Ten years ago, I was a sophomore in high school. That year, I would take two classes that I now realize probably had a formative effect on who I am now as an intellectual.
One was a class in biology, in which I learned about genes and evolution among other things (that year I would win an "Outstanding Biology Student" and receive as a prize an advanced textbook on genetics which I requested but would never read). For a number of years when I was in high school, I thought I would go into the sciences. That year, I would begin reading Stephen Hawking's popular works on astrophysics.
The other class was the closest I ever came in high school to a philosophy class, a European history class that was at least half intellectual history. Although I never read him until several years later, I learned about Marx and his theory of history, and about the various utopian socialist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. (I also read some Ayn Rand this year--my teacher went on the record as saying his favorite book was Atlas Shrugged--but luckily, I never got into objectivism.)
Later in the year, in a third class, English, I would write a paper that I now look at as having some significance, a kind of first stab at political philosophy, embodying a strain of thought that has at least remained an undercurrent in my adult reflections.
In this paper--whose location, if it still exists, currently escapes me, but if I remember it rightly--I argued for a kind of ideal society, in which economic planning was merged with robotics and genetic engineering to produce a true utopia. It was rather simple--and simplistic: the robots did all the nasty jobs, and people who were genetically modified to be less hateful and more cooperative lived in peace in a planned economy where people worked, not for the sake of money, but because they wanted to. My English teacher must have thought I was a budding totalitarian.
In 10 years, biotechnology, robotics, and information and computing sciences have come a long way. Joined with nanotechnology, a field in its infancy but which has the promise of being just as influential, we are coming ever closer to a time when technology could once again radically alter the character of our lives. I still watch these fields for development with keen interest, and am relatively optimistic about what they can do for humanity.
When I finally got around to reading Marx for myself, I was taken by him, and was probably a Marxist for several years--that is, until I grew more enamored of Spinoza, and also read the critiques of "Post-Marxist" thinkers like Chantal Mouffe, who disabused me of economic determinism and other key Marxist doctrines. And while I called myself a "communist" or "socialist" for many years in the last decade, I would no longer embrace such a title. Maybe now I'm a green or a left communitarian or a social democrat, but I'm not as enthusiastic about labels as I once was.
Anyway, I hope the reason for this autobiographical indulgence will soon be made manifest, but let me get on to the meat of this post.
This week, my class is studying freedom and determinism. Among the topics we're considering is behaviorism; we're reading, among other pieces, B.F. Skinner's "Freedom and the Control of Men". Although I no longer have many positivist sympathies (that was a later episode, in my early college years after I rejected theism), I still have a soft spot for behaviorism, which is probably why I agree with my friend Ben more often than I should.
Skinner is not someone who's good to read if you're worried that you have a secret affinity for totalitarianism. Here's an example of what I mean:
The methods of education, moral discourse, and persuasion are acceptable not because they recognize the freedom of the individual or his right to dissent, but because they make only partial contributions to the control of his behavior. The freedom they recognize is freedom from a more coercive form of control. The dissent which they tolerate is the possible effect of other determiners of action. Since these sanctioned methods are frequently ineffective, we have been able to convince ourselves that they do not represent control at all. When they show too much strength to permit disguise, we give them other names and suppress them as energetically as we suppress the use of force. Education grown too powerful is rejected as propaganda or "brainwashing" while really effective persuasion is described as "undue influence," "demagoguery," "seduction," and so on.
If we are not to rely solely upon accident for the innovations which give rise to cultural evolution, we must accept the fact that some kind of control of human behavior is inevitable. We cannot use good sense in human affairs unless someone engages in the design and construction of environmental conditions which affect the behavior of men. Environmental changes have always been the condition for the improvement of cultural patterns, and we can hardly use the more effective methods of science without making changes on a grander scale. We are all controlled by the world in which we live, and part of that world has been and will be constructed by men. The question is this: Are we to be controlled by accident, by tyrants, or by ourselves in effective cultural design?
The danger of the misuse of power is possibly greater than ever. It is not allayed by disguising the facts. We cannot make wise decisions if we continue to pretend that human behavior is not controlled, or if we refuse to engage in control when valuable results might be forthcoming. Such measures weaken only ourselves, leaving the strength of science to others....
Science has turned up dangerous processes and materials before. To use the facts and techniques of a science of man to the fullest extent without making some monstrous mistake will be difficult and obviously perilous. It is no time for self-deception, emotional indulgence, or the assumption of attitudes which are no longer useful. Man is facing a difficult test. He must keep his head now, or he must start again--a long way back.
In truth, I find this utterly seductive. The argument is that so much of what is taken for "freedom" is chance, accident, perhaps even chaos. But if we have other options, why leave something so important as human life up to chance?
This leads me to ask the great unasked question of our time: What's so great about freedom? Why is freedom something that is valued in itself? What happens if freedom actually leads to suffering and unhappiness?
