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Writing in yesterday’s London Evening Standard, Philip Delves Broughton gives his readers a preview of ‘Freedom’, the new work by Jonathan Franzen, the widely admired American novelist:

‘…This is the key theme of the book, and the reason for the title. We pampered creatures of the 21st century are ruined by our own freedom. Instead of bringing us happiness, it brings us only uncertainty. Having eschewed the certainties and disciplines of earlier generations, we find ourselves lost and adrift, propelled by the lingering emotions of childhood into futile searches for meaning.’

Questioning freedom is now all the rage. The RSA has been exploring the problems with the idea of human autonomy for some time, for example in our Social Brain project or the 21st century enlightenment speech. A critique of a shallow, individualistic, notion of freedom is also central to an essay on the sixties I have written for broadcast on Radio Four on 15 September.

I guess we should be pleased that we have caught the zeitgeist. The danger is that it looks like the RSA is now following fashion rather than leading it.

I have been reading the proofs of a new short book by the moral philosopher Mary Midgley (we are honoured to be hosting her here at the RSA on 20 September). The book is a critique of the idea of human beings as being wholly driven by self interest and is full of wonderful insights and arguments. I had heard many of these points before but Midgley’s powerful and persuasive style makes you think of them afresh. For example, if self interest is natural in humans while altruism is a cultural construct, why is it, Midgley asks, that we are often driven by our natural impulses to behave in ways which are demonstrably against our self interest?

She gives the example of someone who ruins their chances of promotion by having a furious row with their boss. As I have often discussed in this blog, much of the recent economic crisis can be put down to us following our animal impulses rather than cool calculation. It is not just social constraint that stops us being selfish but our animal passions; desire, loyalty, fear, a sense of fairness (which we now know children exhibit before even being able to speak): the crude neo Darwinian idea that selfishness is natural and altruism not is simply untenable.  It is in our nature that we have somehow to manage the individual and collective dilemmas which result from being animals driven by a combination of self interested, social and blindly emotional forces (or as Freudians might put it, ego, superego and id).   

Mary Midgley’s book is likely to be seen as another powerful assault on the ideology of individualism. But just when I was in danger of succumbing to feeling aggrieved that so many other – more esteemed - people are getting credit for making an argument we have been pursuing for several years, I had lunch with my own personal guru, Geoff Mulgan. He reminded me that the idea that freedom was both modernity’s  greatest virtue but also its greatest problem was the very first point in his 1998 book, Connexity.

There is no such thing as a new idea, especially one as big as this. Rather than trying to claim credit for an intellectual fashion, the task for the RSA is to delve more deeply and widely into the debate, to make it interesting and accessible to as many people as possible and to explore new practical applications of a more sophisticated, social, idea of autonomy.


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