first posted October 22, 2010 - estimated read time: 10 minutes and 55 seconds
Existentialism can be a great source of strength for those individuals who are oppressed. But do its principles have the capacity to truly free everyone and also, what changes would occur in the system of our society if this were to happen? This article will explore the topics on victims of oppression, can and should they affirm their freedom? Should humans affirm the freedom of intelligent animals who cannot affirm it for themselves? And finally, an example case of what would happen to the affluent people of the world if the masses of people living in poverty affirmed their freedom. From exploring these topics it will then be shown to conclude that though existentialism provides a source of strength to victims of oppression, it will in fact never change their situation through affirmation alone. These victims must break free from oppression through awareness of alternative situations, and acting on these alternatives.
To begin let us first review what would constitute a victim of oppression. To be such a victim one would have to have their own wants and goals independent of their oppressor, and their oppressor would have to replace those wants with his or her own. For example, a father dictates to his child that he must always wear a blue shirt. Is this child now a victim of oppression? To answer this correctly, we must first examine the child’s wants. Does the child have any desire to wear a shirt that is not blue? If he doesn’t then he cannot be a victim since his wants are not being violated. He is simply not aware or doesn’t care about which shirt he is wearing. If in his mind blue shirts were the only shirts in the world, then there would be no oppression. Now we must ask, how does a case like this become oppression? Lets say our child goes to school for the first day and now sees that children are wearing red and green shirts. The idea now forms in his head that it is possible to wear other coloured shirts. The boy goes home and tells his father he wants to wear a red shirt like the child he seen in school. His father denies his request and tells him, he is only allowed to wear blue. Now this child has wants which are being violated, and therefore now is a victim of oppression.
So let us look to these questions “can” and “should” victims of oppression affirm their freedoms? Well to answer these we must first examine the case “can” the victims of oppression affirm their freedom. This depends entirely on the victim’s own awareness of alternative situations. To be able to affirm one’s freedom the individual must be first made aware that there is in fact another option to that of their oppressor’s. They must be aware of all the possible steps and actions they are to act on to achieve what it is they want, otherwise they “can” not affirm their freedom. To objectify this claim, we may call back on our father and child example. The child is now aware there are red shirts and he wants to wear one, he however knows of no way to acquire such a shirt – whether that be through buying one from the store, stealing one from another child, or even making one with cloth and dye. If the child is not aware of such a method to affirm his freedom, then he simply “can” not.
Luckily in most cases, the human mind can formulate a solution and learn through observation – let us say that now through observation of the world around him the child has found out how he can get a red shirt. (He walks to the corner store, uses some money, and asks the clerk if he can buy a red shirt). He now “can” affirm his freedom, but should he? The answer is, he must weigh the consequences of his possible actions and then choose to enable his right to freedom and decide for himself. He must take into account all the consequences of choosing to affirm his freedom, and ask himself do I want to face this outcome over my current situation. If the answer is yes he does want to face the new outcome, then he must always choose this option. In contrast, if he fears that the consequences will not be worth the action then he should not act. This is how a victim of oppression can truly exercise affirmation of their freedom. Our child now has the two options, buy and wear the red shirt – or continue to obey his father and wear the blue shirt. It is the child’s existential right to weigh the consequences of these two options in his mind and choose his path. If he wears his red shirt, he fulfills his desire while at the same time disobeys his father. He then runs the risk of his father disowning him and throwing him out of the house. If by choosing to wear this red shirt the boy must also assume the responsibility of providing for himself and finding shelter whereas if he chooses to only wear blue shirts, he can remain under his father’s care. “Should” a victim of oppression affirm his freedom? Only if he feels he is ready to face the consequences of his choice. In essence, either option he chooses – he is affirming his freedom by choosing to remain in the bounds of his blue shirt only wearing father. So whether a victim is choosing or affirming between remaining in oppression, or breaking free from it and facing the consequences, he “should” always make this choice because in doing so he transcends the facticity of his oppression – otherwise he chooses to suffer the moral anguish of not deciding and living a meaningless life (Though this too can be a viable option).
