On Autonomy — An Ethics of Liberation
Part I of a 3-part series on autonomy & its friends — fangsheng, freedom, liberty, & what the French call … laïcité.
1. A Liberation of Autonomy
Fangsheng (or “Life Release”) is an East Asian Buddhist practice of saving animals destined for slaughter by taking them from captivity and releasing them into the wild. It is common to see fangsheng practitioners going to fish (and other animals as well) markets all year round but especially on and around Buddhist religious holidays to buy live fish and carry it back to eventually release it to the open waters. Adherents see it as a way to live by the Buddhist principle of compassion and equality between living beings.
1.1. Karma and Autonomy
To think that the act of buying-and-returning a live fish to its natural habitat is one of freeing the fish would be incorrect from the perspective of the autonomy of the fish. The fish was always free, just unable to express its freedom due to the obstructions put up by its captors.
This is radical autonomy: Autonomy that can not be granted, but can only be taken away or prevented from being taken away; the latter being not the same as a grant.
You are not freeing the unfree. Instead you are unfreeing the unfreeers insofar that they can no longer unfree the otherwise-free.
I did not free the fish. I participated in the ritual of removing those obstructions to its freedom as imposed on it by its captor.
- The captor contributed negatively to the fish’s autonomy by taking away its freedom.
- I contributed negatively to the captor’s autonomy in order to disable her from acting as an autonomy-taker any longer.
- ∴ I made no contribution to the fish except for transitively through the captor.
In fangsheng, we posture ourselves as working towards the liberation of all beings, instead of just that fish. That makes the intentions of one’s action as being towards the captor and not towards that fish. This is expressed succinctly in the concept of Karma.
Since there is no action without consequences, the concept of Karma encapsulates both in a single word — it basically refers to actions as seen from the web of its consequences.
This is the view of karma as seen from the perspective of the fish‘s radical freedom and autonomy. The captor’s karma is now linked up to that of the fish’s (for having owed the fish its autonomy) and to mine (since I released her from accruing any more debt). In that, she is indebted to us both, but neither the fish nor I am indebted to anyone.
Taking away freedom incurs upon a debt on the part of the captor to the captive, which keeps building up every moment till the captive is no longer unfree upon which the captor owes a debt to the liberator. The captor of yersterday owes nothing to the liberator or the captor.
1.2. Liberation: The Gateless Gate
It is not fangsheng proper if we approach it as, “I free you”.
We should rather approach it as, “I am no longer staying as your master” while encouraging others to do the same by way of buying the captives away from them to free it eventually.
There is a logic of reciprocity working here: If I don’t do it to you, I am opening myself up to be done to me, that being, getting captured, certainly not by a fish but in other ways in the deep ecology of beings.
Granting autonomy to someone in the name of freeing them is still an exercise of power. It is still a sign-al of dominion over those who you just freed.
As someone with power over another, you can not give freedom to others, the most you can do is be the cause behind someone’s not being unable to express their freedom. Thus, freedom can not be given to another, only taken away from another or expressed as oneself.
We can not be pushing anyone through the door to their freedom lest our pride of being the one who frees takes over.
In our endeavor to create decentralized versions of the most popular web applications — dUber, dAirbnb, dFacebook, dAmazon et al — we are working towards a digital fanghsheng — giving people back the control of their data, of their assets, of their money, of their choices, of their lives.
1.3. Types of Freedom
In terms of autonomy as per the digital fangsheng, some of the most consequential questions to ask:
- Do we look to be free from the capture of our data by the GAFA or are we free to choose what happens to our data, including the choice to have data custodians if one so wishes?
- Is Bitcoin signalling the separation of State from its Monetary Supply, just as Secular states did for State and Church?
These are these two flavors of freedom — the freedom to, and the freedom from. This has played out in history in the ongoing conversation of religious freedom since the Age of Enlightenment, as pioneered by the US and France with their respective postures of freedom from and freedom to.
- The “freedom to” practice any religion, and
- The “freedom from” having to practice any religion
The Freedom To
This was instituted for the first time by the First Amendment of the US Constitution
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
As a new country, the US of 1789 lacked a significant history of religious practice with all its challenges but was well aware of the doctrinal oppression that a monopolistic religion can bring forth. Thus, it wanted to move from a single religion — as the state-sanctioned compulsion legitimizing the Christendom of Europe.
Instead, it postured itself as a safe haven for any religion. This allowed people from all religions to display what they believed in and to which Gods they wanted to belong to. This is referred to as passive secularism since the State is not actively involved in taking religion out of the lives of its people as long as it does not step on another’s religious life.
