Why External Freedom May, In Fact, Be Prior to or Generative of Inner Freedom

I’m grateful to William Irwin for re-raising in succinct and elegant form some old and most interesting questions. Part of the interest in such questions is because they’re about leading a better life. And what is more important than that? They also attract interest because they pose difficult problems that exercise the mind, an activity that’s enjoyable for its own sake.

I’ll begin by posing some questions that arose for me in reading Professor Irwin’s essay and then turn to the question of the political/philosophical relationship between the kinds of freedom he identifies. I raise the questions not to be clever or to try to trip up someone who has put serious thought into the issues he raises, but to achieve greater clarity and to invite him to explore his views with us more fully. (Note: I will use “external” and “political” interchangeably when describing freedom.)

First, if “our freedom does not come in degrees,” “we are always completely free,” and “individuals are completely free and completely responsible,” how could one engage in any sort of practice, whether philosophical reflection or Buddhist meditation or anything else, that would make one more free? If our freedom is already complete, how could we obtain more of it? Why bother to cultivate something that by its nature can’t get any better?

Second, if the slave and the emperor can equally partake in the “most important” freedom, why bother with their different degrees of political freedom at all? If both are equally free, why would political liberty “suit such a view of the human being” better than political tyranny? Is there, perhaps, a trade-off between the two freedoms, such that they could be equalized at the margin, even if they were weighted differently? Is the case for political liberty rigidly linked to the nature or degree of inner freedom, or does it require additional arguments or evidence beyond our metaphysical or inner freedom?

Third, if inner freedom is not, in fact, always and everywhere complete, such that inner freedom might come “in degrees,” would the degree of inner freedom dictate the correspondingly suitable degree of external freedom? Would people with less inner freedom deserve less political freedom?

Fourth, if inner freedom and external freedom do not logically implicate each other, is there nonetheless some causal, rather than logical, relationship between them? Does increasing or decreasing the degree of external freedom tend to increase or decrease inner freedom, or vice versa, or both?

Fifth, what is the relationship between inner freedom and our existence as materially individuated and embodied animals? Could a brain lesion, or the presence or absence of an enzyme or a chemical neurotransmitter, lessen or increase our inner freedom? If we are determined by chemical imbalances or brain malformations to have dangerous impulses, or if our ability to control these impulses is otherwise diminished or eliminated, can we still be held responsible for the consequences of our acts?

Irwin identifies inner freedom with a number of philosophic traditions, including Stoicism. In Epictetus’s Discourses, we find stated that “someone is free if all that happens to him comes about in accordance with his choice and no one else is able to impede him.”[1] The only things that are really subject to our choices are our own mental states and actions, not the actions of others or the circumstances of the world. To desire or to fear anything else, and to think your happiness depends on something beyond yourself, is to be enslaved to what one desire or fear. In the chapter on freedom, we read that “a man who has been twice consul” should be told that he differs “not one whit with regard to being a slave from those who’ve been sold three times over.”[2]

Following Stoic doctrine, Irwin tells us that inner freedom – not being governed by our desires or fears – is more important than external freedom, or at least that the former has priority over the latter, because the former can in fact be achieved completely, whereas the latter depends on things other than our own action, including the actions of others, which one cannot fully control. Thus, Irwin concludes,

If inner freedom is something I can achieve, whereas external or political freedom is at best something I can influence, I would be well advised to make a priority of achieving inner freedom before concentrating on changing the larger world.

Irwin has concluded that inner freedom implies political freedom, but he doesn’t tell us why. It’s also not clear whether the priority of the inner over the external is lexical in nature (in other words, that one would have to achieve all the possible inner freedom one could have before devoting resources to achieving any external freedom), or related in some other way.

