From the Archive: Freedom of Choice: Behavior and Action, Part 2

Carrying on from my last archival post, here is the very next entry in my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, from April 21, 2010:

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Freedom of Choice: Behavior and Action, Part 2

The distinction raised in my last post comes out of a research project I’ve been pursuing for some years alongside my work in ethics of the built environment. That parallel project is more theoretical than practical, drawing from a range of sources in philosophy, biology, cognitive science, technology studies, and other fields to shed some light on the experience of being a moral agent, I hope revealing something of the character, scope and limits of agency.This theoretical project has spilled over into my more practical project before, perhaps most notably in the final chapter of The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth (p.134), where I consider the limits of ethics in light of the problem of “impure agency” (following Walker 1993, p.241).  The two projects have also begun to intertwine in academic journal articles I’ve written, one of which is forthcoming in Ethics and the Environment, in which I ask, “Did Americans Choose Sprawl?”

Here’s how I summarize the paper in the abstract:

In the debate over urban sprawl in the United States, there is serious contention concerning its origins: Does sprawl exist because of or in spite of peoples’ values and choices?  As the debate plays out, it becomes clear that this question has only partly to do with the historical causes of sprawl and much more to do with questions of political legitimacy in decisions about the built environment.  It also becomes clear that the debate as currently framed is not very fruitful.  One way of getting a better understanding of these issues it to reconsider what it means for people to make free choices in particular contexts.  Doing so yields some perspective on the complexity of the causes of sprawl and on the scope and limits of reasoned deliberation in private and public decision making.

I won’t delve into the details of the sprawl debate itself just now. Suffice it to say that some more extreme advocates on one side or the other – the anti-sprawl movement and their free-market opposition – see what amounts to a conspiracy to trick, cajole, force, or otherwise manipulate people to live one way or another, either driving them out into the dispiriting and unsustainable suburbs, or attempting to herd them back into crowded and dangerous cities.

What’s interesting for my present purposes is that both sides see themselves as trying to secure freedom of choice for the American people . . . whatever ‘choice’ means.

Prominent in the debate is an empiricist conception of choice that dates back at least to the work of Thomas Hobbes.  As an empiricist, Hobbes was necessarily agnostic as to the existence of a metaphysical faculty of free will.  As far as he was concerned, the notion of liberty applied only to the observable behavior of bodies in motion.

A body in motion is free if nothing gets in the way of its motion. It makes no difference what the impulse behind the motion might have been.

Libertarian critics of the anti-sprawl position seem deeply committed to the empiricist model of free choice.  For example, they may shrug at the idea that people may not be able to imagine alternatives to driving, since freedom of choice with respect to automobiles comes down to the fact that there is not (yet) any government agency actually telling people that they may not drive.  Freedom is the mere absence of constraint on consumers as they pursue their preferences.

Notably, some arguments on the anti-sprawl side echo this view, though they focus more on existing external constraints on consumer preference.  The absence of government constraint on preference does not amount to much if all consumers can do is choose between two brands of the same product.

In sum, on the empiricist view, freedom of choice reduces to unconstrained behavior, even though that behavior is entirely conditioned by unaccountable preferences and external circumstances such as market conditions.  What, then, of choice understood in terms of deliberation and action?

There is a humanist conception of moral action that is fundamentally at odds with the empiricist conception . ..  In practical terms, the humanist conception of freedom implies that human beings are able to act on the basis of universal moral principles that are distinct form and not to be judged in terms of empirically observable preferences.  Perhaps more to the point, it implies that human beings can choose and act deliberately, literally on the basis of reasoned deliberation about fundamental values and obligations, not just on the basis of calculations of utility.

What’s at stake in this distinction between the empiricist and humanist perspectives? For one thing, they give a very different cast to the process of decision making.

The empiricist view will tend to cast decision making as a process of observation, prediction, and tabulation: here are people’s inclinations or preferences, here are the likely consequences of a given action, here is how the utilities add up.  The humanist view will tend to cast decision making as a process of reasoned deliberation through which, among other things, values themselves may be called to account, privately or in public, with arguments for or against their validity subject to public standards of reasonableness.

In the paper, I go on to draw some conclusions about what I consider a more productive approach to questions of citizen choice, consumer preference, and sprawl in America, but I’ll leave those, for now, to those intrepid enough to track down the paper itself.

I also wrote, in my last post, that I did not wish to imply that one or another of these two perspectives – empiricism or humanism, behavior or action – is invalid. Rather, each highlights important aspects of our moral experience

In an earlier paper, titled “Darwinian Humanism,” I set out the empiricist/humanist distinction much more fully and considered what it might be like to live with the unresolvable tension between them.  I came at the problem through the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the details of which are beside the point here.  I sum up Kant’s point this way:

A room full of people is a physical space occupied by natural objects that are demonstrably subject to natural laws, and it is also at the same time a moral space in which free moral agents can negotiate the terms of their relations to one another and engage in inquiry and deliberation about what is good and what is right.  It is possible to hold these perspectives at the same time because neither on its own can capture the whole truth of what a room full of people really is (Kirkman 2007, 15).

(Incidentally, I should credit the “room full of people” image to Laurie Anderson.)

Kirkman, Robert. (2007) “Darwinian Humanism: A Proposal for Environmental Philosophy.” Environmental Ethics 16, 3-21.
Kirkman, Robert (2010 forthcoming) “Did Americans Choose Sprawl?” Ethics and the Environment 15.
Walker, Margaret Urban. (1993) “Moral Luck and the Virtues of Impure Agency” in Daniel Statman, ed., Moral Luck.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 235-250.

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