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A Philosophy of Freedom

A Philosophy of Freedom by Lars Svendsen

Alan Brody thinks about freedom and responsibility with Lars Svendsen.

Following an operation to remove part of his temporal lobe, and further temporal lobe surgery to control seizures, Walter B. developed numerous compulsive behaviors incompatible with how he had preferred to behave. A ravenous appetite and long rages became the norm. Both starting and stopping activities became difficult. Sometimes he was easily distracted, and sometimes he got stuck in a simple activity for eight or nine hours. Deeply ashamed, he kept some of his behaviors secret – until they led to his arrest for violating the law.

He felt relieved to no longer keep them secret, and now reached out to his doctor for medication that would allow him to stop his compulsive actions, and he consequently returned to his old loving, compassionate self. However, Walter still faced prosecution for the unlawful behavior.

During the trial, his neurologists explained that Walter had Klüver-Bucy syndrome – a neurological condition that manifested itself in those unlawful acts. The prosecution claimed in response that since Walter did not engage in illegal activity at work, he therefore had some control over his condition, and during such a period of self-control could have asked his doctors for help in stopping his compulsive behaviors. Judged as culpable for failing to do that, Walter was sentenced to prison for twenty-six months, subsequent home confinement for twenty-five months, and five years of supervision after that. Such is the case of Walter B., as reported by Oliver Sacks in his essay ‘Urge’ in the New York Review of Books of September 24, 2015.

In A Philosophy of Freedom, Lars Svendsen, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Bergen, Norway, is concerned with understanding the notion of freedom as it applies to autonomy, or free will, and in explaining its role in shaping a society loyal to protecting freedom. I want to here present Svendsen’s notion of autonomy, then elucidate it through evaluating the verdict in the Walter B. case (although Svendsen does not discuss this case, I believe it is consistent with his philosophy). I’ll look at the role Svendsen believes autonomy should have in creating a society. Lastly, I raise some objections to Svendsen’s philosophy of freedom.

Freedom & Determinism

Svendsen asks how free choice can exist if we understand the universe merely in terms of physical causes. If a choice results from causes powerful enough to bring about only one result, viz, the choice that occurred, this means that the so-called ‘choice’ is determined. For Svendsen this means that given that particular set of prior causes, one could not have done otherwise. Few people would hold an individual morally or legally responsible if his psychotic personality and actions were caused by a large brain tumor that prevented him from thinking and acting otherwise (p.50). In a similar way, Svensen argues, a deterministic universe where we couldn’t have done other than what we did thereby apparently eliminates moral responsibility, and so, guilt. In other words, for us to be moral agents as traditionally understood, we must apparently believe in some indeterministic variety of choice, where we have a real ability to choose in one or another way. In a deterministic universe, an alternative reason for acting could have come up only if there had been different conditions up to the moment of choice. But according to indeterminism, when exercising our choice, we might have chosen differently even under those same conditions. With indeterminism we are not completely restricted to what we actually chose to think or do by external factors – by neurological damage, for instance.

Svendsen is an indeterminist. Given indeterminism, a free agent has the “ability to make a free choice executing and controlling actions based on reasons” (p.77). And even though one does not choose one’s reasons from a psychological blank slate, one’s reasons for acting nevertheless explain one’s behavior, and therefore allow moral responsibility for it. That is to say, an autonomous agent is responsible for their ongoing choices, character, and actions, because their reasons, and eventually their character traits, reflect what that agent authentically endorses by their choices. Moreover, the agent has the ability to reflect upon their reasons and character traits, and by exercising their choice, change them (p.78).

Walter B.: Criminal or Not?

To understand Svendsen’s position, let us evaluate the verdict on the Walter B. case in light of his claims.

Walter B. had a pathological condition causing him to lose control over aspects of his behavior. Svendsen agrees that free choice might be undermined by a pathological condition (p.68). But Walter is charged with failing to manage his pathological condition by not accessing a doctor when that was possible for him. Should he be judged as culpable?

