Wednesday, October 18, 2006

On how we name things

Caution: this post will put you to sleep.

Jorge Luis Borges once made a point about the way people organize their thoughts introducing an alleged Chinese encyclopedia in which animals are classified as:
(i) those that belong to the Emperor; (ii) embalmed ones; (iii) those that are trained; (iv) suckling pigs; (v) mermaids; (vi) fabulous ones; (vii) stray dogs; (viii) those included in the present classification; (ix) those that tremble as if they were mad; (x) innumerable ones; (xi) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush; (xii) others; (xiii) those that have just broken a flower vase; and (xiv) those that from a long way off look like flies.
Though some of the categories mentioned are poorly defined* even the ones whose membership is clear are pretty useless. Even worse, dividing animals into “those that tremble as if they were mad” and those who don’t will make it difficult to think clearly exactly because it’s not a useful category.

I can see the value in the conservative definition of freedom as “absence of coercion” (negative liberty) though I prefer the liberal tradition of freedom as “having a wide range of appealing options” ( positive liberty). But I’m having trouble seeing the value of defining freedom as “absence of government coercion”. It doesn’t seem to describe a useful category.

To keep things simple I’ll refer to “absence of government coercion” as Freedomg.

Freedomg make it harder to think because it deprives us of the more useful definitions of freedom (Freedom- and Freedom+). Without those definitions we have to make decisions on the moral equivalent of the pre-Copernican gears-within-gears model of the solar system. Sure it gets us the right answer; it’s just harder than it has to be.

So let’s analyze the depravity of Evey’s imprisonment in “V is for Vendetta”. Using Freedomg you can’t make much progress without knowing 1) Whether her captor is really a government official 2) How much you personally value freedom vs. efficiency. Using Freedom+ and Freedom- the answer is clear: It doesn't matter who is confining Evey, her curcumstances are equally poor either way. End of story.

Or lets take an example with “animals that tremble as if they were mad” (Animalst). Here’s some advice: If you’re walking in a forest and a wild Animalt confronts you, play dead. Also, if an Animal not t confronts you, figure out if its dangerous and then act accordingly. Of course, it all depends on how dangerous you feel Animalst are visa-vi Animalsnot t.

Oh wait, I just put you all to sleep. Splash some cold twater on your face and try to think about it.

*How do we distinguish between fabulous and non-fabulous animals now that Liberace is dead?


Paul said...

You should have been a philosophy major.

Bret said...

Alright Tom, I give. It would probably be better if I referred to 'absence of government coercion' and 'efficiency' as opposed forces, rather than saying 'freedom' and 'efficiency'.

I freely admit that I have an emotional attachment to having as much leeway as possible to make my own decisions, even when that leeway creates an avoidable loss. I can't always justify it in numerical terms.

However, thanks to salutory neglect and the 4th Amendment, I frequently don't have to.

PS - I'll still bet you neither of us ever gets a dime of Social Security. Ok, maybe a dime.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

No, I'm only partially arguing about how we define Freedom. Much more important to me is that we stop thinking of "absence of government coercion" as an important concept. It's not. You say that you believe it is - but then you say things like "I freely admit that I have an emotional attachment to having as much leeway as possible to make my own decisions..." That's an argument for why we shoudl care about Negative liberty. It is not any reason at all for concerning ourselves with Freedom sub g.

P.S. Do you have any arguments to support your view on Social Secuirty or are we just assuming things? ;)

Bret said...

Of course there are still meaningful distinctions between negative liberty and freedomG. Generally, you have many, many options against private force: evasion, meeting force with force, law enforcement officials, etc. Against the power of government, there isn't going to be a dance or a negotiation. You're going to do what they say, or you're going to jail.

Hence, my value of maximum leeway is threatened far more by public force than by private force.

I will agree that my semantics were imprecise. And of course, I care both about FreedomG -and- negative liberty. In my opinion, government is currently the biggest threat to both.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Agreed. In our country government poses the greater threat to our liberty. I'm just saying is that we shouldn't choose words and definitions that make it sounds like government is the only possible threat. I'm sure you agree with all this. Mostly I'm just being a hard-ass about linguistics.

That and I wanted to whip out that quote about the chinese encyclopedia.