What is this moral freedom business?

Part 3 – How freedom and identification fail


The two models - agency through freedom and agency through identification - are culturally determined.  A child must be acculturated to use freedom in decision-making or defer to an exemplar. No society adopt one or the other completely, but the social tendencies run deep, particularly in China and in the US.  Think of “freedom” in the US, and perhaps “harmony” in China.  Those words might well describe the political and social culture of each country. 

Ci Jiwei says the best description of the distinction between agency as freedom and agency as identification is in Kant’s essay An Answer to the Question - What is Enlightenment?  Kant argues that individual moral immaturity is self-inflicted - not from a lack of understanding, but from the lack of courage to use one's reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another.  Kant –

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a portion of mankind… remains under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so easy not to be of age. If I have a book that understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if I can only pay others will easily undertake the irksome work for me.

As noted in Part 1, there are two uses of the term agency that are pertinent here.  Agency as used in Moral China refers to individuals using agents to accomplish tasks. We understand lawyers and accountants and engineers as agents, helping us accomplish tasks too complex or time consuming for us to adequately do ourselves.  Agents are also garbage men and delivery people and political representatives and can be political or moral or clan or team leaders.  The social question for Ci is how agents are identified in matters of moral concern – do we use individual freedom to decide for ourselves whom we choose as agents – agency as freedom - or do we simply identify with a leader as an agent to help secure a sense of personal dignity – agency as identification.

Another common use of the term agency is in moral agency, the ability of an individual to make choices based on self-reflection and analysis.  We can refer to this as moral autonomy.  There is overlap of moral agency, which is an expression of ability to be rational and self-interested, with the Ci use of agency.  The two uses of the term agency are related, but distinct. Moral agency is a legal term, referring to the ability of a person to be sufficiently autonomous. It seems to me that inadequate moral agency is not rational, whereas agency as identification can be a perfectly rational choice (see Kant, above). An extreme use of agency as identification can severely restrict one’s moral agency. We see this in leaders who can convince followers to do immoral things – Charles Manson comes to mind, but also CCP officials in the Great Famine or any of the purges of the last seventy years.  The Ci Jiwei use of agency is a complex idea. It is choosing a way of securing a sense of dignity rather than simply acting rationally that is the basis of moral autonomy.  

Neither form of the Ci Jiwei use of agency – freedom or identification - is used exclusively in society, and even within a single instance there are elements of both freedom and identification.  We can freely choose political representatives, but that choice is often – maybe usually – mediated by our identification with a particular candidate – the one whom we think is most like us, or would vote as we would vote.  But, as Ci notes, what is important is our perception.  Are we making a free choice of the candidate with whom we identify?  Can the candidate tell us what to think and believe, what is true and not true? 

In agency through freedom, individuals have to do the work of deciding for themselves. This is not an easy task.  There is reflection, and discussion on issues, evaluation of alternate viewpoints, maybe even voting.  There is evaluation of sources of information and consideration of unintended consequences.  There is consideration of what is the right thing to do, and what is the moral thing to do. There are limitations - who has the time or training to research or express a well-considered opinion on more than a few issues?  Even so, individuals understand their tasks and their power as an experience of freedom.  Having to decide for oneself is a luxury, not a burden. 

In a democracy, individuals express agency through freedom, and experience this agency as an expression of power. That realization puts limits on one’s ability to express power.  This is the “freedom stops at the other guy’s nose” argument.   

Ci explains it this way – This is how agents-through-freedom understand their power in the moral scheme of things: they value and justify what they do under the shared description of freedom.  If I have freedom, others must have it too.  No leader or book can tell us what is right or wrong in a particular situation.  We will have to figure that out for ourselves.  (This, of course, conforms with a Kantian notion of morality independent of religion and emphasizing individual autonomy. There are problems with that view, but that is another article).

Failure of agency as freedom

Agency as freedom can fail.  If members of a society no longer find plausible the attribution of power to themselves as an experience of freedom, then there can be a moral – and political – crisis.  That is, if the feeling of agency as freedom degrades – if the exercise of choice over time fails to result in reasonable changes in the world – people may turn to agency as identification as a moral model.  One can see the rise of Trump and populist movements in the US as representing people for whom the experience of freedom has been lessened.  The perception of increased government regulation, increased immigration, greater opportunities for minorities, even lessened political receptivity to personal hardships – all can lead to reduced faith in the value of freedom as understood by a segment of the population.  Populists even proclaim the loss, by demanding return of their freedoms, or making America great again, back in the old days when their supporters felt more in power. 

The loss of the experience of freedom is not the only way for agency as freedom to fail. In the last few years in the US, some are alarmed at the willingness of political leaders and business leaders to simply lie about their past and their plans.  The lying is to the detriment of citizens, consumers, and the society, as the glue necessary to civil society fails.  What is the good of freedom to choose if scoundrels are the only choice?

