“There is no such thing as freedom.”

An attempt to clarify the meaning of the words freedom and free-will and to place them in a psychological context.

Is there a statement more likely to provoke consternation from people than to submit that there is no such thing as freedom? I think not. So why suggest it?

Here is Fromm’s quote “Freedom is not something we have; there is no such thing as freedom. Freedom is a quality of our personality; freedom is always a question of increasing the freedom one has or decreasing it”. (1)

Free to be ourselves, he says, hmm. In another statement from the same book we are told, “if you are an apple tree, you become a good apple tree; if you are a strawberry you become a good strawberry.” (1)

If we are to follow his reasoning then we must conclude that the apple tree has lots of freedom; to be an apple tree. Likewise the strawberry has lots of freedom; to be a strawberry. Now many will argue and convincingly so that apples and strawberries; comprised of 56 chromosomes, simple creatures that they are cannot be compared to the complex, genetically sophisticated conscious human beings that we are who are comprised of 46 chromosomes.

We must assume that he is trying to communicate something of importance and is not being flippant with his words.

So let’s talk for a moment about this word freedom. Let’s try and understand it in a wider context before we home in on the psychological aspects.

One of the dictionary definitions of freedom is; the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint and the power to determine action without restraint.

Freedom by this definition means that we have full control over the things that we choose to do. We do things as an act of our own volition which is not affected by any constraints, prior determinants or pre-existing causes.

Our daily experiences and common sense will confirm that this is simply not true, i.e. we do not have freedom as defined above.

Perhaps our understanding of the word freedom will be clearer if we take a look at the workings of a constitution that underpins a nation’s legal system.

A democratic constitution will not state that each of us is free, what it says is that we have the right to certain freedoms which the constitution is supposed to protect; freedom from oppression and freedom to speak, as examples. These freedoms, however, are rights that must be balanced with the freedoms and rights of others. Again we do not have freedom as defined above; we are simply part of a system of rules that gives us certain rights referred to as freedoms.

The Declaration of Independence, (2) one of the precursors to the current constitution of the United States, as an example, suggests that each citizen has unalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Liberty as defined by the Oxford Dictionary refers to the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s behaviour or political views.

The law indicates that we possess free-will to choose not complete freedom.

  • Free-will means that we freely make the choices we make and are thus morally responsible for our choices.
  • In addition we may be held legally accountable for the choices we make.

The above two concepts constitute the basis of the Social Contract as expounded by philosophers Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke along with others.

The conceptual origins of the social contract might unfold something like this. If I have the freedom to do as I wish without constraint, I might choose to covet and steal what you own or hurt those that you love. Now although there might be no constraint that stops me from freely choosing to do these things to you, there will nonetheless be consequences for me exercising my freedom to act without constraint. You in response to my freely chosen actions will do all in your power to stop me and protect those that you love; which may result in cycles of reciprocal violence, an outcome which nobody seeks, hopefully.

In such a scenario of tit for tat we could succumb to the notion that might is right; I am stronger than you so I by the use of force I will retain my freedoms at your expense. If this approach is rejected as unproductive, one of the possible solutions might be to jointly agree to set up a system of shared rules. These rules might emerge from the painful lessons learned from having freedom without constraint. So in terms of the new shared rules we might agree that I will refrain from stealing your possessions if you in turn agree to refrain from stealing my possessions.

This principle is the absolute foundation of the law of a community. The social contract entered into hopefully by all parties governs the rules and consequences for all actions that have been jointly established. These rules are designed to reciprocally afford each person the right to live free from threat.

In the writing of the social contract there are two elements we should hope for; they are precious hopes. When the rules are written or amended each of us is part of or has representation in, the process of writing those rules. This will go some way to ensure that we have good rights and freedoms and the power to defend and implement them. The second hope being that all persons in the community accept and agree to abide by the rules of the social contract.

So let’s review what we have discovered to this point. If we do not have full control in determining our actions because we are part of a social contract, surely we can no longer speak of freedom as the power to determine action without restraint. At the most we may speak of having a range of choices within a circumscribed set of parameters. We may be free to choose from a pre-set array of options – a smörgås board – guests can help themselves to a range of dishes laid out for their choice.

I want to clarify a specific issue at this time. Popular psychology often pushes the idea that we are all totally free; suggesting that it is just our attitudes that inhibit our progress to freedom, abundance and happiness. To my mind this is a simplistic, persecutory and irresponsible notion; albeit that it is repeatedly proclaimed.  Too many people in the world live with the constraints of poverty, poor access to health care and education and a structural lack of opportunity. Many of these people had neither representation or were participants to the writing of the rules of the social contact. In the face of such a common reality as this is it reasonable to speak of free-will as a tool to change lives?

