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Kathleen O’Dwyer compares some competing conceptions of freedom.

Freedom is an emotive concept, evoking thoughts and feelings relating to rights, entitlements, possibilities and limitations. It is also a complex concept fraught with ambiguity. This complex issue of freedom, and particularly of moral freedom, is inevitably linked to issues of personal responsibility and accountability. In our everyday lives, do we freely choose our actions and attitudes, or is our behaviour determined by factors outside our control?

Well, what do we mean by ‘freedom’?

Freedom As Autonomy

As Isaiah Berlin famously wrote, sometimes freedom is understood negatively, as freedom from: freedom from hunger, from poverty, illness, or threat. This interpretation of freedom is intricately linked with a desire for security and safety, well-being and control. We see plenty of situations in the political, social and personal realms where the desire for the freedom from any threat to that security is translated into a call for the diminishment of the freedom of others. Hence, prison populations continue to grow, rules and restrictions regarding travel are extended, the necessity of military power and action is continually justified, and an array of laws and sanctions is expanded in their application to personal behaviour and living conditions. Freedom from our fears comes at a price!

On the other hand, as Berlin noted, we also desire the freedom to do certain things: specifically, to think, to choose and to act according to our own point of view, our conscience, or moral code. This is the basis of personal autonomy, where the individual is the author of his or her own rules, values and decisions – even if these have been appropriated from external sources, consciously or unconsciously. Is such personal autonomy a universal human right, or is the idea of it conditional on certain (notably Western) social, cultural, legal and institutional precepts and moral codes? Does the right to personal autonomy apply to children, the elderly, those deemed ‘mentally unfit’, and an array of other categories where ‘expert opinion’ is considered to have a monopoly of knowledge regarding what is best for such individuals, how they are to be protected, and how they should live?

We have all experienced situations where it doesn’t seem safe to exercise our personal autonomy through self-expression or dissent. These are situations of vulnerability resulting from a perceived or a real imbalance of power. A patient in a hospital is dependent on the good-will of carers, doctors and nurses. In most cases, this care is tendered with empathy and kindness and with a sensitivity to the individual’s vulnerability. However, there can sometimes be a failure to recognise autonomy, by failing to treat people with proper human dignity. Similar situations can prevail in prisons, orphanages, nursing homes, and some work or family constellations. Sometimes, ‘human rights’ do not extend to all humans!

The contemporary Hungarian-born psychiatrist and philosopher, Thomas Szasz, has put forward radical and controversial arguments about efforts by the state, and in particular by the psychiatric profession, to limit the autonomy of certain individuals. The titles of some of his books offer glimpses of his ideas: In The Medicalization of Everyday Life (2007), Szasz points to the ever-increasing tendency to consider ‘problems in living’ such as sadness, anger, loneliness, and others, as medical problems, needing medical, and especially pharmaceutical, solutions. The paradox of Cruel Compassion: Psychiatric Control of Society’s Unwanted (1994) speaks for itself; and The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) provides a damning indictment of the labels and treatments imposed on people throughout the history of psychiatry. Szasz’s stance has evoked hostile responses ranging from theoretical disagreement to personal ridicule.

Underlying all his work is Szasz’s unwavering belief in the freedom of the individual to decide for him or herself. This interpretation of human freedom extends to the right to drugs, the right to suicide, and the right to refuse medical or psychiatric treatment. As Szasz sees it, the intrinsic foundation of the concept of freedom is personal responsibility for one’s actions. Therefore he calls for the abolition of the insanity plea in legal proceedings. The other side of autonomy for Szasz is the impossibility of excuses, or the abdication of personal responsibility.

Choose A Philosophy Of Freedom

Even in the relatively normal situations of our own lives, do we freely choose who we are and what we do?

According to the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), freedom of choice is the chief characteristic of the human condition. Sartre rejects any idea that we, our choices, or our actions, are completely determined by forces outside our control: our biology, biography, personality, or situation cannot be called upon either as excuses for or explanations of our actions. “There is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom” he writes in Existentialism and Human Emotions (p.23, 1957). Here we have a very different understanding of human nature or of the human condition to that put forward by Sigmund Freud. Indeed, Sartre rejects emphatically one of the cornerstone concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis, the unconscious, arguing that, on some level we even exercise a choice regarding which material we repress from conscious awareness. So the unconscious cannot be called upon as an excuse for our actions or behaviour either, as it is for Freudians.