This is a question that has taken on a new light for me as I read people like Jonathan Haidt, who argues for an ethic of happiness, in which freedom is merely means to an end. Too much freedom, as it turns out, is actually a source of anxiety for people (I like to bring up the example of the tooth paste aisle; this is a place where choice is a burden more than anything else). What matters, more often than not, is simply the appearance of freedom, a kind of surface freedom where much of the choice has already been done for you.
Think of freedom, for a moment, as getting what you want. This is simple, I know, but this is a not insignificant part of human happiness. As Stoics, Buddhists, and others have recognized, there's more than one way of maximizing your number of satisfied desires. Desire different things, things which are more easily attainable ("...if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with..."). As Epictetus puts it, want things to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.
On a social scale, as in, say, Skinner's Walden Two, this is accomplished by a behavioral science that creates in people desires that are attainable. Right now, I think one of the major problems we face in our consumerist society is that desires are generated in us, both against our will and against our best interest and almost always without our knowledge, incessantly. This is what fuels our economy, but it's a source of major unhappiness. And, as it turns out, when we get the things that we want--things we are manipulated into wanting--we usually aren't too thrilled, instead asking, "OK, now what do I want?"
Most people don't ask where their desires come from. As Spinoza so aptly put it three and a half centuries ago, "men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of [those causes]".
What, then, is so bad about a society in which we are explicitly engineered to having attainable desires? This is why Frazier, the fictional founder of Skinner's Walden Two, is able to say that it's "the freest place on earth". The difference between that controlled society and ours is that our desires are still caused in us by outside forces--they are not of our choice by any stretch of the imagination--but the forces in our world are chaotic, and often acting in their own self-interest and against our own.
As I said, this has a very visceral appeal to me. And this is why I bring up my intellectual autobiography. For whatever reason--and I am by no means alone in this--I find control very appealing. I like minimizing risk and reasoning through possibilities, trying to account for contingencies and ordering the world very neatly.
This is evident in so much of my life. I have never taken advantage of my freedoms in the ways so many of my friends have. I've hardly traveled anywhere, I've done fewer drugs, I've had fewer romantic partners, and on and on. In general I feel like I've experienced less, like I've gotten less out of life. When I've tried to change these things, I've run into obstacles, perhaps most predominantly my own fear of risk. I constantly crave the comforts of home, even though I live a rather isolated existence that often doesn't seem to have too much going for it, except familiarity.
Thus, it is not surprising that I find a controlled society appealing. My foremost value is personal happiness, and I see freedom as merely a means to the end. I think many people feel the same way, but are too caught up in the rhetoric of freedom and democracy to realize it.
Nevertheless, I recognize a major problem here. Part of the appeal of a controlled society is the opportunity to be a Frazier, to be the person behind the scenes, working the magic. There is a kind of freedom that I value, if not in itself then at least because it constitutes a major component of my happiness: intellectual freedom.
Spinoza, my greatest role model, is a paragon of intellectual freedom, who literally risked his life by refusing to shut up and stop questioning the irrationalities predominant in his day (and still in ours). Even after he was offered a stipend to stop expressing his controversial views by his Jewish community and even after someone tried to stab him to death, he still would not back down. If not for courageous individuals like him, academic freedom would probably remain a pipedream.
And this brings us to the great dilemma of who watches the watchers? If it were as easy as it seems in Plato's Republic to separate the golden from the bronze, if the unwise could tell who the wise were (in other words, if the unwise were themselves wise enough to realize how unwise they were), then maybe democracy wouldn't be our only feasible option, "the worst form of government... except for all the other ones".
Moreover, even if we created superhuman intelligence, either through bioengineering or supercomputing or some conglomerate, there's no guarantee that we'd create a font of wisdom. Certainly people would be averse to surrendering their freedoms to it, even if it made objectively "better" choices. But perhaps this will change, as we cede more and more of our life decisions to computers. Who knows if it will be an improvement? There still remains a question of who's doing the programming.
And so, while I find control emotionally appealing, and while I still see technology as more of a boon than a hindrance, I remain a (small-d) democrat. One of the ironies of Plato's Republic is that the kind of controlled society it advocates probably wouldn't allow for the existence of people like its creator.
Nevertheless, I remain open to other possibilities, and still value freedom only as a means to human happiness and well-being. It concerns me that our individualistic society is not a happy one, compared to those that are more socially cohesive (but less "free"). Many of the ends that we pursue are self-defeating. Our prejudice against regulation and in favor of license is at least partly self-destructive. (This is why I can read Foucault, and see all these hidden power structures and systems of domination and sometimes say, "So what?")
Punishment and discipline and control are not bad in themselves, but only insofar as they harm our health or happiness. I think if we recognized this, we could still be democrats, but we might have a more reasonable and realistic attitude about what human life on a mass scale requires. The prejudice of free will remains one of the most harmful in the world.