What is this moral freedom business?

 Part 2  Agency through identification


Moral philosophers – Ci Jiwei, Joseph Chan, and many others, probably beginning with Kant – define several kinds of freedom - personal freedom, economic freedom, political freedom and moral freedom.  For my purposes here – and as Ci and Chan do as well – I merge personal and economic freedom, and political and moral freedom.  That seems to me a reasonable change that does no harm to the discussion. 

Every society necessarily allows for some personal freedom – traveling to work, some form of leisure, some choices about buying personal items. 

Not so for moral freedom.

In some systems – China and North Korea are the obvious examples - individual choices about what to think and read and write are heavily circumscribed.  Such restrictions do not necessarily restrict individual dignity. Individuals can still find dignity when they can identify with a leader. If a revered leader provides moral leadership, instructs people in a correct version of truth and right, and a willing populace accedes, then a version of individual dignity can accrue. Ci Jiwei describes this as dignity obtained via agency through identification.

Agency through identification transfers agency – power - to a leader, a boss, a religious figure. An individual ascribes agency to a leader, an exemplar, in whom one’s personal desires can be represented.  The leader thinks and acts on behalf of the collectivity. In return, the individual basks in the magnificence of the leader, by transference. 

Agency through identification is characteristic of traditional societies – and to some extent, hierarchical organizations of all kinds, including sports teams.  Power is ascribed to particular individuals – a clan leader or a team captain – who exemplify the wishes of the individuals in the group.  The individual wills the leader to be an agent, and the individual identifies with the leader.  In return, the dignity of the leader is reflected upon, or borrowed by, the individual.

This is the model demanded by CCP.  This authoritarian model requires that the populace model the leader’s idea of right and wrong, truth and falsity.  The loyal follower agrees. 

This is a legitimate means of securing dignity for the individual – we often use it in the US.  Think of the Americans who identify strongly with some political, religious, or sports leader.  We use entertainment or sports figures to sell every imaginable product. Identification with the exemplar translates into product sales, and the buyer presumably secures some sense of worth by using the product endorsed by the exemplar. In politics, the candidate and supporters position themselves to ascribe virtue, honesty, truth, and positive change to the candidate. Here is a good example – Elizabeth Warren promoting Joe Biden.  The concept is that the potential buyer will identify with the celebrity hawking the merchandise. We try not to use agency through identification for choices of what is right and wrong, or true and false.  We do use it, nevertheless. 

Identification with a leader is, of course, a Christian model as well – and not only in the form of “what gun would Jesus buy?”  Modeling the behavior of Jesus and the saints is understood as the way to moral rectitude.  Aristotle proposed exemplars to model virtuous behavior as well.

The difference with CCP is that Christianity honors a personal sense of morality, free will, and respects an idea of Augustinian uncertainty. No one can presume to know the mind of God. We should all walk through life in the tension of not being too certain about the moral choices of others, or even our own.  Among the requirements for moral agency are continuing self-reflection on actions and voluntary endorsement of agency. 

For Christians, God is the source of morality.  There is a tension between following an exemplar and following one’s conscience, but that tension is what leads to self-reflection and intention. 

The exemplars are different in kind, as well.  In the case of Jesus, the exemplar is one who declined earthly leadership and who was willing to be sacrificed. 

Those requirements cannot apply in CCP, however.  “Question authority” is not a Chinese concept. And no CCP leader as exemplar can ever be shown to waffle on the right or the good.  His word is the truth. Notice how often Chinese leaders invoke history of their own interpretation in speeches.  Leaders are always in the position of fulfilling the arc of history.  Notice too, how often Chinese officials, even at the midlevels, work extremely hard to never make a mistake.  A mistake is not just a mistake, it is dishonoring to leaders.  One’s personal sense of dignity depends on the achievements of the leader, so a mistake is dishonoring to oneself as well. 

Allegiance to a leader can become intoxicating and totalizing.  That way lies every form of totalitarianism.  As we see now in the US, law and regulation can be overturned or reinterpreted in favor of an extremist executive authority.  It is one of the saving graces of democracy that by forcing a regular recalibration of political beliefs, the ability of followers to become sycophants and a long term politically dominant tribe is limited. In the US, we will soon see the extent to which political extremism can be limited by a judicious application of democracy.  We fervently hope that automatons responding to a radical Republican agenda eventually lose out. 

The CCP form of agency through identification does not create automatons.  People voluntarily join CCP at one point in their lives, and people in the west avoid making mistakes as well. I am describing tendencies, rather than mechanics of thought and response.  But agency through identification without significant ability to do self-reflection and question leaders can be a tough gig, especially in the modern world.  Geremie Barme, one of the world’s leading sinologists, refers to a mode of behavior that he calls New China Newspeak. It is newthink, as well. We remember Orwell’s description of doublethink –

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink.

George Orwell.  1984.  Signet Classic, 1961,  Book 1, Chapter 3, page 32. 

The point of agency through identification is that it is even possible to lose Orwell’s ability to reflect, to simultaneously know and not know – at some point, there is no reflection, there is only obedience.  Obedience is the goal of every autocrat for his followers. 


Part 1


Part 3


Part 4