Let us now examine the second topic, should humans affirm the freedom of intelligent animals who cannot affirm it themselves? Is this the right thing to do? There are a few concerns with this statement. Namely, how to we draw the line between what falls under intelligent animals. Also even if this line were drawn how can we be able to truly identify the wants of said animals to affirm them. Finally – we must ask by affirming their freedoms, is forcing our view of their affirmations on them another form of oppression? We will soon see that in fact affirming another’s freedom can only be oppression, since we can only affirm those freedoms which we assume for them to want – and we have no way of with 100% certainty identifying these wants. Since we have already defined the ability to affirm one’s own freedom in terms of awareness we must ask ourselves, are these animals aware of a life or options beyond the ones they already have – especially in the cases in which animals are born and raised in captivity. In many cases do animals raised in captivity not have the ability or knowledge on how to exist outside of it in their natural “free” environments, is it their affirmation to be free if they cannot physically exist or thrive in such a setting? What about in the cases of using animals to test drugs on, in by setting these creatures free do we remove the freedom of health from those who could benefit from such medications? In this case, how do we decide who’s freedom is more important – is there a difference between removing the animal’s freedom to eat it to affirm our freedom of survival as opposed to removing its freedom to test cures for cancer on them?
The answer lies in the animal’s awareness. If the animal was once free in the wild, we should not become oppressors ourselves by capturing this animal thereby not allowing it to affirm its freedom to exist in a natural environment (unless we can say with 100% certainty that after its time in captivity, the animal chooses to affirm remaining in captivity because it is cared for better). The reverse is true if an animal is born and raised to be slaughtered into food, we should not force the freedom of freedom upon this animal since we cannot say for certain that it would affirm this or be able to survive in the wild. Also if we let an animal free – do we doom the freedom of other animals by introducing an unknown element into its environment and perhaps a new predator it is unaware of, such as releasing a chicken into the wild – what of affirmation of survival from the worms and insects it chooses to eat.
The question also leads to our issue, how do we make distinctions between “intelligent” animals. If we say creatures with minor cognitive abilities such as trainable dogs or monkeys, then what happens when these animals have more cognitive abilities then some humans (such as humans with mental disorders or those in comas). Do we then choose to say that we should not affirm the freedom of a man in a coma who is being abused or humiliated? One may attempt to solve this problem by then saying we should then affirm the freedom of all life, but this too has its problem. If we affirm these freedoms, assuming all creatures have the will to survive – then we doom ourselves to extinction. What would we eat? What makes an animal’s affirmation to live more important then a plants? To live a moral life it should not be the man’s or individual’s right to affirm the freedom’s of another or animal because in essence we remove their own affirmations and replace them with our own (the ones we think are best). Even if the individual whose freedom we are affirming clearly states verbally “I want to wear a red shirt” – we cannot assume their word to be truth since they may have not taken the time to weigh the options, or they could even by lying. We would in essence swap one form of oppression for another.
The final topic, what would happen to the affluent people of the world if the masses of people living in poverty affirmed their freedom? Quite simply, we have no way of knowing that these people aren’t already affirming their freedom in the first place. These poor people could have affirmed themselves into their poor situations, since the alternative would be less desirable. For instance a person working for minimum wage might realize that to become wealthy, he must work harder, maybe receive an education of some sort, and have the courage to expand his awareness. Since he is not ready to make this commitment, he commits to living his minimum wage job. In the case of the slave breaking free from his master, the slave must choose commit to a life where he can be chased and hunted down, or to servitude, or even to suicide. The slave through his actions chooses to affirm the option he is most comfortable with. In sum what would happen to the affluent people is nothing different, since everyone is already affirming their freedoms anyway. The only case in which such a person would be affected, is if one were to affirm their freedom to take revenge/oppress the oppressor (whether this be stealing, vandalism, or murder). An example of this would be the socialist movement which typically aims to remove the oppression in capitalism, by replacing it with a new oppression of equal government.
In conclusion through an existentialist philosophy, we see that we have the right to affirming our own freedoms – but not to affirm the freedom of others since this is another form of oppression. Existential philosophy empowers the individual greatly since it makes him or her realize that we are truly free from all oppression, and that we must only face consequences of our affirmations. These consequences are usually in place not to oppress, but to protect the right to freedom for other individuals in a society. For example back to our case of the blue shirt father. It is the father’s right to freedom since he owns the house, to make everyone in it wear a blue shirt because this is what he likes to see. The consequence of the boy having to move out if he wanted to wear a red shirt, is to protect the father’s freedom. The other conclusion this paper draws is that, an individual can only affirm what they know – meaning that if they see no other option then it is not wrong to allow them to live in that situation, since forcing a new option on them would be a new form of oppression. We should never force freedoms or affirmations onto others, like another parent telling the boy that he can wear red shirts. The boy must have come up with this idea himself. It is the right and power of the individual to explore the endless options of life, and to choose on their own path.
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Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!
Thanks for that awesome posting. It saved MUCH time 🙂
Excellent first article Kyle!
I’m a huge believer in ‘free choice’, and as you pointed out, that means that I need to allow others freedom of choice too, even if their choice is fatalistic.