Is Freedom a Mistaken Idea?

If there’s one word that defines the United States and what it’s all about, surely “freedom” is that word. Basically freedom means doing what you want. But is that really important? Or is the concept even meaningful?

Some might say that individuals doing what they want isn’t even good, that we exist chiefly as social creatures, and the group comes first. People serving their own interests are seen as undermining society. Such ideas characterize some Eastern cultures, notably Japan’s; in stronger form this is the essence of ideologies like fascism and communism, where individuals exist to serve the collective. This is sold as giving life a higher kind of meaning than the “atomism” of individuality.

But we don’t really want a society like a beehive full of drones. Indeed, when individuals are motivated to advance their own proclivities, you actually get a society better for everyone in it. That’s the virtue of a free market—people serving their own interests mainly by producing things that fulfill others’ needs. And as John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, we all benefit when people with their own ideas are free to put them to the test. Further, it’s when we have a strong sense of ourselves as individuals, rather than as cogs in a societal machine, that we can truly respect the individual worth of others.

Thus, whereas communism romanticized societal cooperation, without individual freedom what you actually saw was more of a cynical “every man for himself” mentality and virtually none of the social consciousness, civic engagement, volunteerism, charity, and so forth, that flourishes in the West’s supposed capitalist jungle of rapacious individualism. In short, while people do have naturally groupish and even hivelike instincts, they’re best served when free to choose for themselves how to express those instincts.

Yet a deeper question is whether doing what you want is even possible. Can we truly be free, in any genuine sense? Arthur Schopenhauer said that you can do what you want, but you cannot will what you want. That is, you can fulfill desires and wishes, but you can’t choose what desires and wishes to have. (A good example is homosexuality: it’s generally not a choice.)

This is the ancient problem of free will. A recent article in this very publication, “Free Will and the Anders Breivik Trial” by Sarah Lucas, suggests that punishing Breivik for mass murder may be as immoral as his crimes themselves; because the shootings were caused by brain events over which “Breivik” had no control. I put “Breivik” in quotes because, on this analysis, the person virtually disappears. Does this make sense?

The argument against free will begins with the premise that everything has causes. If you choose chocolate over vanilla, that’s caused by a pattern of interactions among neurons in your brain—a product of your whole life history. Your choice is thus actually predetermined. Ponder this deeply enough, and the “you” that “chooses” does disappear. It becomes more like a computer program that does what it does because it’s programmed to. No free choice there. Experiments have even proven that when you think you’ve formed an intention, your brain has beaten you to the punch and already set it in motion.

Moreover, science has also shown (as discussed in books like Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness) that not only do we not choose our wants and desires, but often we don’t even know what they are. We can misjudge what we think we want, and how fulfillment will actually affect us. (As George Bernard Shaw said, there are two big disappointments in life: not getting what you want, and getting it.)

All the foregoing might seem to make the idea of freedom meaningless. If people can only act on desires and intentions but not form them by any willful process—nor understand them, for that matter—their “freedom” is akin to that of billiard balls rolling around a pool table. This leads some to dismiss the idea of free market economics, contending that its supposed assumption of “rational choice” is a myth. So too we get the paternalism of deeming people better served if decisions are made for them, not by them.

But let’s go back to the most fundamental question: What matters? Why does it matter? What does “mattering” mean? And to whom does it matter?

The only possible answer is that sentient beings, capable of feeling, matter. Without someone or something feeling, and being aware of it, nothing can be said to matter in any sense. Absent someone who cares, not even the existence of the universe can matter. Thus such feelings—principally, of course, human feelings—are themselves the only things that ultimately matter. And the only ultimate good versus bad is good versus bad feelings.

I recognize that the foregoing is easily mocked. There is a suspicion that humans aren’t important or worthy, and that fixating on our feelings is narcissistic and trivial. And you can loftily argue that something can be good or bad in some objective sense (but who makes that judgment, and how?) irrespective of any human feelings. But I would rejoin: what is the point? What is the point of considering something “good” if it doesn’t somehow contribute to sentient beings feeling good? Remove all such beings and their feelings from the picture, and what is there to care about? Who would care?

Then of course the meaningfulness of feeling good might be questioned too; defining this tends toward tautology. Mill posed the question of whether it’s better to be a satisfied pig or a dissatisfied Socrates. A nice conundrum. Nevertheless, the concepts of pleasure and pain aren’t meaningless; most of us have no trouble choosing orgasm over torture. And while some might deem suffering actually good for us, that could be true only if it somehow ultimately makes you feel better. There is also the utilitarian trap of sacrificing the few if it serves the happiness of many. But these are all sub-questions. The bottom line is still that good feelings are preferable over bad ones, and, in the end, nothing else matters.

I will not purport here to fully resolve the problem of free will. True enough, thinking and decision making are deterministically governed. However, what’s unique about humans is that we think about our thinking. This gives us an override capability—exerting what might legitimately be termed “will.” (Legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen has called this ability to vet our impulses “free won’t.”) Sigmund Freud too, who considered us creatures of unconsciously rooted primal urges, nevertheless recognized in Civilization and Its Discontents that most of us suppress these impulses. And surely long-time smokers exhibit a particularly powerful form of determinism—physical addiction on top of the psychological and behavioral aspects. Yet they can quit. Even this, you might argue, is deterministically caused, but I think that’s stretching a point. Some functionality in the mind is making a choice that is real—and free—in every practical sense. Thus, people live their lives feeling they have that kind of free will, and behave accordingly.

So returning to Breivik, his brain did produce violent impulses that “Breivik” couldn’t control. But, as psychologist Thomas Szasz has argued, so do all our brains; yet to act upon those impulses crosses a behavioral line that almost everyone is able to control. Hence it’s not immoral to punish the behavior. It is no mere illusion to feel we have that kind of free will.

And again, the only thing that can ultimately matter is feeling. That is the context in which the seeming meaninglessness of freedom is itself a meaningless abstraction. The fact remains that actual human beings experience actual feelings that are more positive the more they perceive themselves able to advance their desires. Studies have shown that people, even from infancy, are happier the more they feel in control, as opposed to being powerless. That is, the more free they feel—regardless of anything about the outcomes.

Further, notwithstanding all the ways in which we misjudge our desires and their likely results, surely there is a greater probability of being happy with outcomes produced by acting on your own desires than when what you get is merely random or chosen by others.

This is true even if those desires arise deterministically, and even if people pursue them with very imperfect rationality. That’s still better than not choosing at all. In fact, despite all the imperfections, we nevertheless act, in our day-to-day and minute-by-minute continuous decision making, with a very high degree of rationality. The overwhelming majority of your choices are more or less reasonably calculated to enhance the quality of your life, in fact with long-range forethought, increasing pleasure and avoiding pain. And you are by no means clueless about what pleases or pains you. You know exactly how dark you like your toast. Thus the “rational choice is a myth” critique of market economics, and broader dismissal of freedom itself, is simply wrong.

Indeed, it’s why the heart of human history will always beat with the quest for ever more freedom.