Irwin asserts the urgency and priority of inner freedom, but he claims that the less urgent external freedom is nonetheless implied by inner freedom. Such a relationship hasn’t always been so obvious. The British philosopher T. H. Green, a follower of G.W.F. Hegel, noted in his influential 1881 lecture against freedom of contract,

We shall probably all agree that freedom, rightly understood, is the greatest of blessings; that its attainment is the true end of all our effort as citizens. But when we thus speak of freedom, we should consider carefully what we mean by it. We do not mean merely freedom from restraint of compulsion. We do not mean merely freedom to do as we like irrespectively of what it is that we like. We do not mean a freedom that can be enjoyed by one man or one set of men at the cost of a loss of freedom to others. When we speak of freedom as something to be so highly prized, we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others. We mean by it a power which each man exercises through the help or security given him by his fellow-men, and which he in turn helps to secure for them.[3]

Green considers “inner freedom” to be “true freedom” and claims that “the mere removal of compulsion, the mere enabling a man to do as he likes, is in itself no contribution to true freedom.”[4] Indeed, based on his view of inner freedom, Green goes in exactly the opposite direction from Irwin, and insists that we are made free precisely when we are subjected to compulsion in the name of forcing us to do what we ought to do, which is, after all, what we would (and “really” do) want to do, were we not enslaved by our desires. In his argument for prohibition of alcohol (one of Green’s pet causes), Green concluded,

The citizens of England now make its law. We ask them by law to put a restraint on themselves in the matter of strong drink. We ask them further to limit, or even altogether to give up, the not very precious liberty of buying and selling alcohol, in order that they may become more free to exercise the faculties and improve the talents which God has give them.[5]

Green considers “external freedom” not to be freedom at all, or at best a “not very precious liberty.” Still, were one to concede that external freedom had some value, if inner freedom is more important, then might not some sacrifice of external freedom be justified if it were to increase one’s inner freedom? Isaiah Berlin pointed out in his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” that such an approach empowers tyrants, for they have merely to declare that by restricting the external freedom of their subjects, they are advancing their inner freedom (posited as their real or true or higher or more important freedom). That is so,

… because there exists within them an occult entity – their latent rational will, or their “true” purpose – and that this entity, although it is belied by all that they overtly feel and do and say, is their “real” self, of which the poor empirical self in space and time may know nothing or little, and that this inner spirit is the only self that deserves to have its wishes taken into account. Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf of, their “real” selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, performance of duty, wisdom, a just society, self-fulfillment) must be identical with his freedom – the free choice of his “true,” albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self.[6]

Another possible outcome of a focus on inner freedom has been well explored by many socialist and social democratic thinkers. “Real” (or “authentic” or “true,” etc.) freedom requires, not merely the absence of force or of external commands or of subjection to the arbitrary will of others (mere “formal freedom”), but provision of the resources that allow one to form the tastes and understandings that one would want to have (were one not already mired in ignorance, afflicted by want, or controlled by prejudice). Philippe Van Parijs argued for including one’s “opportunity set” in the definition of freedom, with tradeoffs between the “security and self-ownership” that characterize “formal freedom” and the “opportunity set” that complements them to generate “real freedom,”[7] such that an extensive state apparatus with coercive powers would be justified, indeed, required, to compel transfers of resources.

In the absence of other arguments that go beyond the metaphysical, I don’t see how Irwin can argue against Green or against the tyrants Berlin warns us about, or even against the extreme redistributionist arguments of Philippe Van Parijs and his many followers. More than the mere idea of freedom is needed. George H. Smith, in his systematic work The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism,[8] argues that a concept such as liberty is nested within a family of concepts that form an integrated system of ideas; for classical liberals, the concepts of liberty, justice, law, rights, and social order provide the context for each other, such that justice entails a violation of rights, liberty of action is defined by one’s rights and the rights of others, social order emerges from a well-defined and legally protected system of rights and rules of transformations, and so on. Social orders may take many forms, from the order of a marching army (or the order of the gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery) to the emergent order of a jazz ensemble. The socialist society is modeled on the army – the command economy requires commands, after all, while free societies are rather closer to the jazz ensemble, in which the order is not defined in advance for “The ‘order’ is, itself, defined as the outcome of theprocessthat generates it.”[9]

In his book The Free Market Existentialist,[10] Irwin invokes spontaneous order a number of times, as well as the undesirable consequences of interfering coercively with the voluntary choices of others; it seems to me that the liberal theory of social order as a byproduct of voluntary choices in the context of the institutions of property and the rule of law, supplemented by claims about perverse incentives and the undesirable consequences of coercion, plays a major role in Irwin’s justification of external freedom. In other words, he doesn’t seem to rely on the core content of the concept of inner freedom to the extent suggested by his essay for this discussion.

