May 22, 2005

What is freedom, part 4,782

Mika LaVaque-Manty: May 22, 2005

Here are two examples of how people can exercise cherished freedoms: One, you buy some land in the country — 20 acres, say — and because you don't like snow-mobilers or hunters or hikers or just 'coz, you put up a chain link fence around it and lots of "No trespassing" signs. Two, you love the outdoors and rejoice in the fact that wherever you go, you'll be able to head into the woods without having to worry about fences or "No trespassing" signs, knowing that pretty much everywhere you can pick berries, collect mushrooms or wildflowers, swim in lakes and even camp a night or two.

The former is familiar to everybody in North America. The latter may strike North American readers as not a freedom at all, not least because it conflicts with the former. But it is a real freedom. While my point here is not to adjudicate between the two freedoms or advocate one over the other — they do conflict, but both have their places and uses, as far as I'm concerned — thinking about the two is conceptually helpful: it's one of many reminders that freedom isn't natural, but an institution, and that if one wants to defend one conception over another, one had better have arguments that are attentive to history and context.

That's a trivial point, perhaps, but I find myself needing to make it pretty often.

The second freedom, in case you're wondering, is the so-called Right of Public Access, and it's an ancient Scandinavian institution still alive and well in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. The original Swedish term allemansrätt (allemansrett in Norwegian, jokamiehenoikeus in Finnish) literally means "everyman's right." The basic idea is that it allows everybody — not only citizens —  "free right of access to the land and waterways, and the right to collect natural products such as wild berries and mushrooms, no matter who owns the land."  There are national variations on the legal status of the right and its details. In Sweden, it has been a constitutional right since 1994: "There shall be access for all to the natural environment in accordance with the right of public access" (The Instrument of Government, ch. 2, art. 18). In Norway, its details are in the Outdoor Recreation Act (which explicitly prohibits most barriers and "No trespassing" signs).

Happily, this kind of freedom comes with lots of responsibilities, and most of the detailed statutes and policies list many more "don'ts" than "mays." The Swedish slogan "inte störa, inte förstöra" captures the constraints pretty well: "Do not disturb, do not destroy." It's close to the North American "leave no trace" principle about wilderness behavior, in addition to which you can't disturb other people in nature or at their homes.

It's not surprising that the Right of Public Access hasn't ever quite existed elsewhere in Europe: Scandinavia's low population density has made it possible and in fact probably originally motivated the convention. So my point here is not to argue that it would be a nifty idea worth adopting elsewhere. Counterfactually maybe, or maybe not. (What if Leif Eriksson had stuck around and had occupied the continent with Norsemen, instead of varieties of Brits reeling from their own tragedy of the commons being the primary early occupiers?) But clearly the idea is now a non-starter, here and elsewhere. In North America a quasi-Lockean commitment to the sanctity of property rights is pretty firmly established.

I have no particular interest in arguing against that quasi-Lockean conception of freedom. In fact, I happen to like it pretty well much of the time. My point is primarily theoretical, even if the example I use is from the real world. The example is particularly interesting because it predates state institutions. The Right of Public Access is an institution, all right, but the state — in any meaningful sense of the word — is not its creator. The state eventually comes to protect it and to enshrine it in its laws, but its emergence is organic: it's a convention enforced by mutual understandings and local social pressures before the state emerges (or appears on the scene, as the case was in late medieval Finland). And so what we have as a result is that, in Scandinavia, the very idea of property in the land does not include an unqualified right to prevent others from using it.

You might think this appalling, of course. You might also think you now have an idea why those weird Scandinavians seem so fond of the intrusive welfare state. (There may be a connection, there may not be; it's a seriously difficult historical question lots of people have tried to answer.) But if you think so, you'll have to offer an argument for why it's appalling. What you can't do is say that the quasi-Lockean conception just is freedom and the Right of Public Access is not.

(I'll leave it for another post to argue why the Right of Public Access is also a liberal and an individual right.)

July 19, 2005

J. K. Rowling's modern world

Mika LaVaque-Manty: July 19, 2005

[July 22 addendum. By reader request, I include this SPOILER DISCLAIMER: This post reveals nothing about the plot of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but the commentary that follows on L2R Comments does.]

I take a break from summer break to make sure L2R has a seat on the fluffy cultural bandwagon of Harry Potter commentary. (Besides, Don H. is on vacation, and it takes a small village of bloggers to make up for his productivity.)