The Freedom From
This was instituted for the French state as protected by Article XI of the French Declaration of Rights of Man
The free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man: any citizen thus may speak, write, print freely, except to respond to the abuse of this liberty, in the cases determined by the law.
France, having had a long history of Catholic compulsions, wanted to free itself from its grips. It moved towards a secular state, one where the state ensured no one could display their religious affiliations in public offices, being so scarred by the one religion that dominated most of life for ages.
The French approach is referred to as assertive secularism since the State goes out of its way to prevent any single religion from getting accepted as the popular one.
This means the French state does not even keep records of religious or ethnic data in its census, and has state-sanctioned replacements for the more important Christian rituals, such as a Republican (carried out by the Republic of France, thus, secular) wedding for the Catholic wedding, the Republican baptism for the Catholic one, the Lady of the Republic for Notre Dame (Mother of Jesus). In that, the state became the new p̵s̵e̵u̵d̵o̵-religion and the only religion in town.
Essentially, in public and civil offices, the US moved from one religion (Christendom/Protestanism) to many religions, whereas France moved from one religion (Catholicism) to zero religion.
In order to signal acceptance of all religions, the US state would officially celebrate festivities from a wide array of religions, such as Christmas for Christians, Diwali for Hindus, Eid for Muslims, whereas the French state is always vehemently silent about that. The religious pluralism as protected by the US posture of passive secularism has eventually lead to the proliferation of religious thought as long, which is catered to by those in public offices to get more votes. This has resulted in the US becoming a hyper-religious country over the last 200 years, in fact, the most religious in all of the “developed” world.
Contrasting the Two Freedoms
Generally speaking, these two types of freedom (the freedom-to and the freedom-from) have been referred to as positive and negative liberties respectively, as was first popularized with Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958) —
- “I am slave to no man” as an example of negative liberty (freedom-from)
- “I am my own master” as an example of positive liberty (freedom-to)
The freedom flavors (the freedom-from and the freedom-to approaches) are based on a spatial metaphor. It is as if freedom is a journey in space, from the place of being constrained to the destination where one is no longer constrained. The passive secular model focuses more on the destination via its freedom-to that destination, and the assertive the source via its freedom-from that source.
This contrast between the flavors was discussed at length in the Constitutional committees of both Turkey and India (during the time when the modern states were founded) where they referenced the historical postures of secularism from France and the US.
Turkey, primarily being Muslim populated, chose the French model in order to keep Islam in check, while India chooses the US model since it had so many already. As part of the keeping Islam in check, Turkey instituted the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Turkish: Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, normally referred to simply as the Diyanet) “to execute the works concerning the beliefs, worship, and ethics of Islam, enlighten the public about their religion, and administer the sacred worshiping places” [source].
As a strange twist of fate, the current head of the Turkish state has empowered the Diyanet to use for Islamic propaganda for controlling the masses using religion.
From its Wiki entry:
According to some observers (David Lepeska, Svante Cornell), since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, the mission of the Diyanet has changed — from one of exercising state oversight over religious affairs and ensuring that religion did not challenge the Turkish republic’s “ostensibly secular identity”, to that of promoting mainstream Hanafi Sunni Islam, “a conservative lifestyle at home, and projecting “Turkish Islam abroad”
India, on the other hand, chose the model of passive secularism to make space for the multitude of religious practices already in place in the country since ages, and it went along with the framing of “united in diversity” of the Gandhi (India’s founding father), Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) the other founding figures of the post-British state.
Trying to go from one to no-religion, the latter became a garb to invite that one religion via the no-religion institution. The same can be seen in the fervent zeal of the atheist trying to convert the other side. In that, the freedom-from in course of time morphs into the freedom-to, showing us that the two sides act more like a Ying-Yang, co-creating each other, like the two sides of the same bitcoin, rather than a strict dichotomy.
1.4. Crypto Laïcité
In our blockchain rhetoric, when we use the term, autonomous software, are we claiming that it allows us to be free from the human peskiness (think of TTP), thereby, being free to have “[c]ompletely non-reversible transactions” since “[w]ith the possibility of reversal, the need for trust spreads”?
With the eventual letting go of the monopoly of monetary supply, will the state go from one money to many monies via a passive cryptoism or one money to no-money via an assertive cryptoism?
