About this Issue

In ancient Rome, Epictetus was a slave; Marcus Aurelius was an emperor. Today they are recognized as two of the greatest exponents of Stoic philosophy. Epictetus and Aurelius grace our banner because this month we propose to talk about a topic where both had much to say: the relationship between inner and outer freedom.

All over the world, great religious and moral traditions have constantly likened these two kinds of freedom. It is good, say these traditions, not to be a slave. But just as slavery to another person is bad, so too is slavery to one’s own thoughts, passions, or instincts. Arguments of this kind can be found in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and many other religions. They can also be found in ancient Stoic philosophy and in many forms of liberalism.

But how do inner and outer freedom relate to one another? Is the relationship more than just metaphorical? Can the good life be had on inner freedom alone? Can a good society exist without it? If the two freedoms must in some sense go together, then how is that cooperation achieved? Does the pursuit of inner freedom entail limits to social freedom, or rather the opposite?

Lead essayist William Irwin draws on diverse philosophical traditions including existentialism, Stoicism, and Buddhism to make the case that inner and outer freedom are not only compatible, but harmonious. Joining him to discuss is a slightly larger than usual contingent of philosophers, including the Cato Institute’s own Aaron Ross Powell and Tom G. Palmer, plus Professor Stephen Asma of Columbia College Chicago, and Prof. Mark D. White of the College of Staten Island/City University of New York.

Lead Essay

Inner Freedom: Change Yourself, Then Change the World

I came late to the libertarian camp, because it was inner freedom that always seemed most important to me. It still does. So, while I have come to believe that political freedom matters and that government is best that governs least, I continue to believe that inner freedom matters most. If a person is not in charge of how she thinks, feels, and acts, then nothing else matters much. Life in a political utopia would be miserable for a person without inner freedom, and life in a political dystopia could be quite bearable for a person who has it.

To be clear, by talking of inner freedom I do not mean to open a metaphysical can of worms. I leave aside the grand philosophical question of whether free will is possible. Perhaps every event, act, and decision, has been fully determined since the Big Bang. But even if a person comes to believe that determinism is correct, she cannot help but think and act as if she is free nonetheless.[1] No one blames their personal failures and shortcomings on the chain of cause and effect set in motion by the Big Bang. Rather, we tend to blame social conditions and genetics for our regrettable choices and actions. This is where existentialism provides a useful corrective.

Existentialism is a philosophy of “no excuses,” according to which we are utterly free and responsible for the choices we make and the actions we take. [2] In the wake of World War II, Jean-Paul Sartre wagged his finger in the face of his countrymen, many of whom had been cowards and collaborators during the German occupation. Yes, circumstances were difficult, indeed dire, but a person is always responsible for himself. “The environment can act on the subject only to the exact extent that he comprehends it; that is, transforms it into a situation,” he wrote.[3] It is a fundamental aspect of the human condition that we make choices and that we are responsible for those choices. For Sartre, our freedom does not come in degrees, and it does not depend on circumstances. As he says, “there is no situation in which the for-itself would be more free than in others.”[4] We are always completely free. To pretend otherwise is to be in “bad faith,” as Sartre called it. On a related note, Robert Heinlein wrote in Stranger in a Strange Land, “I never do anything I don’t want to do. Nor does anyone, but in my case I am always aware of it.”

Sartre was among my first intellectual heroes, but I could never make sense of his Marxism. How could a philosopher who stressed complete individual freedom and responsibility endorse a political system that restricted individual liberty and externalized responsibility? For many years, I put the concern and curiosity aside. When I finally addressed the issue in my book The Free Market Existentialist, I concluded, as others had before me, that Sartre’s later Marxism could not be reconciled with his earlier existentialism, despite what Sartre and many of his followers said to the contrary.[5]

For me, cultivating inner freedom and self-mastery has been a project for a lifetime. It was almost the only project that mattered until I was into my thirties. I was living in the United States where political freedom was not ideal, but it seemed good enough. Why think about it when there isn’t much that you can do about it anyway? People concerned with politics always struck me as in bad faith, hiding from their own issues and blaming their own failures on a political system that did not control them and that was certainly beyond their control. I still feel much that way. However, there is no denying that there are better and worse political conditions in which to live. So, in finally considering political philosophy, I took my cue from my core existentialist belief that individuals are completely free and completely responsible. What form of government best suits such a view of the human being? My conclusion was in favor of a Nozickian minimal state that guards individual rights by protecting against force, fraud, and theft.

In the economic realm I thus favored a free-market system. Opponents, including the later Sartre and his followers, believe that the free-market system makes us less free because of consumerism, among other reasons. With pervasive advertising and a culture of keeping up with the Joneses, we become slaves to our own desires. Consumerism is the drive and desire for the newest and latest goods and services for the sake of deriving self-worth and signaling worth to others. When we are in the grips of consumerism we appear to lack inner freedom. The threat is real, and it is akin to addiction. From the existentialist perspective, though, we should not legally prohibit addictive substances in the name of freedom. Rather we should speak the truth about them and choose wisely concerning them. Likewise, we should not ban the advertising or the sale of useless junk. Instead we should become mindful consumers, choosing what we need and demanding high quality in exchange for our money.

