Liberty Interviews Episode 1: Daniel Fincke

This is the first episode of hopefully many interviews I plan to conduct on the subject of liberty from people with varying standpoints and views.

For the first installment of my interview series on Liberty, I interviewed Daniel Fincke of the blog Camels With Hammers. Dan earned his PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University and taught philosophy classes at numerous universities in New York and surrounding states for 11 years. Now he teaches independent, non-matriculated philosophy classes online, including one on Social and Political Philosophy.


Kaveh Mousavi: Hello Dan and thank you forbeing here.

Daniel Fincke: Thanks for inviting me.

Kaveh Mousavi: In countries like mine, where the regime is tyrannical, we care a lot about the philosophical tradition of western liberalism, from its earliest founders to the latest thinkers. My first question is, do you think these philosophical inquiries are relevant to your western democratic societies as well, and if yes, how much?

Daniel Fincke: Yes. The tragedy of a successful tradition is that people can take it for granted, not remember why it was instituted in the first place, and start carelessly dismantling it because they perceive it to be a pointless encumbrance to immediate results. While the tradition of Western liberalism was pioneering in its rationalistic dimensions (in that it sought to ground legal authority in moral legitimacy rather than in something arbitrary like divine right, brute force, or heredity), it now functions like an inherited tradition. And so any number of people don’t really understand its rational underpinnings, they don’t rehearse its logic for themselves, and sometimes they’re losing touch with its core values. These things aren’t dispensable. It’s very scary.

Kaveh Mousavi: So you think that if we are not philosophically educated about liberty, we might always lose the liberty we already have, no? As in, when people look at the consequences of liberty, and they forgot what was the rationale behind it. Studying and understanding the philosophy of liberty is a safeguard against tyranny. Am I right?

Daniel Fincke: Yes. Because at any given time there are going to be enticingly efficient means to competing goods and we need to remember why those means are unacceptable given the value of liberty. And, on the flipside, a destructive fetishization of liberty that unmoors it from its rational legitimation as a basic priority also can cause problems as it could lead to the loss of comparably important basic goods. So, we need to have a good handle on why liberty is important and how it can veto the efficient means to other goods and a good idea of how liberty can be misconceived such that it negates other competing goods to our detriment.

Kaveh Mousavi: Do you think liberty can be defined as a single concept? Or are there multiple concepts that we define all under the umbrella term of liberty? For example, in your blog people are not “free” to be uncivil to each other, because you want to guarantee an intellectual debate, which is free to dissent and to tackle concepts. So it seems in order to ensure liberty, we always need to curb some freedoms. Does that make freedom an inherently contradictory value, or are there different types of liberty that sometimes compete?

Daniel Fincke: Liberty is not an inherently contradictory value, but there are different ways to realize it. When we talk about valuing “liberty” what we’re doing is referring in shorthand to the idea of there being as much liberty for as many people as possible in as many contexts as possible. But this maximal liberty for as many people as possible means that each person’s liberty must be realized in the way maximally consistent with everyone else’s liberty. The ideal of “liberty” is not that one tyrant or king can have maximum liberty to do whatever he wants at the expense of the liberty and flourishing of everyone else. Curbing executive power in order to expand liberty to others multiplies the total liberty in the society through that act of limiting one person’s liberty. Similarly, the ideal of liberty is not that some dominant ruling class may be so free that that they can enslave others. Again, the ideal of maximal liberty means restricting the kinds of exercise of will that dominate others in ways that rob them of their freedom.

And it’s not just on the level of state power or institutionalized slavery that some people’s abilities to exercise their wills however they want can amount to an overall system of tyranny rather than liberty. This happens anywhere that unchecked domination of will on the part of one person is the stifling of another’s ability to express equal liberty to them. So, where there are great inequalities of wealth that let some people domineer and dictate to others to the point that they are de facto tyrants over those others, drastically limiting their choices, undermining their abilities to flourish in the minimum capacities by which they could freely pursue a good life, etc., then those economic arrangements are tyrannous for the excess of liberty they give a few at the expense of the many and the ways they distribute liberty disproportionately according to wealth rather than according to a more balanced ideal of maximally distributed liberty and maximally distributed flourishing.

Or, in social situations, when one person (or a group of them) behaves in domineering ways that bully others out of discussions, pressuring them into being silent or into abdicating their right to participate in that public space and express themselves, then that’s not the ideal of “liberty” and “free speech” at work, that’s de facto tyranization. We need some discourse contexts (particularly those designated as “public square”, rather than private) to be ones where, as the general rule,everyone’s liberty to speak is maximally encouraged. That means curbing acts of will which are domineering and bullying. Not every expression of will is in accord with the ideal of liberty. Those which try to suppress others’ exercises of will in contexts where all should be permitted are antithetical to liberty.

