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In this path-breaking book, Haji aims to explore a question to which almost no attention has previously been paid. There is widespread debate concerning whether agents are morally responsible if they lack freedom, and some debate (thanks in large part to Haji's previous work) whether moral obligations are affected by lack of freedom. But there is little or no discussion of the question broached here: whether freedom affects axiological value; the value of lives and of worlds. Haji argues that it does: that the kind of value that makes a life go well is enhanced by freedom. This complements his earlier work, in which he argued that some deontological judgments can be true only if agents are free.
Haji bases his case for the thesis that freedom enhances axiological value on an analogy: many people think that the truth or what we might call the fittingness of the objects to which our attitudes are a response enhance the axiological value of the response. Consider, for instance, an old chestnut from moral philosophy: two agents take pleasure in the respect and love of those around them. The pleasure is equal, so on a simple hedonic theory of what makes a life go well, the lives go equally well. But suppose that agent 2, unlike agent 1, is the victim of deceit: the people around him do not genuinely respect or love him. It is plausible to maintain that even if the satisfaction agent 2 takes in his life contributes to its value, his life is not going as well as agent 1's. Similarly, if agent 2 takes a great deal of pleasure in an object that is not fitting – say, inflicting pain on the innocent – it is plausible to maintain that the pleasure does not contribute to his life going well as much as would the same amount of pleasure taken in a more fitting object. Haji argues that this is true for the axiological value of lives and of worlds as well. Even if a hedonic theory of fundamental goods is true, such that the good consists in takings of pleasure in states of affairs, these takings of pleasure enhance the value of a life more when their objects are true states of affairs.
Haji argues that freedom affects axiological value in an analogous manner by adducing the case of Neo (from The Matrix). Suppose that the scenario is adjusted such that Neo has a life full of takings of pleasure. In that case, Haji suggests, though his life may be of some value, its lack of freedom reduces its value. He argues as follows: first he appeals to our intuitions: intuitively, Neo's (pleasurable) life in the matrix is not valuable. Second, he argues that this intuition can only be explained on the supposition that Neo in the scenario has a life of less value because he is unfree.
Haji argues that our intuitions that Neo lives a life that is lower in axiological value than it might seem to him cannot be merely due to his taking pleasure in false states of affairs.
The argument proceeds as follows: assume that taking pleasure in false states of affairs enhances the value of a life, though not as much as an equivalent taking of pleasure in true states of affairs. Suppose, further, that Neo's life is chock full of 'episodes of intrinsic attitudinal pleasure and devoid of episodes of intrinsic displeasure. In that case, his life would be intrinsically good for him. But even on that supposition, it is intuitive that his life is not very good for him. Hence there must be some other pertinent explanatory factor: his lack of freedom.
However there are major problems with the thought experiment, with regard to both the lack of freedom claim and the lack of truth claim. First, that it is far from obvious that Neo's attitudes do not have objects that are true. Given semantic externalism, of the kind introduced into philosophy by Hilary Putnam and Tyler Burge, it may be that the features that cause Neo's experiences are in fact the very features toward which he has attitudes. So it is not clear that the argument even gets off the ground. Second, it is not clear that Neo is not free in the scenario. Agents in simulations may well enjoy compatibilist freedom: their actions may reflect the operation of reasons-responsive mechanisms (or what have you). Granted, Haji is supposing (for the sake of the argument) that compatibilism is true. But it is not obvious to me that agents in simulations would necessarily lack libertarian freedom: that depends on the causal structure of the simulation.
Note, further, that there are potential confounds in the thought experiment. Here's how Haji puts it: 'Surely, spending one's entire life in a slimy womb at the mercy of evil manipulators cannot be anyone's version of the good life' (24). Perhaps our intuition that Neo is not living the good life comes from the slime, or (more likely) the presence of the manipulators, and not from the (alleged) lack of freedom.
Even if we set these problems aside, it is not clear to me that there is a genuine problem for free will skepticism here. Haji argues that deserved pleasure – where the desert in question is grounded by moral responsibility – enhances a life more than undeserved. But it may be that the intuition he pumps here is dependent on the thought that desert is being improperly distributed when people get pleasures they don't deserve. If there is no such thing as morally responsibility-grounded desert, then there is no maldistribution of that desert, and the intuition fades away.
It is worth noting that even if Haji establishes his claim that freedom enhances the value of positive experiences and reduces the value of negative (this latter seems harder to establish than the former) he won't thereby have shown that there is a problem for free will skepticism. It is open to the free will skeptic to accept the claim, but add that the sheer number and proportions of pleasures and pains across a world is likely to be different if free will is non-actual at a world, or perhaps that were it to be recognized that freedom is non-actual these results would follow. That is, it is not necessarily the case that recognizing that freedom is not actual in this world will necessarily reduce the amount of axiological value in the world: it might instead increase the value of the world.
I was not convinced, in the end, that lack of freedom actually detracts from the value of lives; Haji's thought experiments did not manage to move me. However, I do not want my focus on my disagreement to detract from my admiration of the book. Freedom and Value is rich and genuinely innovative; if there are problems, they arise from being a pioneer in uncharted territory. It also covers a great deal of ground, only some of which I have attempted to touch on here. We owe Haji a debt for enhancing our philosophical lives with these reflections.
© 2009 Neil Levy
Neil Levy, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow Program Manager, Ethical Issues in Biotechnology, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne