Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Freedom and Aging (New paper)

I am finishing up writing a brand new paper on freedom and aging. My central thesis is that senescence is one of the greatest threats to human freedom in the 21st century. I exam two conceptions of freedom- negative and positive liberty- and argue that my thesis can be substantiated by both accounts of freedom.

The negative conception of liberty equates freedom with the absence of interference. Coercive measures like limiting free speech or enforcing a “one-child” policy are obvious examples of a violation of negative liberty because both involve the imposition of external obstacles on our menu of options. This negative account of freedom can be contrasted with the “positive” conception of freedom which equates freedom with having the capacity to be self-determining. The positive conception of freedom is often invoked to help emancipate collective groups of people (e.g. low-paid workers). Marxists, for example, endorse this account of freedom in their attempts to reveal how a whole class of people (e.g. the proletariat- persons who must sell their labour power in order to survive) remain unfree despite the removal of many external obstacles (e.g. slavery, the monarchy, etc.).

I then exam what both accounts of liberty might say about the inborn aging process. For negative liberty, my critic might argue that I conflate liberty with capacity. And so I consider 3 points critics might raise against my thesis. These involve the following points:

(1) The paradigmatic threat to freedom is coercion.
(2) Threats to freedom must come from human-created limitations.
(3) The interference is a violation of freedom when it limits a moral right we have as humans.

After critically examining these three points I conclude that even proponents of negative liberty ought to agree that aging does limit our freedom (even if it is not coercion), that humans are (at least partly) responsible for this limitation, and that the interference does violate a moral right (to health) that we have as humans.

The positive conception of freedom more naturally presents advocates of geroscience with an account of freedom that can readily explain why tackling senescence itself, rather than just specific diseases of aging, would promote freedom for the world’s aging populations. And this is so because positive liberty emphasizes the importance of the internal factors necessary for living an autonomous life. That autonomy might be compromised, for example, when an individual has a drug addiction and thus lacks self-determination. Or collective autonomy might be compromised when a class of persons (e.g. proletariat) must sell their labour power doing work they find alienating or when citizens lack the ability to contribute to their own self-governance.

How might the story of the aging of humanity be integrated into this account of positive liberty? Perhaps the most natural way of doing so is to emphasize the connection between our physical and mental health and our autonomy. The latter means having the ability to act on one’s free will. And thus the positive conception of liberty, unlike the negative conception, equates freedom with possessing a capacity. The capacity to be self-determining.

When a person is younger, in the prime of health during their 20s for example, they will have many capacities that diminish later in life. Capacities such as running long distances without experiencing joint pain, playing contact sports without risking serious injury, and possessing a higher cognitive processing speed, better memory and attention that help aid with many cognitive tasks in life. Because senescence has detrimental effects on a person’s physical and mental health, it can be said to diminish a person’s ability to be self-determining. And this means that, according to the positive conception of freedom, aging reduces our freedom. Our menu of options are diminished as we acquire more and more physical and cognitive limitations.

I anticipate, and reply to, two objections to my argument at this stage. One line of criticism is the popular belief that exercise itself is sufficient for liberating humans from the limitations/harms of senescence. And a second objection might come from those who believe my argument promotes a negative stigma about aging- that getting older brings only negative things for society and older persons as individuals. Thus my suggestion that aging diminishes our freedom is, the critic might charge, “ageist”. To hear my reply to these two objections you will have to wait till the paper (hopefully!) finds it way into print in the coming months!