Consumer culture may be crass, but it is just the kind of challenge that the self-defining existentialist should relish. Desires may arise without my consent, but I am responsible for recognizing them and deciding whether to endorse them. The free market makes available a superabundance of choices and products, but I do not need to endorse my desire for them all. I can be in consumer culture without being of it. For my part, I choose to practice voluntary simplicity. I cultivate a desire for plain and simple things, eschewing fancy cars and clothes and passing on the latest electronics. The Taoist sage Lao-tzu said that he who knows he has enough is rich.[6] I take this to heart. In material terms, I have enough, way more than enough. Yes, someone else will always have more, and there will always be some new and expensive product that I do not have. But so what? This is not a matter of sour grapes. I have desires, but desires do not have me.

Even if we manage to master desires, we must still contend with work. Marx diagnosed work under capitalism as infected with alienation. That is, we feel ill at ease and not at home in our work. Our jobs often lack meaning and purpose. To paraphrase Fight Club, we sell our labor eight hours a day at jobs we hate to buy shit we don’t need. We can address consumerism by self-defining and by mastering our desires. But unless we are independently wealthy, we will still have work to support ourselves. A job without purpose and without autonomy can be crushing, though not necessarily.

Concerning work, again I look to existentialism, this time to Albert Camus’ retelling of the myth of Sisyphus. As the story goes, Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to roll a rock to the top of a hill each day only to have it roll back down again. His labor is forced, difficult, and pointless. Indeed, the fact that it is pointless is the worst part of the punishment. If his back-breaking labor were accomplishing something worth doing, Sisyphus could take solace in that fact. As Camus asks us to imagine the scenario, Sisyphus is not broken by his futile occupation. Instead, Camus tells us that “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”[7] The very fact that the gods are trying to punish him is enough for Sisyphus to take a different attitude towards his task. He will enjoy it, just to spite the gods. How can he do that? Camus does not specify. Perhaps Sisyphus embraces the challenge of the task and takes satisfaction in his progress towards the top of the hill, enjoying a sense of “flow” in the activity.[8]

Thankfully, most of us do not find ourselves in jobs quite as odious as that of Sisyphus, but we all must make choices concerning the work for which we sell our labor. Rather than allowing herself to be defined by her work, the existentialist chooses work that fits with her self-definition, or at least is not in conflict with her self-definition. By contrast, too many people choose careers based on perceived status rather than on personal fit. Of course, not everyone has the luxury of choosing a job that fits neatly with their self-definition. Work is utilitarian; it pays the bills. The standard bearer of voluntary simplicity, Henry David Thoreau, found that he only needed to work six weeks a year to meet his expenses. Those of us who have families and don’t live in a cabin in the woods will find that we need to work more than that. But our work can be infused with the purpose of providing for a family or buying free time for meaningful pursuits.

We may actually choose to work more in our free time. Artistic endeavors are surely work even when they don’t result in remuneration. On the other hand, entrepreneurial activities can be artistic and sometimes remunerative. There is a natural connection among existentialists, artists, and entrepreneurs. The creativity and self-definition that make allies of existentialism and art can be extended to entrepreneurial activity, which is often at least as much about pursuing creative freedom as it is about pursuing profits. We see this all the more in the digital age in which many people have a “side hustle” that allows them to be their own boss, doing work that they enjoy for its creative or personal expression.

Admittedly, my focus on existentialism is personal and idiosyncratic. I experienced the obligatory existential crisis as a teenager, and I found comfort in reading Sartre. There are, though, other philosophies that likewise focus on inner freedom, notably Stoicism. When Sartre hyperbolically says, “the slave in chains is as free as his master,”[9] he might as well be quoting from one of the ancient Stoics. Indeed, Seneca cautioned that wealth and possessions can make us into slaves, writing that, “A thatched roof once covered free men: under marble and gold dwells slavery.”[10] It is striking that the two most widely read Stoics are a former slave, Epictetus, and an emperor, Marcus Aurelius. One man had no external or political freedom, and the other man had seemingly limitless external or political freedom. Yet both found their own minds to be the greatest obstacles to the freedom that mattered most, inner freedom. Both advocated correcting their thoughts and impressions. In Epictetus’ view, it is not the person who reviles or strikes you who harms you, but your own judgment that harms you.[11]

Perhaps the most important insight that the Stoic slave and the Stoic emperor share is that the world outside your own mind is beyond your control. Not even the emperor can control the words, thoughts, and actions of others. Yes, he can influence those things, but all attempts at influence come at a price. One must determine whether the attempt at influence is worth the price. Sometimes it will be, but many times it will not be. Ultimately, then, the Stoics call for acceptance of what is beyond control. This does not mean that the Stoic is a doormat who lets the world walk all over her. Far from it; the Stoic will act to try to change things in the world, but she will recognize that she only has influence over such things, and that ultimate outcomes are beyond her control. What she can control is her own mind. Thus, she can enjoy the peace that comes with the mindset of acceptance.

The ancient Stoics variously put their trust in the logos, or Zeus, or some other sense of the divine. But even as an atheistic existentialist, I can find comfort and freedom in stoic acceptance. I can also find a sense of priorities. 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. Marcus Aurelius is famous not just as a Stoic philosopher, but as a good and effective emperor. No doubt, his effectiveness as an emperor derived from putting his own thoughts in order before trying to put his world in order.