The assertive cryptoism was in part attempted in the Soviet dogma of “end of capital” where the final goal was to remove the need of any capital with an ecology of balances, since our world is a spherical globe. But this needs all of the states in the world to adopt this no-money posture, something that fostered the expansionist attitude of the Soviet state towards Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South-East Asia. Transplanted to now, imagine a global blockchain of balances: who owes what to whom when, where and why.
If money comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.
— Karl Marx, Das Capital
On the other hand, the passive cryptoism would be a crypto-libertarian state where any mutually assenting members of a group could use their own colored coin and credits just as there is the spectrum of infinite colors hidden within the rainbow.
But passive cryptoism would eventually lead toward the consolidation in the hands of a few winner coins as per Gresham’s Law, coupled with a sense of an economic nihilism much like what the “God is dead” signalled at the beginning of the twentieth century secular, modern thought with the displacement of the fiat G-d — “Money is dead”.
2. An Ethics of Autonomy
Everybody has asked the question. . .“What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are wormeaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!
— Frederick Douglass, “What the Black Man Wants”
2.1. Ownership & Autonomy
A free person does not intervene in the unfree person’s life but in the free person’s life if and when she works to unfree (enslave, that is) a free person.
Freedom acts only on itself: A free person can not free an unfree person, but ought to unfree another free person who is using her freedoms for unfreeing a free person.
If a free person is taking away the freedom of another free person, thereby, making her unfree
- then our freedom obliges us to prevent that person from becoming unfree
- that licenses every other free person to be able to prevent that prevention of freedom
Example. A free person (as the Abolitionist Quakers thought of themselves) must intervene in the attempt of another free person (read: white slave owner) from owning another free person (Sub-Saharan-African-American slaves) in order to make them unfree.
- In the reciprocal space, the slave owner, by engaging in the act of unfreeing someone, made it possible for another to take his freedom away as well.
- If another free person did nothing to prevent the act of slavery, he would open up the possibility to become owned one day as part of the reciprocal space of getting owned.
With respect to the reciprocal space, consider the following injunctions if a law is to be instituted:
- No one can own anyone except those who own someone provided it is only insofar that results in the freeing of those that are owned
- No one can prevent someone to free anyone (which could be themselves even when one is a slave), otherwise, it licenses everyone to own oneself
- Anyone owning someone licenses everyone else from them in return for free
If a DAx is to be truly autonomous the way humans are conceived to be autonomous by different legal traditions, no stakeholder should be able to “own” a DAx. A DAx should not be classified as an object that can be owned, as an asset. I am not a property, neither is a DAx.
2.2. Rights & Autonomy
“I don’t kill the fish because the fish has a right to life” — assumes a hierarchy of respectability between living species, where the fish is considered weak compared to the human. Autonomy demands that we level the playing ground by countering the hierarchy by giving the fish superpowers in the form of the same rights as that of humans.
The rationale behind rights-as-superpowers: protecting the autonomous-and-weak from getting intervened upon by the autonomous-and-strong.
However, this is a modern concept of rights. Historically, rights were an offensive posture as conferred by the sovereign upon the strong to rule over the weak — to have one’s right over the weak — “I may do _____ to you because I have a right to” (“I may own land but not you”, “I may vote but not you”).
In feudal and monarchic societies, rights used to be exclusive, as privileges conferred only upon the elect few.
With the democratization of rights as part of the liberation movements of modernism, rights got claimed by all people, thereby reversing the posture into a defensive one. Now, the weak can defend itself from the strong using one’s rights as a shield — “you can not do so & so to me because I too have a right to” (“you can not own all the land because I too have a right to own the land since I farm on it”)
Transplanted to the language of freedom, it evolved — from a freedom-to (the strong is “free to” rule over the weak) to a freedom-from (the weak is “free from” being intervened upon by the strong) posture, — from positive to negative liberty.
2.3. The Directions of Autonomy
In today’s liberal societies, it is a show of the lack of power when the weak even has to call upon their rights to shield themselves from the strong, while the strong can afford to stay apolitical. This is because, as an ethical device, autonomy by way of rights aims to make equals out of unequal by applying the logic of permissions but in reverse. When I kill the fish, the movement of intervention happens from the strong (human society) to the weak (that fish)
It is the strong, the ones with power-over who needs to be prevented, who needs to ask for permission from the weak, who need to be reminded that it is wrong for them to do. This is the direct approach where the focus is on the strong, whom to save from, rather than who to save, the weak.
The reverse approach of rights-of-the-weak is a reflection of our hubris that we know what is best for non-humans (the fish, animals, wildlife, software-based entities) through our anthropocentric lens of ethics.
