Discover more from Numinous Quest
Freedom, Autonomy and Time
The concept of freedom is rich with a variety of meanings it has acquired over the centuries1. Its use and abuse by demagogues and its relation with words that share a family resemblance, like liberty and autonomy, that are sometimes used interchangeably make it even harder for someone to understand what is being meant when the word is being used.
It thus becomes imperative to introduce some distinctions, terms and definitions to facilitate clarity of communication, and provide the conceptual vocabulary to explain with precision what this initiative is about, and as a side-effect, rehabilitate a number of aspects2 pertaining to the rich meaning of freedom from its abusers in politics and beyond.
Freedom, Liberty, Autonomy and Optionality
Let us start with an excerpt about the terms freedom and liberty:
“These two terms are often used interchangeably, but on those occasions when they are not taken to be synonyms, the basis of the distinction between the two is usually clear. ‘Freedom’, when applied to persons and their actions, refers to the ability of a person in a given set of circumstances to act in some particular way. ‘Liberty’ refers to authoritative permission to act in some particular way. The contrast is a basis for the grammatical distinction between ‘can’ and ‘may’, between the de facto and the de jure perspectives, or between (overall) ability and permission.”3
This distinction between freedom and liberty serves as our entry point for understanding autonomy and optionality. Autonomy, is a Greek word meaning “one who gives oneself one’s own law”4. So to be autonomous means that the authoritative permission to act in some particular way, that constitutes liberty, resides in oneself and not to another.
Two examples will elucidate what autonomy means when it is applied to states and persons. When autonomy refers to states, it means that a certain state can make its own decisions without permission from another. So a state under colonial rule by another cannot be considered autonomous. When autonomy refers to persons, it means that a person can make their own decisions without permission from another, so a person under slavery imposed by another cannot be considered autonomous. The opposite of autonomy, with respect to both states and persons is heteronomy, the equivalent meaning in Greek being: “one whose laws are given by another”.
Optionality is “defined as the possession of open options…when a person has an open option in respect to some possible action, x, when nothing in the objective circumstances prevents them from doing x should they choose to do so, and nothing requires them to do x should they choose not to. One has freedom of action when one can do what one wills, but in order to have the full benefit of optionality, it must be supplemented by freedom of choice (free will), which consists in being able to will what one wants to will.”5
This makes the relationship between autonomy and optionality rather interesting. To give an example when it comes to states, a totalitarian state could be autonomous yet provide very little optionality for its citizens. To given an example when it comes to persons, consider the following:
“One slave owner, A, is very severe with his only slave, S1, permitting him only minimal free movement, no choice in deciding what his off-duty conduct shall be, or what he shall read, how he dresses and so on. Another slave-owner, B, is very easy-going. He treats his only slave, S2, as if he were a valued friend, and allows him to do anything short of harming others or leaving the plantation. It is clearly understood that S2 may do all these things only because B permits him to, not as a matter of right. The only rights in this situation are B’s property rights. The rules of property ownership permit B to be as tough with S2 as he wishes, but he prefers to be kind. So there is in S2’s situation a predominance of heteronomy (government by others) conjoined with high optionality (de facto freedom). It seems clear then that one can have little or no autonomy, and yet live a contented life with a high standard of living, something resembling friendship and respect, and most important – options left open for one’s own choice to exercise, though not as a matter of right.”6
Acting, Internal and External Impediments
So far we’ve written about the state of giving oneself one’s own laws, the right to do so and the options available for you to exercise, as integral parts of freedom.
However, someone who gives themselves their own laws, has the right to do so, has options available to him but is not allowed to exercise them would hardly qualify in being called free.
The actual exercise of freedom is as integral to its conception as the conditions that make it possible. But the actual exercise of freedom could be thwarted by both external and internal impediments.
External impediments could be human and non-human in nature. If I want to open a door, whether I am unable to because its locked or held firmly closed by another person, both cases would count as external impediments. Internal impediments, could have their source in myself or another. If I’m afraid to open a blue door even though I want to, that would count as an internal impediment. If the reason I am afraid to open it is because I’ve been brainwashed or hypnotized to be afraid of opening blue doors then this would be a case of an internal impediment but having its source in another.