We should all learn from Marcus Aurelius that taking personal responsibility is more difficult than is blaming the injustice of the cosmos for the unhappy state of the mind. As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”[12] To paraphrase, make your bed and clean your head, then worry about the world.

Such advice faces two criticisms. First, it is easier said than done. Second, it can seem self-indulgent. Indeed, Sartre’s early work was criticized by Marxists like Georg Lukács for being bourgeois in its individualism. Today we might describe someone as having “first-world problems” when they sit around a café bemoaning the meaninglessness of existence. For the moment, let us put aside how best to reconcile the emphasis on inner freedom with the criticism of self-indulgence. As we’ll see, the same tradition that addresses the “easier said than done” criticism also addresses the “self-indulgence” criticism.

Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Sartre often leave readers wondering: How do you it? How do you train your mind to master your emotions and control your thoughts? In a word, the answer is practice. Much as Aristotle called for practice in acquiring virtues such as courage, temperance, and generosity, so too the Stoics call for practice in acquiring the habits of mind that lead to inner freedom. Marcus Aurelius is a particularly self-reflective role model, anticipating the challenges of the day ahead and considering his failures in the day that has passed. If one mines the writings of the Stoics, one can recover some gems for assembling a Stoic training program. But too often the Stoic counsel is: Just do it.

For greater help with the how of inner freedom, we can turn to Buddhism. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that all life is suffering. This sounds grim, but the word translated as suffering, dukkha, might be more accurately translated as “unsatisfactoriness.” The point is that life is characterized by a sense of unease, a feeling that things should be different and better. Why? The Second Noble Truth tells us that the cause of suffering is desire, clinging to impermanent things as if they were permanent. The Third Noble Truth tells us that liberation from suffering is possible. And the Fourth Noble Truth specifies the eightfold path of liberation: right views, right thoughts, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This is not easy, but at least it is a prescription.

Although Buddhism is a religion, it is also a practical philosophy. All elements of the eightfold path are important, but the last part is perhaps the most important: right concentration. In essence this is meditation. Here we find the training that Stoicism lacks. We do not send a football team onto the gridiron without training and conditioning. Likewise, we should not send ourselves onto the field of life without meditation. The key to overcoming suffering and achieving inner freedom or liberation is to recognize one’s own thoughts as the cause of suffering. Our thoughts commonly arise without our bidding and cause our suffering. The practice of meditation calls for focus on something other than our thoughts, typically the breath or a mantra. Thoughts nonetheless arise as we sit on the meditation mat, but rather than let them take us for a ride, we let them pass like a bus that is not going where we want to be. Yes, this is much easier said than done, but progress is possible, and it has practical results.

I have been practicing meditation for over fifteen years, though I would still consider myself a novice, having sat far fewer than the proverbial 10,000 hours. Even as a novice, I have noticed substantial benefits. Meditation is not an end in itself. As the football player lifts weights in the gym to play better on the field, I count breaths on the meditation mat to live better in the world. Learning to see thoughts arise and let them go while meditating is a transferable skill. I now do it better in the midst of life than I might otherwise have done. The result is less suffering and a greater sense of inner freedom. On live television, award shows typically have a seven-second delay so that they can bleep out obscenities. Meditation has not given me a seven second delay—that would be way too much—but it does help me to pause for a fraction of a second. As a result, I say and do fewer regrettable things that cause suffering to others and to myself. I have greater inner freedom.

But what about the criticism that a focus on inner freedom is self-indulgent? Before takeoff, flight attendants instruct passengers that in case of emergency they should put on their own oxygen mask first before attempting to help others. The same logic applies here. Only by first caring for the self and cultivating inner freedom can we put ourselves in the position to be of maximal benefit for others. Buddhism stresses the virtue of compassion in particular. By recognizing and addressing my own suffering I come to recognize and care for the suffering of others. Once I have addressed my inner freedom, then I am ready to turn my attention to political freedom. When I have changed myself, then I am ready to try to change the world.


[1] William Irwin, “How to Live a Lie,” https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/11/02/how-to-live-a-lie/

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Philosophical Library, 1947), p. 27.

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1956), p. 731 (hereafter BN).

[4] BN, p. 702.

[5] William Irwin, The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), pp. 33-61.

[6] Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching, ch. 33.

[7] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 1991), p. 123.

[8] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008).

[9] BN, p. 703.

[10] Lucius Annaeus Seneca Letter XC “On the Part Played by Philosophy in the Progress of Man,” http://thriceholy.net/Texts/Letter90.html.

[11] Epictetus, Enchiridion, Chapter 20.

[12] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans A.J. Kreilsheimer (Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1966), section 67.

Response Essays

Finding a Balance between Inner and Outer Freedom

William Irwin is certainly correct that whom we choose to make ourselves matters more than where we find ourselves. We ought to care more about the content of our character than about external accoutrements. From this weighing of comparative values derives the likewise reasonable conclusion that perhaps we, as citizens, as agents in the civic sphere, care too much about the shape of politics, which is always external to us, and that we do not care enough about cultivating those traits internal to us that play a much larger causal role in the quality of our lives.

