Freedom is Slavery to One’s Good Sense

The formula “Freedom is Slavery” seems Orwellian but a version of it is true. Freedom is not slavery to a regime, government bureaucrats, a master race, one’s work, or another person, but to good sense, to rationality. Why is this? Because the more rational a person is, the more inevitable his actions are, the narrower his range of options are.

Think how many options are unavailable to you by the simple fact of your sanity. You do not cluck like a chicken while on the phone with your boss because you are sane. You chose to eat pizza today rather than the box the pizza arrived in because you are sane. You do not refrain from wearing a mask in public during a global pandemic because you are sane. A madman is not freer because he lacks inhibitions. His will is frustrated by a deeper and more pervasive sort of bondage.

Rationality is not acting in accordance with some rarified notion of Reason or merely thinking logically. It is acting in ways that achieve what you want (if there are real moral facts, it would also include acting morally). The closer the fit between our desires and our actions, the more rational we are. The more we frustrate our own desires, the less rational we are.

Now imagine you are perfectly rational, endowed with a clear picture of your desires and how those desires may best be achieved. All suboptimal courses of action would appear ridiculous to you, if they occur to you at all. The only advantage in them would be a brute demonstration of your ability to choose. But enacting any of them would mean knowingly frustrating your own desires, which is textbook irrationality. Thus a perfectly rational person would always have only one option. He is utterly enslaved to his good sense.

Fewer Options Means More Freedom?

We’ve seen that more options does not necessarily mean more freedom. If this were so, madness would enhance freedom. It does not. But neither is an adequate theory of freedom the reverse: the fewer the options, the more freedom. Suppose you are in a candy store that sells jellybeans in multitudinous flavors. You adore jellybeans, but you don’t much care about which flavor you gorge upon. Here, you have many options, any of which is highly rational. This is a high options, high freedom scenario. So many options does not imply low freedom.

Or suppose you live under a totalitarian regime, which regulates not only the actions of its people but their thinking too (insert science fiction dystopia here). As a “citizen” of this regime, you may only be able to do as the regime dictates, even down to having just a single option. You would not be free because your will is not oriented toward rational ends but toward the ends the regime has selected for you. This is a low options, low freedom scenario. So few options does not imply high freedom.

But these counter-examples should not distract from the variety of everyday examples where more options undermines freedom. Consider the process of selecting an Obamacare insurance plan, selecting a flavor and brand of coffee at the grocery store, which ETFs to invest in, an entre off a restaurant menu, a movie to watch on Netflix, a weight-loss diet, a nursing home for a parent, etc. All of these choices can involve hundreds or thousands of options. Cognitive overload seizes us, and we fail to chose what we prefer. These difficult optimization problems incur anxiety, especially when the stakes are high or we feel pressured by others who have already decided. Even if we manage to optimize, we waste time that could be utilized on other tasks. These are not situations suitable to free humans, endowed as we are with limited cognition. Thus we are freer when the options we prefer are obvious to us. This might mean exclusion of unhelpful options.

Does Deliberation Mean More Freedom?

The modern concept of freedom is strongly associated with deliberation. We punish criminals more stringently for “specific intent” crimes, which require premeditation, such as first-degree murder, burglary, conspiracy, and child molestation. We assign greater praise or blame to actions committed voluntarily rather than those committed involuntarily. We say it’s the “thought that counts” when giving gifts.

Sometimes deliberation furnishes more rational action and thereby increases freedom. If a dog compulsively bites the hand that feeds it, it is less rational and free than if it could think its actions through. Most of our cognitive errors are a result of the automatic non-deliberative machinery of our minds (“System 1” in the parlance of psychology). Most such errors can be overcome if we apply effortful deliberative thinking (“System 2”).

But with the right training, non-deliberation or less-deliberation is best. Chess masters perform well not because they painstakingly assess every possible move but because their unconsciousness knows how to efficiently select excellent moves. Native speakers of a language do not run through tables of verb conjugations in their head when crafting sentences. Competent drivers do not ponder the nuances of merging onto a freeway. In each case, the expert is able to serve his rational ends best by deliberating less or not at all. He is freer.

Deliberation improves freedom in the general case but maximizing freedom that involves specialized skills requires unlearning deliberation. Recall our discussion of the perfectly rational, perfectly free person. He does not deliberate. He simply acts. He may not even be aware of what he does.

Consider the Daoist sage, expert in wuwei or “effortless non-action,” an idea germinated in the Daodejing, which reads, “The Way [Dao] does nothing [wuwei], and yet nothing remains unaccomplished.” The sage does nothing inconsistent with rational aims and he applies no effort in acting. Paradoxically, he acts best.

Who Am I To Say What Freedom Is?

Those familiar with the history of philosophy will know I come down on one side of a dispute, which dominated much of thirteenth and fourteenth century Latin European thought. On one side were the intellectualists, who I am in broad agreement with, and on the other were the voluntarists, who were mad enough to think that freedom requires choices. Today we most think of Thomas Aquinas as the paradigm intellectualist and William of Ockham as the paradigm voluntarist, although neither were towering figures in their own day. Both positions were highly theologized: Ockham endorsed a sovereign God whose freedom consists in His lack of restraint and liberty, even allowing for divine deceptions and act immorality. Aquinas preferred a God that is wise, rational, and good in a way we readily understand.

Who am I to say that Ockham is wrong? It’s a fair question (and his vision of God is assuredly more fun). Moreover, rational action does not flow unimpeded from a well-trained intellect. We can know what is in our best interests but fail to act as such. Aristotle called this akrasia. We call it procrastination, lack of disciple, weakness of the will (Here squirrelly deliberation may frustrate our rationality, our freedom).

Considered as a matter of semantics, there are reasons to consider freedom as choosing between options. Why? Because that is how we often use the word. We speak of being “free from oppression” or being “free to do as you please.” This language suggests liberty, lack of restraint, open spaces, a freedom to choose.

The voluntarist and intellectualist camps remain at war today, in great part because of divergent preferences. How so? There are words we use to valorize things we like. Political science, computer science, behavioral science are not strictly science (even though they include much that is science) because much of the work done in these fields is purely descriptive, math, or theorizing that is not oriented toward testing hypotheses. Rather they are “science” because the word has the mystique of valid knowledge. So too, a proliferation of disciplines and lifestyles mantle themselves with the name “philosophy.” We disagree on what justice is because we tend to label policies we like as “just.” And we disagree on what freedom is because we disagree on what human flourishing consists in. One’s preferred vision of human flourishing is “freedom.”

Voluntarists associate human flourishing with liberty, with unfetteredness. For them, irrationality is an acceptable cost. Intellectualists associate human flourishing with rationality. Restraint is an acceptable cost.

In my case, the choice is easy. Intellectualist freedom is the only variety of free will I know of that avoids the old scientific and philosophical arguments against free will. Fewer options commonly makes me better off, restraint contributes to my flourishing. The choice between “freedom as slavery to one’s good sense” and “freedom as liberty, even to madness” is no choice at all.