One of the points I’m interested in picking up from last week is this point about coercion and freedom. So I posted something last week from Jacobs’ Looking Before and After and riffed off a bit of it, in particular a brief aside about an Augustinian understanding of freedom. (I should say up front that what follows is my own somewhat rudimentary thought on the subject and I don’t want any readers to think that Jacobs necessarily agrees with me on these points. I’m taking an excursus from one book in a much different direction than anything he does in the book. So this is me speaking, not Jacobs.)
Augustine said, more or less, that true freedom isn’t simply being able to choose between tons of different options, but being able to select the right option and then live out of that proper order. The point, in other words, is less libertarian freedom and more a rightly ordered affection. But anytime someone speaks against libertarian freedom in the contemporary USA, a lot of people get their hackles up and one of the main, understandable reasons is that speaking of freedom consisting less of having choices and more in selecting the right choice necessarily raises questions about authority–who says what the right choice is? how do they direct you to that right choice? can you reject their choice if you so desire? will they force you into it? etc.
Really, this topic would need a full book to discuss it adequately and I’m not the one to write that book, but I do want to share two brief thoughts that come to mind as I wade through these issues:
a) It is interesting to me that so many of us today go straight to the authority issue whenever someone starts speaking about something being “right.” I don’t think that’s where Augustine would have imagined the discussion going at all. But due to a combination of historical events and generational trends, we seem to have developed quite the allergy to any sort of practical authority that encourages us toward one behavior or discourages us from another. This skepticism toward authority isn’t all together bad, of course. It has its uses. But I wonder if in some arenas it almost becomes a generational neuroses that keeps us from actually having an interesting conversation about the relationship between virtue and freedom.
b) I think another issue that informs this is that we really struggle to imagine a kind of contrary influence that isn’t coercive. What I mean by that is that when someone attempts to influence us to do something we want to do, then they don’t need to use coercive force because they’re going with the grain of our desire, as it were. But when a person wishes to influence us into doing something we don’t desire–going against the grain–we struggle to imagine any way they might get us to do x that doesn’t involve coercive force. So in thinking about these issues, our thought pattern goes something like this: 1) What if I disagree with what so-and-so says is the right choice? 2) What if I want to do something else? 3) Will they force me to do what they think I should do? Note that this whole exchange is nothing but desire and power at war. The softer forms of influence–things like love, mutual affection, respect for the judgment of the other, etc.–are completely absent. Perhaps the simplest way to get at this issue is a relatively simple question: Can we imagine a successful contrary influence (that is a person or entity that influences us into doing something we’d rather not do) that succeeds without the use of coercive force? If we can’t, then we need to begin with that question before we can even begin to discuss the relationship between virtue and freedom.
A final aside: It’s perhaps especially fitting to raise these questions during Lent since Lent is the time during which Christians remember that their God wooed them and won them not through the use of brute force, but rather through the sacrificial giving of himself. If there’s ever a time when we should be able to conceive of a non-coercive contrary influence, it is Lent.