Surely consequentialist considerations play a major role in political argumentation generally. Still, conceptual connections carry some weight. A generally more propitious approach, it seems to me, of connecting inner freedom (or metaphysical freedom or, my own preferred term, “self-control”) with external/political freedom is by focusing on responsibility, which Irwin (following Sartre) robustly associates with freedom. We start with responsibilities, not with rights, and rights are a means to the realization of our responsibilities. That seems to be more compatible with both the Stoic tradition and with another major ethical tradition that Irwin invokes: Buddhism. As the text of the ancient Buddhist Ańguttara Nikāya informs us, “This worthy person is the owner of his actions, the heir of his actions; his actions are the womb (from which he has sprung), his relations, and his protection. Whatever he does, good or bad, he will be heir to that.”[11] We are moral actors who own our actions; our identity over time is constituted by our accountability for our acts, as John Locke also noted.[12] Indeed, the early libertarian activist and writer Richard Overton connected our freedom to act with our self-identity: “To every individual in nature is given an individuall property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself….”[13]

Our acts, our interactions with the world around us, including other moral agents, to a substantial degree makes us the people we are. It has long been understood that with effort we can make ourselves into the people whom we want to be. We can become the virtuous people we want to be by acting as we should. Aristotle noted that the word “ethics,” which has come from ancient Greek to modern English, derives from ἦθος, or habit. He contrasted “those things in us by nature,” such as our faculties of sight and hearing, which we use because we have them, with virtues, which we have because we use them: “the virtues we come to have by engaging in the activities first, as is the case with the arts as well. For as regards those things we must learn how to do, we learn by doing them—for example, by building houses, people become house builders, and by playing the cithara, they become cithara players. So too, then, by doing just things we become just; moderate things, moderate; and courageous things, courageous.”[14] (I discuss various means of achieving greater self-control and virtue in my little edited collection Self-Control or State Control? You Decide, zero-priced PDF downloadable here and purchasable here.)

External freedom is, at least for most people in most circumstances, a condition for the realization of one’s moral agency, as a means to realize what one chooses to be, that is, to be oneself. Moreover, external freedom provides the social conditions, historically more important than individual acts of philosophical reflection or meditation, for the strengthening of self-control, which in turn make voluntary cooperation – and thus liberty – more likely, with fewer plausible excuses for state intervention or control. The various plans of human beings can be coordinated, through prices (signals of wants, availability, and the like), through customs, mores, widely shared expectations, signage, etc., and not only through commands backed up by violence, which are in any case more likely simply to generate more chaos and disharmony. Moreover, self-control to restrain violent impulses is far more efficacious at generating social harmony than is police coercion, for the simple reason that no police force can be there all the time to stop people from taking advantage of the ever-present opportunity to harm others. The deeply insightful sociologist Norbert Elias noted that self-control, voluntary social coordination, legal egalitarianism, and the rule of law increased in tandem:

As the interdependence of people increases with the increasing division of labour, everyone becomes increasingly dependent on everyone else, even those of high social rank on those people who are socially inferior and weaker. The latter become so much the equals of the former that they, the socially superior people, can experience shame-feelings even in the presence of their social inferiors. It is only in this connection that the armour of restraints is fastened to the degree which is gradually taken for granted by people in democratic industrial societies.[15]

I think one can make a very strong case that inner freedom (or self-control) for more people is likely to be increased more rapidly when external or political freedom is secured, and that when the rules of law are well defined and effectively enforced by legal institutions, that self-control in turn makes political freedom more stable and robust. Properly understood, the two can and should reinforce one another.

Finally, I should raise some doubts about the effectiveness of the meditation techniques associated with Buddhism, not because I don’t believe that they can be enormously helpful to people, but because I think that they may be by themselves insufficient. I was struck when reading Sam Harris’s book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, that among the many benefits of meditation he extolled, becoming a better person didn’t seem to occupy any special place. He wrote that among meditation masters “one occasionally finds a venerated master with the ethical intuitions of a pirate”[16] and then proceeded to recount acts of horrific immorality undertaken by allegedly enlightened masters. If meditation doesn’t make one a better person, I asked myself when I read it, what’s the point?

