Restoring Social Responsibility to Inner Freedom, with Help from Immanuel Kant

In his lead essay, William Irwin correctly identifies the Stoics and the existentialists as two groups of philosophers who emphasize the importance of inner freedom in the sense of self-mastery and self-definition. But the missing link between them—Immanuel Kant—stressed these things while adding an essential aspect of outward-looking morality that not only connects inner freedom to outer freedom, but also avoids the accusations of self-absorption that Irwin acknowledges.

Inspired by the Stoics and influential on the existentialists, Kant’s moral system is centered on autonomy—his conception of inner freedom—which he understood as the capacity of rational agents to make moral decisions apart from both internal desires and external pressures.[1] To Kant, autonomy has both logically negative and positive meanings, the former aligning more closely with the existentialists and Stoics as Irwin described them. This aspect of autonomy renders the agent able to resist both her own inclinations, especially the selfish ones that would lead her actions away from the moral path, and pressure from peers and society in general, which would lead to unreflective crowd-following and herd thinking. To the degree the agent is successful at this, she will have crafted her own moral identity separate from her desires and the influence of others, very much in the spirit of the Stoics and existentialists (especially the latter’s concept of authenticity).

As such, I agree completely with what Irwin wrote, based on the existentialists and the Stoics, regarding the importance of self-determination. Indeed, our own minds are all we can truly control; as Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “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.”[2] Even when our outer freedom is constrained, by actual chains or by Rousseau’s metaphysical ones, we still have our thoughts, individuality, and character, which only we can control and which no one can take.[3] This truth is too frequently neglected today; as I described in my book The Decline of the Individual, there is a growing danger of voluntarily ceding our choices to others who claim they can make them better, including paternalistic governments and algorithmic decision-processes offered by businesses.[4] The more we cede our choices to others, the more we compromise our own autonomy, authenticity, and very sense of self.

At the same time, Irwin writes that, because our thoughts are the only things over which we have true control, they are the only things we should attempt to control, which strikes me as a limited perspective that rationalizes a passive attitude toward injustice in the world. Although it is true that we cannot control anyone else, we can certainly influence them. We don’t have to resign ourselves to accepting our circumstances and merely determining our own attitudes in reaction to them, especially if we have the opportunity and ability to change them, not only for ourselves but for others. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer counsels us to accept that which we cannot change and to act to change that which we can; a popular refinement today adds that we should change what we cannot accept, which puts an activist spin on what is usually taken to be a verse of temperance of ambition and responsibility.

Irwin is skeptical regarding political action, but action in response to perceived injustice is virtuous and, to Kant, dutiful. This reflects the positive aspect of Kant’s autonomy, which demands action in appropriate circumstances. Even though each agent decides for herself what the right thing to do is, the right thing to do is generally expected to acknowledge the equal autonomy, dignity, and rights of all persons. This requires positive action when the moral law calls for it, the importance of which Irwin minimizes in his focus on the negative, inward-focused aspects of inner freedom. Rather than being futile and inauthentic, being politically active in circumstances that one feels demand action can be considered the highest expression of one’s autonomous self. Autonomy demands not only independence from illegitimate influence, but also action in the pursuit of duty, especially in the face of injustice.

More generally, the way Kant understands autonomy in both its negative and positive aspects is consistent with classical liberty and libertarianism (as I wrote here previously). Specifically, agents achieve mastery over their own thoughts and choices through self-legislation, setting duties for themselves based on the categorical imperative as interpreted and implemented through their own individual judgment based on the moral law (itself based on the dignity and autonomy of all rational beings). Kant wrote of two parts of the will: Wille, by which the agent determines for herself the laws she will follow, and Willkür, by which the agent wills herself to follow those laws. These two parts of the will work together to enable autonomy or inner freedom in a complete sense: deciding what is right and then acting on it. Just as Aristotle’s virtuous person cannot be virtuous solely by intention without acting on it, the Kantian autonomous agent cannot be dutiful without acting on that duty (and for the purpose of it). Furthermore, as Christine Korsgaard writes, through her action an agent “constitutes” herself, which points to the role of action, expressing outer freedom, in reinforcing one’s character, based on inner freedom.[5] Although inner freedom is intrinsically valuable in isolation, especially when outer freedom is constrained, ideally an agent will use outer freedom to express her character.