The trouble, however, is that he takes this too far, drifting from what ought to be a question of how focus should be split to one of which side is worth focusing on at all. Caring about politics, he says, is something done by people “hiding from their own issues and blaming their own failures on a political system that did not control them and that was certainly beyond their control.” Stop pretending your problems are political, or have political causes, and get on with the business of making yourself the kind of person who doesn’t—or who, in a sense, can’t—have those problems in the first place.

At the same time, Irwin clearly does care about politics—he tells us he’s a libertarian of the “Nozickian minimal state” sort. And he criticizes Sartre, his existentialist hero, for having the wrong sort of politics. This tension, I think, comes from Irwin focusing too much on the fact of internal freedom and not enough on the mechanisms for achieving it. When we look to the latter—when we ask the question, “By what steps can I make myself internally free in an Irwinian sense?”—we see that caring about politics becomes necessary, at least in the world as we currently find it.

Before getting into why, I need to make a distinction here between caring about what sort of political world we have and caring about politics per se. Think of this, very roughly, as the difference between being an engaged activist with an understood goal and being a fan of reading Politico.

I’ve been pretty vocal in arguing that caring about politics degrades our character. A world where decisions about the contours of our lives—the choices open to us, the environment we live in, the ends we may pursue—are politically determined (i.e., determined through the mechanisms of the state) is a world that sets us unnecessarily against each other. Such a world also encourages us to embrace behavior we ought not, and to accept epistemic standards we wouldn’t in other spheres of our lives. Politics enables citizens to do bad things to us under the morally cleansing guise of “civics,” and so means there are political stakes we should or must care about that, in a better world, wouldn’t be political stakes in the first place. What’s more, politics, because of the incentives driving politicians seeking votes, encourages us to see political battles as more important than they really are, or political differences as greater—starker, more insurmountable—than a reasonable assessment would prove them to be. Thus we’re forced to care about politics, are encouraged to care about politics too much, and are incentivized to view far more than we should through a political lens. All of that is bad.

However, we find ourselves in a political world. Ideally we wouldn’t, because ideally we would do away with the urge to rule each other through the application of state coercion, but we’re not there yet and might well never be. And given how much of our environment is politically determined, or at least politically influenced, and given how much of that has the effect of making the social and economic environment worse, if we care about the world being a better place, and not just ourselves being better within it, we have to care about politics and have to desire political influence. Even if that is only in the service of ultimately banishing politics from our lives.

This latter sort of caring about politics isn’t just valuable outside of the context of Irwinian freedom, but Irwinian freedom, framed as self-authorship through internal autonomy and mindful focus and desire assessment, in fact counsels us to care in just this way.

The first, and least interesting reason, is that to be an Irwinian self-author, whether you go the stoic or Buddhist route or take some other path, you need an environment that grants you the space and resources to do so. Yes, it’s technically true that, as Irwin writes, “Life in a political utopia would be miserable for a person without inner freedom, and life in a political dystopia could be quite bearable for a person who has it.” But it’s also technically true that I could have drafted this essay by scraping the letters with a rock on a cave wall while fending off bandits and trying to ignore my chronically rumbling stomach and sick and dying children, but it’s a whole lot easier in the safety of my office, with financial security for myself and my family, and with a computer that keeps up with my typing.

The fact is that our lives contain more—and demand more of us—than internal reflection and the cultivation of directed attention. Even Buddhist monks, who have to the greatest extent possible dedicated their lives to that narrow focus, still depend on a functioning society to feed and clothe them and to provide them shelter and keep them safe from predation. And most of us, even as we ought to seek self-authorship, don’t have the luxury of living as monks. We’ve got lives to attend to. The easier those lives are, the more time and resources and available willpower we’ll have to undertake the difficult task of attaining true internal freedom.

Second, even if we have—or ought to have, or ought to seek—total freedom of self-authorship, and total freedom of directed attention and desire, like any other power under our control, we can use it well or poorly. The person you author for yourself ought to be a good person, and an admirable person. And that, I submit, includes being the sort of person who cares about the state of the world and the people in it. Given that we have overwhelming evidence that nothing improves human lives quite as well as political liberty, caring about the good of people means caring about promoting political liberty. To turn entirely inward, to say, “I’m only going to focus on me, knowing that I have the tools necessary already to live happy in even the least happy world,” is to ignore this basic requirement of shared humanity. The Buddha taught not just vipassana meditation, which asks us to look inward, but also metta meditation, which helps us cultivate feelings of “lovingkindness” for all living beings. And what better way to live out genuine love for your fellow man than to set aside at least some of your time to make his life better, or make the world the kind of place where he can more easily lead a better life?

Internal freedom matters—quite a lot. It would be good for all of us to develop and maintain a practice designed to increase it. But we shouldn’t do so in such a way as to cut ourselves off from the equally valuable pursuit of external freedom, because external freedom brings profound positive results, too—and makes the cultivation of internal freedom more likely.

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.”

