Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters


Resist and be free

More than false choices and options, the highest freedom lies in being true to oneself and defying the expectations of others

by Mariam Thalos + BIO

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

Are human beings free? Are we sources of at least some of our behaviour, not merely scenes in which the laws of nature unfold over time? And is our freedom, however we define it, truly different from anything that our nonhuman cousins enjoy?

These worries haunt philosophers. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Friedrich Nietzsche observed that the way we ask important questions, like the way we answer them, responds to the needs and anxieties of the historical moment in which those questions arise for us. If we care about freedom more acutely than ever, perhaps it’s because we’re more and more attuned to the multitudes of ways in which our self-stewardship is undermined or hijacked for the uses and machinations of others – especially by corporations or institutions that don’t have our wellbeing at heart.

One way to begin thinking about these problems is to examine what we might mean by ‘freedom’. The 20th-century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between two kinds of freedom, though he tended to prefer the term ‘liberty’. In his lecture ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958), Berlin introduced the notion of negative liberty: essentially the freedom from interference, such as by the state or legal authorities. You are negatively free to the extent that others do not prevent you from doing what you want to do, especially through laws and statutes. (For this kind of liberty, limits imposed on us by nature, such as not being able to fly, don’t count as interference.) Following Berlin, many contemporary philosophers – such as Philip Pettit – speak of liberty as freedom from domination.

While negative liberty concerns what others might do to limit your actions, positive liberty deals with what you can do to control your own life. That is, you are positively free if you enjoy mastery over yourself so as to achieve your goals or ambitions. People who don’t have the resources to control their actions, due to factors such as deprivation or addiction, don’t enjoy much positive freedom, even if nobody is restraining them.

The matter of self-mastery crosses over into the topics of autonomy and the self. An influential idea put forward by philosophers from Plato to Sigmund Freud is that the self is made up of a privileged set of the entirety of a body’s desires and motivations. The modern version of this idea links the self to higher-order desires: desires about desires, such as a desire to wean oneself off a craving for caffeine or social media. A self that is successfully identified with these (literally) more elevated desires is now often said to be autonomous. Autonomy, then – like positive liberty – involves having one’s ‘baser’ wishes and urges well in hand.

However, the concept of autonomy has been challenged – particularly from traditions that consider how social and political forces shape false consciousness. Along with Marxist theorists such as Friedrich Engels, the 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault suggested that even the contents of our thoughts, together with the institutions that circumscribe our lives, are expressions of systemic power. Foucault paints a picture of people as puppets, in thrall to institutions that channel the interests of elites. The function of these institutions – such as prisons and hospitals for the insane – is to discipline individuals into upholding the status quo. The way that these systems mete out punishments, and inhabit our imagination, keeps us suspended like flies in amber by the mere threat of sanction. For example, stereotypes often reflect repressive, unjustified expectations, yet studies show that people tend to conform to them. In the phenomenon known as stereotype threat, reminding women or people of colour of their gender or racial identity in advance of asking them to take certain tests can artificially reduce their scores – in line with stereotypes about these people as less intelligent or learned.

If Foucault’s ideas are correct, the very idea of self-mastery is a wicked and ironic distortion of reality, serving to entrench the absence of freedom. Any apparent self-mastery is little more than an expression of how we have been disciplined; it’s a form of slavery in disguise. We enjoy no true options: either we conform, or we are punished. To use Berlin’s language, our positive freedom exists only to fulfil the needs of others, and is fashioned by the power they enjoy. Where is the liberty in that? Is it freedom when a woman chooses to keep quiet about sexual violence, for instance, for fear of being judged by the disciplinary institutions of her society? Surely not. There can be no real liberty without live options.

Coiled within this thought is the principle that any freedom deserving of the name consists in having alternatives. So a person performing an action – say, keeping quiet about sexual violence – qualifies as exercising freedom only on the condition that she could have done something else. Philosophers have branded this simple idea with a grand title: the principle of alternative possibilities, or PAP. PAP meshes nicely with the model of choosing that animates the literature and the wider culture of the West, from Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ (1916), to Jorge Luis Borges’s short story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941).

