Foundations of Freedom: Welfare-Based Arguments Against Paternalism

By: Simon R. Clarke

New York: Routledge, 2012

The premise of the author, Simon R. Clarke, in this book is that ‘people have always believed in freedom, have sought it and have sometimes fought and died for it. He adds that throughout the modern period, freedom has jostled with equality to be counted the highest virtue of any just society, and is a mainstay of constitutions, revolutionary slogans and sophisticated theoretical arguments for specific forms of political order. He ponders upon the complex question that which form of the freedom should be promoted, such as among libertarianism and social democracy, liberalism and communitarianism, and others. One pessimistic response to this diversity of interpretation would be to conclude that claims about freedom’s value are always essentially contestable and of little use except as ideologically specific articles of faith. We may all agree that freedom is valuable while fundamentally disagreeing about what this claim, if true, implies for our politics. However, the discourse of freedom provided in this book steer away from the inherent value of the freedom and addresses the instrumental value of freedom, which is that there are good reasons to think that person’s lives will go better – their welfare will be increased – if they are free. Clarke answers this question by stating that freedom is an absence of external constraints, whether imposed by others for preventing people from doing what they want. He chooses this minimal conception because it is simple and relatively clear, although he acknowledges that in fact either governments or individuals very often impose these external constraints.

Clarke summarizes his idea in 140 pages and 7 chapters and in these limited confines; he provides different justifications for freedom’s value. In chapter one, he explains the pleasure and desire, or the idea that persons will experience more pleasure or more effectively satisfy their desires if they are free from paternalistic constraints. In the second chapter, he shed light on the self-development and idea of freedom as an instrumentally valuable, which enables people to develop their inner natures and capacities. In the third chapter, autonomy is discussed which overlaps with chapter four with an argument that the value of autonomy lies in its being a condition for participation in projects and activities that constitute well-being. In next chapter, Clarke endorses the idea that ends are valuable only if persons actively endorse and connects it with chapter six addressing the essentiality of activeness and intention for a person’s life to go well. In the last chapter titled trust, takes into account the dilemma of freedom-restricting paternalism, which could only ever be justified if persons had sound reasons to trust the paternal authority, but, paradoxically, the fact of paternalism constitutes a reason for persons to withhold such trust. Clarke is narrowly interested in ‘welfare-based grounds for liberty,’ so a whole array of related issues, such as the Kantian conception of autonomy as adherence to universalisable rules that an agent imposes upon herself, can be set aside.

Indeed, Clarke has identified a controversial question that we cannot always be relied upon to set aside their prior intuitions and political preferences when devising our arguments around the subject of freedom. Normative political philosophy has implications for real politics, and the murky overlap between them sometimes allows one to contaminate the other without due acknowledgement. It is very easy, in short, to let prejudices and not arguments determine which conclusions are reached. It is admirable, then, that in Foundations of Freedom there is never any hint of a preconceived political agenda behind the clean prose and tight argumentation. The focus remains squarely on the issue at hand, and Clarke appears, if anything, ambivalent about the broader political implications of his findings. His use of existing literature follows this trend, and with a few exceptions, arguments are presented without their original authors interrupting the discussion.

Clarke’s controlled approach is reflected in the conclusions reached at the end of each chapter. He treats the contending justifications for liberty in an impressively even-handed way carrying the issue of paternalism’s compatibility with freedom to a decisive conclusion. Clarke supports the idea of freedom in the concluding chapter by stating that the various accounts of freedom’s value are not mutually exclusive, so while none is totally successful, all contribute to a complex, cumulative case for liberty.

The book concludes with these words: If our concern is for advancing a person’s welfare, and if restricting freedom could sometimes do that, and there are no other reasons against restricting freedom, then it should be accepted that freedom should be restricted. However, most of the time a concern for a person’s welfare requires the protection of his or her individual liberty.

Freedom is an emotive idea, and this has sometimes caused philosophers to claim more for it than their arguments really entitle them. Foundations of Freedom is an example of finely controlled political philosophy, rejecting the temptations of exaggeration and prevarication and instead steering a course through the best available arguments to arrive at the conclusions they inform. For that, the book deserves high praise indeed.


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