Negative and Positive conceptions of Freedom
Conceptions of freedom that emphasize the absence of impediments tend to be called negative. Conceptions of freedom that emphasize autonomy and having what is required for the satisfaction of worthwhile wants and the exercise of freedom, tend to be called positive.
To give a more concrete example of their interplay consider the following:
“If a person desires above all things to own and enjoy a Mercedes [a usually expensive car], and there are no external impediments, legal or nonlegal, in the community to such ownership, then both the legal code and the neighbours leave them free to do as they desire. But if that person has no money, then that negative freedom is effectively useless. To have true freedom, say supporters of positive freedom, one must have what is required for the satisfaction of worthwhile wants, and that will usually include at least minimal wealth, physical health, talent and knowledge, including the sorts of knowledge normally imparted by formal education. The more we are able to do the things worth doing, they insist, the freer we are.
The positive freedom theorists may go on to charge that the negative theorist cannot explain why the laudatory title of freedom should ever characterize the person who is paralyzed, insane, infantile, impoverished and ignorant, as generally free. It must be ironic, they claim, to say that such an unfortunate person is well off in the manner implied by the term ‘free’. Negative freedom theorists argue that to be free does not mean to be well off; one may be free but discontented, unhappy, ignorant, hungry or in pain. An individual may have freedom but find that in their circumstances it is not worth much. What this shows is that freedom is the kind of good whose worth fluctuates, or in the words of John Rawls: ‘the worth of liberty is not the same for everyone’.
The pauper is unable to buy the Mercedes, but according to the negative freedom advocate, this is not through being unfree to buy one. Most writers within the negative freedom tradition deny that all inabilities are also ‘unfreedoms’. The inabilities that constitute unfreedoms, they insist, are those that can be traced directly or indirectly to the deliberate actions or policies of other human beings, in particular legislators and police officers, who can intervene directly and forcefully in other persons’ lives.”7
However, the two conceptions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as demonstrated by the following example:
“Sometimes the relevant explanation of some other person’s incapacity (for example, to earn a decent living) can be linked indirectly to various social influences. The impoverished person might be so because of a lack of technical skill, and that lack, in turn, could be a product of a poor education traceable, however obscurely, to the inequities of a national system of racial segregation, which in turn was supported as deliberate policy by an apartheid government. In that case we could say not only that they are unable to do x, but also that they are unfree, given the circumstances, to do so.”8
Now that we’ve elucidated the different nuances of freedom and its relation to other concepts, we can further explore the concept of autonomy.
Autonomy itself has multiple conceptions9. Even though the core project involved in the Generating Freedom initiative requires focusing only on some, the success of the initiative can become the precondition for involvement with the others. We’ve already been acquainted with the legal and political dimensions of autonomy; let us now introduce the personal dimension:
“The ruling idea behind the ideal of personal autonomy is that people should make their own lives…The idea of personal autonomy is the vision of people controlling, to some degree, their own destiny, fashioning it through successive decisions throughout their lives…An autonomous agent’s well-being consists in the successful pursuit of self-chosen goals and relationships…[T]he conditions of autonomy include both opportunity and the ability to use it.”10
While it is impossible to fully control the changes of life, most of us would like to be free to choose how to respond to those changes. That’s why “the love of freedom can be a love of breathing space, or room to manoeuvre, of frequent opportunities to change one’s mind.”11
Autonomy, according to Beardsley, is “the power to determine which acts to perform and which experiences to have. She regards the power as including the power to choose and the power to bring about what one has chosen.”12
Having autonomy in the sense of choosing by what principles to act but not having the power to bring about what one has chosen, as pointed earlier by the proponents of positive freedom, can lead to circumstances way worse than not being able to buy an expensive car:
“That lesson was learnt painfully by emancipated slaves in the American South. Emancipation from chattel slavery was only ‘one kind of freedom’. Given their freedom but nothing else – no money, no land, no tools, no mules, no assets of any kind – they were forced into the position of tenant farmers, who had to borrow so heavily to plant their first crop that they were forever in debt peonage [i.e. debt slavery] to the local store. As Raz says, ‘Autonomy cannot be achieved by a person whose every action and thought must be bent to the task of survival, a person who will die if ever he puts a foot wrong.’”13
Given we do not always have the power to bring about what we decide, we could say that in some sense autonomy admits of degrees, especially if our inability to bring about what we have decided is not due to heteronomy but due to some impediment.
