I have been thinking about this subject for a long time. I have blogging about various aspects of it for more than 3 years and I have just written a conference paper entitled ‘Some Observations on the Relationship between Freedom and Well-Being’. Yet I still don’t feel as though I know enough about the relationship between freedom and individual flourishing.
My interest in this topic stemmed partly from the questioning by some influential people of the economist’s traditional assumption that adult individuals of sound mind are the best judges of their own interests. There seems to have been an increasing tendency to question whether people make good use of opportunities available to maintain or improve their well-being and that of their families. There seems to be increasing support for paternalistic restrictions on freedom in an effort to discourage behaviour that is harmful to health (e.g. smoking) and financial well-being (e.g. gambling).
A priori reasoning can take us some distance in establishing the importance of self-direction and autonomy to human flourishing. As discussed in the paper referred to above, a strong case can be made that humans are creatures that cannot fully flourish unless they are responsible for the way they live their lives. Respect for individual autonomy also provides the basis for social cooperation. It is difficult to help other people to flourish – or even to live in peace with them – if we do not respect their autonomy.
Empirical analysis of the relationships between various aspects of freedom and dimensions of well-being also suggest a positive relationship between freedom and well-being. At a subjective level, feelings of individual agency – feelings about the amount of freedom and control that people have over the way their lives turn out – are closely related to life satisfaction. There is evidence that feelings of individual agency are influenced by institutions relating to democracy, freedom of expression and economic freedom. There is also evidence of a positive relationship between economic freedom and various subjective and objective measures of well-being.
The paper also looks at evidence on the question of whether strong feelings of individual agency are associated with more selfish behaviour. It concludes that, if anything, the opposite seems to be the case.
So, we have strong grounds to argue that self-direction and autonomy are important and that people do tend, in general, to make good use of the opportunities available to improve their well-being and that of their families.
Why do we need to know more than that about the relationship between freedom and flourishing?
One important reason has to do with way many of us tend to respond to the fact that some people use the opportunities available to them in ways that are harmful to their own well-being or that of other people. We often have tendency to support policy responses that seek to reduce temptations of vulnerable people, by restricting freedom, rather than to consider why such people have become vulnerable and how they might be helped to resist temptations. (I use the words ‘us’ and ‘we’ in this context because of my previous support for policies that I thought would reduce availability of harmful drugs when my children were in their teens.) I think that we tend to resort too readily to paternalistic interventions that attempt to remove temptations because we don’t know enough about what makes people vulnerable to temptations or how their vulnerability is affected by the institutional environment.
I think we also need a better understanding of the causes of anti-social activities, such as those associated with binge drinking, if we are to avoid attempts to deal with such problems without further restricting the liberty of innocent people. It might be helpful to know, for example, to what extent people behave irresponsibly because of the feeling that nothing they do has much effect on the way their lives turn out, in combination with of the priority they give to having a good time. It might also be useful to know whether such feelings and attitudes are more prevalent in some countries than others and, if so, why.
I am intending to add postscripts to keep track of findings of additional research on this topic.
I now reject the hypothesis implicit in the last paragraph above. When I looked (here) at World Values Survey data on people who identify strongly with the proposition ‘it is important to this person to have a good time’ I found that they tend to identify much more strongly than average with helping others, even when they feel little control over their own lives. It seems that people who identify strongly with just about any proposition about the importance of a particular value in their own lives tend to identify strongly with helping others, even when they feel little control over their own lives.
As noted above, strong feelings of individual agency tend not to be associated with selfish behaviour. Further research (reported in the post linked above) suggests that people who have strong feelings of individual agency tend to identify strongly with the proposition ‘it is important to help the people nearby’, even if they don’t identify at all with the proposition ‘it is important to always behave properly’.
Does identification with helping the people nearby have a positive effect on the social fabric? Findings reported in another post suggest that people who identify with helping the people nearby have less tolerant attitudes toward corruption, are also less tolerant of social security and tax fraud, and fare evasion on public transport.
Where to from here? The general question I want to explore further is whether feelings of agency interact with various beliefs and values in ways that might help to explain self-destructive and anti-social behaviours. For example, do people with low feelings of agency generally tend to have more cynical attitudes toward factors leading to wealth and success in life and is this associated with different attitudes toward helping others, corruption and desirable child qualities?
I have discussed the question of whether attitudes towards success, wealth accumulation and competition are linked to feelings of individual agency in this post.
Why do some people use the opportunities available to them in ways that are harmful to their own well-being or that of other people? In my view view the best place to look for an answer is in terms of their sense of identity and the satisfaction they obtain from acting in accordance with their sense of identity. Various posts with the 'Identity' label are relevant in this context.
From a public policy perspective it is important to ask how government actions are likely to impact on an individual's sense of identity. For example, are they likely to encourage the individuals to perceive themselves as productive members of society.
From the perspective of individual self-improvement it is relevant for everyone to ask themselves what kind of person they want to be. Steven Stosny has an interesting post on this topic on the Psychology Today blog.