Against Inner Freedom

As usual, William Irwin delivers a clear and compelling argument, peppered with wisdom from the western classical tradition, 20th century existentialism, and even Buddhist philosophy. He suggests that inner philosophical and psychological freedom is a more pressing human project, and political freedom will either follow personal emancipation or—at the very least—our lack of outer freedom will be more tolerable as we achieve levels of stoic calm.


Irwin is not retreating to the hippie world of lotus-eating. We are not invited to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Rather, he recommends the cultivated, tough-minded discipline of Marcus Aurelius and the Buddha, both of whom described the impermanence of all things as a liberating meditation for overcoming selfish desire and distraction. And well aware that consciousness-training is often parodied as “quietism,” Irwin—like Sartre—carves out an action-oriented form of inner freedom.

Who’s really keeping me down? Is it the elites, the patriarchy, or white supremacy? Is it capitalism, or the social justice warriors? Maybe some of these are real constraints. But before all that, it is me who is keeping me down. I am my own slave. Mastering myself will, according to Irwin, help me see the suffering of others and respond to them with greater action and compassion.

There are two major forms of inner freedom emerging out of traditional philosophy. I want to sketch them and agree with Dr. Irwin that, with great effort, these forms can be attained. But then I want to explore a form of human bondage that gets almost no attention in philosophy, and from which we will not extricate ourselves—nor will we want to.

One form or paradigm of inner freedom is the model of rational control. It can be seen beautifully in Plato’s Republic, but it dominates ancient Greek thought and Enlightenment era philosophy. The other dominant form is the equanimity or tranquility model, and this can be seen clearly in the Buddhist traditions (e.g., sati mindfulness, satori, kensho, samadhi, etc.). The extent to which the rational control form causes the equanimity form is a matter of perennial cross-cultural debate.

Plato suggested that all human beings contain some horrible ingredients—desires and appetites that should not be pursued. Way before Freud, Plato described the “unlawful” pleasures and appetites. “Everyone appears to have them,” he explained, “but in some persons they are controlled by the laws and by reason, and the better desires prevail over them—either they are wholly banished or they become few and weak; while in the case of others they are stronger, and there are more of them.” When asked for clarification, Plato (through his mouthpiece Socrates) describes the bad appetites as those that wake up in our dreams, “when the reasoning and human and ruling power is asleep; then the wild beast within us, gorged with meat or drink, starts up and having shaken off sleep, goes forth to satisfy his desires; and there is no conceivable folly or shame… a man may not be ready to commit.”[1]

Most of us readily recognize this frightening character in ourselves. If we never actually act on our low impulses, then at least we recognize this cretin in our wish-fulfillment fantasies. Whether you agree with Plato here, or the more modern version of the Freudian Id, it is well agreed that chaining up or at least disciplining these inner beasties is a major function of socialization and education. In fact, that’s why the Republic—which many people assume to be a political work—is largely concerned with citizen education. How do you create good character, when so many corrupting influences live inside and outside you?

Rationalists, like Plato, usually suggest that good character (the healthy psyche, or soul) comes when a person’s rational faculty (logistykon) finally tames their lower selfish appetites (epithymetikon). One of the main jobs of education and culture generally is to help young people master this internal hierarchy. But even rationalists recognize that reason can’t do the job alone (it’s pretty unpersuasive on its own) and each individual must enlist the help of their thumos or thymoeides (emotion or spirited passion). An idea alone or a rational calculation cannot inspire an addict to stop his drug of choice. Arguably it can’t even stop me from checking my smart phone every two minutes. But feelings of self-loathing, resolution, fear, or determination might, together with habits, override the negative behavior. These three components of the psyche are combined in Book IX of the Republic as a hybrid or chimera creature. Imagine a writhing multiheaded monster, Plato describes, with gaping mouths and tentacles and claws. This represents our appetites, which are never truly sated. Next, imagine a lion, strong and courageous. This represents the emotional part of our psyches. Finally combine these with a small homunculus human form –a symbol of our rational or logical faculty. In true Greek fashion, Plato asks us to mash them all together inside a single hybrid organism. Now look in the mirror. You are this hybrid.

When reason rules over my emotion, which rules over my desires, I attain inner freedom from my cravings. This gives me psychological freedom from addiction, but also freedom from paranoia about vengeful enemies—I’ll have few enemies because I didn’t wrong a bunch of people in order to satisfy my own urges. And this inner freedom is accompanied by something else important, namely real friends. As many people can attest, it is near impossible to be friends with a tyrant or an addict, because they will sell you down the river for a fix. But the rationally ordered soul is able to set aside her appetites when her friend needs help or companionship. True community is possible with a stable psyche.

The other dominant model of inner freedom is equanimity, or peace of mind. Greeks like Plato thought this followed directly from rational control, but other traditions, like Buddhism, think this peaceful conscious state flows from specific meditation activities. Equanimity-inducing insight might have a rational component, but according to the Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist models it comes rather from abandoning the discursive and limiting logic of the rational mind. Only when I’ve emptied my mind and brought it into the thin slice of the present moment will I attain inner freedom. It is the freedom of emptiness rather than control. Often, these two different forms of inner freedom are conflated, but I’m optimistic that both can be realized with proper training.

