In this essay, I will explore the question: How should we understand the loss of freedom that occurs when people internalise oppressive norms? The notion of lack of freedom in the condition of internalised oppressive norms, recalls cases of brainwashing, ideological oppression, totalitarian regimes, justification of abusive relations, etc. The kind of freedom we are dealing with is more discussed under the notion of what is called ‘positive’ concept of freedom.
So, in this paper, I will examine how contemporary ‘positive’ theorist could identify the lack of freedom in the condition of internalised oppressive norms. I will argue that none of the different branches of modern ‘positive’ tradition could ‘independently’ identify the lack of freedom in such challenging cases.
I will start the with Frankfurt’s solution of ‘second-order’ desires to save the idea of agent’s ‘real’ self. Since this view is vulnerable to open the floor to totalitarianism, I will move on to discuss Christman’s procedural conditions that make an agent autonomous. However, I will show that this position struggling in face of real-life examples of oppressive socialisation. To save ‘positive’ theory I will present Benson and Stoljar’s idea that brings back the normative content-oriented concept of freedom. So, I will argue this is exactly the problem with ‘positive’ theory that even Meyers with her idea of ‘socially situated’ autonomy couldn’t solve it. That is why we need an alternative for ‘positive’ concept of freedom that might be a ‘republican’ view.
Brainwashed political philosopher
To set my case for this essay I will borrow the idea of famous thought experiment in the philosophy of mind, known as ‘Mary the super-scientist’ proposed by Frank Jackson in his knowledge argument. (Jackson, 1986) For the sake of brevity, I won’t explain the thought experiment here since I assume that the reader is familiar with Mary’s case and for the reason that the details in the philosophy of mind discussion are not relevant here. I only use her name and the idea that she is a super expert in her field, which is political philosophy in my case.
So, consider a highly educated political philosopher, Mary, who is expert in all theories of political philosophy specifically the theories of freedom. One important thing we should know about her is that Mary lives in a brainwashed society, where all citizens including herself internalised the oppressive norms to conform the authoritarian regime. The details about how this brainwashing has happened could be important in later stages in this paper, but to keep it simple for now, let’s assume that all new-born citizens are given ‘the conforming pill’ immediately after birth. One of the oppressive norms that all citizens including Mary obey, is they all put a metal colander on their heads all the time. The question is so, is Mary free and if not, how could she identify she is not free if she could do so at all?
First, let’s consider Mary is a ‘negative’ theorist about the concept of freedom. In its classic framework, according to the Hobbesian understanding of freedom, ‘negative’ theory defines freedom as the absence of external impediment, so Mary cannot say her society and herself are not free since they don’t experience any external force to conform the oppressive norms. They just do so because the pill they all have taken at their birth has shaped their desires to act in a certain way that the regime wants. However, one might argue that the initial pill should be considered as a type of intervention, so Mary and her fellow citizens are not free according to the understanding of freedom as non-interference. However, ‘negative’ theorists wouldn’t go much far with this definition because the cannot oppose to all types of interference. Even J. S. Mill allowed intervention when a person walks towards a broken bridge. (Christman, 1991) So it seems that to examine the question of freedom under the conditions of internalised oppressive norms, we should go beyond the negative theory. Issues such as brainwashing, ideological authoritarian regimes, religious or superstitious norms all are based on a common concept of the ‘formation of desire,’ which is the main scope of the ‘positive’ theories of freedom. So, in the rest of this paper, I will focus on the contemporary theories of ‘positive’ liberty.
Now we assume that Mary is a positive theorist, thinks that an agent is free if there are no limits on her desires and she can act upon them. As a positive theorist, she also believes that a free agent is in control over her own desires. However, she could never know that her desires and preferences are shaped by manipulation of a totalitarian government. Mary and all citizens of her country think that they act according to their own will, so they consider themselves as free citizens. It seems that people who internalised absolute oppressive norms could never find out they are not free. So, let’s add a bit more details to out thought experiment by introducing Libera, a political philosopher from another country, who visits Mary to discuss freedom. Libera is born in another country, that means that she hasn’t taken ‘conforming pill’ at her birth, so she doesn’t automatically conform the oppressive norms. Libera is a positive theorist struggling to find out if Mary and her fellow citizens are free.