Temporal Autonomy: Necessity, Discretionary and Spare time.
I was first acquainted with the notion of temporal autonomy through the book Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom. According to the authors temporal autonomy is:
“…a subspecies of that more general notion of ‘autonomy’. It is simply a matter of having control over how one chooses to use one’s own time. As with the notion of autonomy in general, so too with temporal autonomy: the capacity to make choices and act upon them (in the temporal case, over how to spend one’s time) lies at the heart of the notion.”
While we had introduced heteronomy as the antonym of autonomy, the authors choose another antonym for it:
“One antonym of ‘autonomy’ is ‘necessity’. People (or processes, come to that) that depend upon and are controlled by another are not ‘autonomous’. Someone who acts out of necessity has no choice. That just follows from the definition of ‘necessity’. And that fact makes ‘necessity’ the antonym of ‘autonomy’, understood as we do as the capacity to choose principles of one’s own and act upon them.”14
However, what needs to be noted is that what they mean by necessity is not its strict logical meaning, but a looser conception related to what we refer to colloquially as the necessities of life, “certain things you simply have to do.”15. In these they include bodily necessities (“eating, sleeping and otherwise taking care of your body”16), financial necessities (“the minimal amount of time securing the cash that you need to purchase the things you need from the cash economy”17) and household necessities (“the minimal amount of time cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids and otherwise keeping your household functioning”18).
Discretionary time “is simply the amount of time you have left over, once you have done what is strictly necessary in each of those three realms…the time over which you have autonomous control.”19
However, it is customary for people to go above and beyond what is “strictly necessary” when it comes to these three realms for either personal or cultural reasons. Therefore the authors introduce the term spare time defined as “the amount of time you have left over after all the time you actually devote to paid labour [financial necessities], unpaid household labour [household necessities] and personal care [bodily necessities]”20.
Given, as we’ve already mentioned, autonomy can admit of degrees,
“It is a variant on this scalar notion of autonomy that is represented in our notion of ‘discretionary time’ as a measure of temporal autonomy. People can have more or less discretionary time, and hence more or less temporal autonomy, precisely in this sense that they can have more or less capacity to act in ways of their choosing.”21
One important reason to introduce the term of spare time is because:
“Doing the minimum necessary in all those realms amounts to bowing to necessity. Socially, you have no real choice in those matters. Doing more than the minimum necessary in those realms, however, is indeed a matter of choice. The extra time you spend on such activities, above and beyond what is strictly necessary, is an exercise of your autonomy, whereas doing what is strictly necessary is a constraint on your autonomy.
Because people generally spend more time than strictly necessary in each of these realms, ‘spare time’ is generally less (typically much less; often very much less) than ‘discretionary time’. The gap between the two varies dramatically across household types and somewhat across countries.”22.
All these terms and distinctions introduced above will become increasingly useful in allowing us to be precise as we make progress on our quest to regenerate freedom.
Obviously, not all aspects, given that would not only require a separate volume of work but would also take us beyond the scope of this exposition.
See for instance, the brilliant paper by Rainer Forst, “Political Liberty: Integrating Five Conceptions of Autonomy”, in Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism: New Essays, ed. by J. Christman & J. Anderson, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
R.E. Goodin et al., Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom, p.29, Cambridge University Press, 2008.
R.E. Goodin et al., Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom, p.34-35, Cambridge University Press, 2008.
R.E. Goodin et al., Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom, p.36, italics mine, Cambridge University Press, 2008.