past issue, so it doesn't appear to be online. It gave what seemed to me a fairly nuanced account of Mill's views on freedom--worth a read.