The debate concerning Amos Yee demands a richer, and more constructive discussion about freedom in Singapore. I will make five propositions. First, freedom has never been an absolute concept. Second, freedom is not a Western concept. Third, freedom is not a package deal. Fourth, not all freedoms are equal. Fifth, in resolving which freedoms should prevail, the best and most fair model is one based on the concept of the ‘original position’.
Having listened to and read the comments concerning PM Lee’s BBC interview, I feel that we must put an end to the shallow discourse about freedom that permeates Singaporean society, and press for a deeper, normative understanding of what is surely an important political principle. This is necessary for a more detailed, directed and constructive discussion about freedom. Here are five propositions: First, freedom has never been an absolute concept. Second, freedom is not a Western concept. Third, freedom is not a package deal. Fourth, not all freedoms are equal. Fifth, in resolving which freedoms should prevail, the best and most fair model is one based on the concept of the ‘original position’. I hope that these ideas will lead to more a more directed and comprehensive discussion about freedom in our country
we want to be able to conceive our own goals; we wish not be an instrument of others, but be the masters of our own destiny. All of these come together to form an essential part of our sense of dignity as persons.
A. Freedom is not an absolute concept
We must begin with an understanding of human nature. It is incontrovertible that all human beings have a desire for autonomy – i.e. we are self-directing creatures with wants and desires, and we want to be able to think and act freely and in a manner consistent with those wants or desires, whatever they may be. Moreover, we want to be able to conceive our own goals; we wish not be an instrument of others, but be the masters of our own destiny. All of these come together to form an essential part of our sense of dignity as persons. The freedom to do anything one desires is what philosophers have termed ‘primitive freedom’. However, not all desires can be fulfilled. Some desires are impossible to achieve, given resource limitations; other desires conflict with the desires of others. Hence, in order to live as a society, we interfere with the primitive freedom of others to demarcate an area within which each person can act without interference from others. This is what philosophers call ‘negative freedom’, or ‘political freedom’.
When we talk about freedom in the political context, we are really talking about political freedom, not primitive freedom. Those who argue against primitive freedom bark up the wrong tree and are either too inept to realise this, or too afraid to deal with the difficult political questions surrounding political freedom. Thus, my first proposition emerges: freedom has never been an absolute concept.
Nothing I have said so far is uniquely Western.
B. Freedom is not a Western concept
Nothing I have said so far is uniquely Western. The capacity to have wants and desires, the mutual acknowledgement that not all wants can be achieved, and the construction of limitations to wants are universal. They exist in the East as much as they do in the West. They feature even in the most primitive societies that have systems of punishment for those who commit certain wrongs. While Western countries may choose to draw the boundaries of political freedom differently, and perhaps more liberally from countries in the East, my second proposition still stands: freedom is not a Western concept.
a debate on freedom… (is) not a debate about adopting an American system, or a British system, or a ‘Western’ system, whatever that means
C. Freedom is not a package deal
My third proposition is: freedom is not a package deal. Every society has the flexibility to draw its own boundaries. Hence, a debate on freedom is really about how we should determine the boundaries of political freedom in our society. It is not a debate about adopting an American system, or a British system, or a ‘Western’ system, whatever that means. It is manifestly unintellectual to argue that expanding the boundaries of political freedom will produce the worst aspects of a particular society, or to use those aspects to argue that freedom in its entirety is undesirable. Yet this sort of reasoning appears to permeate our local discourse. Words cannot express the profound fatuity of someone who argues, for example, that more press freedom is undesirable because “we just need to look at countries with press freedom, like America, with its violence and unrest”, or someone who says “The West has its own problems to deal with, so they have no right to talk to us about freedom” and leaves it at that. The issue here is not their conclusions, but their reasoning. Any proposition concerning where the boundaries of political freedom are to be drawn must be based on arguments pertaining to the freedom itself and its impact on society, and be backed by strong normative considerations, and not based on non-sequiturs, imagined facts, tradition, or an appeal to emotion.
freedoms do not carry equal normative weight
D. Not all freedoms are equal
Although all freedoms are at least good to one person (that is, the person exercising the freedom), all freedoms do not carry equal normative weight. A murderer will no doubt be satisfied with murder, but his freedom to achieve that satisfaction carries less normative weight than the freedom to not have one’s life ended by another (without one’s consent, at least). Similarly, the freedom to pursue one’s religion is of a different normative importance than the freedom to live in a country free of a certain religion. So this is my fourth proposition: not all freedoms are equal. Some freedoms weigh more heavily than others, and so in drawing its own boundaries, every society must decide which freedoms are to prevail, and under which circumstances.
if the essential task for any society is to demarcate its boundaries of political freedom, then how should it do so?… the ‘original position’… guides us to the fairest outcome
E. The Original Position guides us to the fairest outcome
Finally, if not all freedoms are equal, and if the essential task for any society is to demarcate its boundaries of political freedom, then how should it do so? This is the focus of my fifth proposition. I propose that we ought to think of matters from the ‘original position’, which is a philosophical concept that I believe guides us to the fairest outcome.
Imagine that we are forced to demarcate the boundaries of political freedom in a society from which we are unaware of who we will be, and where we will end up – i.e. we are unaware of our race, age, class, wealth, intellectual ability, or your idea of a good life. We however know certain general facts about human social life – e.g. we have desires, and we want to pursue them, whatever the may be, and people are generally selfish, but will cooperate if needed, and that resources such as food or money are generally beneficial. In such a state, how will be demarcate the boundaries of political freedom? We do not know what religion we will be, so it is best to allow freedom of religion. This is because, while we are equally likely to be born a bigot and be born a member of that religion, the satisfaction to the bigot by banning the religion is surely disproportionate compared to benefit accrued to us if we were born into that religion and granted the freedom to practice what is an essential part of our identity. Similarly, since we do not know if we will be someone with murderous tendencies, or a victim of murder, any reasonable person would rather murder be illegal, since we’d rather risk ending up as an unsatisfied murderer, than risk becoming a victim of murder.
Is this approach unrealistic? Not exactly. We are after all building a society that we will one day leave to the unborn, and the unborn are in this position. In could be argued that in a certain sense, we are making decisions on behalf of them, and we should make the fairest decision possible. In any case, calling the approach unrealistic misses the point, since the purpose of this thought experiment is to figure out the fairest way to arrange our society. Hence, to discredit my approach, my critic must demonstrate why the original position leads to unfair outcomes, or introduce a model that leads to an even fairer outcome, and explain how it does so.
I will end here, and refrain from commenting on the desirability or undesirability of particular freedoms, such as press freedom, or gay rights, or rights of public protest; nor will I express a view viz. to what extent those freedoms should or should not prevail. I will leave that matter for public discussion. I merely wish to introduce some ideas that I hope will shape and inform future discourse on the topic, and lead to more a more directed and comprehensive discussion about freedom in our country.
First published on Facebook on 28th February 2017