The problem with PAP, however, is that it struggles to explain why having more options often fails to enhance freedom. In fact, the proliferation of options sometimes appears to have the opposite effect: it creates paralysis instead, such as when you’re confronted with too many choices of cereal at the supermarket. How is it possible that more options can be somehow constraining, if freedom is really about options?

Perhaps freedom is not about options at all. There are two significant reasons to think this, put forward in 1969 by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt (who also christened PAP). First, some people without options don’t appear to need them in order to enjoy freedom worthy of the name. Why? Because these option-poor people can stay on the path that – as it happens – they aren’t able to diverge from, unaware that it’s the only path available to them.

Consider a scenario in which a soldier, Amaya, witnesses a senior officer committing a war-crime, but decides against reporting it, out of a sense of loyalty to the reputation of the army. Suppose that the senior officer, fearing exposure, hacks into Amaya’s email account, in order to mine it for dirt on her. He succeeds in unearthing a damaging secret from her past. For the moment, he keeps the knowledge to himself, but knows that he can threaten to reveal it to Amaya and the wider world, should she reconsider her decision to remain silent.

Let’s suppose that Amaya would invariably give in to the blackmail. So while it’s theoretically open to her to expose her senior officer, the reality is that such an alternative never really exists.

But, as it happens, Amaya doesn’t waiver: she never once hesitates in her decision to stay silent, and simply continues as she began. So the officer is not tempted to resort to blackmail. Has her freedom been compromised in this scenario?

Fewer options arguably ‘liberate’ us from deciding between multiple unwanted options

Few people would think so, I suggest. After all, the information in the hands of the officer is never used as leverage against Amaya; he never even confronts her. So while it is true – according to the hypothetical story – that she has no option but to remain silent, she’s free throughout in having kept her own counsel about the matter. In other words, just believing that you have consulted your own personal values, and then choosing a particular path, is enough to render you free.

This thought-experiment suggests that simply having more options doesn’t equate to more freedom: we would not be rendered more free via the introduction of hundreds more cereal brands or fewer shared secrets. On the contrary, fewer options arguably ‘liberate’ us from having to decide among multiple, essentially unwanted options.

A second reason to be skeptical of the options-based account of freedom is that people with options don’t often recognise them as being truly live – so they don’t reap any real benefit from having them. Take the situation where a woman has been sexually assaulted, and is struggling with whether or not to report it. Let’s call her Alice. Compared with Amaya, here our protagonist is even more likely to be exposed to retaliation, and to put her livelihood and reputation at risk if she reports her assailant. So she might not even consider a public declaration a genuine possibility; hence, Alice also remains silent, but not out of any ‘live’ choice.

Alice’s case represents the most corrosive way of restricting a person’s freedom: to make the very thought of certain options a source of punishment or discipline. Options mean nothing if you cannot even contemplate them. Likewise, they mean nothing if they have no impact on the way you go about laying plans for yourself. To the extent that your mind cannot expand to take in available alternatives, even if only to draw a map of hypothetical pathways, to that extent you are unfree – personally and politically.

So if freedom is not a matter of multiple options, just what is it? In my view, freedom has more to do with how you conceive of yourself – and of how you arrive at that self-conception. This is a term familiar to psychologists and sociologists, and connected with the nature of identity. You might think of yourself as a kind person, a conscientious worker, a good friend, a patriot, an intelligent citizen, good at mathematics (or not), fit for leadership (or not). The question is, how did you arrive at any of these self-descriptions, and how did you manage to discard others? The answer to this question, I’d argue, is a measure of how free you are. More specifically, you exercise your freedom most strongly when you reject or push back against a label or descriptor that others urge upon you – whether they do it gently or in the strongest possible terms.

Social psychologists have studied people’s preferred self-conceptions. In the 1970s, Claude Steele’s social psychology research team made telephone calls to women at home in Salt Lake City, Utah – a population with an unusually strong community ethic. Posing as pollsters looking for survey participants, a first raft of callers told some of the women that everyone in the community knew that they were uncooperative with community projects. Another group were told that they were shining beacons of community participation. Two days later, the same women were contacted again, ostensibly by unrelated callers, and asked whether they would be willing to help with a community project (a food co-op). Women who felt personally maligned by the first group of callers were willing to help with the co-op project, and did so at twice the rate of women who had been complimented for civic-mindedness. The women who’d received a blow to their self-image as public citizens wanted to reinstate their former self-concepts – to reclaim their formerly high opinion of themselves as servants of the community.