Sartre also rejects any notion of a pre-given meaning to life, either for individual lives or for life in general: “Man makes himself. He isn’t ready-made at the start” (EHE, p.43). He claims that “existence precedes essence” (p.13) – meaning that there are no pre-established essentials regarding human nature; each person creates his/her own essence or meaning in an ongoing process of deciding and acting. He explains, “Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning that you choose” (p.49). We must make these choices at every moment and in every situation because there is no prior meaning or value which may be applied to any particular situation. Each situation is encountered freely, without recourse to previously-established judgements or dictates, and it demands a choice on our part: “every event in the world can be revealed to me only as an opportunity (an opportunity made use of, lacked, neglected, etc)” (p.58). According to Sartre, even when we claim that we are guided by religious convictions and precepts, or that we are following orders or advice, we are still choosing to live our lives according to these guidelines.

As well as there being no fixed, unchanging identity for individuals, there is also no universal law, no external authority, towards which we can turn for guidance or meaning: “No general ethics can show you what is to be done” (p.28). To illustrate this argument, Sartre offers the real-life example of a young man who during WWII is torn between what he perceives to be his duty to his widowed mother, and his duty to fight for the freedom of his country:

“The boy was faced with the choice of leaving for England and joining the Free French Forces – that is, leaving his mother behind – or remaining with his mother and helping her to carry on… As a result, he was faced with two very different kinds of action: one, concrete, immediate, but concerning only one individual; the other concerned an incomparably vaster group, a national collectivity, but for that very reason was dubious, and might be interrupted en route. And, at the same time, he was wavering between two kinds of ethics. On the one hand, an ethics of sympathy, of personal devotion; on the other, a broader ethics, but one whose efficacy was more dubious. He had to choose between the two.”

(Existentialism and Human Emotions, p.24).

Sartre tells us that the boy cannot escape his freedom here: “He was obliged to devise his law himself” (p.43). There are no pre-established moral criteria or absolute truths which he might address so as to make the ‘right’ choice. “There is no abstract ethics. There is only an ethics in a situation, and it is concrete” he says in Notebooks for an Ethics (p.17, 1948). The boy may seek guidance and advice; he may listen to ‘expert’ opinion regarding the morality and the dangers implicit in either decision; but even in these actions the boy is exercising choice regarding his selection of advisers and his interpretation of their words. Inevitably, he must make his own choice, act on his decision, and accept responsibility for whatever consequences ensue.

The particular dilemma faced by the boy provides an analogy for whenever a moral choice is required but the goodness or evil, the benefits or losses, or the advantages or disadvantages, pertaining to each alternative action, is unclear. Sartre says, “Man is always the same. The situation confronting him varies” (EHE, p.44). He is not suggesting some universal ‘human nature’ – “yet there does exist a universal human condition… what does not vary is the necessity for [a person] to exist in the world, to be at work there, to be there in the midst of other people, and to be mortal there” (ibid, p.38). In other words, the universal human condition is that we must make choices: “Man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet, in other respects, is free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” (NE, p.23). Human freedom is paradoxical, by Sartre’s view, in that we do not have the freedom to refuse our freedom: “What is not possible is not to choose. I can always choose, but I ought to know that if I do not choose, I am still choosing.” (EHE, p.41).

If we accept Sartre’s theory, then we accept that everything in our lives is the result of our own choices and decisions. Immediately, counter-arguments suggest themselves: Surely we do not choose illness, poverty, cruelty, betrayal, or the many misfortunes which may be thrust upon an individual at any time?

Is freedom, then, a question of choosing one’s attitude to circumstances which are outside our control? This is the central thesis of another existentialist, Victor Frankl, noted author of the best-selling book, Man’s Search For Meaning (1946). The book presents conclusions reached by Frankl after his experience of being interred in a Nazi concentration camp. His observations of his fellow prisoners led him to believe that the people who had something to look forward to (for example, being re-united with a loved one, or a task to be completed) had the greatest chance of survival. Quoting Nietzsche’s aphorism, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how’, Frankl claims that when one has a reason or a purpose for which to live, one can endure almost anything. The individual is primarily responsible for her attitude to the circumstances of her life, and it is both the individual’s freedom and her responsibility to create meaning in every situation. We have the freedom to choose our attitude in all situations, and this freedom survives even in the barely-comprehensible conditions of the concentration camps: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (MSM, p.11). Frankl argues that in this sense, meaning can be created in any situation – that suffering of any kind may be infused with meaning if it is approached with an understanding attitude. He offers the example of a recently-bereaved elderly man who sought his help (Frankl was also a psychiatrist); the man had lost his beloved wife of many years, and was so distraught he could barely survive. Frankl discussed the situation with the grieving man, eventually asking him how he would feel if he had been the one to die, leaving his wife to suffer the agony of loss. From this thought the man recognised the possibility of meaning in his suffering: his loss ensured that his beloved was spared the suffering which he now accepts. His attitude has changed, and he now sees meaning in his situation.

