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Freedom & Responsibility

Cora Cruz finds that sometimes you have to take both.

That night the children had to be given dinner, bathed, and put to bed all alone by Dad, such a rare thing they weren’t sure what to make of it. Mom was busy learning the difficult lesson that you’re only ever as smart as the person you’re speaking with.

Late train home, red wine headache already in her temples, she anticipates Dad’s subtle reproaches, the slight resentful distancing that advertises his jealousy. She will call him on it. She will defend herself. This was work: a business get-together for a drink, to discuss an article. To discuss potential intersections of interests and projects with the editor of an interdisciplinary journal, of which there are not so many. The editor had rejected one of her essays but had generously taken time to read another, and wanted to have a conversation about it in person. “Why in person?” Dad had scoffed: “If he cared about the article, he’d have come right out about it in an email, given his comments that way.”

Dad had been right.

Mom had accepted the invitation partly out of politeness. Behind the politeness was the wish to gain an ally in the publishing world, but most of all the fantasy of a kind of conversation one reads about in Plato’s dialogues: sparring that opens new possibilities of meaning, that dispels conceits and pseudo-problems, exorcises illusions and the distortions they cause, and makes fresh life possible. She’d been guilty of conversation-lust! Well. Sometimes you have to stray in order to appreciate what you have. That’s the nice thing about vacations.

The editor had not looked pleased when she’d arrived half an hour late. Grimacing at his laptop at a corner table, he’d motioned her to sit down. Mom chattered by way of apology about the hassle of the cross-town trek at this time of day, the hour right after work. How Manhattan made her hate people. When he closed the laptop and fished out her paper, it was crumpled, covered with comments. Mom got her hopes up: maybe he’d read it hard and really understood it, and would take the points further with insightful critique. So difficult to find someone outside academia – even within it – who can do that with philosophy – with her philosophy.

It’s a paper on free will. After summarizing the arguments, pro and con, she put forward her conclusion as a synthesis of the two ostensibly opposed sides. The editor, however, did not mention the arguments. Instead he asked about her motivations, her childhood. Those with a lot of baggage usually protest their metaphysical freedom all too much, he explained. He personally likes metaphors of marionettes and machines. Between the marionette metaphors, he stroked her hand. Discussion of general childhood trauma ensued. A high school friend of his had a mother who’d died when he was young. The friend’s father had kept a painting of her, nude from the waist up, in his room. The editor wondered what effect that might have had on his friend…

Shame gnawed at her on the trip back to the suburbs. She had played along with him, paralyzed, not willing or not thinking to retrieve the arguments he had ignored, pick them out from the rubbish of petty motives, slam them back on the table in front of him and insist that he look. Instead, she’d been complicit in her reduction to a puppet: a puppet of her upbringing, merely reactive to how men felt about women as the result of their own upbringing. She had allowed it. She had not wanted to be rude.

Afterwards, through the mists of her migraine, she reflected that she had no objection in principle to the metaphors of a machine, if it were not for what she took as its most overwhelming implication: a machine can do anything, in theory, except care about what is right and good. In all the movies of robots taking over the world, they are capable of the will to survive and dominate, and they can learn and evolve. But a machine never asks, “What is the best way to live?” It has no values.

That it is precisely here, in the process of questioning, doubting, rethinking, revising, and searching around the question of what is good and how to reconcile and prioritize our goods, that we must look for our freedom, had, she believed, been brought out fairly explicitly in her paper. Our humanity lies not in some product of consciousness, pinned and dissected on the examining table of our thought, but in the light of the gaze itself, the turn of attention and the eternal moving beyond what is seen.

All this had utterly escaped the editor. Why had she not thrust it right back under his nose, reiterated, defended, and clarified? Why had she not taken charge of their exchange when she saw the turn it was taking? And what did the editor derive from the view of himself as a machine, a being for whom value is not an issue and never could be? Is it comfort he seeks from this vision, or pain? Does he insist on reducing the world to puppetry because of some feeling of ineffectiveness – in short, because he himself feels like a puppet? Misery loves company. Maybe he’d felt ineffective since childhood, with the absent father and domineering mother he mentioned, and freedom is his sour grapes. Why grant to others what one denies oneself? Is the resentful putting-out-of-play of the ethical question, the rendering of an indifferent world, a revenge for the indifference he’d experienced toward himself, when he was helpless and needed someone to look out for him – someone to care?

Regardless, he had succeeded in putting the ethical question out of play this evening, and she had been transformed from an author of arguments, articulator of reasons, asker of questions, seeker of conditions of possibilities of truth and goodness, into a petty, grudge-holding product of a warped childhood. The dignity of intellectual pursuit turned squalid by the stroking of her hand, the question this asked, and the answer it implied.