Now, however, what about the good forms of bondage? And I don’t mean Fifty Shades of Grey. For monks, nuns, existential heroes, and loner philosophers, there may be a life of individualistic inner liberty, but for the rest of us there is family. My life is never really free in either of the forms we’ve outlined, but not because my reason is lacking, or my appetites are out of control, or my enlightenment is half-assed. We are gloriously unfree in the sense that we have kids, and siblings, and parents, and profound friendships, and other forms of human bondage. These strong bonds do not emerge from the little homunculus of reason—they are not rational ties or duties. Nor should family ties be conceptualized as multiheaded appetites, for family bonds are stronger, less promiscuous, and more durable. Instead, family ties grow in the territory of Plato’s “lion”—the emotional part of the psyche—what we now call the limbic system.

Some critics have pointed out that the libertarian concept of an autonomous “individual” is unrealistic, to which defenders reply that they are equally dedicated to the large-scale social contract. But my claim is different. I suggest that I am never going to have inner freedom because my well-being is inextricably tied to the well-being of my children, siblings, parents and so on. I am not tied to “society”—I don’t actually give a toss about “society.” I am emotionally entwined and entangled with a handful of very specific people, and when they suffer, I suffer. I mean this literally, not figuratively.

Like other social mammals, we are born into care-groups, and our feelings are interwoven with the experiences of our cluster. It is not clear to a baby mammal where she begins or ends, and she must learn the parameters of individuality. I am suggesting that social mammals, like we humans, have a kind of extended nervous system, which reaches beyond the skin barrier to include kin experiences.

Our ability to feel the suffering or deprivation of a family member is part of our instinctual equipment. The recent discovery of “mirror neurons” reveals that our social brains are so sensitive to the feelings and actions of others, that my neural pain pathways “light-up” or activate when I see you undergoing some painful experience. I literally sense a little taste of your pain, just by witnessing it. The subjective wince that I feel at your suffering is neurologically underwritten by automatic brain processing; both my brain stem and anterior cingulate activate when I am poked with a pin, but my anterior cingulate also activates when I witness you getting poked with a pin. There is thus a “shared manifold” of feelings or even an “emotional atmosphere” that humans share with each other. It’s not mystical or spooky, it’s just an under-recognized biological ability.[2] This bond or shared manifold is strongest between family members.

We don’t come into the world as Homo economicus or selfish Hobbesian mercenaries. Contrary to the usual social contract theory, we mammals don’t start out as self-serving egotistical individuals who then need to be socialized (through custom, reason, and law) to endure the compromises of tribal living. Rather, we start out in a sphere of emotional-chemical values, created by family care, in which feelings of altruistic bonding are preset before the individual ego even extricates itself.

There is a kind of bondage, servitude, and even captivity in the very heart of family love, and that is the cost of being attached to one’s children, for example. Most of us wouldn’t trade it for the beatific vision, the enlightenment of the now, or the rational mastery of the philosopher kings. I must agree with George Orwell’s claim that “the essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty…and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”[3]

There is a kind of frictionless ascetic life, with weak family bonds and a strong sense of individual freedom, but I don’t think it should be the ideal philosophical project. Having children gives you important access to significant aspects of the human condition—no one knows the depths of human vulnerability like a parent. Oh sure, Nietzsche can wring his hands about the eternal recurrence, but let him spend a day in the emergency room with his injured kid. That’s real vulnerability. He wouldn’t know about it, because he didn’t have kids.

Beyond things like vulnerability and a sense of the fragility of existence, raising kids also gives you real insight into epistemology and ethics (e.g. how you acquire and develop knowledge and a sense of the good, etc.). So, it’s no accident that some of my favorite philosophers—Aristotle, Montaigne, even Hegel—were also parents.

It is not intrinsically better to be a parent than a non-parent. That is not my point. I’m simply illustrating how there can be forms of emotional bondage that cannot be avoided (via rational control, or meditation), nor would we want to avoid these deep forms of vulnerable connection.

Many of us would like to have inner freedom, and we even fantasize about it. But it is inconsistent with family life, because family life joins your nervous system to all the other nervous systems in your nuclear tribe. It’s a stressful bondage that I wouldn’t trade for anything.


[1] See Book IX of Plato’s Republic, translated by Benjamin Jowett (Vintage Classic, 1991).

[2] Mirror neurons were first discovered by a team of Italian neurologists in the early 1990s and are commonly believed to be one of the most important recent discoveries in neuroscience. One of the original researchers, Dr. Vittorio Gallese, has written (together with N. I. Stamenov) a fairly comprehensive story of the discovery and implications, called Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Brain and Language (John Benjamins Publishing, 2002). I adopt his helpful term “shared manifold,” which he articulates in “The ‘Shared Manifold’ Hypothesis: From Mirror Neurons to Empathy” in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (Vol. 8, 2001).

[3] See Orwell “‘Reflections on Gandhi” First published: Partisan Review. — GB, London. January 1949.

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.

The Conversation

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.

Human Vulnerability and the Fiction of Individualism

The essays by my colleagues William Irwin, Aaron Ross Powell, Mark D. White, and Tom G. Palmer have stimulated my thinking greatly, and I’m grateful for this thoughtful forum. The issue for me that keeps emerging is the reality and the role of the individual. I am inclined increasingly to the unpopular and counterintuitive view that the individual is less real than we think he is, and this has implications for inner freedom as well as politics.