Like Sartre, Frankl dismisses the notions of a pre-ordained meaning purpose in life, or of a pre-determined essence or nature to individuals: “Man is not fully conditioned and determined, but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. Man is ultimately self-determining. He always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment” he writes (MSM, p.119). Therefore, regardless of our material or physical conditions, our attitude and our corresponding behaviour is always a free choice, and each moment and each situation demands a response. We are not determined by biology, circumstance or personality, then, and we are not helpless victims. We are self-determined, and we have the power to create our own destiny.

Between Our Selves

Existentialism is often criticized for its apparent nihilism, negativity, and bleakness. Its insistence on the essential meaninglessness of life, the absurdity of the human condition, is sometimes interpreted as defeatist and hopeless. Existentialists argue however that the absence of a preordained meaning or purpose does not preclude the individual’s freedom and responsibility to create his or her own meaning, values and purpose. In fact, it insists on the necessity of doing so.

Sartre insists that his philosophy is demanding and ethical. His focus on individual freedom and responsibility is intrinsically related to subjective interpretation and choice. However, his philosophy also demands a simultaneous awareness of others’ freedom and responsibility. Each individual lives in a world inhabited by others, and their choices and actions inevitably have an impact on others, in particular as they contribute to the image another person may have of themselves at any particular moment (see below). Because one’s self is in the world, one’s acts are never simply one’s own. This leads Sartre to describe the focus of his existentialism as ‘intersubjectivity’ (EHE, p.38).

If I accept the existentialist premise of my own freedom and responsibility by virtue of the fact that I am a human being, then I logically must also extend this conviction to all human beings. My freedom to choose, to make decisions, and to act in accordance with my own judgement and my own values, implies a similar inescapable freedom for others. The dignity of the human being entails the freedom to think and to act for oneself, while it simultaneously ascribes responsibility to each individual agent: “We want freedom for freedom’s sake and in every particular circumstance. And in wanting freedom we discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others” (EHE, p.46). Therefore Sartre’s existentialism is opposed to tyranny of any kind – political, economic, moral or personal: there is no room here for domination or authoritarianism, by the law-giver, the expert, or the do-gooder.

Sartre’s discussion of the intersubjective nature of the self explores the concept of ‘the look’, whereby the individual’s sense of self is affected to a considerable extent by the knowledge of being seen (that is, perceived) by others. One example of this phenomenon offered by Sartre, concerns the feeling of shame. Someone may participate in a certain behaviour, such as eavesdropping on a private conversation; but it is only when they’re ‘caught in the act’ – seen by another – that a feeling of shame ensues: “I am ashamed of myself before the other” Sartre writes in Being & Nothingness (p.313, 1943); or “The other is the indispensable mediator between myself and me. I am ashamed of myself as I appear to the Other” (p.246). It is evident from this and other examples that self-knowledge involves a mediation between self and others. So, “In order to get any truth about myself, I must have contact with another person” (EHE, p.38)

The awareness of the other’s ‘look’ may also prompt an inauthentic performance on the part of the individual, in an attempt to convey a more favourable impression. In his analysis of human motivation and behaviour in Human, All Too Human (1878), Nietzsche looks behind the physical and verbal expression of some familiar emotions – compassion, sympathy, outrage, grief – and suggests that behind the outward show of expected response lurks an ever-present concern with the audience: “Ultimately, not even the deepest pain can keep the actor from thinking of the impression of his part and the overall theatrical effect” (p.50). So ‘the look’ may elucidate self-knowledge and self-understanding, but it may also provide the motivation for subterfuge and pretence, where one may distort one’s sense of identity to fit the image thought to be held by other people. Sartre would consider this an example of ‘bad faith’, which is the attitude where one has self-deceptively relinquished the possibility of self-creation and self-expression in order to try to be something ‘fixed’ and dependant on other peoples’ perceptions of what you are or should be.

