Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Freedom and Restraint: Part II

I have written before about the importance of individual autonomy and the priority I place on it for ethical decision making. (See the post, "Tradition and Individual Autonomy.") In a post from a few days ago, “A Different Globalization for Labor,” I discussed Robert J. Flanagan’s book Globalization and Labor Conditions. In that post, I quoted and agreed with his argument that good policy decisions are those that enhance the opportunities of target populations. Likewise, in another post, “Are Some Cultures Better Than Others?,” I argued that any culture could be improved, by changes that enhance individuals’ autonomy and freedom. I very much agree with the words of the recently departed Mstislav Rostropovich (whose words I am quoting from a quotation in an editorial in the newsmagazine The Week from May 11, 2007), “Every man must have the right fearlessly to think independently and not merely to express with slightly different variation the opinions which have been inculcated in him.”

There are a number of restraints on freedom of individual human action, and that is the main topic of this post. In general, restraints on individual human autonomy can be divided into two types: natural restraints and social restraints, with social restraints to be discussed in my next blog entry. (I don’t mean to imply that these are clearly and absolutely distinct categories. Given the nature of human culture, various natural restraints are themselves shaped in part by human cultural practices, and social restraints are themselves shaped in part by environmental conditions and human biology. Still, the distinction is a useful one in making matters conceptually manageable.) Both natural and social restraints on freedom are present in all cultural contexts, but in very general terms, as social scale increases, natural restraints proportionally decrease in significance and social restraint generally increases in significance, though beginning in the modern era, various technologies became widely distributed with the effect of the possibility (but no guarantee) of increasing social scale and productivity alongside greater individual autonomy.

Natural Restraints

By natural restraints, I mean factors shaping and constraining free action that are not themselves social relations involving in some way the individuals whose autonomous action is being restrained. I have in mind here two sorts of restraints: human biological constants, and conditions of the physical environment which shape human action.

Human Biological Constants

Simply put, our biological composition and bodies shape the range of possibilities for human action. Biology in no way determines human action. Nor does it alone even determine the range of what is physically possible, for available technology shapes that as well, but the nature of our bodies clearly plays an important role in influencing what is possible (and what is not).

Most of what we do and experience is overwhelmingly shaped (alongside the variety of other factors I’ll address) by how our minds work, the nature of our sensory apparatus, the capabilities and limitations of physical ability, our libido and emotions (not biologically determined to be sure, but having biological components).

At the same time, once acknowledged, I’m less concerned here with such biological constants. While the role of biological constants cannot be ignored, as constants such factors are not instrumental in shaping any understanding of degrees of individual autonomy or differences in degrees of freedom across multiple contexts.

To refer to biological “constants” is not to imply that all humans are biologically identical. That would just be silly. Nor do I mean to imply that human biology is not shaped by a variety of other factors. It is, for example by long-term environmental conditions to which human populations biologically adapt (yielding patterns such as those described by Allen’s Rule, Bergmann’s Rule, or Thomsen’s Nose Rule), or by patterns of social behavior (e.g. the physical effects of exercise or different work patterns).

To speak of biological constants is intended instead to indicate that humans are relatively constant biologically, the physical variation existing within a narrow range for most traits. More importantly here, when it comes to human biology acting as a constraint on human free action, the effect is relatively constant. Arnold Swarzenneger can lift heavier objects than I can, and I can probably comfortably drive a smaller car than he, but while the details of our possible physical actions vary, there’s nothing about the types of activities either of us can engage in that’s different in any significant way. There are types of activities he can engage in that I can’t (because of the fact that he’s wealthy, a movie star, or the governor of California), but not on the basis of biological difference. There are biological differences that are significant for specific purposes (e.g. skin color in relation to a society’s long term history of exposure to ultraviolet radiation), but not generally for purposes of considering human autonomy (e.g. to the extent that skin color might be related to restraint on free action, it is for distinctly non-biological reasons).

Finally, technology might change all of this. Already, biotechnology has in some ways extended normal bodily capacity beyond what would have been the case before (e.g. the role of pacemakers in counteracting heart murmurs so that the heart functions normally). There’s no theoretical reason why biotechnology couldn’t more and more extend what is normal, and if we do enter into a thorough-going cyborg future, the idea of biological constants constraining possible action might be what seems fanciful, but we’re not there yet.

Environmental Conditions and Julian Steward’s Culture Core Argument

Environmental conditions do not determine human action in any culture, but they shape, influence, and restrain human action in all cultures.

When examining ways in which physical conditions of the environment shape and constrain human action, I find it useful to revisit Julian Steward’s “culture core” idea. It’s now an “old” idea (first fully laid out in his Theory of Culture Change from 1955), but hardly “out of date.” It has the advantage of being elegant and straightforward. It’s compatible with (in fact was a starting point for) cultural ecological and cultural materialist perspectives on relations between human practice and culture and the environment, but doesn’t require hardcore commitment to such perspectives in order to see its basic merits.

Steward’s reasoning starts with the straightforward fact that human beings have to meet certain basic needs in order to simply continue to exist, such as the need for adequate food, in some contexts the need for adequate shelter and clothing, etc. How humans go about meeting these needs is not straightforward at all, but that they must meet them - or die - is. Steward further argues that there is always a “culture core” that must maintain a certain degree of functionality. The culture core consists of those elements of culture directly related to meeting basic human needs.

The culture core is where the physical environment influences and possibly constrains cultural patterns most strongly. The culture core consists of patterns of behavior that must be performed using available resources. The nature and distribution of available resources shapes the possibilities for how people can go about making a living. In areas where resources are both plentiful and widely and evenly distributed, there may be many ways to go about meeting basic needs, and so the environment has a lesser constraining influence. In places where resources are scarce and widely scattered in distribution, there may be a much tighter range of possible ways to meet basic needs, and human action is more constrained as a result.

Technology plays a crucial role here. As societies develop technology that enable them to manipulate the physical environment to a greater degree, the environment is less of a constraining influence, or it at least constrains to a lesser degree, and the range of resources that can be utilized and the extent to which land itself might be used as a resource expands. The North American Great Plains are a great place to farm – if you have domesticated animals and steel plows (or tractors) that you’ve developed somewhere else.

In general then, environmental restraints are proportionally more important for smaller societies with lower levels of technology (though the exact nature and distribution of resources and the exact level of available technology shapes the specific degree and type of restraint that the environment plays), while larger societies are less constrained by the environment.

Even for the contemporary world with its global economy, though, the culture core concept and environmental constraint still apply. Basic needs still have to be met. There’s a quite large, but finite, range of ways in which that can currently be done, and crucially it’s not at all clear that current methods of producing basic needs are sustainable at the global level, which is a good reason for anthropologists and others who think mainly about human social relations to be cognizant of issues such as global warming, as well as human-environmental relations in general.

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