In classical liberal and libertarian thought, and in democratic societies in general, it is the individual’s responsibility to stand up to power wielded unjustly. In Frank Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the naïve and idealistic Jefferson Smith (played by James Stewart) is sent to the U.S. Senate to be a patsy for the political machine controlled by a local newspaperman, Jim Taylor (played by Edward Arnold), including the complicit senior senator, Joseph Paine (played by Claude Rains), who was also a close friend of Smith’s late father. Once he realizes his assigned role, Smith fights to expose the corruption and graft of the Taylor machine, filibustering against a corrupt appropriations bill against the efforts of Paine and the negative publicity campaign orchestrated by Taylor through his newspaper conglomerate. Mr. Smith represents Capra’s belief, as shown in many of his other films also, in the power of the individual to effect change. Along with countless other stories and novels, it serves as an inspirational example of courageous individuals putting their inner freedom, autonomy, and authenticity to use in fighting the corrupt use of power against the interests of other individuals.[6] It wasn’t enough for Jefferson Smith to realize the injustice in his circumstances; he felt compelled to act. We may always have our inner freedom, but when it tells us something is wrong and we can change it—how can we not and still be our true selves?


[1] For a solid introduction to Kant’s moral philosophy, see Roger J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Kant’s Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[2] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959/2006), p. 66.

[3] Remember Whitney Houston’s words in her 1986 hit “The Greatest Love of All” (words by Linda Creed, music by Michael Masser): “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.”

[4] Mark D. White, The Decline of the Individual (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

[5] Christine Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (Oxford: Oxford Univer­sity Press, 2009).

[6] I think also of Steve Rogers’ confession to Tony Stark in the 2016 film Captain America: Civil War regarding how he cannot comply with the United Nations resolution limiting his heroic activities: “If I see a situation pointed south, I can’t ignore it.”

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • William Irwin’s political libertarianism began with his appreciation for inner freedom. Existentialism, Stoicism, and Buddhism have all taught the importance of living a free inner life: Even utopia would be unbearable to someone who is ruled by their desires; to someone who has attained self-mastery, even dystopia could be relatively bearable. Irwin recommends mastery over the impulses as a key part of living a free life, in the broadest sense of that word.

Response Essays

  • Aaron Ross Powell argues that inner freedom is best pursued in a free society, and that these two aspects of the good life are mutually reinforcing. A regard for virtue in either one should lead reflective individuals to give some attention to the other as well. Although many forms of political action seem clearly to be bad for the soul, this need not be the case for all of them.

  • Mark D. White looks to Immanuel Kant’s account of freedom as a way of bridging the gap between inner and outer freedoms. Although our minds may be the only things we can control, there remain many things we can influence indirectly, including other people and the affairs of our society. And to the extent that we can exert a good influence, we should certainly do so.

  • Stephen Asma says we should maybe just give up on inner freedom. An authentic human life would certainly make room for parents, children, siblings, and even spouses, and for the attachments that loving them will entail. So while mastering the appetites is good, so too is family life. It is not always good for mankind to be alone, and family life is the origin of one’s ties to society.

  • Tom G. Palmer argues that inner freedom is a valuable thing, but that it is most reliably obtained when one is not politically oppressed. Precisely defining both inner and outer freedom becomes paramount, because there is a risk of defining either so broadly that it destroys its counterpart. Palmer closes with a defense of the engaged political life, one that understands liberty to be a helpful reinforcement in many different, though related, approaches to self-mastery.