Inner Freedom Is Consistent with Family (and Social Ties in General)

I wish to push back a little on Stephen Asma’s point, with which William Irwin agreed in his reply, on the impossibility of achieving inner freedom in the context of familial relationships and sociality in general. (For the purposes of this comment, I am referring to inner freedom in the Kantian-existentialist sense of autonomy or authenticity.)

I agree with Asma that love for family, friends, and community is not borne of reason, but is rather a deeply emotional bond. Inner freedom need not be associated with “pure” reason, though, and can embrace the emotional entanglements that one endorses (if not “chooses”) from the viewpoint of one’s best self, which can be understood holistically to include rational, emotional, and spiritual aspects.

Consider the opposite: affection for a person who is bad for us, such as an abusive lover or parent. We may still feel strong emotional ties to this person, but both our reason and our self-love, if we choose to listen to them, would counsel us to reject this person. This is not a case simply of reason ruling over emotion, but rather emotions that are truer to our deeper selves, coincident with our interests, ruling over those that are contradictory to them.

In general, as I wrote in The Decline of the Individual (chapter 4), we are both autonomous and social: as I put it there, we are individual in essence and social in orientation. We can make decisions consistent with autonomy and authenticity—that is, without undue influence from internal or external influence—in the interest of ourselves as well as others. This reflects the important distinction between individuality (in the sense of autonomy, authenticity, and inner freedom) and individualism (which can easily slide into the type of atomistic homo economicus caricature that Asma rightly criticizes). My statement emphasizes the former while downplaying the latter, arguing that individuals can achieve more together than they can apart—but that they are still individuals.

The issue here is not for whom we make decisions, but how we make them: consistent with our own values and moral characters, accepting our own inclinations and external pressures when we judge them appropriate, or accepting these influences without challenge or reflection, allowing the judgments of others (or our own drives) to control us. Just as we can agree autonomously to follow another’s command if we judge it to be acceptable, we can act autonomously out of love for our family and friends, embracing these ties as part of who we are, rather than seeing them as a threat to inner freedom. (Outer freedom, on the other hand… where is the babysitter, we’re going to be late for the movie!)

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.