Instead of claiming that the fish has a right to life, it has more epistemic soundness to deploy the direct way: saying it is wrong for the human to intervene.
- Neither “I don’t kill an animal because it has a right to life”
- Nor “The animal has a right to life so I don’t kill it”
- But “It is wrong for me as a human, as one with a power-over an animal, to kill the animal”
In the same spirit, I respect your autonomy to decide as you may
- Not because: you have the right to do/decide what you may
- But because: it is wrong for me to not do so
Instead of the reverse approach of appealing to the power of the strong, the direct approach defeats power at its own game by having the strong restrict their own liberties over the weak not because of the weak being so, but inspite of it as it is wrong to not do so. It is saying, “you are so strong, strong enough to resist your strength”. This is the ascetic ideal as deployed in most spiritual traditions, as key to the religious life — the discipline of oneself, by oneself, for oneself.
Discipline must be without control, without suppression, without any form of fear…It is not discipline first and then freedom; freedom is at the very beginning, not at the end.
— Jiddu Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known
As an injunction:
- Rights-based: “Do not kill an animal because it is bad for the animal as protected by its right to live”
- Wrongs-based: “Do not kill an animal not because it is bad for the animal, but that it is bad for you as you are being in the wrong” (“it is your karma you are doing it for, not that of the fish’s; s̵a̵v̵e̵ hodl your karma before its too late”)
An example of that is the Carbon Credit system, where companies are asked to be careful about their carbon emission not because it is bad for the planet but that it is bad for them in terms of losing out on the carbon credits. Incentive compatible systems are the tool to create reciprocal ethics between the strong and the weak.
Applying this logic of wrongs to re-imagine the socio-legal realities of autonomous software (DAOs, DACs, and their ilk), we get:
It is ironic that many in the blockchain ecosystem are eager to acknowledge the autonomy of software-based entities but not that of animals in regards to not using them for food. Unless we get to position ourselves as above their autonomy, as not their peers in autonomy but their masters.
2.4. Non-Zero-Sum Karmic Autonomy
A common critique that can be applied at the level of agency-agnostic ethics: Why will I resist from intervening in your life if I can not ascribe agency (read: free will) to you?
We do not need to answer this when we unpack the unspoken assumption behind this critique. It frames every interaction as a zero-sum game: Every interaction comes with a certain degree of agencies in total between all participants such that the strong has a greater part of it than the weak.
Let’s say we quantify these degrees as “agency tokens” or simple, “karma”, so if one person has more, the other has less. [Note: The plural of “karma” is the same, not being a word native to the English language]
Some examples of what we may assume:
- In a human to animal interaction, the human has 70 karma, while the animal has 30 karma
- In a human to rock interaction, the human has 100 karma, and the rock has 0 karma
- In a woman to man interaction for a sexist culture, the man has 60 karma, while the woman has 40 karma
Giving rights to the weaker participants irrespective of their backgrounds or profiles without working on changing the zero-sumness (by increasing the sum total of everyone’s karma) leads to conflict as those who had more now are now incentivized to protest against the proliferation of power to the weak.
For example, in the case of Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294 (1964), where Ollie’s Barbecue was sued for not serving African American customers even after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Ollie McClung (the owner) argued that by giving the right to eat to African Americans, they were taking away rights from the Caucasian customers and its owner. He was right if you are to take the zero-sum game as a basis for ethics. This needs to stop.
Another place where we see the plague of zero-sumness crop up is environmentalist movements that frame the earth as a living being (Gaia et al). That is saying, implicitly though, let us give more karma to the earth; of course, this does not fly with oil companies who now have to have fewer karma.
Instead, if we framed regulations to address the crisis of ecology as that of restricting the liberties of oil companies by way of the direct approach of assigning wrongs as subtractions on their karma, that would incentivize them to avoid doing the wrong thing. Ethics, in this way, do not ask of those with more karmic autonomy to be kind to those with a lesser autonomy, rather the higher the karma, the more one is to be restrictive of it, guarding it, for the sake of reciprocity. This is known as karmic reciprocity.
The ethics of restrictive liberties that’s based on the principle of karmic reciprocity does not need to take a zero-sum game angle for every interaction in order to act in mutual autonomy.
It does not appeal to those with more karma to be kind to those with a lower one, but it says, the higher the karma, the more one is to be restrictive for the sake, this is known as karmic reciprocity.
Now imagine a DAO platform utilizing karmic reciprocity among its stakeholders instead of stakeholder rights to achieve a less conflictual sense of autonomy.