The simplistic notion of free-willed choice is balanced by the realisation that to change constraints without power is not simply a choice that a person in poverty can make singly without taking into account the structural factors that create and maintain the constraints.  At the most we might be able to argue that in such circumstances a person is constrained but not determined. This might suggest that given certain factors the constraints may be removed but in spite of this removal some things that are determined cannot be removed.

Free-will implies that the choices we choose to make are not predetermined (as distinct from constrained). If our choices are predetermined we risk undermining the notion that the choices are in fact made freely without any determining influence.

My concern is with the psychological aspects of freedom and free-will and how this describes and informs the ways in which individuals lead their lives.

Psychologically the key to the relevance of free-will rests on two issues; the reality of constraints and the subsequent need for each of us to make adaptations to that reality and  the reality of determinism, things that already exist that cause us to believe things and do things that we think we are doing freely but in fact are not.

At the most obvious levels are we not determined by our biology, by our neurology, by our individual nature and through the internalisation (incorporation within oneself) of useful and harmful emotional experiences structured and interpreted through our subjective nature, by our psyche?

We are free to stop eating but we are not free to stop breathing, however we are free to put ourselves into a situation where we will stop breathing.

We are not free to not have cancer but we are free to go to the doctor to proactively assess whether we have cancer. We are free to choose to have chemo-therapy or to not and die but we still cannot choose to not have cancer. (Cancer may be removed genetically from our chromosomal structure one day which might change the nature of the above determinism).

We are free to try to do our best at school but we are not free to not have a debilitating learning disability or attention control problem that affects our capacity to succeed.

If we have been sexually abused by a parent are we free to not be traumatised or through later self-destructive promiscuity express our felt-sense of worthlessness and self-blame?  We are free to enter therapy (if we can afford it) to attempt to deal with the damage we did not freely choose to have inflicted on us and which has so ravaged our sacred core, but we are still not free to not have the pain.

We are free to choose to ignore or reject who we are, what we feel and what we have to do in the world to manifest ourselves. However we are not free to not experience the negative consequences of making such choices about ourselves and our lives.

So to summarise;

  1. We live in community where the social contract constrains and defines our freedoms for our mutual benefit.
  2. Our beliefs and actions are determined by our biology, our neurology, our life context, our nature, our experiences and our interpretation of our experiences.
  3. In psychological terms free-will means that we understand the history of our determinedness; how we have come to be what we are. We have come to know ourselves by working through our internal psychological and emotional constraints, we accept ourselves and we are free enough; to accept what is possible, from the need to suppress, from the compulsion to repeat the same patterns, from having seemingly irreconcilable ambivalent feelings and from having out of control reactions. We are free enough because of the self-awareness that we have worked hard to achieve. A self-awareness that allows us (gives us the freedom of choice) after calm pause to respond as opposed to react in this or that way; freely throwing our weight and commitment behind our response.

Thus we might speak of having relative freedom in relation to the constraints and determinism that exists in our lives and in the world. Some might argue that in part we are caused to be ourselves.

The issue with freedom is the issue of what is true. The things we may be determined by are sometimes completely out of our control and are often largely out of our awareness.

I am not suggesting some sinister psycho-analytic notion of unconscious sexual impulses. Even cognitive behavioural therapists would agree that people behave in particular ways because of the determining experiences that they have had and the beliefs that have been constructed around those experiences whose origins and (sometimes irrational) logic are often out of awareness.

Thus we are as free as we are aware of the determining factors in our lives.

I am proposing that the greater the awareness we have of these factors the freer we are to choose a different perhaps healthier range of responses to life. By doing so we exercise our free-will to go either this way or that way; are less likely to be lost in unaware but present determinism, are less likely to blindly repeat the same reactions and in our openness are more likely to experience the possibility of ordinary joy.

To reinforce this proposition May writes; (psychologically)…. freedom is “the capacity to pause in the midst of stimuli from all directions and in this pause/silence to throw our weight toward this response rather than that one.” (3)

So are we any closer to understanding what Fromm meant when he uttered the words, freedom is a quality of our personality, and are we less outraged by his apparent audacity in making the declaration that there is no such thing as freedom?

  1. Fromm, E.  The Art of Listening
  2. The United Sates Declaration of Independence, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/DeclarInd.html
  3. May, R. Freedom and Destiny