T.S. Eliot vividly captures the constriction and limitations of this inauthentic mode of being in his poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Prufrock’s experience of life is diminished by his cowardly (though understandable) adherence to a social identity and a habitual image which maintains a false conception of a fixed, unchanging self. The following lines poignantly portray the private torment inherent in this experience:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all –
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

Prufrock’s situation may appear to be generally at variance with common experience. However, there are aspects of every life which remain hidden and incommunicable, and an unease at the thought of being defined through others’ perceptions can certainly be a significant one.

When interviewed by Paul Auster at the age of seventy, Sartre acknowledged the darkness: “I think that what spoils relations among people is that each keeps something hidden from the other… things which refuse to be said, which I can only say to myself, but which resist saying them to another. As with other people, there is a depth of darkness within me that does not allow itself to be said” (The New York Review of Books, 1975).

Not Literally Free

Is Sartre’s conception of human freedom compatible with our personal experience? Or is it extreme in its demands and its responsibilities? Does it remain just a theory, or can we actually live up to it?

In opposition both to Sartre’s conception and to the philosophy of Szasz, the contemporary philosopher Susan Wolf insists that freedom and responsibility require sanity: “In order to be responsible, an agent must be sane” (in Responsibility, Character and the Emotions: New Essays in Moral Psychology, ed. Ferdinand Schoeman, p.55, 1988). This assertion leads Wolf to explore the complexities and ambiguities pertaining to individual responsibility, culpability and autonomy in a different way. Her observation that “it is not ordinarily in our power to determine whether we are or are not sane” raises further questions about the power and ‘expertise’ of others when it comes to diagnoses, judgements, and control.

Another contemporary theorist, the flamboyant Slavoj Žižek, argues that the notion of free choice is fraught with ambiguity and contradiction. Many of our ‘free choices’ are, he says, forced upon us, and that freedom of choice is often an illusion. Žižek claims that people are still locked into subtle ideologies and vulnerable to the censorship of the superego that has been programmed by these ideologies. According to Žižek, one example of the subtle, unspoken limitation of freedom in the postmodern world, is the pervasive, unconditional injunction to enjoy – the command that we must experience pleasure in all aspects of experience, and must especially be seen to do so: this is “the official ideology of our postmodern society as bent on instant gratification and pleasure-seeking” (European Journal of Psychoanalysis, Spring-Fall, 1997). “Superego is the reversal of the permissive ‘You May!’ into the prescriptive ‘You Must!’ – the point at which permitted enjoyment turns into ordained enjoyment” he says in ‘The Superego and the Act’ (from The European Graduate School website), and guilt accompanies any failure to fulfill this demand. Žižek also looks to the literature of Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, Henry James and others to highlight the subject’s inscription with conscious and unconscious laws, which would further limit the concept of personal freedom.

In his novel about Nazi brutality, Sophie’s Choice, William Styron describes the trauma of a forced choice. As a prisoner of the camps, Sophie is given the choice to save the life of one of her two children. If she does not choose, they will both die. Hence she is given an impossible choice, but nevertheless she is forced to choose. This story resounds with the failure of universally-applicable ethical systems in the face of an impossible choice. Similar failures have been portrayed in mythology and literature throughout history. Sophocles’ Antigone, Coetzee’s Disgrace, McEwan’s Atonement, and Greene’s The End of the Affair, explore variations of similar dilemmas. Žižek calls this “the paradox of the forced choice that marks our most fundamental relationship to the society to which we belong: at a certain point, society impels us to choose freely what is already necessarily imposed upon us” (Interrogating the Real, p.275, 2006). Could Sartre’s assertion that there are always options available to us offer a sustainable argument against Žižek’s concept of forced freedom? Well, that’s a question for another time.

© Dr Kathleen O’Dwyer 2013

Kathleen O’Dwyer’s book The Possibility of Love: An Interdisciplinary Analysis (2009) is published by Cambridge Scholars Press. Previous articles for Philosophy Now include ‘The Challenge of Eternal Recurrance’ in Issue 93 and ‘Is Love An Art?’ in Issue 85.

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