The independent individual is a hero to WEIRD cultures (Western, Educated Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and it serves as the starting place for both pessimistic and idealistic theories of the social contract. Whether you’re a Hobbesian who thinks the selfish ego must be constrained by the community, or a Rousseauvian who laments such constraint (or even a Rawlsian), you still start from a metaphysics of individualism. But what if the “individual” is more aspirational than real?

Steven Pinker and other recent champions of the Enlightenment argue that the West is the best, and individualism is an important ingredient in that success. Individualism is thought to be essential for violence reduction, social advancement, and increased freedom and happiness. I’m not sure if William Irwin agrees entirely with Pinker on this, but I hear the echoes of it in Irwin’s Sartrean existential orientation. And I hear it in Mark White’s Kantian celebration of “autonomy” and his claim that “the more we cede our choices to others, the more we compromise our own autonomy, authenticity, and very sense of self.”

Something Tom Palmer hit upon seems like a contrast worth exploring. Palmer quotes philosopher T.H. Green: “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.” Palmer crystallizes this relational aspect of the self when he says, “Our acts, our interactions with the world around us, including other moral agents, to a substantial degree makes us the people we are.”

I think we should push the relational aspect of the self even more radically. As I suggested in my essay, a person who is strongly bonded with family members will find it nigh impossible to achieve anything like inner peace or freedom when troubles and sufferings are felt across the nuclear tribe or household.

Contrary to strong individualism, a healthy politics and ethics can be built on a group or tribal foundation – it is not all violence and vengeance. The Buddha argued, for example, that giving up the individual self renders you more compassionate because the other’s suffering is also your suffering. But even our homegrown western tradition has produced the feminist project of “care ethics” against the paradigm of individualism.

From Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) to Carol Gilligan (1936-), women have noticed that the ideal of rule-based western ethics has been the “autonomous man.” But what about the “communal woman?”[1] Feminists noticed that the typical model of the ethical man was an utterly detached, impartial self. This autonomous self was supposed to have pulled himself out of the subjective quagmire of emotions and biased attachments, in order to view the objective distribution of goods and duties with a disinterested eye. Women philosophers, who knew full well that this “autonomous self” was a fiction (or a pathology), found this kind of individualism to be dubious. Every autonomous individual is inextricably tied to his mother, at the very least, but he seems to forget it, as he peers outward toward his world of independence. And his values, education, tendencies, even his reason itself is a product of many deep family and social connections. Moreover, “care ethicists” point out that social praxis itself must be particular, not universal; concrete, not abstract; and emotionally weighted, not just mathematical.

Care is an alternative to individualism ethics because it acknowledges the inextricable intimacies of human social life, and it places emotions at the root of those intimacies. But the intimacies of care also create special obligations and duties that constrain us and act as quasi-laws (more particular than universal, but still binding). This is the kind of ethical framework that can acknowledge special cases of group, or filial, or even tribal preference.

In his book Dependent Rational Animals, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that, “It is most often to others that we owe our survival, let alone our flourishing.” We are much more vulnerable and dependent than we think. The Existential-Stoic-Buddhist-Libertarian belief in the free individual doesn’t quite make sense if we try to apply it to children, the elderly, the ill, and the disabled. But we, MacIntyre reminds us, will probably be all those things at some point in our lives. Why should our philosophy privilege a mere chapter (of relative adult autonomy), and ignore the whole book of life – a life composed of dependent relationships? My ability to flourish needs enormous help from others. And, of course, some disabled people will spend their whole lives deeply dependent on others, not by choice but of necessity.

We will need to have external political forms of freedom to help us attain some inner freedom, but we also need to incorporate our radical vulnerability into our social institutions. I’m not exactly sure how to do that. MacIntyre thinks we need to create institutions of equal access decisionmaking (inclusion of the marginalized); we need to emphasize the virtue of generosity more; and we need political proxies for those disabled who cannot directly participate in decisionmaking (e.g., those who are mentally ill). We must always remember that we and our loved ones may become disabled at any time. So, our policies and our philosophies should reflect that inevitable lack of freedom.


[1] See Rosemarie Tong’s Feminine and Feminist Ethics (Wadsworth, 1993) for a good contrast of the autonomous man and communal woman paradigms. Carol Gilligan’s important work on care-based ethics arose out of her critique of masculine models of developmental moral psychology. See her In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Harvard, 1982).

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!)

“Individual in Essence and Social in Orientation”

My thanks to Mark White and Stephen Asma for continuing the discussion and for drawing our attention more to the family. To begin, I should clarify that my view is not that deep family connections make it impossible to cultivate inner freedom. Rather, they make it difficult, much as it is difficult to stay sober if one spends every waking hour in a bar. But whereas there is probably no good reason to spend every waking hour in a bar if you are trying to stay sober, there is good reason to have deep bonds with family even if you are trying to cultivate inner freedom. Such bonds make a life worth living. Inasmuch as your patience, kindness, and generosity will likely increase as inner freedom increases, you will be a better family member. I very much like White’s formulation that we are “individual in essence and social in orientation.” I will try to apply it in my own way in reacting to Asma’s insights.

