What is beyond our choosing?
by Ken Myers
“Our current conception of freedom is deeply problematic. . . . On the one hand, there is a general recognition — regardless of where one falls in the political spectrum — of freedom as a great human good, something worth promoting and protecting even at the cost of sacrificing other goods; on the other hand, there has been an impoverishment of our understanding of the notion, so that freedom has come to represent little more in the popular imagination than the power to choose. What is problematic about this understanding is not simply that it fails to do justice to the reality that originally warranted recognition as a great human good. What we wish to suggest is that this reduction actively undermines the good-character of freedom. In other words, our claim is that there is something essentially self-destructive in the contemporary relationship to freedom; the nature of what we pursue erodes the very thing we wish to affirm and cultivate. The problem, in a nutshell, is that we think of freedom as an end but define it as a means, and so we treat a bonum utile [i.e., a useful good] as if it were a bonum honestum [i.e., an intrinsic good]. But this is not a mere problem of logic or classification. Instead, this confusion has far-reaching philosophical and cultural implications. To put the problem in its starkest terms, instrumental goods can only ever be good in a derivative sense; a means can be, not just an instrument, but an instrumental good, only through a relationship to an end to which it is subordinate. If we make a means an end in itself, we do two things at once: we both eliminate its goodness and we elevate its status; we transform the absence of goodness into a purpose. Inside of this confusion of ends and means is therefore what we could justifiably call a kind of nihilism. To the extent that we exclude those features of freedom that would qualify it as an and, and at the same time continue to promote it as such even in this reduced form, our notion of freedom becomes a source of nihilism.”
D. C. Shindler, The Perfection of Freedom: Schiller, Schelling, and Hegel between the Ancients and the Moderns (Cascade Books, 2012)