So, since my blog is designated by me to be a “public square” kind of environment for talking about philosophical, ethical, and sociopolitical issues, I want to create the ideal scenario for everyone to feel liberated to speak. That means clamping down on the kinds of bullying done by more socially dominant groups whereby they use slurs or gross stereotypes or drop subtle and infuriating demonizing insinuations about marginalized people in order to needle them and rile them up. It means stopping all verbal abuse in general since verbal abuse doesn’t convey ideas but is a way of saying “I hate you” and trying to pressure others to shut up to avoid being blasted with such hatred. It even means tolerating unpleasant and offensive ideas so long as they’re presented in ways that are respectful of others they’re talking to and not worded in ways designed to escalate interpersonal conflict. These are fine lines to draw. And I’ll readily ban anyone who tries to ride the line and be civil only technically while flouting the spirit. A genuine commitment to civility is what’s needed, not the attempt to undermine it within the letter of the law.

Finally, let me stress that part of liberty means the liberty to have private spaces that do not function as a public square, and for people to have some degree of latitude in controlling such spaces. If your group can have your spaces in which you can organize and debate internal disagreements and share in mutual fellowship with likeminded people, then that’s one vital freedom you have that helps you flourish and in the long run contributes to overall flourishing through your individual ability to exercise your values and your rights of free association. And that means my group can also have its own private spaces. In both cases, we should respect others’ rights to not have interlopers barge in and try to stop our free association. It’s in this spirit that I acknowledge the value of some internet forums not being treated like the “public square” where just anyone is welcome to barge in and start a debate on whatever they like.

Communities deserve their liberty to create spaces constructed around their own values and to decide who is or is not a valuable contributor to that community. In those cases, I would still argue that personal abusiveness towards the enemies, while a legal right, should be avoided ethically. And especially when one’s safe space is also publicly visible, your group is going to be perceived as hateful and may risk increasing hatefulness among its members if it goes beyond exclusivity for the sake of group focus to the point of hatred towards outgroup members. So, that’s why I think that even safe spaces that do not have a public square openness about topics to discuss or who may participate should nonetheless adhere to policies of minimizing hateful, verbally abusive expression towards enemies. It’s corrosive and unethical. Even if I strongly believe it should be legal. Any worthwhile, substantive moral charge you want to level at someone can be done within the bounds of civility. You can criticize harshly with an enormous panoply of highly specific critical words and with appeals to any number of bits of evidence of someone’s deserving to have such words applied to them. There’s no need to cross the line into hateful epithets that do no more than add “I hate you” to the list of defensible moral accusations. We should practice restraint accordingly. None of us are perfect in this regard (I certainly am not), but we should at least apologize when we fail rather than routinize such abusiveness as so many across the internet do.

Kaveh Mousavi: That is one of the most excellent things I’ve read, and it already touches upon many concepts I wanted to deal with. I wanted to ask if we could define liberty as not only a legal right, or a human right, but also as an internal attitude and mentality. So while someone might have the legal right to hate their enemy, can we still say that this is not our ideal form of liberty, as we want liberty to be something that defines us, defines the way we approach the world. I would say beyond the legality of it all (a right that I don’t have anyway), we need to not only tolerate our “enemies”, but to accept them. Accept the reality that good people will always oppose us, and for good reasons. Now while I have every right to despise specific regime officials I know kill and torture people, I think I have no moral “right” to hate people solely because they support the regime. So in this way I think we can say liberty is not only a legal right but also a moral and intellectual obligation. Am I right?

Daniel Fincke: You certainly have a moral right to negative feelings and to anger. I am persuaded that emotions are crucial to both moral motivation and proper moral recognition of value. The first point should be obvious–humans evolved emotions as a shortcut way to have certain responses to basic kinds of events and stimuli. There are things it’s good for us to be drawn to or averse to and emotions are a rough bodily way of pointing us in favor of or against something. But emotions are blunt instruments. They detect too readily and they respond too strongly in many cases. So we need reason to refine and figure out what our emotional misfires are (either when they’ve gone off at the wrong stimulus or with the wrong degree or kind of reaction).

But I think more than this indispensable role of helping us with our responses, I think that emotional positivity and emotional negativity are vital for the sake of truth. Even if we could psychologically re-engineer ourselves with some future technology so that we made perfect judgments of good and bad and right and wrong without emotions. Let’s say we cognitively registered these truths with greater accuracy than we do currently, as emotionally engaged creatures. And let’s say that we swapped out the role of emotions in motivation and replaced it with a perfect obedience of action to what our reason told us. So our reason told us something was bad/wrongness and that alone, with no role of the emotions, could motivate action to rectify the badness/wrongness (and vice versa with acting to create the good/right). I would argue that even with these functional roles of emotions made obsolete that emotions would still be worth keeping. I wouldn’t want this so that emotions could muck up the functioning of this improved responsiveness to reasoning. But what I would want is that emotions still make us feel the badness or wrongness of bad things and feel the rightness or goodness of things. I think this is one of the ways we detect truth. I think someone who can tell you murder is wrong but not feel the wrongness in the form of an emotional response to the contemplation of murder or to news of murders is deficiently apprehending the truth of the murder of wrongness. The feeling is a mode of perception. It’s a way of knowing on a visceral level.