One can also see the rise of the autocrat Donald Trump as a reaction to the pervasive liberalism and perceived lying in government and society generally, and public loss of faith in leaders from failure to represent them fairly.  (Sidenote – The warnings were there for all to consider. In a new book Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?  Robert Kuttner reminds us that Karl Polanyi published “The Great Transformation,” warning that whenever the profit-making impulse becomes deadlocked with the need to shield people from its harmful side effects, voters are tempted by the “fascist solution”: reconcile profit and security by forfeiting civic freedom.  Closer to our own time, long time Republican official Peter Wehner warned us in 2016 that he would never vote for Trump - What I explained then, and what I have said many times since, is that Trump is fundamentally unfit—intellectually, morally, temperamentally, and psychologically—for office. For me, that is the paramount consideration in electing a president, in part because at some point it’s reasonable to expect that a president will face an unexpected crisis—and at that point, the president’s judgment and discernment, his character and leadership ability, will really matter.)

Failure of agency as identification

Agency through identification can fail as well. Leaders are modeled as moral exemplars, as bearers of truth, and definers of the Good.  If you read the story of Ai Fen, the Wuhan doctor, you got the idea.  All her life, this excellent person had been told what is the truth, what is the good.  She did not have to decide that for herself. At one point, her professional commitment as a doctor conflicted with the moral freedom that belonged only to CCP.  CCP defines what is true, what is good, and what information should be shared.  She was threatened, and she reasonably said no more – until several weeks later, in interviews, when she found her moral freedom to say what she thought and what she had seen.  But this step was dangerous for her, and out of character as she had been acculturated.  Speaking truth to power is not the way to get ahead in China now. 

One can see the rise of the autocratic Xi Jinping as a reaction to the pervasive corruption in CCP and society generally, and public loss of faith in leaders from exposure of their personal moral failings.  CCP must regain its role as the exemplary leader if it is to maintain legitimacy.  (Sidenote - In 2004, Xi warned officials – “Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain.” In 2012, Bloomberg revealed Xi’s family wealth at hundreds of millions of dollars.)

Agency as identification doesn’t work so well in a modern society.  Modernity, at least western modernity, breeds individualism and an unwillingness to always defer to the leader.  A people accustomed to thinking of themselves as free, as autonomous individuals, want to decide for themselves what is good and not good.  This aspect of modernity is a dilemma for CCP, and is expressed in the old meme, “look to the west for science, to China for culture.”  That phrase originated in the late Qing dynasty, when Chinese intellectuals wanted modern western technology without modern culture.  The Chinese government still wants to have it both ways, but it is tough to have one without the other.

Agency through identification in CCP

Ci Jiwei notes that agency through identification has been a part of traditional Chinese culture, going back at least two thousand years.  It was a part of European cultures as well.  Religious or secular leaders were always definers of truth and the Good, and that changed with the Enlightenment.  It became possible for individuals to define the good for themselves, and to evaluate truth claims of leaders.  A healthy skepticism toward truth claims evolved.

Thomas Metzger* suggests that this skepticism piece of the Enlightenment never got to China.  In this sense China is sui generis – uniquely suited to communism as a form of governance.  The culture didn’t need to change too much to accommodate communism, in which the essence is identification with the paramount leader.  One experiences this even today.  I have asked teachers at CCP Party schools – the training grounds for advancement at all levels of the Party – where truth comes from, and the answer is always quick and to the point – from leaders.  Believe that or not – and the teachers are smart and otherwise quite “westernized” - this is the accepted answer. 

* Metzger refers to a Great Modern Western Epistemological Revolution (GMWER) that never took place in China. In the west, the GMWER led to an epistemological pessimism about perfectionism in government, trust in leaders, and promoted the search for truth and not simply harmony.  Thomas Metzger. A Cloud Across the Pacific: Essays on the Clash Between Chinese and Western Political Theories Today. The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press (January 25, 2006)


On agency through identification, from Ci Jiwei, page 98 -

… the important thing is that the exemplar alone … stands in direct relation to that which he exemplifies, such that ordinary people have no access to the real meaning of the tradition or community or movement except through such exemplification ….

In Confucian terms, Mencius defined four sprouts that he said were innate precursors to virtue.  Virtue developed over time, via training in the family, in the community, almost, we might say, in the air.  There is no sprout of moral freedom in China.  CCP will not permit shoots of moral freedom to sprout in writing, in theater, in art, in social media, in law. 

Societies socialize people to their particular cultural model.  A citizen in the US has to be socialized into becoming a free chooser of opportunities and a citizen in China an identifier with a leader.  In both cases, the individual can realize agency, and achieve a sense of dignity, one secured with freedom, one with identification. 


Part 1

Part 2

Part 4