Libera doesn’t know anything about the conforming pills, but from her observations, she has this intuition that Mary’s society is not free, however, she hesitates to judge immediately. She guesses that Mary’s action is not based on her ‘true desires,’ or in another word there is an internal unconscious thing that shapes Mary’s preferences to act in a certain way as if she acts according to her own desires. This echoes the position of some modern positive theorists such as Harry Frankfurt. By dividing the agent’s desires into ‘first-order’ and ‘second-order’ desires, Frankfurt argues that agent’s real desires come from the authentic self. (Frankfurt, 1971) Higher order desires, as Frankfurt defines them, are desire to want something. These kinds of desires that are made by ‘authentic’ self are immune to manipulation. So as a result of this argument we can claim that those unwanted desires that make agent follow the oppressive norms are not of her ‘real’ self. This model helps Libera, as a positive theorist, to tell if Mary is free. So, it seems to be a step forward in comparison to the ‘negative’ theory that could identify the lack of freedom. Mary is free if she acts upon her true desires shaped by her authentic self, but if she acts upon her inauthentic desires she is manipulated and not free. In the specific case of Mary, we may say that ‘conforming pills’ have formed an inauthentic self for her to shape her desires, so she is not free.
Here I tweak Mary’s case to get rid of pills by imagining that newborn citizens in her society are not given pill at birth since the oppressive norms pass through biological and cultural evolution to the new generations. This means that manipulation has gone so deep and changed the authentic self or replaced it with the inauthentic self. Either way, Frankfurt is in trouble, because now he cannot tell which one has formed agent’s desire: authentic self or inauthentic one? To escape from this problem, Frankfurt claims that manipulated self now is brand new changed self that forms true desires, so the agent must be considered as free. (Frankfurt, 1971) This conclusion resonates Isiah Berlin’s objection to ‘positive’ tradition that the argument of true desire and true self, helps to support the totalitarianism. As he puts it “the real self may be conceived as something wider than the individual, as a social ‘whole’ of which the individual is an element or aspect: a tribe, a race, a church, a state, the great society (Berlin, 1969) So it is Berlin’s nightmare if Libera follows Frankfurt’s model to identify Mary’s society as free. The other faulty part of the ‘authentic self’ argument is that, by reducing agent to the true self, it goes back to the ‘negative’ theory that consists of an agent and external impediments. The idea to shrink agent to the ‘true self’ doesn’t make ‘positive’ theory any different than ‘negative’ theory when it treats ‘inauthentic self’ as an external impediment. So, let’s see in the next section if there are any better approaches in ‘positive’ tradition of freedom which avoid Berlin’s concern and doesn’t reproduce ‘negative’ theory.
Saving ‘positive’ theory from liberal objections
Let’s make another change in our thought experiment, imagine that Mary’s government has forced Libera to stay in their country forever against her will. If freedom defined by desires according to ‘positive’ theory, so it seems that Mary is freer than Libera only because doesn’t have any will to leave the oppressive conditions. This is the paradox of ‘happy slave’ which shows the paradoxical implications of ‘positive’ theory. To defend against the ‘liberal’ objections raised or inspired by Berlin, Christman proposed a conception of ‘positive’ freedom, which he calls ‘individual positive freedom’, to avoid the worries of tyranny. He focuses on the notion of individual autonomy that is like ideas of ‘self-mastery’ or ‘self-government’ in the classic ‘positive’ theory of freedom. He argues that if a theory would be able to give an account of the process of ‘self-change’ or the history of an individual’s formation of desire, then such a theory could identify freedom or loss of freedom. As he puts it “positive freedom will be a property of the ‘true self,’ but this self need not be metaphysically set apart.” (Christman, 1991, p.346)
Christman also tries to fix another problem in the ‘positive’ theory. One of the main objections against traditional ‘positive’ theory of freedom is that by imposing conditions such as rationality for agent’s desires to be autonomous, it requires ‘particular content’ for freedom. According to such objections, ‘positive’ tradition advocated by Kant and Hegel requires that agent is not free unless her desires have certain content. Liberal critics of ‘positive’ freedom claim that once a theory put any condition on the content of agent’s desires, it allows further totalitarian tyranny. To avoid this very crucial problem, Christman attempts to propose a ‘content-neutral’ theory of freedom. In the next section, by expanding Christman’s argument I try to examine the notion of autonomy in relation to the question of internalised oppressive norms.
The problem of autonomy to be suppressed
Libera tries to persuade Mary that she is not free because she must put a colander on her head all the time. Mary insists that nobody has obliged her to wear the colander, it is her own decision based on the traditional cosmos of her country. According to Christman’s argument, Mary is right if only she can trace back the history of the formation of her preference to wear the colander. An individual is autonomous in relation to her specific desire, Christman argues, if she can “reflect upon the process involved in the development of that desire,” (Christman, 1991, p.347) and she didn’t resist during the formation of her desire. It is also important to make sure that there was no factor that ‘inhibits self-reflection’ has influenced the individual not to resist the formation of her desire. The final criteria that Christman sets are ‘minimal rationality’ for individual judgments when she reflects upon the process that shaped her desire, as well as the rationality of the desire itself. If we apply all these conditions to the thought experiment, it shows that our brain-washed Mary and her fellow citizens are not free, since they cannot reflect upon the process that how she has decided to wear the colander. They are not autonomous because the origin of their desires is the ‘conforming tablet’ imposed on them by their oppressive government.
