Replies on Inner Freedom and Responsibility

I am honored that the respondents to my essay were so thoughtful and generous in considering my ideas. It appears to me, though, that some disagree with me more than I do with them. This suggests that the tone and emphasis of some of what I wrote missed the intended mark.

As a devoted husband and father, I could not agree more with Stephen Asma’s point about the chains of family. They keep us from achieving inner freedom, but they are nonetheless worth it. Because of the importance of living a full life that includes pleasure (kama) and material security (artha), Hindu philosophy does not truly aim at individual enlightenment until old age when some renounce the world to become sadhus. The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, did not progress through the expected life stages for a Hindu, but instead left his wife and son to pursue enlightenment. Significantly, his son’s name was Rahula, which means “chain” or “fetter.” In this regard, the Buddha provides us with a bad example of what to do. Being a parent is not conducive to enlightenment or inner freedom, but it is conducive to living a life of meaning. Fuller inner freedom can wait. In fact this is one of the main messages of my new novel Little Siddhartha.

The Stoic Epictetus says that if we recognize that our children and spouses are mortal we will not be disturbed if they die. We will simply recognize that the giver has called for their return. This sounds cold and harsh. But, to be fair to Epictetus, he was writing in a time and place where life was much more fragile than it is today—children commonly died before reaching adulthood. By highlighting the tenuous lives of our loved ones, Epictetus was trying to heighten our appreciation for them. Nonetheless, I do not want to have so much inner freedom that I would not be disturbed by their loss. I see inner freedom as a project for a lifetime, something to develop gradually and incrementally. In discussing the invulnerability of stoicism in a related article, I concluded that I would like to become the perfect stoic on my deathbed.

My lead essay for this month’s Cato Unbound concludes by talking about the obligation to put one’s own oxygen mask on first before attempting to help others. This is emblematic of my approach to parenting, and it is also emblematic of my approach to politics. Clearly, I don’t value political action as much as Aaron Ross Powell and Mark White, but I do not endorse quietism or political inaction. Indeed, my essay looks to Marcus Aurelius as a role model. The Stoic emperor was certainly a political actor, but he took time to cultivate inner freedom with his daily reflections. In the contemporary landscape, the Dalai Lama is a political actor, but he does not go into the world before meditating for several hours in the morning. I do not mean to suggest that we need to develop the level of self-mastery and inner freedom that these towering figures achieved. Rather, we need to find the balance of self-cultivation and political action that suits us personally.

Tom Palmer asks why, if we have complete freedom, do we need to cultivate inner freedom? The answer from the Sartrean perspective, which I endorse, is that we commonly deceive ourselves, and we are thus guilty of what Sartre calls bad faith. We never do anything that we do not want to do, but we commonly deceive ourselves about our choices. One way we deceive ourselves is by pretending that circumstances force the choices we make. In effect, we freely choose to deny our own freedom. In truth, circumstances only provide what Sartre calls facticity, and it is up to us to interpret that facticity and thus create what Sartre calls a situation. We are always 100% free, but the kind of inner freedom that requires cultivation is the kind that allows us to resist our own self-deception. There is never a lack of freedom, just an increase in the difficulties of circumstances. Having fewer options or more difficult options does not make me less free ontologically.

Allow me to quote an example from The Free Market Existentialist. “Let’s say that the best assessment of the situation comes up with a rational-belief probability that gives me a 60% chance of declining chocolate cake when it is offered for dessert tonight. This does not mean that I am only 60% free ontologically. The epistemology does not touch the underlying ontology. I still remain 100% free. It is just that I may decide to pursue short-term pleasure instead of long-term goals. And my own physiology and brain chemistry form part of the circumstances in which the choice will have to be made.

I cannot deny my freedom even if the cake is put on a plate and served to me. Putting the dessert in front of me may decrease the rational-belief probability of my declining dessert to 40%, but we need to remember that rational-belief probability is just an epistemological tool, not a metaphysical fact. It is not like the a priori probability of drawing a red marble from a bag in which there are four red marbles and six blue marbles. Rather, rational-belief probabilities are based on what other people have done or, better, what I have done, in the past. But they do not mean that I am somehow less free to resist dessert when the dessert has been brought to the table—just less likely. Individual circumstances are always completely unique, and there is no algorithm that I am following or that can be used to say with certainty what I will do. The probability involved is like that of predicting the winner of a horse race; it is a rational-belief probability—an epistemological tool—and that is all. … I remain 100% ontologically free to decline the cake, and it will be somewhat helpful to remind myself of that. But it would be even more helpful if the host was told in advance that I was on a diet and would prefer not to be offered dessert” (pp. 44–45). In this way we can see how external (or political) circumstances matter. They give us the raw materials that we shape and interpret. There are obviously better and worse, easier and more difficult, circumstances in which to find oneself. Thus, it is usually better to be an emperor than a slave, but it is also possible for a slave to have great inner freedom and a better life than an emperor.

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.