Lately, it has become commonplace to argue that Max Weber's "secularization thesis" has turned out false. Weber, the early 20th-century German sociologist, suggested that modern world was becoming increasingly secular. The development of science, in particular, had "disenchanted" the world, he said. But in 2005 it does indeed seem things didn't quite go like that: whether the world ever got particularly secular, it would be hard to argue right now that religions and other kinds of spirituality are fast on their way out.

That's why it's interesting -- and intellectually refreshing -- to run into a glaring exception that also manages to be hugely popular. The world J. K. Rowling has created in her Harry Potter books is, in a Weberian sense, truly secular and modern.

Now, of course, there are two important ways in which Rowling's world is very enchanted: it's a world full of magic -- Harry is a budding wizard attending the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, after all -- and it has enchanted millions of readers over the last several years. But there are lots of important ways in which it's secular.

Consider: Religion plays no role in the books. There are no churches, no other religious institutions, nobody prays or meditates, and even funerals are non-religious affairs. This is a striking contrast to all the other familiar trappings we find in the books: there's commerce and bureucracy, there's crime and punishment, sports, arts, media; there's teenage romance and mischieft, there's drinking and partying, petty jealousies and worldwide crises.

Further, the magic in the books have their, well, rational logic. You have to study them, like science, and while Rowling mainly spares us the details (for which I'm eternally grateful, though I'm sure there are some fans busy trying to cook up Polyjuice Potion), there are natural laws of sort underlying them. They aren't our natural laws, but they are like our natural laws: thoroughly causal. The one apparently non-causal area of magic -- "Divination" -- is more or less explicitly pooh-poohed by any self-respecting wizard. Or, more precisely, divination is not dismissed, but smart folks understand its efficacy makes sense sociologically: it can work only if people believe it works.

So what? Does this mean that those folks who worried a few years back (maybe still) about Rowling being in league with Satan were right? Or does it mean that Rowling has an atheist agenda, which in some views is just another way of being in league with Satan? No, I would say. I think Rowling's "modernity" matters, but lest I be misunderstood, I'll first spell out what I don't mean.

I don't think Rowling has an atheist or anti-religious agenda. I don't know about her religious views, and I'm not enough of a groupie to care to find out. I don't really think she has any explicit agenda like that, which may well explain her success and also why the books are, at least in my view, increasingly good. I'm not a fan of literature with tendentious agendas, especially when it's aimed at children and young adults (see Jim Oakes's recent related post). That doesn't mean that literature may not take positions on issues: for example, I like Philip Pullman's more explicitly atheist children's books, but I like them in part because Pullman never turns his stuff into a dogmatic screed and, more importantly, never tries to shut down thinking by making things crassly simplistic.

But I don't think Rowling is -- or tries to be -- political in the way Pullman is: I don't read the absense of religion in her books as an attempt to raise questions about religion. What the absence does allow is for readers to think about gnarly moral questions without any easy answers.

I'm not saying religion and morality aren't compatible, although I personally happen to like Immanuel Kant's view on the matter. Kant -- himself probably a non-believer, but also a defender of religious faith and even occasionally of dogma -- thought it thoroughly problematic to base morality on religious faith: action based on the fear of God or on the hope of Heaven could not begin to count as moral action. What I am saying is that since Rowling's characters -- and particularly her protagonist Harry -- can't turn to already-existing answers on moral questions, they have to sort them out themselves. Their world has rules and it has its version of science, i.e., magic. Sure, some of the magic has been categorized as "Dark Arts," meaning it's supposedly in the service of evil, and it can be used to hurt others. But like the more mundane rules which Rowling's teenage characters have teenagers' universally good sense to question, the categorization of things into "Dark Arts" is less obvious than it first seems. On the whole, the category may make sense, but even then you'll need some magic-independent moral argument to say why something is "Dark." Ultimately, magic is like the science Weber wrote about: it's value-free, and it doesn't tell us "What should we do? How should we live?"

(OK, OK: there are also easy answers in the Harry Potter books. Bullies are bad, spoiled bullies particularly, and venality of any kind is likely to make others think ill of you.)

Some readers may find that very absence of spiritual solace and religious moral dicta in Rowling's world bewildering and so exactly the source of exciting unease adventure and horror fiction rely on. "Whew," they say on finishing a Harry Potter book, "Thank God [sic] I've got this source of support poor Harry doesn't." That'd be just fine. But I like the Harry Potter books exactly because they are -- in addition to the fun and adventure and summer escapism -- deeply moral books without easy answers to some the toughest moral problems people confront. In that way, they remind us that however much Weber's secularization thesis may have been wrong on the sociological particulars, the philosophical problem of modernity is that it's often bewilderlingly hard to figure out what we should do and how we should live and that, on the whole, it'd be good to get practice in answering those questions by oneself.