So, I think it’s vital, for truth’s sake, that you never lose your emotional experiences of rejecting the deeds of the torturer and murderer as wrong.

And I think that given the equipment of the human brain, we need to accept that anger and other negative emotions are the most capable natural provisions most people have for making sure they pay adequate attention to injustice and other evils and for staying motivated to oppose them. Because of these basic facts, people will be attached to their hatreds. Not everyone can successfully foreswear negative feelings and stay motivated in the fight against negative things.

But where I agree with you is that hatred should be avoided. Anger is an important tool. One hard to manage properly, but vital nonetheless. The problem with hatred is that it goes beyond anger at the wrongness of the actions and the circumstances and the character traits to a desire to utterly obliterate the people who are the loci of such evils. And the desire to obliterate another is the most tyrannous desire to have towards them. And when you’re thinking of whole groups of enemies, the desire to obliterate them is the tyrannous genocidal desire.

And history gives too many warnings. In the name of liberty and fraternity, the French Revolution turned into a bloodbath. In the name of economic equality, communist revolution after communist revolution turned into a bloodbath. In the name of liberating people from sin and damnation, crusades and jihads have turned into bloodbaths.

We might boil the dynamic down to this. Both tyranny and liberty are exercises of unfettered exercises of will. Any genuine liberty can only be achieved through the reining in of some other tyranny. Liberty over the self means preventing the tyranny of excessive desires and excessive compulsion to obey social pressure. Political liberty means preventing political tyrants from having control. The ever present danger is that any self-appointed “defenders of liberty” become tyrants in their attempts to set bounds on oppression. Hatred, the desire to obliterate, the desire for revenge, the conflation of the person who is erring with their deeds to the point that the only way to eradicate their wrong deeds is to eradicate them as people—this is the poison that turns the self-perceived defenders of liberty into tyrants themselves.

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 ways frees 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 suit them 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.

Kaveh Mousavi: Overall, do you think liberty is mainly a negative value (absence of tyranny), or a positive one?

Daniel Fincke: I think they’re inextricably interconnected. Every degree of positive freedom is a degree of freedom from tyranny and a right to be left alone. And every degree of tyranny is a degree of lost positive freedom. From a personal character standpoint, we should focus on being genuinely free over ourselves as individuals, in the sense of being able to live by our most rational, most heartfelt, and most objectively empowering sides of oneself towards one’s own maximal flourishing. We should be able to find the harmony where we do what we want and where what we want is what is actually most empowering for us to want. We should want that which leads to our overall greatest functioning according to our natural potentials for excellence. We should want that which empowers others through our own power.  We should want to be left alone where that involves giving us the space and breathing room to be our own unique person and follow our own heart’s path to our own individual flourishing in our own idiosyncratic way. We shouldn’t want to be left alone morally to completely collapse in on ourselves. We should want some moral help where it’s genuinely in our own interest too. And we shouldn’t politically want to be left alone unencumbered to dominate others and squelch their liberty and potential.

We flourish more when we function as power generators for other people, when what we do that is powerful becomes powerful in and through others beyond ourselves. Laws that keep us from being devastatingly disempowering to others aid our own abilities to have the effects of our actions be empowering rather than disempowering out of shortsighted selfishness. On the longview, we should be grateful for the ways our societies successfully order things so that our actions have the net impact of empowering, rather than disempowering others. The most just and ideal arrangement of society would be the one where each of us pursuing our own excellence structurally works to contribute the most to each other’s excellence. Laws that manipulate the incentives and results of our pursuit of excellence to be as maximally mutually empowering as possible are the ideal ones. They result in the greatest and most robust kind of freedom; i.e. the positive kind of freedom whereby each is not only in theory but in practice able to do as they wish and to wish as they most rationally would for their own benefit.

Kaveh Mousavi: Final question: I know you teach classes on philosophy online. Please tell the readers of this blog how they can sign up to learn from you.

Daniel Fincke: They can read about how my classes run at the welcome page to my website. My classes are live, interactive, small group discussions between students and me. I explain some of what philosophers have said about issues and that launches us into debates about the issues themselves, with me bringing in more relevant philosophical work as appropriate. They’re the opposite of canned lectures or other kinds of prepackaged material. They’re also a once weekly 2 and a half hour commitment, with no homework or grades or penalization for absences. They’re designed to accommodate busy people, so it doesn’t matter how often you’re absent you can get your money’s worth when you’re available. I teach on a bunch of topics, so check them all out. Most germane to this discussion, I teach Social and Political Philosophy and Ethics. Most germane to this blog (perhaps), since the classes are online I have international students (so far that’s meant students from such foreign to me countries as England, France, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Louisiana) and that works wonderfully. Help me fill in more of the map!

Kaveh Mousavi: Louisiana’s a foreign country?

Daniel Fincke: To a New Yorker like me, yes.

Kaveh Mousavi: Thank you very much! This interview took more than three hours, so I really thank you for your time and patience.

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