Jan/Feb 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Freedom Paradox: Towards a Post-Secular Ethics

Review by Ann Skea

The Freedom Paradox: Towards a Post-Secular Ethics.
Clive Hamilton.
Allen & Unwin. 2008. 288 pp.
ISBN 978 1741 75507 7.

Over the past two centuries most citizens of affluent countries have gained unprecedented freedom and economic independence. Why is it, then, that we are discontented? Why, according to a report prepared by Harvard School of Public Health for the WHO, is depression "predicted to become the world's second most burdensome disease by 2020"? Why has the affluence we have struggled so hard to achieve not brought us the contentment and well-being we expected?

This, says Clive Hamilton, is "The Freedom Paradox." We have never been more free to shape ourselves and our lives but, at the same time, we have never been more subject to social and commercial pressures to conform to collective goals. We are constrained by a new form of "unfreedom." Subtle pressures persuade us that we must have more money, a bigger house and car, a perfect body, a particular toothpaste, even, if we are to make our mark in the world. The consumer society in which we live focuses on generating needs, then, for a price, filling them. The market—commercial and economic—offers us our identity but also fosters conformity and intolerance towards those who break away from the common goals.

There is nothing new here. This is the condition which has been labeled "Affluenza." What is new is the solution Clive Hamilton offers us for our malaise. What we need, he says, is "inner freedom": the reasoned ability and the courage to evaluate the commonly accepted route to happiness and to stand aside from it, the freedom to set our own goals, and the will to achieve them. But we cannot achieve this inner freedom, he says, without committing ourselves to a moral life; without imposing constraints on ourselves and living according to the values and standards these constraints require. Only in this way, according to Hamilton, can we achieve a true sense of self.

So, what is this "inner freedom"? What constitutes a moral life? What does Hamilton mean by "a true sense of self"?

To answer these questions, Hamilton turns to philosophy. Examining earlier theories of morality, he writes clearly and concisely about the philosophies of Plato, Mill, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Rousseau, and of more recent philosophers like Sartre and Rawls. He also examines science, psychology, religion (eastern and western), and he discusses God, death, Marxism, suicide, various sexual practices, art and poetry. His project is hugely ambitious but his aim is to establish a new basis for morality and moral judgments.

Hamilton's project is important and the book is full of thought-provoking argument and discussion. For anyone with any background in philosophy, however, this book is hard to read. Philosophers want to examine the validity of every argument along the way, and Hamilton covers almost every major topic of philosophical debate since the time of Plato and Aristotle. Better to read this book in the manner in which Hamilton says he wrote it:

Contentious philosophical debates underpin much of the discussion... I exclude or skate over most of the controversies if pausing to review them would interrupt the flow of my argument.

This is an easy way of avoiding having to point out and deal with the flaws in his own argument, although he does say he will offer some hints of these "controversies" in his notes.

The problem with Hamilton's approach, however, is that fundamental to his argument is his attempt to dismiss the carefully argued positions of some important philosophers in order to establish a distinction between what he terms the "phenomenal world" (which we construct by the use of reason from what we experience through our limited range of sense data) and the "noumenal world" (which is outside the range of our senses).

The noumenon is undifferentiated, unmanifest, timeless, spaceless, causeless. It is essentially the same, although Hamilton does not say this, as the Ein Soph of the Jewish Cabbalists, the Ancient Greeks' mythological Chaos, the Scientists (and magicians') Aether. It is transcendental (it transcends all physical and phenomenal existence). Poets, artists, musicians, saints and, occasionally, ordinary human beings have moments when they intuit a connection with it. And according to Hamilton, the moment of creation of a new life constitutes connection between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds, and sexual ecstasy, too, as in Tantric beliefs, is the result of such a connection.

Having established the existence of the noumenon, Hamilton goes on to argue that it contains a universal human essence which is made manifest in each of us in the phenomenal world. We intuit our connection with this "Universal Self," and this is the basis of the new morality he proposes. Intuition and the recognition of some shared human essence which links us all to the Universal Self is what should guide our moral judgments. The fundamental idea is simple and attractive but Hamilton ties himself in a few philosophical knots trying to work out the practical details. Just for example, his undifferentiated, unmanifest, a-causal noumenon suddenly acquires individual essences, similar to Platonic Ideas, as he tries to determine a moral basis for general revulsion to the sexual act of bestiality.

The main problem with the noumenon, however, and with any hypothesis of such a non-rational world (rationality is a human attribute and therefore confined to the phenomenal world) is that its existence cannot be proved by reason. Like all religions, and Hamilton's hypothesis constitutes his own religious interpretation of the world (or worlds), it relies on faith. Yet Hamilton's whole book is an attempt to rationalize his view and, especially, to offer a philosophical framework for his proposed code of morality. No wonder, as he comments in his "Acknowledgements," the four (un-named) philosophers who read the early draft of his manuscript, offered him "bracing" criticism.

Nevertheless, The Freedom Paradox makes stimulating reading and it deals with important issues which should be the topic of discussion and debate. Hamilton's chapters are short and easily digestible, and, as some of his chapter headings suggest, the range of topics he covers offers interesting material for thought and discussion. There is much to consider, for example: "Do we prefer what we choose?" "The decline of free will," "Subtle coercion," "A digression on the existence of God," "On death," "Suicide," "Nature," "Emotions as judgments," "Egoism and malice," and much more.

Whatever I think of the philosophical basis of Hamilton's arguments, he proposes a form of morality based on common humanity and an awareness of the world around us, including something wonderful which is intuited and transcendental, which I find emotionally satisfying, even if reason cannot support it. What I am lacking, I fear, is faith that such morality can or will ever prevail.


Note: Clive Hamilton was recently appointed Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, a joint centre of the Australian National University, Charles Sturt University and the University of Melbourne. You can listen to his presentation of some of the arguments in his book.


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