We might think that his shame was more than he could manage, even to the extent of not allowing him to consult a doctor, and that the shame is part of his having become mentally ill because of the brain surgery. Having a severe mental illness causing bizarre delusions might mean that a person becomes like a child, lacking adequate capability for understanding the world, and so “falls below the limits for minimal autonomy” (p.87). However, if someone is a drug user, or mentally ill, but while in a ‘normal’, lucid state, uses drugs or chooses to avoid their needed medication, thereby undermining their capacity to act responsibly, and subsequently causes harm to another, that person is still responsible for those actions resulting from their choice while in the lucid state (p.74).

Svendsen tells us that he had a bad temper until he no longer wished to be like that, and changed that character trait after he began to work on himself (p.83). Since, like him, people can reflect on their behavior, know what they are doing, think of better alternatives, and change not only what they were doing, but their character, then arguably Walter should similarily have worked on himself by getting the appropriate help. And it appears that Walter’s exercise of self-control at work constituted a ‘normal’ period, during which he did have the ability to ask for help.

Autonomy, Rights & Politics

Being free to follow what we care about is a significant part of what makes life meaningful (Ch.13); and that’s why freedom of choice is “a good of higher order than most of the other goods” (p.97).

So what about the political conditions necessary for the exercise of our autonomy? For Svendsen, protecting autonomy and our morality-based way of life depends on the implementation and maintenance of institutional conditions that support a liberal democracy – in other words, on political liberalism (p.94).

Political liberalism seeks to limit state power to what its citizens democratically support, while protecting the “individual rights against violations from other individuals, groups and, for that matter, the state itself” (p.95). It “insists that the individual take precedence over the group, because individual rights are inalienable and establish a space for the individual to determine his own life course” (p.168).

What then are these basic freedom-supporting universal rights? In summary, they consist of rights to: security from physical harm and illegal imprisonment; legal equality; privacy; freedom of expression and religion; own property; democratic participation; freedom of assembly; a minimum standard of education, having the opportunity to develop one’s abilities; nutrition, shelter, and health; and to determine for oneself what gives life meaning without paternalistic interference. All these basic rights “are individually designed to promote autonomy” (p.171), and for Svendsen are necessary for the proper operation of free choice.

Steve Lille's cartoon
Choice & Chance © Steve Lillie 2017. Please visit

Responsibility, Luck & Compassion

Unfortunately, Svendsen does not seem to appreciate how much chance has implications undermining his position. For example, we can say that it was only by chance, or perhaps by bad luck, that Walter never experienced the processes or influences that would have provided him with what he would have needed to manifest his preferred values, until it was too late. The operations of chance didn’t provide him psychologically with what he needed to engage in working more effectively to control his shame, for instance. However, this factor of chance or luck means that we cannot simply or blithely assess Walter as a morally deficient criminal, rather than, say, an unlucky person of good character unfortunately unable to effectively control himself.

The factor of chance or luck obscures the moral situation of human beings who are subject to the vagaries of the universe, despite their goodness. Furthermore, if society ignores the operation of luck, those in society who are less well-off can become regarded by the more fortunate as only having themselves to blame – because they didn’t try harder, for example. Or, if they’re not seen as blameworthy, they are nevertheless only entitled to minimal care. Consequently, extreme inequality can result, with no moral objection being presented to people increasing their advantages. So although Svendsen has given us a wealth of useful distinctions, arguments, and challenges to philosophical positions that anyone interested in free will would do well to grapple with, his philosophy of freedom has also given us a moral and political system whose intricate philosophical components can be used to build a compassion extractor, in the name of morality.

© Dr Alan Brody 2017

Alan Brody has a PhD in philosophy and is a licensed psychotherapist and addiction specialist living in Santa Fe.

A Philosophy of Freedom by Lars Svendsen, Reaktion Books, 2014, 288pp, £25 hb, ISBN: 1780233701


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