Following from his distinction between freedom and necessity, Martin Hägglund tells us that “The rational aim, then, is to reduce the realm of necessity and increase the realm of freedom.” (223) The rational aim of politics, perhaps. But the Disengaged Buddhists remind us how many of life’s problems politics cannot solve. And these problems go right to Hägglund’s own core concepts of freedom and necessity.
Hägglund misses the point expressed in Ashleigh Brilliant’s wonderful epigram: freedom is not the goal, but you need freedom before you can decide what the goal is. Freedom itself, as the simple ability to do what one finds fulfilling, is empty of content. The most important thing is not merely to have room to pursue our ends, but to actually pursue them, which requires we think about which ends are really ours, which are really worth pursuing – and then actually do so. Free time is not the end, it is a means to the end. Alessandro Ferrara puts the point well in his Reflective Authenticity. Ferrara articulates the distinction that I have referred to as quantitative versus qualitative individualism, referring to each as autonomy and authenticity respectively – and he makes the key point that “authenticity presupposes autonomy.” (6, emphasis his) Without the ability to self-determine, a Hägglundian freedom, we cannot be our true selves. But that freedom is only a necessary condition for true self-expression, not a sufficient one!
Hägglund says that “To live in the realm of freedom is to be bound by the demands of your practical identity…” (261) But it isn’t. Not, at least, when the realm of freedom is identified the way that Hägglund has identified it – in terms of free time, time unconstrained by practical necessities like money-making. Time, in this respect, is a lot like money – not surprisingly, since each of these two can be used to purchase the other.
Many of us, when we find ourselves with free time, wind up spending that time on pursuits we know are futile, like returning to television shows or regularly updated websites that we do not even find especially entertaining (let alone educational). One of the most wonderful amenities provided by modern capitalism is retirement, for that is a period of life in which one can live entirely in Hägglund’s realm of freedom. Yet it turns out that many retirees enter this realm of freedom and find themselves – bored. They literally do not know what to do with themselves. They have put themselves in the realm of freedom over necessity as much as is humanly possible – and it turns out to be unsatisfying. Having the ability to determine oneself, it turns out, is not sufficient for actually doing so.
Hägglund’s problem here is one that would be diagnosed well by the “religious” thinkers he opposes (a curious category that includes Stoics and Epicureans as well as Buddhists – but more on that next time). He has fallen into the trap that has ensnared probably the majority of human beings in history and will surely continue to do so: a focus on external goods. A friend of mine once referred to such thinkers as “outside-in” thinkers: they presume that if the external conditions of our life are taken care of, then the life itself will be a good one. And that is not even remotely the case. Ashley MacIsaac found himself newly famous with a huge amount of money – enough that he would not have had to inhabit the realm of necessity ever again – and wound up a homeless crackhead as a result of addictions he had developed in this newly free world. MacIsaac and other addicts are not a weird exception, but simply on the far end of a continuum with everyday life: we are often not in control of ourselves. On this, Kant understands what Hägglund does not: that it can be our own internal tendencies that enslave us, that sometimes what we really need to be free from is ourselves.
A viable qualitative individualist ethics, I think, needs to be able to distinguish the worthwhile self, the one to be truly actualized and expressed, from those other elements within the self that inhibit its realization. That is, it needs a teleology. MacIntyre in After Virtue (52) says that Aristotle’s teleological scheme contains “a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature. Ethics is the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter.” MacIntyre is no qualitative individualist, but it seems to me that an informed qualitative individualism must make exactly this distinction, just at the level of the particular rather than the universal: between this-person-as-they-happen-to-be and this-person-as-they-could-be-if-they-realized-their-essential-nature. That gap is often a yawning one, for we are too often our own worst enemies. (I think it is in recognizing such a gap – a divisibility within the self – that qualitatitive individualism can find common ground with Buddhism.)
These are all weaknesses in Hägglund’s view with respect to a qualitative individualist ideal of self-determination that he and I share. But there are other human ideals, at least important, which Hägglund is too hasty to dismiss. I turn to those next time.