Freedom is a confusing term. We throw it about as if it is our inalienable right, especially in America. In fact, the foundation of the nation is centered upon this very word, at least in theory. While this article will not be an investigation into the meaning of American freedom, it will nevertheless address freedom as a principle both in general and as that seemingly compulsory human desire.
Who does not wish to have free will, to be free? While hardly a hand will raise when that question is posed, how does a person define free will? Very often, most will simply say that free will is the ability to do as one pleases. Some may qualify this further by revealing that infringement upon other people is the only rule that should ever restrict one’s freedom of action. If accepted, however, it’s important to note that we’ve effectively put an immediate parameter around the definition of free will, namely: The consideration of others.
By this, we see that with freedom comes inherent within it responsibility. Are they always interlinked, however? Are we not free to infringe upon another, regardless of society’s laws and social mores? Who is to be the judge of infringement in the end if not? If we leave it up to the lawmakers, we have handed certain of our powers over to a governing body (spoiler: we already have). To allow the other person the right to make such distinctions instead creates another problem: There is never a way to please everyone. Suddenly, free will has become difficult at best, and perhaps even altogether impossible to execute given even just the one simple rule stated here.
Can we remove these restrictions to free will?
If we remove the restriction of considering others as relevant to the installment of our freedom, we leave ourselves utterly devoid of any rudder to steer our behavior other than our own desires. In this context, free will could be re-framed, then, in the following way:
Free will might be the ability to think, feel, say and do whatever impulse, desire or motivation we perceive – at any cost.
I must stress the “at any cost” because it is intentionally jarring. It implies a total blindness to consequence; a total ignoring of the impact upon others – unadulterated freedom. For when we consider allowing effect to influence us, have we not begun the process of restricting our free will? While many, if not most, sane and rational (i.e. civilized) people might agree that total discount of both consequence and impact upon others is actually irresponsible and potentially inciting of dangerous results, do these same rational and altogether sane members of society fully realize that we each exercise limits upon our freedoms quite frequently? In other words, a practice of kindness is perhaps an example of limiting one’s freedoms.
What then are we to do with free will, other than regard it as either the most brutal and blinding of forces, or take it with responsibility and restriction?
The reality may be that we are not quite as free as we originally thought. This does not mean we are not free, but rather the meaning of freedom is more complex than simply “doing what one wants”. If responsibility is connected to freedom, then, how exactly does this nexus operate? I will return to this question later.
What is the source of our desire for free will?
Let us now to turn to an underlying quality of free will, which is the desire to be free itself. Here I am allowing the term “to be free” to mean living in a state where one truly feels he has the ability to act upon his own desires. We may turn to the American ideology again by quoting the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. This is our freedom without our recent caveat, of course, but behind this pursuit of self-driven motivation stands a question: Where does this desire to be free originate?
If one desires to pursue a particular course in life, he will often find himself in a state of content and even exuberance while engaged with his dream. (Conversely, many folks are more readily familiar with the opposite current of not living up to the true desires of their heart, often resulting in feeling listless and purposeless in life. Resignation to the harsh realities of responsibility without freedom may be more normal than most would like.) This locus, which has now created the trajectory of effort in this person’s life, has mysterious beginnings. Suppose the desire is to become a physician. The study of medicine can be motivated by any number of factors: family influence, interest in human biology and pathology, an altruism to help people, financial and social status factors, and many others.
Becoming a physician, however, is no easy task. The motivation must run deep. The desire must be rich and carry with it a sense of compulsion perhaps. The person may feel as if they need to become a doctor; it is simply not optional. Take another example such as motherhood, and the same sense of “I must” is often present. To go against one’s own desires is a betrayal against oneself. The result of which can lead to an entropic state of existence where emptiness and apathy fill the hollow of one’s heart. What are the implications of desire being motivated by need?
The largest perhaps is that we may not be as free as we normally believe. If one is compelled to do a thing, where is his control in the matter? Are we thrust into life with drives and needs waiting to be fulfilled? If so, what is our willingness to engage with such desires while we attempt to grow into this “destiny”?
I can now return to an earlier question regarding the interpenetration of free will and responsibility. There are significant implications suggested in this article, from the recognition that free will is rarely if ever exercised as an experience of total autonomy, to the mysterious locus of our intrinsic motivations and needs. Lastly, we can consider revising the definition of free will once more:
Free will is to simultaneously engage with both our inner and outer worlds in a manner that is resolute to our own inherent needs, and considerate of the shared environment of which we are inextricably connected.
Are you free?
Please use the comment section to answer this question, or to simply voice your opinion on the de/merits of free will.