Steele’s findings convinced him that a person needs a well-functioning system of self-regard to explain herself to herself. In this way, we sustain a phenomenal experience of the self as ‘adaptively and morally adequate’. Our preferred way of thinking about ourselves is always on the alert for threats, Steele maintained, and is activated whenever incoming information threatens its integrity. When activated, the system presses for a restoration of the former conception – or ultimately, for a change in it.

When someone suffers a blow to a prized understanding of herself, that can create a crisis. These are precisely the moments, I think, that occasion exercises of freedom – real opportunities to practise being free. When Alice thinks about whether to report her assault, for example, she might reflect on the example she wants to set for her children, and whether or not she’s the kind of person who speaks truth to power. What we do in such moments, in the crucible of self-creation, can either contribute to our liberation as authentic, self-made individuals, or else hamper our capacity for self-determination.

Return to Amaya, who keeps quiet out of personal concern for the corps, with that concern overshadowing others. Let’s say her decision not to act arises from her self-conception – as a loyal soldier or dedicated citizen – rather than any sense of shame or fear. So the fact that the officer has secretly stolen information about her doesn’t deprive Amaya of the ability to act out of her self-conception as someone who is loyal to the military. Indeed, it appears to deprive her of nothing. So she is free, by the lights of the new account of freedom I’m offering, even if we might not like what she does with that freedom.

People can use instances of restraint or repression as moments of self-creation

Not just our acts, but the language we use to express self-conception must be carefully guarded as well. Suppose that Alice thinks of herself as a strong person, a competent professional and a breadwinner for her family. If she also views reporting the incident as reflecting badly on these things – if reporting is, in her society, labelled as cowardly and reflective of personal or moral weakness – then she cannot act in line with her self-conception as a strong, professional breadwinner by reporting the sexual assault. When she acts to remain silent, she does so out of a deference to the expectations of others, and possibly even by conceding the very meaning of strength and independence to others. Her expectations and understandings are crafted by the very culture that made her vulnerable to assault in the first place. When she allows society to dictate her expectations, Alice relinquishes control over her life, and is unfree.

Now imagine, by contrast, that Alice could reject the conception of herself as cowardly when she reports the assault. Imagine if she were able to see herself as brave when reporting. That would shift the balance against the very expectations (of silence) that Foucault would have considered ‘disciplining’. To do this, Alice might need to change the meaning of ‘strength’ and ‘cowardice’ in her own mind, rather than simply accept them from others. Being able to shift the meaning of such ideas in order to resist disciplinary systems carries enormous power. As much as a moment of unfreedom, an event that occasions a counterstrike of this kind might also allow a person to practise being free. Everything depends on how ready one is to resist.

One can also push back against stereotypes. People who respond strongly to stereotype threat end up conforming to expectations, rather than acting from genuine self-conceptions, and so are unfree. But if you are prepared for the threat in advance, you might be able to shift the balance in favour of better performance. You can adopt a conception of yourself as equal with (and if possible, better prepared than) the dominant group; you can conceive of yourself as not disadvantaged by your race, gender or anything else. In doing so, you are fighting against internalised bias – as well as removing some of the many threads that keep it tightly woven into the corsets that shape our lives.

If we shift our focus away from thinking about ‘options’ or ‘alternatives’, and consider instead the opportunities for moulding our self-image in the course of resisting oppressive forces, we might be able to promote real freedom. That way, we can help people use instances of restraint or repression as moments of self-creation, by preparing people in advance of threats to their liberty.

This new approach to freedom demands a metamorphosis in how we think about creating an identity, particularly in situations where we have been disciplined to rule out eligible options. Friends and critics alike do us no service when they point out that we can ‘do anything we want’. If we can’t see the alternatives as genuinely open, because of stereotypes or other forms of expectation, it doesn’t matter if they technically exist. True freedom is fundamentally about self-fashioning: you are free when you act out of your self-conception, even (or especially) when doing so defies what others think you are capable of.