In highlighting our connections to family, Asma draws our attention to the Buddhist doctrine of anatman. One way that anatman has been translated is “no self,” and one way of interpreting the doctrine is that there is no separate individual self. Asma rightly points out that in many Asian cultures the concept of the individual is not as robust as in western society. Instead, in many Buddhist societies, identity is highly relational, with a particular emphasis on family relations. In his excellent book Against Fairness, Asma has defended the kind of favoritism and nepotism that predominates in such societies. And in his most recent contribution to this discussion, Asma has pointed to feminist care ethicists as also making a special place for considering one’s relationships in ethical decisionmaking.

I certainly agree with Asma about the importance of relationships, but I am reluctant to agree that much follows from the doctrine of anatman. Anatman is only roughly translated as “no self.” Atman for Hindus is the true individual soul. For the philosophical Hindu, the ultimate insight that leads to enlightenment (moksha) and liberation is that atman is Brahman. The individual soul is one with the universal soul. Therefore, separation is an illusion.

By denying the existence of atman, the Buddha was denying the existence of a soul. He was also denying the existence of something permanent and identical that would make a person the same person across time. To reach nirvana is to extinguish all desire and attachment, including attachment to the notion of atman, a stable and permanent self. Intellectually accepting this Buddhist position is probably very different from having deep insight into it and full acceptance of it. For my part, I have only an intellectual acceptance. Perhaps someone who has deep insight and full acceptance of it would then have a deep sense of connection to all other beings. But I am skeptical.

My best reconstruction of the Buddha’s original teaching is that enlightenment and liberation from suffering is an individual pursuit. Yes, it is done in community (the sangha), but fundamentally it is an individual pursuit done in the encouraging company of others. In this regard, I picture my son running in a cross-country race. The race is for individuals even if they are members of various teams. As White says, we are individual in essence and social in orientation.

There is no doubt that Asma’s interpretation of anatman, which implies connection to others, has been more popular than my favored interpretation, but to me it seems like turning Buddhism back into Hinduism. In any event, if we are to follow this interpretation that stresses the importance of connection to others, on what grounds could we favor family or friends? It would seem they should be no more special than anyone else. If you have no self and they have no self, then creating a sense of a special bond or unity would be misguided. To be clear, though, I think that such bonds are very good things. We are individual in essence and social in orientation.

Returning to the sports analogy, I tend to think of my family as a team—not a loosely associated cross country team but a basketball team. We all need to work together; no one succeeds without the others; and each one’s success is shared by the others. Not all members of the team contribute equally, and that is OK. The family is the place for socialism, because the bonds are so strong and the sense of unity makes an apparent sacrifice no real sacrifice at all. I would like to feel that kind of connection with more people outside my family, and through meditation I try to cultivate loving-kindness (metta). But I am a very long way from achieving it. Because most people are a long way from achieving universal love, I recommend that they focus on the family. If we all took proper care of our families, there would be a lot fewer people in need of help.

External Freedom Encourages Self-Control

I’d like to emphasize again the connection between what William Irwin has labeled inner freedom and external (or political) freedom. I think that the former is better cast as “self-control,” as it focuses on a moral goal and not a metaphysical claim, but I don’t want to quibble about terms, especially when freedom has had a long history of being applied to one’s control over one’s own mind.

There is robust evidence that we are more likely to enjoy more self-control when we are secured in the exercise of our external freedom and are accorded the responsibility that comes with freedom. More complex forms of social coordination based on the presumption of liberty and simple rules to govern our actions (what Richard Epstein termed Simple Rules for a Complex World) tend to involve more, rather than less, self-control, entirely contrary to what our old socialist friends have preached for so long. Complex social organization involves more internalization of rules and guidelines, as Norbert Elias showed in his pathbreaking research.

Denying people the freedom to make their own decisions about their own lives and shielding them from the responsibility for their acts limits or reduces their abilities to make choices for themselves. The history of alcohol and drug prohibition provide substantial evidence, as Jeffrey Miron argues in his chapter from the book Self-Control or State Control: You Decide, but there are many, many other examples to buttress the insight.

That relationship of self-control to freedom and responsibility shows up not only in broadly political decisions made by legislatures or other state bodies to limit or recognize external freedom, but also in parenting, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue in their important and disturbing new book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. If we hope to achieve greater inner freedom (aka “self-control”) we should redouble our efforts to extend and secure external (aka “political”) freedom.

Finally, I am not a parent, and generally I refrain from offering advice on parenting. But I did have parents, and I remember that they tried to do what they could to instill respect and self-control in their children. (My father was a reader of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.) Based on my memories of my parents and my observations of others, I do not see inner freedom as incompatible with or even in tension with commitments to children. Making oneself aware of one’s obligations and one’s purposes is not incompatible with being connected to others or experiencing or expressing love and commitment to family. It means that one is less likely, when doing so, to engage in self-defeating actions or to let impulses get in the way of what would express love more effectively.

Finally, I recommend to those who are facing choices as parents a project that, to this person lacking experience, seems to be very promising based on the available evidence. That project is LetGrow.org, and I encourage people to explore it.