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Prior Knowledge

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Happy slave?

I feel like I should make a post. I'm studying ethics and political philosophy, as well as cognitive psychology at Canterbury this year. I'm finding it all really interesting, although hard to get my head around at times. Anyway, something that I have been a little preoccupied with recently, is the 'Happy slave' objection.

One kind of freedom, put forward by Bernard Williams, is 'primitive freedom'. S is primitively free with regard to some action if she is "unobstructed in doing what she wants by some form of humanly imposed coercion". S's total primitive freedom is the ratio of satisfied desires to unsatisfied desires.

Some would object that this means that a happy slave is more free than the other slaves. Because the happy slave doesnt desire to be a non-slave, he has a higher ratio of satisfied desires. Berlin gives an account of freedom: namely, negative freedom, that avoids this counterexample. According to Berlin's freedom: "I am free to the extent that no person prevents me from doing what I could otherwise do". It makes no reference to the desires of the slave, so the happy slave is equally unfree as the other slaves, although perhaps more lucky.

This has lead me to consider that perhaps what William's primitive freedom was pointing to was closer to welfare than freedom. After all, it is satisfying desires. If primitive unfreedom is to be equated with welfare, however, then we would be committed to saying that the happy slave is more well off than the other slaves, as well as someone that wasn't a slave and wished to be, and, ceteris paribus, is equally well off as the happy non-slave. Does this agree with your intuitions? I'm tempted to say that many people will disagree with that last point. Surely being free is to be factored into your welfare, even if you don't value it. However, perhaps when we say that, we are just telling the happy slave what he ought to value; which strikes me as a little presumptuous. I really intended this post as a bit of a survey. Tell me what you think. How well off is the happy slave?


  • Interesting questions! I'll probably write a post on a related topic soon. But for my initial thoughts: the happy slave is surely better off than a miserable slave. And, if slavery wasn't getting in the way of any of his other goals (which would be very unlikely in practice!), then I'd even say he's as well off as a non-slave.

    I'm still undecided on whether or not the happy slave is unfree. For if his 'slavery' is not in any way obstructing him in his pursuits, but merely prevents him from doing things he doesn't want to do anyway (a sort of counterfactual unfreedom), then that strikes me as a fairly trivial sort of restriction. I wouldn't particularly care if I couldn't do anything I wouldn't do anyway!

    Imagine a brain implant that reads your mind as you make a decision to turn left (say), and upon detecting this it makes it impossible for you to turn right. You wouldn't even notice it. Does it impinge upon your freedom in any real sense?

    3/06/2005 04:32:00 PM  

  • About the trivial sort of restriction, I would say that it is trivial precisely because the happy slave doesn't value it. He is just as unfree, but it is simply not an important kind of unfreedom.

    I would say that the reason why he is just as unfree, is because, if he changed his mind (counterfactual situation), or had decided differently (I admit, another counterfactual situation), he would stay a slave. He literally doesn't have a choice.

    The important difference with the brain implant situation is (i think), that you still have a choice. If you decide to turn left, then you can. If you decide to turn right, then you can. (by the way, what happens if you decide but then change your mind? I'll assume that it allows the change of mind). I seems that the only time when it has any effect on you is to facilitate your freedom: If you decide to turn left, but things get jumbled up and, contrary to your wishes, you tell your feet to send you right, it will interfere and correct your walking, so that it conforms with your decision!

    3/06/2005 06:29:00 PM  

  • No reason to see the happy slave as any less free I think - it is just the connotation that bothers people (actually - I think no one is free anyway!).

    However one could argue that his desire not to be "free" (to re-design it a little) is likely to have somthign to do with his slaery etc etc ie the evidence leans towards him being less "free"/happy or less free/happy in the future etc etc but if the hypothetical declares them to be equal then they are equal.

    10/20/2005 10:14:00 PM  

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