The Nature of Freedom

Posted: March 21, 2011 in Philosophy
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What does it really mean to be existentially free? It cannot mean to do whatever we want, because then even the Judio-Christian God would not be free – even He (or the concept of Him) is limited by logic. For example, He cannot build a cake so heavy that even He cannot lift it and then lift it as well. So, there are always limits to what a person can do. However, this does not mean that our freedom is limited. To explain why this is true we have to distinguish between “power” and “freedom”.

Power, according to Simon de Beauvior is limited; its limits are given by our circumstances. For example, I cannot start flying right now because I don’t have wings. In other word, I don’t have the power to fly right now. We could also, of course, say I am not free to fly right now. However, this sense of the word “free” is not the same as the “free” used by existentialists. According to existentialists “freedom” is to be able to chose between the options available in any given situations. The most that our limited power can do is limit the options available to us. It cannot, however, take away all options. So, no matter what, no matter what the circumstance, man always has a choice. For example, a person in prison does not have the power to swim in the ocean, to go to Starbucks for coffee, or take his dog for a walk. However, we cannot say he is not “free” to do any of the above because those aren’t options available to him. He is still free to choose between the options that are available to him, for example, he can choose between sleeping, starting at the wall, doing push ups and a number of other activities.

The existentialist uses this freedom to hold man responsible for his actions, he holds man accountable for everything he is and everything he has done. However, the existentialist seems to be working under the assumption that the options we have at any give point are transparent to us; after all, an option has to occur to us before we can choose it. This is not always the case, in fact, I will go on a limb here and say, it rarely is. It would have been physically possible for me to join the circus, become a prostitute, open a tea shop instead of coming to college, but none of these options ever occurred to me before I started writing this.

Both Sartre and de Beauvior are fond of saying, if all else fails, there is always suicide. However, I do not think suicide is an option most people think they have. I do not mean they think about it and discard it as absurd – I mean they do not think about it at all. Is it then fair to say suicide is an option for them? From a third person perspective, yes, it is physically possible for them to take a gun and shoot themselves; but is it enough for something to be physically possible for it to be a valid option?

One could say if the available options (that one is aware of) seem horrible enough then a person would actively seek out other options, and if other options exist, be eventually lead to them. For example, consider a man with a cowardly disposition. He is in a situation where a woman is about to be shot and he is watching. The woman is a stranger to him and he is frozen to the spot as he watches her being killed. Later his psyhchiatrist tells him there was nothing he could have done and he agrees. After all, he did not have enough time to call the police.

Now consider the same man in the same situation only the woman was his wife and he loves her desperately. In this case saving her is not a detached, clinical issue of saving a life – it is much more personal than that. In this situation, something much more drastic and dangerous pops into his mind- he could jump in front of the bullet! When the woman being shot was a stranger, this option did not occur to him. But it would not make a difference even if it had because he is too much of a coward to risk his life for someone he did not know.

From this example, we can see that it in many cases if an option does not occur to someone, they probably would not care much for it even if it had. However, I do not know if we can conclude from this that whenever a physically possible option does not occur to someone it is because they would not have chosen it anyway. In order to hold people completely responsible for their actions, we would have to be able to draw this conclusion.

If the above conclusion is taken to be true then it follows that every physically possible option is an available option, whether it occurs to us or not. However, what does “physical possibility” entail? It is important to understand it’s boundaries. For exmaple, consider Chess strategies: many strategies are (usually) possible, some better than others. Often the better ones need more cunning and intellectual sophistication. A nuanced, fool-proof strategy would not occur to an unskilled player, even though she probably would have employed it had it occurred to her. One could easily think this line of reasoning disproves the above conclusion, but it actually does not. Devising the perfect strategy requires skill that an amateur player lacks. Our logic faculties are in our brain and, which implies it is a function of our genetic makeup. Thus, a lack of logic training is also considered a physical obstacle. So we can say, the amateur does not have the power to employ the perfect strategy, that is, devising the perfect strategy was not really an option for her! Thus, physical possibility does not only entail the obvious bodily limitations, such as, lack of strength, but it entails logical and emotional limitations as well.

Simon de Beauvior does existentialism a great favor by distinguishing between power and freedom. One of the most common misconceptions about existentialism that I have encountered is the notion that it claims infinite human power. An example would be my mother thinking existentialism implies our cook could become the President of USA. However, even though separating power from freedom is not difficult on paper, it is infinitely harder (probably impossible) in real life. Maybe our cook could become the President of Bangladesh if she tried hard enough – more absurd things have happened. Just because we know there is a limit to individual capability does not mean we know where it is.


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