That’s not to say that meditation isn’t or can’t be part of becoming a better person. I see the benefits, but I think that struggling for political (external) freedom has more promise of producing greater inner freedom and better people, who are more moral and who guide their lives by virtue, than retreat into meditation and reflection, as valuable as those things are.


[1] Epictetus, Discourses, Fragments, Handbook, trans. by Robin Hard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), Discourses, 1.12, p. 31.

[2] Ibid., 4.1, p. 217.

[3] Green, Thomas Hill, “Lecture on Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract,” in Works of Thomas Hill Green, R. L. Nettleship, ed. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1906), pp. 365-86, pp. 370-71.

[4] Ibid., p. 371.

[5] Ibid., p. 386.

[6] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Isaiah Berlin, Liberty, ed. by Henry Hardy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 180.

[7] See Philippe Van Parijs, Real Freedom for All: What (if anything) can justify capitalism? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), esp. pp. 17-29.

[8] George H. Smith, The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), esp. chap. 3, “Liberal Ideology and Political Philosophy.”

[9] James Buchanan, “Order defined in the process of its emergence,” The Literature of Liberty (Winter, 1982), at http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1305#lf0353-20_1982v4_head_003

[10] William Irwin, The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015)

[11] Aṅguttara Nikāya: An Anthology, Part II, selected and translated from the Pali by Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2008), (5:161), p. 13. See the discussion of “the strong Buddhist tradition of individual responsibility,” in Perry Schmidt-Leukel, Understanding Buddhism (Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2006), p. 93.

[12] “Where-ever a Man finds, what he calls himself, there I think another may say is the same Person. It is a Forensick Term appropriating Actions and their Merit; and so only belongs to intelligent Agents capable of a Law, and Happiness and Misery. This personality extends it self beyond present Existence to what is past, only by consciousness, whereby it becomes concerned and accountable, owns and imputes to it self past Actions, just upon the same ground, and for the same reason, that it does the present.” John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Peter H. Nidditch, ed. (1684; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), Book II, chapter XXVII, § 26, p. 346.

[13] Richard Overton, “An Arrow Against All Tyrants and Tyranny,” in Andrew Sharp, ed., The English Levellers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 55. Overton’s insistence on his freedom, his inability to be forced to act against his own choice, was laid out in his defense of himself after being dragged to prison by his hair following his refusal to go along with the officers: “My Leggs were borne as free as the rest of my Body, and therefore I scorne that Leggs, or Armes, or hands of mine should do them any villeine-Service, for as I am a Freeman by birth, so I am resolved to live and dye, both in heart word and deed, in substance and in shew. But in case you object, that I knew well enough, that if I would not go, they would carrie me, therefore it had been better for me to have gone, then to have exposed my selfe to their cruelty, I answer, 1. If I had known they would have hanged me, must I therefore have hanged my selfe? 2. A good conscience had rather run the hazard of cruelty then to abate an hairesbreadth of contestation and opposition against illegality, injustice, and tyranny. 3. If they had had any legall jurisdiction over my leggs, then at their Commands my leggs were bound to obey: And then, (in that case) I confesse it had been better to obey, then to have exposed my person to the cruelty of threatening mercilesse Gaolers: But being free from their Jurisdiction from the Crowne of my head to the Soale of my foote, I know no reason, why I should foote it for them, or in any the least dance any attendance to their Arbitrary Warrants; their Lordships may put up their pipes, except they will play to the good old tune of the Law of the Land, otherwise their Orders and Warrants are never like to have the service of my leggs or feet, for they were never bred to tread in their Arbitrary Steps, but I shall leave their Orders and their execution to themselves. And therefore, Sir, concerning that action of mine, I shall continue in the said esteeme thereof, till my defense be made voide, and it be legally proved, that by the Law of the Land, I was bound to set one legge before another in attendance to that Order.” Richard Overton, “The Commoner’s Complaint,” in Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution, 1638-1647, Vol. III, W. Haller, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), pp. 381-382.

[14] Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), Book II, Chapter 1, 1103a–1103b, Kindle Edition (Kindle Locations 737–741).

[15] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000), 117.

[16] Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), p. 159.

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.