The Freedom Machine
It is often supposed that psychological determinism is incompatible with freedom. The more a desire compels an action the less free that action is. The more we can predict a person’s actions from his desires the less free that person is. Liberation from desire is thus the key to freedom. Suppose a society accepts this position and sets out to increase freedom within its population. It sets up a Ministry of Freedom charged with increasing freedom by moderating desire. Fortunately it has the means to carry out its mandate, since it possesses a Freedom Machine that can control the strength of desire (it sends signals into people’s brains or some such). Freedom destroying desires, such as drug addiction and sexual appetite, can be reduced in intensity so that the agent is free to resist their urging (similarly for intense puritanical desires). The authorities can (they think) increase the degree of freedom by reducing intensity of desire. Let’s suppose the machine works and everyone’s desires become moderate to the point of lukewarm. No one feels compelled to do anything; no one is overwhelmed by his desires; everyone can take it or leave it, whatever “it” is.
Would this really increase human freedom? I think not. Consider moral desire, and suppose it to have been especially strong: people really wanted to act morally and almost always did—they were quite predictable in that regard. After the Freedom Machine has done its work, however, they are far less morally ardent and far less predictably moral. Are they now freer than they were? That seems like a bizarre thing to say: they are neither more nor less free than before. And it is the same for non-moral desires: you don’t make me freer by reducing the strength of my desire to play tennis or to eat oysters. Strength of desire has nothing to do with it. And this means that the degree of psychological determinism (if we are going to use that iffy phrase) has nothing to do with it. The machine is merely a device for diluting desire not for increasing freedom (it should be called the Desire Dilution Machine).
You might reply that if desires are too strong they negate freedom. What if there was a desire that could notbe resisted, say a desire to eat figs: wouldn’t a person in the grip of that desire fail to be free? What if the desire necessitated action taken to satisfy it? Wouldn’t the agent be helpless in the face of his desire to eat figs, quite unable to withstand its force? It seems to me not clear that this would negate freedom—after all, the agent would always be doing exactly what he most desired—but the point I want to make is that this hypothetical situation is dubiously coherent. For the following strikes me as a conceptual truth (certainly an empirical truth): no desire is such that it is inherently irresistible—and this is an important part of our understanding of human freedom. Desires always coexist with other desires and those other desires can always in principle override any given desire. A desire is not an unstoppable unitary force; it always operates in competition with rival desires. In some people moral desires have great potency, while in other concupiscence rules. We all know in our own case that any of our desires could in principle be resisted, difficult though that may be. We can see that there is nothing necessitating about a desire: it is not that kind of thing. We know that at other times and for other people the weight of a present desire is not determinative, so it is not determinative for us now. Sure, I desperately desire that drink right this minute, but I know that the desire cannot force me to drink. That is simply not in its nature. You can’t ratchet up a desire to the point that no one could ever resist it. Certainly no human has ever experienced a desire so strong that no one could fail to act on it. That is the beauty of desire: it inclines but it never compels. And that is why our actions are free—because there is always slack between desire and deed. We could always have done otherwise. The inclining desire is always up against other desires, even if they are as bland as “Avoid making any effort”, so it never operates as an unconstrained cause. A strong desire is not one that has no competition; it is one where the competition is relatively weak. No matter how strong the desire is there is always a gap between it and action. There is no analogue for desire of the Cartesian notion of an inescapable belief—one that simply cannot be overridden. Desires are intrinsically things that admit of being overridden. For any desire D there is an agent A at time t such that D fails to prevail in A at t.
Thus acting from a strong desire is not in any way a departure from freedom. I am not less free simply because I really really want to do what I am doing. Such a desire is not one that admits of no alternative, and reducing its strength in no way enhances freedom. A person with weak desires is not someone with a higher degree of freedom than a person with strong desires.