So, this means that, unlike Frankfurt’s version of ‘positive’ freedom, which resulted in paradoxical implications, Christman version of ‘individual positive freedom’ avoids such conclusions and escapes from the problem of totalitarianism. It also avoids traditional ‘positive’ theory’s problem that imposes content on the desires of agents. Christman’s version by focusing on the process of the formation of the desires, suggests a ‘content-neutral’ theory to identify autonomy which is ‘procedural’ as well. This approach doesn’t make any distinction between different desires, they could be autonomous as long as they satisfy Christman’s conditions.
However, there are cases that Christman’s version cannot tell if the agent involved is free or dealing with the lack of freedom. Consider that Libera decides to stay in Mary’s country to continue her research on ‘the idea of freedom’ in collaboration with Mary. As a foreign national, there is no obligation for her to wear a colander, though after several months she appears to wear the ‘traditional costume’ of her hosts. She seems happy that made such a decision, brings several reasons to change her preference such as ‘not being singled out in public’, ‘receiving more respect from her hosts’, and ‘being part of a cultural heritage.’ According to Christman’s argument, since Libera can reflects upon the process of the change of her desire, that she did not resist this development, in a way that she was not under influence of any factor that inhibits her self-reflection, and she seems rational in her judgments; so, this means that her new desire is her ‘true desire’ made by her ‘true self.’ Consequently, Libera is a free autonomous person when she decides to wear a colander. Though this doesn’t look right, if we say Libera freely wears the compulsory dress code of an oppressive society. This is like the case of ‘female student’ suggested by Benson in which a young college student expends a great deal of time and money to have ‘the right look’ because she wants to achieve more success. (Benson, 1991)
For the sake of current discussion, I change Benson’s case to the thought experiment of Libera and Mary, to avoid the immediate conclusion that the student is not free because she is bound by the patriarchal norms of her society, which I am inclined to accept that position only for something that Natalie Stoljar calls ‘the feminist intuition’. So, to avoid judgments based on mere intuition, I suggest continuing this discussion on the artificial case of Mary and Libera.
Libera’s case puts us in a dilemma since she claims and seems to be an autonomous agent, but she has adopted oppressive norms of her new environment through the process of socialisation. Since she has justified reasons for her decision we might say that she has owned her actions, so she is autonomous and free. However, Benson claims that in “certain forms socialisation is oppressive and clearly lessen autonomy.” (Benson, 1991, p.385) Stoljar also claims that “preferences influenced by oppressive norms of femininity cannot be autonomous.” (Stoljar, 2000, p.95) We can replace ‘norms of femininity’ with any other oppressive norms such as ideological, religious, racial norms and Stoljar’s argument still stands. Both Stoljar and Benson argue that the only way to deal with these cases is to endorse a ‘substantive’ account of autonomy, as opposed to ‘procedural’ account proposed by Christman and other philosophers. They suggest that returning to the idea of traditional ‘positive’ freedom that requires specific content for the desires, would help us to identify the lack of freedom in the cases that agents have internalised the oppressive norms.
Benson argues that Christman’s conditions to define an autonomous agent beg the question by “presupposing that critical reflection is autonomous in the course of explaining autonomy.” (Benson, 1991, p.394) Internal reflection cannot bring awareness for a person who internalised oppressive norms, no matter how much she reflects on the process of the formation of her desires, her thinking process is also framed by those very oppressive norms. So, Benson claims that the important distinction between coercion and oppressive socialisation is that coercion succeeds by ‘leaving its victim’s rational competence intact,’ but these kinds of oppression control over the rationality of agents to access to an ‘insidious power.’ If Libera was held against her will in Mary’s country, she would immediately admit that she is coerced to stay there, though we might doubt her reasons when she claims that she stays there on her own will. Consequently ‘rational competence’ is a crucial condition for autonomy. This will return us back to the classical ‘positive’ theory according to which an autonomous free agent should be rational.
Stotlar also argues that a theory could identify the lack of freedom in the cases of internalised oppressive norms only if it “places restrictions on the content of agents’ preferences.” She endorses the normative competence theory by Benson in which he claims that autonomy is “an ability to criticise courses of action competently by relevant normative standards.” (Stoljar, 2000, p.107) Stoljar focuses on the normative aspect of this theory, that is in her opinion important to show that oppressive norms are false. She argues against procedural theories claiming that it makes no difference if an agent could be able to trace back the development of her desires or not if her desires are based on false oppressive norms, the agent is not autonomous. It means that if we think wearing colander is false, there is no matter under what process Libera has reached to her preference to wear it, she is not autonomous. Stoljar argues that the content of the oppressive norm is the point to be criticised. So, this makes her a moral realist who think that there are some objective values, but she doesn’t tell us what are those values.