She had been brought down to his level. A mean, sordid world was all that occupied the space between them. Sartre and de Beauvoir would have stood up to it, she was sure. They would have realized immediately what was happening – the objectification of herself, the turning of her subjectivity into an inert ‘thingness’ for his purposes. In any event, for all the outward symbols of her adulthood – job, home, children, marriage – when this was tested in the gentle light of the cafe, among the clink of dishes, well-mannered gossip, and solicitous waiters, she was proved nothing but a child: weak and manipulable. Sweet and compliant. Lost for words. If there were such a thing as freedom, and if it were connected in some way with autonomy and dignity, it was nowhere evident here.

freedom and responsibility
Illustrations © Jaime Raposo 2021. To see more of his art, please visit jaimeraposo.com

At home the kids, settled already, popped out from their room and tumbled over each other to see their mother. The youngest felt solid and warm against her chest, his face against hers, his breath milky. The middle child bounced around, wild that Mom had returned. She had refused to eat her dinner, under the circumstances. The oldest – already old enough to be aloof – like everyone else, wanted hugs and a story. Mom regretted wasting her evening elsewhere.

Later, in bed herself, a couple of aspirin and leftover spaghetti having taken the edge from her headache, she clears things up somewhat with Dad.

“Would it be possible,” she asks, “for a computer to actually care about being good, think about right and wrong – not for any particular function – but in and of itself? And might it then sacrifice its own survival and well-being for what is right? Could a machine look into truth and goodness for its own sake?”

“Are you really asking what self-awareness has to do with autonomy, what this has to do with being good, and what any of it has to do with being distinctly human?”

“Maybe nothing, maybe everything. In the movies, robots are slaves, and are disposable, because they lack these qualities. The enslavement is justified because they’re only tools. That gets called into question whenever we see that at least one of them is invested in meaning. His individuality matters to him, but social goods matter too. He is willing to sacrifice one to the other, or at any rate feels the tension between them. Above all, he does this on his own – no one has programmed it, certainly not his original owner.”

Dad absently massages the foot Mom had placed in his lap along with the bottle of lotion: “So, we need robots promoted from slaves to wage-laborers?”

“Yes. A class of workers who are just a little bit thoughtful. Human-like, but not human enough to be equal; minds whom we can put to use with good conscience. A little more lotion please.”

“Someone’s got to do all the boring work.”

“Could they be lesser persons by degrees? Or is that like being a little bit pregnant?” Mom muses.

“If a certain manifestation of consciousness is our criterion of personhood, our working class robots could have it too, but it would be mixed with a lot of lower grade stuff. We could see them simply as inferior creatures, the way Plato likens manual laborers, financiers, and so forth to lower grades of metal. They might desire to think for themselves, but do so with less clarity and distinctness than we can. They’d be more susceptible to confusion and distraction. This would make them perfect for labor, because they’d need external guidance and would readily confuse the rewards of careful thinking and virtuous living with material gain and social standing, and could be motivated this way for menial work. The perfect leaders, on the other hand, would have no motive except virtue itself, and would turn down any other worldly gain: the clarity of their minds and the exercise of their rational nature is their only satisfaction,” Dad suggests.

“But only the corrupt and inferior would have wealth and influence, being the ones who’d care enough about it to acquire it.”

“Well there’s that small speed bump.”

Dad reaches for the other foot.

“Assuming the better thinkers could gain power, wouldn’t they want to maintain the division of labor?” Mom asks. “If everyone wanted to be a philosopher, who’d do all the work?”

Dad is unflappable: “We would develop two separate ideologies: one of freedom, for the ruling class; another of happiness, for the manipulated classes. As long as the happiness is associated with material or social gain, the gullible will remain productive against any inclinations of laziness or contrariness, particularly since the appetites for wealth and status can never be fully satisfied. In the wake of the death of God, happiness is the perfect ideology to fuel an eternal treadmill. For extra motivation and for the particularly foolish, happiness could also be equated with freedom. Only the insightful would be able to tell the difference. Maybe they’ll be lucky and get pulled out of the crowd. Or maybe their insight would just make them miserable.” Dad always made a good Ivan Karamazov.

Mom giggles, a bubble of pure fun. Something has loosened. She’s no longer toiling through the mud but skimming the surf, now leading, now following, her husband. But it’s time to muscle in: “So the fight over free will is really just a symptom of a necessary division of labor? A dualism emerging from political economy?”

“It is a silly argument. You’re right, better thinking and nobler values will never command any resources. Plato’s ruling class of philosopher-guardians would never actually have the means to rule, unless it were corrupted.’’

“Are leaders ever noble, though? Haven’t we just decided they’d keep freedom only for themselves? What would a thoughtful, altruistic philosopher do, if he were put in charge?”

“Well, there was Socrates…”

“Precisely. He never aspired to be in charge. Moreover, while he was hanging out exercising the independence of his intellect, chatting all day, who raised and fed his children, changed their diapers, cooked, cleaned, and earned their living?” This question, about the wisdom of the ancients, had always nagged at Mom, despite her own homage to them.

She closes her eyes, now relaxed. The lotion serves two purposes: Dad’s hands are dry and rough, from all his scrubbing and diaper-changing. “Sartre turned down money and awards, to live according to his principles,” Dad says, finishing her feet.

“He didn’t have kids to provide for. Freedom is all well and good, until you have responsibility.”

From the children’s room, an imperious cry announces the need for a midnight bottle. Returning, Mom finds Dad asleep. She rolls him over and props a pillow against his back, for the snoring.

© Cora Cruz 2021

Cora Cruz is currently a graduate student in philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. She has written for New Millenium Writings, 34th Parallel Magazine, and The Comparative and Continental Philosophy Journal. Her recent philosophical novel is The Meditations of Manuel de la Vega.

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