On 3 moments of freedom

Let’s examine a few different conceptions of freedom in hopes of arriving, in the end, at where we began.

In his famous essay, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” the contemporary philosopher Harry Frankfurt states, “According to one familiar philosophical tradition, being free is fundamentally a matter of doing what one wants to do.” This conception of freedom seems to make sense of a child’s experiences in which he does what he wants to do and it would seem that so long as he does what he wants to do he is satisfying his desires. He wants to go outside and play and he does; he wants a treat and he grabs a cookie; he wants to draw and he starts drawing. And it would seem also that he is unfree in cases where what he wants he does not do (e.g., he wants to but does not get to go outside to play in the rain) and in cases where he does not want what he ends up doing (e.g., he does not want to eat vegetables but ends up eating them anyway).

If doing what one wants to do just is freedom, then what are we to make of an adult’s experience of doing what he should do despite the fact that he does not want to do it? It would seem that this is precisely freedom, for in these cases I am not motivated by my desires but by my reasons. I may perform my filial duty to care for my ailing father who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s despite my desire to go out to dinner with my friends. I reason that what I should do takes priority over what I want to do in cases where I am responsible for others, where I ought to fulfill certain duties, and where it would be right for me to restrain my inclinations in the face of higher demands.

The danger in the first conception of freedom is that one never grows up because one is unable to recognize the claims of others. Yet the trouble in this second conception of freedom, it seems, is that I may end up doing typically or only what I should do, never or rarely what I want to do, with the result that I am torn between my duties and my pleasures. It may seem as if I have left, so to speak, my self behind. What now?


We could regard these first two conceptions of freedom as moments in the itinerary of our spirit. The first conception cues us into what we want. The second conception suggests that what we want may not be ultimate or determinative: that we may need to learn to see other reasons for acting if we want to grow into ourselves. But, by my reckoning, the latter cannot be the final stage of consciousness since it may bring us to exhaustion. Instead, we would need to return to the first conception of freedom and ask: Could it be that freedom just is doing what I really want to do with this “really wanting to do” meaning that I have broadened my set of considerations to such an extent that I am going again along with the way?

To see how this might go, let’s consider an example of someone who thinks in terms of thinness. In the first moment, I might ask, What is it I want?

A: I want to be thin.

I could then live out a conception of freedom in which I was doing what I wanted to do in making myself thin. Later on, I might come to an awareness that I want things that I should not want. Then, in the second moment, I might ask, What should I be doing if what I want is to be thin?

A: I should, e.g., count calories, restrain myself, exercise X many hours, hire a personal trainer and life coach, etc.

In this moment, we have been introduced to the stern voice. The stern voice (the ought) commands the servile voice (desire) to execute certain tasks. This moment of consciousness is crucial because it brings us to an awareness of our self-division, strife, and tiredness. Our freedom according to this conception rests on rejecting or renouncing some part of ourselves, on some stern performance of the will on behalf of something higher.

Out of exhaustion and during a moment of insight, we can ultimately return to the first question, which is now properly reformulated: when I examine myself, what do I really want?

A: What I really want is to be at home in my body when my body is actually flourishing.

Once we can figure out what this means, we will know what it is involved, in a different key, in doing what I want to do or–what is the same thing–in living according to nature.


The summary of the inquiry could run:

1. What do I want?

2. What should I do when I want the wrong thing?

3. When I say I want…, what do I really, ultimately want?

Against the fantasy of something for nothing

(Beyond my bedroom window: the snow comes down, the pigeons sit askant, at odd angles, one here, another there as if playing with me.)

(The birds, unseen, are singing amid the gently falling snow. Pure sprightly delight.)

We have inherited a misguided public philosophy concerning the desirability of “free things.” The fantasy that, all things being equal, it is better to get something for nothing has sunk deep into our collective way of life.

Look around you, virtually anywhere, and you’ll find this misconception running wild. There is the good deal, the sweat deal, the bargain, credit default swaps, the tragedy of the commons, the unpaid internship, the free sample, the free school, free education, free content on the web… A few days ago, I traced this fantasy back to a more primitive desire to escape mutual dependency by trying to maximize receivings and minimize givings. The background assumption of the “something for nothing” is that a world of scarcity has created a sense of Hobbesian hostility.

Concerning the scene of transaction, it would be no exaggeration to say that the con is the reductio ad absurdum of our insatiable desire for “free things.” Concerning the metaphysical picture of selfhood, the image is that of the “inner citadel,” a being invulnerable to harm, a creature as self-sufficient as god.

One place where you can see this picture of freedom being brought out into the open is in Jaron Lanier’s New York Times Op-ed, “SOPA Boycotts and the False Ideals of the Web” (January 18, 2012). The claim that content wants to be free is not only false; it is not only a fetish that hides the real human relations; it is also, and most certainly, an ideal we end up paying for on the back end.

Enjoy, make snow angels, and have a lovely weekend!