In a new series, PEA Soup is hosting book discussions in which philosophers introduce a book that influenced them or that they found important. The first post is by Daniel Viehoff, who introduces The Morality of Freedom by Joseph Raz. The comment section will be open Monday 3rd – Friday 7th of April.
Joseph Raz’s The Morality of Freedom is a densely argued book about foundational topics in political philosophy. To many readers (including the students in my classes to whom I sometimes assign small parts of it) the book seems rather forbidding: its style can be austere, and the ideas it develops are often difficult to grasp in their complexity. And yet I find myself returning to it on a regular basis.
Part of the book’s attraction is simply its philosophical range. It advances influential accounts of practical authority and personal autonomy. It develops incisive objections to a prominent neutralist interpretation of liberalism. It offers probing critiques of familiar liberal pieties about rights and equality. And it articulates distinctive views of fundamental ethical issues like wellbeing and value incommensurability. Each of these topics could be the subject of a blog post in its own right (though I doubt that I, at least, could do justice to any of them within the confines of such a post). I won’t, however, discuss any of them here in detail (though I will briefly say more about some of them in the final part of this post). Instead I want to make some more general observations about Raz’s book – about how it is written, about why its philosophical approach seems especially apposite when doing political philosophy, and finally about the distinctive version of liberalism that The Morality of Freedom advances.
What has always struck me, from when I first read The Morality of Freedom as an undergraduate, is the great density of arguments and observations it contains.
Sometimes we meet someone who just seems so much more alive to what the world has to offer than most other people, and when they share with us how they view things, we too come to experience them more intensely and vividly. They may see connections and significance in paintings that others miss, and when they point them out to us, we suddenly perceive depths of which we were previously unaware. Or they may alert us to the variety of flowers and plants where we had just seen undifferentiated nature, or draw our attention to the musicality of bird songs to which we would otherwise have been deaf. Reading The Morality of Freedom offers, at least to me (and, I should say, only on some occasions), the philosophical counterpart to these experiences. It makes me see explanatory connections to which I had been blind; and I recognize structure in our normative world where I had seen none.
What makes Raz’s discussion so illuminating are two features. First, Raz has an exceedingly sharp eye for the role that normative phenomena like authority, autonomy, or rights play in our social lives. After reading his discussion, I recognize how authority, as he characterizes it, is central to my relations to my children, or my students. I feel the draw that the ideal of personal self-authorship exerts in our culture. And so on. Second, Raz offers a systematic account of the complex and pluralistic domain of reasons and values, and the proper place that authority, autonomy, or rights have within it. Correlatively, where most philosophers just take for granted the normative or theoretical background against which they develop their core argument, Raz frequently sheds further light on the structure of the domain within which the main target of his analysis is located. The result is, at least for me, a vivid sense of philosophical depth. I mean this quite literally: It is as if Raz sees where the phenomenon stands in relation to many different parts of the domain of values and reasons, and by reading his writings, I too acquire this depth-perception.
I think the forbidding character of Raz’s writings that I mentioned earlier is to some extent the flipside of Raz’s recognition that the domain of values and reasons is governed by pluralism and incommensurability; his aptitude for seeing normative phenomena’s role in our social practices; and his desire to shed light on these phenomena by locating them within the complex domain of values and reasons. There is often so much happening in Raz’s discussion that it can be disorienting. It can be difficult to know what to pay attention to. There is a frequent sense that one may have missed something important (and chances are that one has). What redeems it, for me, is precisely that, whenever I return to the book, I see further connections between the normative phenomena it discusses, and get a new grasp on how they fit together.
Some of the features of Raz’s philosophical approach that I already mentioned are, I think, of special importance when doing political philosophy. The Morality of Freedom shows how we can make genuine philosophical progress when thinking about political issues. When doing political philosophy, I often feel at risk of simply restating, in so many words, political commitments that I anyway have. I worry that I do not get enough distance to these commitments, so that what I offer in their support lacks the independence necessary to provide a genuine argumentative point d’appui. One of the most distinctive features of Raz’s political philosophy is how thoroughly it is integrated with his views in practical philosophy more generally. Rather than just checking the compatibility of one political judgment with another, Raz invites us to think about the place of our political judgments within the broader structure of practical reason, the nature of wellbeing, the value of mutual respect, and so on. As a result, we make progress in political philosophy by thinking about these other issues, which are yet a step removed from, and do not simply track, political commitments and the disagreements we have about them.
A closely related feature is Raz’s willingness to doubt familiar philosophical articulations of liberal ideas (as when he rejects the commitment to government neutrality, or questions the foundational character of rights and the independent moral significance of equality). By recasting various political commitments within the broader structures of reasons and value, we come to see how what is often deemed foundational is better seen as resting on further values, and is perhaps more contingent than is often assumed. This in turn opens up space for a much more probing reflection on the details of our political morality than one encounters in many other works of contemporary political philosophy.
There is finally another, more distinctly political, reason why I find myself regularly returning to The Morality of Freedom. The book (which Raz describes in the introduction as an “essay on the political morality of liberalism”) offers a distinctive way of thinking about a society committed to individual freedom. Central to it is the observation that individual freedom is a social achievement; that it requires the provision of common goods; and that the role of the government is to make people’s lives go better, by providing them with genuine choices among valuable options.
This vision of liberal political morality stands in stark contrast to the kinds of policies that have been adopted, in the decades since Raz’s book was published, by many purported proponents of individual freedom. In the United Kingdom, recent governments have (often in the name of personal responsibility and liberty) effectively starved public services, including schools, universities, the arts, etc. This is bad for many reasons (including some broadly egalitarian ones to which Raz himself is relatively unattuned). But at least one reason is precisely that it deprives citizens (at least those who lack independent wealth) of the kinds of choices that contribute to individual self-authorship. (Just consider how a student’s decision what university subject to study is very often constrained by fear for her financial future; how certain otherwise attractive career options are foreclosed because they are effectively incompatible with ever owning a house; and how having a family is off the table, not because would-be parents don’t wish to, but because they doubt they can afford it.) In the United States, similar political attitudes have similarly put pressure on an already significantly underdeveloped set of institutions for fostering the common good.
The individualistic and competitive conception of personal freedom that is very often presupposed when the value is invoked in contemporary Anglo-American political culture is, Raz’s book shows, only one possible interpretation of it. And once we think in more detail about alternative conceptions – indeed perhaps think about them with the care and insight that The Morality of Freedom exemplifies – we recognize that there are other, better alternatives worth embracing, and that our society should adopt quite different policies if it indeed values personal freedom.