However, a ‘normatively substantive’ theory of autonomy advocated by Benson and Stoljar imposing strong restrictions on the content of agent’s desires. An immediate objection to this view would be it denies autonomy for all agents only because they live under oppressive norms. This theory makes no room for rational persuasion that is to be distinguished from manipulation. One could imagine Libera might not be manipulated, lost her rational competent or deceived herself in the process of socialisation in the new country. She might be an opportunist, hypocrite or even has adopted new values, in all cases, she has not lost her autonomy. So, it seems that Stoljar and Benson’s solution would not work for difficult cases of autonomy. Their solution is entangled with their initial moral judgement about the ‘wrong’ status of the oppressed agent’s action. This shows that their theory cannot ‘independently’ identify the lack of freedom.
Diana Meyers have addressed this problem claiming that there are hard cases such as ‘female gentile cutting’ that identifying the lack of autonomy is not so straightforward. She argues that neither ‘value-saturated’ nor ‘value-neutral’ account of autonomy cannot explain the women’s agency in FGC cases. (Meyers, 2000) According to Meyers, normative theories “homogenized authentic selves with autonomous lives,” and content-neutral theories fail to integrate agent’s values and desires into a ‘coherent and feasible’ outlook of her course of actions. (Meyers, 2000, p.480) So, she claims that autonomy should be studied as a socially situated phenomenon, which could join ‘self-discovery’ with ‘self-definition’, that could be gained only by exercising complex set of skills. By exercising these autonomy skills, Meyers argues that one could achieve her authentic values and real desires. (Meyers, 2000) So according to Meyers people could be trained to be autonomous. In this sense, if an agent changes her preferences through certain obtained skills of autonomy, she could be considered as a free agent following her own real desires.
So Libera cannot be deceived or deceiving herself if she has chosen to wear colander by exercising autonomous skills of ‘self-direction’. However, we are still reluctant to consider her as a free agent, for the obvious reason that we assume that wearing colander is an oppressive ‘false’ norm. Meyers is right to claim that autonomy is a socially situated thing because we cannot deny Libera’s autonomy even if we think that she follows wrong values. This brings back again Berlin’s concern about ‘positive’ freedom that allows the tyranny of totalitarian rules.
By applying different views in modern ‘positive’ conception of freedom to the question of loss of freedom under the condition of internalised oppressive norms, I have argued that neither of them can ‘independently’ identify the lack of freedom. Some views are too strict like Frankfurt’s solution that doesn’t leave any ‘real’ agent, and some views such as Christman’s conditions are loose enough to let any agents free. Other views like Benson and Stoljar’s are also problematic since they have to rely on external criteria such as ‘feminist intuition’ to identify the loss of freedom. They bring back normative substantive standards to deal with challenging cases, that makes the ‘positive’ theory to face again with Berlin’s worries of totalitarian threats.
So, if no ‘positive’ view could be reliable enough to recognise the loss of freedom in certain difficult cases, it might be an option to turn to another theory of freedom to solve these problems. The ‘republican’ theory of liberty with the idea of freedom as non-domination would be a potential candidate. It is out of the scope of current essay, but if the ‘republican’ view wants to solve the problem of internalised oppressive norms, it should make a clear distinction between its main concept of non-domination and non-interference concept of ‘negative’ theory. It also needs to avoid ‘positive’ theory’s problem that gives ‘particular content’ to freedom. Only under these conditions ‘republican’ theory could tell an agent is free only if she is not dominated by any other agent, system or socially constructed norms.
Benson, P. (1991). Autonomy and Oppressive Socialization. Social Theory and Practice, 17(3), 385-408. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23557430
Berlin, I., 1969, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in I. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, London: Oxford University Press. New ed. in Berlin 2002.
Christman, J. (1991). Liberalism and Individual Positive Freedom. Ethics, 101(2), 343-359. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2381867
Frankfurt, H.G. (1971). Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. J Philos 68(1):5–20
Jackson, F. (1986). What Mary Didn’t Know. The Journal of Philosophy, 83(5), 291-295. doi:10.2307/2026143
Stoljar, N. (2000). Autonomy and the Feminist Intuition. In Mackenzie, C., & Stoljar, N. Relational autonomy: Feminist perspectives on autonomy, agency, and the social self. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press.