Kaveh Mousavi: Do you think critical thinking is important for a truly free society or person? Can we be free without critical thinking?
Daniel Fincke: Critical thinking is vital to a truly free society. It’s possible to accomplish some kinds of freedom in some times and places with less critical thinking, but in the long run greater critical thinking makes for greater freedom.
The reason I qualify is this. One of the irony of liberty is that it involves discipline. If I am to be freed to pursue my greatest possibilities that means I need to rein in the liberty of some other sides of myself that would interfere with them. The freest person is not the one with an infinite number of impulses, each of which they respond to with no hesitation at every moment. Freedom is a matter of self-creation. It’s a matter of having some parts of yourself get other parts under control and discipline them to obey the goals you set for yourself. This is where Nietzsche’s view of the psyche is very interesting. He stresses the way that our minds are much more assemblages of drives each with their own inherent interests. The choice is not whether to curb any of these drives but which ones and how and to what purpose. The goal is not to exercise one’s “true and free will” but to have one of these drives be able to become ascendant and order all the others towards a unified life plan. So, if different sides of me are at war and pulling me in multiple directions the ideal would be to have some one of them come to dominate in me, some ruling virtue and life’s task which can then set the priorities for the others and then let those other drives flourish in the context of how they serve this overall task and focus. I compare this to a band. You can have a fantastic piano player and a virtuoso guitarist and showboat drummer, etc. but if they’re all trying to make the song all about their instrument rather than the overall song they’ll be pulled in too many directions and it won’t work. The goal is to harness each excellence so that it serves the song.
Similarly, we need to shape and mold our various drives and interests so that they cohere together into a successful life. That means priority choices whereby we make some value tradeoffs. We can only exercise something good in the ways that fit with the overall plan or serve the goals we make primary.
What all this has to do with critical thinking is this. For most of us figuring out how to discipline and order and prioritize all the sides of ourselves into a productive and fruitful life is a great challenge. It may be the greatest challenge humans face. We’re not like other animals whose natures just give them their basic life plan like everyone else of their species. We have the blessing and curse of plasticity. We can make so much of our individual abilities—or squander them.
Getting it right with respect to all our potential means making a lot of sophisticated judgments about values trade offs. In making these we all benefit from countless examples of other people. Our plasticity is aided by our societies that give us preformed molds to shape it into. These preformed molds contain a great deal of wisdom. The discipline they provide in countless waysfrees us to fulfill our own potential. And there are some individuals or eras where people thrive wonderfully because they’re poured into a mold that serves as the perfect glove for their hand. And it’s possibly the case that some of these people live more forthrightly and successfully and happily, less often stalled by crippling uncertainties and existential anguish. They internalize a mode of life that makes them powerful and their lack of doubt only helps them feel at peace with themselves and with their choices.
That’s the ideal of a well-devised tradition, incorporating the lessons of the past into better programs for the future. This element of tradition is important for all of us, even those of us who want to challenge tradition in a thousand ways.
The goal of critical thinking should be to thoroughly reevaluate our traditions over and over again. It should be to figure out why they came about and whether they’re still needed and whether they still can serve the purposes that made them into standard molds in the first place. It’s a matter of experimentally figuring out if there are better molds. And it’s a matter of letting individuals modify the standard molds to see how they might fit themselves better. We need to trust that on the level of their own daily life most people are far more intimately in touch with what is working for them or not than any received traditional wisdom is. It’s vital for liberty that people have the latitude to experiment with modifying the molds to see what ordering of their own unique drives and talents according to their personal priorities and practices might empower them as particular individuals the most.
It’s valuable that we not just assume the old molds are better but really give new ones their shot and let subcultures flourish in which hitherto unrecognized subsets of people find each other and share the models for living that they’re working out that suitthem as individuals.
Rather than a disposition against tradition and society, it’s this complementary attentiveness to the difference between individuals that critical thinking needs to serve so that people will be as free and empowered as possible, for the good of all.
And, of course, critical thinking is our best hope to free ourselves from the whims of fate. When we assess the world as logically, coherently, consistently, and empirically as possible we can figure out where our genuine dangers lie and what our best resources for overcoming them are and we can thrive the best. The truth may not always set us free but it gives us our only fighting chance.
Finally, critical thinking enables us, when we do fail to fail on our own terms. When we’re able to see what is truly the case, we can make informed decisions. This puts us as much in charge of our own fate as we can possibly be. While of course there must be some limits on freedom of action, both for the sake of others and in extreme cases for the sake of ourselves, in general it is better that we have more truth that we can decide for ourselves exactly what risks we will accept for what benefits and have a shot at our own personal decisions about what is best for us. This may not be always what is best for us, but it is in a significant number of cases and the kind of bad results of our own decisions that we suffer are preferable to bad results from others’ decisions, all things being equal.
Read many more of my thoughts on liberty and tyranny, both moral and political in the full interview.
I also can’t help but note that the very first day of my blogging at Camels With Hammers I wrote a post called Freedom as a Power, Rather than as a Passive State. In that post I talked about the internal power of freedom that those who stand up to deadly tyrannies can experience in a way that those of us who are safely guarded by the protections of institutionalized freedoms cannot. In that post, I paid tribute to the wonderful bravery of Iranian protestors out in the streets in the Green Revolution, defying a tyrant.
5 years later, I’m proud to call Kaveh Mousavi my friend. Kaveh, in real life, under his real life identity, was out there in those streets as one of those protestors. And his bravery wasn’t limited to just that time period. In addition to his fantastic pseudonymous blogging, in his real life capacities, under his real identity, he walks the talk of pro-secular activism under a tyrannical theocracy in a way I have never had to and, so, can’t know for sure I’d be able to. That this model of defiant personal freedom would ask my opinions about the nature of freedom blows my mind.
And, lastly, this is as good a post as any to draw attention to the fact that this fall I’m offering a new online class on Social and Political Philosophy:
In Social and Political Philosophy we overview classic and contemporary philosophical arguments related to the foundations of a just and flourishing society. In the process we address a wide panoply of socially, politically, and morally urgent practical topics. To one extent or another, varying with student interest, we discuss rights, power, justice, liberty, equality, oppression, democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, tyranny, international relations, civil disobedience, individual/state relations, state/society relations, libertarianism, socialism, social justice, concepts of race and racism, concepts of gender and sexuality, feminism, LGBT issues, secularism, theocracy, the common good, criminal justice, human rights, terrorism, drugs, and the nature and limits of moral legitimacy for legal authority. We also address socially and politically salient controversies in applied ethics. These spheres include sexual ethics (monogamy, promiscuity, polyamory, prostitution, pornography, rape, etc.) business ethics, biomedical ethics (euthanasia, abortion, etc.), ethics of technology, and the ethics of war. Sometimes our discussions will be responsive to current events. Major political philosophers we address include Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rawls, Nozick, and Walzer (among many others). There is no university credit for taking this course.