On Freedom

Am I free? Well, I need to first define the concept “free” clearly before I can proceed. There can arise several very dire confusions as regards this issue if the idea of freedom is not well-defined. The intuitive and latent beliefs I have concerning freedom seem to indicate that this concept represents the ability of an agent to choose any one of a list of options voluntarily, without being compelled towards making that choice. Some people define freedom as relating to the number of choices available and hence the most free would be the one who has the widest range of options to choose from. Buddhism defines freedom as being free from greed, hatred, delusion and their consequence, suffering. These three definitions broadly differ from one another and seem to be tackling different aspects of the same fundamental theme. The first definition places freedom at the actual making of the choice, the second at the availability of the choice, and the third seems to place the freedom at the motives behind the choice.

The human body, as an object in the world, is not an exception but, on the contrary, is wholly consistent and follows quite naturally from the rest of the objects with which it coexists. The human brain is simply a more complicated and larger version of the general class of objects called brains. Hence, from a purely materialistic point of view, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that the human being could contravene the rules to which all objects in the world necessarily adhere. In particular, the rule implied here is, of course, causality. There is no object in the world which has the ability to act in a certain way without being compelled to do so. To postulate an event which comes about without a cause is truly absurd. Then, why do we insist on postulating precisely this kind of an event in human decision-making, as though we humans were for some reason exempt from causality?

Since the absurdity is quite clear here, I will move on to the second definition of freedom given above, namely that it corresponds to the number of available choices. But in this case, it becomes clear to see that to be free is utterly impossible as this requires one to have every conceivable choice available. Using this definition then renders its use in being able to determine relative freedoms in order to compare individuals. This definition is flawed also because, in principle, every moment carries with it an infinity of possible choices to make. This works only by trimming down this superfluity of choice availability by only talking about those choices which have relevance for the individual, and in particular, a positive relevance. It effectively translates to: who has the most money has the most freedom. This is so because money is what empowers an individual with positive relevant choices such as the purchase of a house, healthy and tasty food, comfortable furniture, or a relaxing holiday. So, according to this way of framing the issue, one is most free when one has the greatest ability to affirm one’s will-to-live, by procurement of beneficial assets or by elimination of harmful assets. This definition of freedom is intimately joined up with affirmation of the will and presupposes that this is the value of life.

This has now naturally led me to the final definition of freedom as it is found in Buddhism and which states that to be free is to be free of the three poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. This claim is made based on the presupposition that any choice motivated by any one of these three will inevitably lead to suffering. So, it is now clear to see that this definition stands in stark contrast to the preceding one. Whereas the preceding definition wants to maximise the number of will-affirming choices available, this one seems to want to minimise the number of choices motivated by either greed, hatred, or delusion. In fact, will-affirmation can be shown to consist of those very same three poisons if considered very carefully. And so, in effect, the two definitions just examined are opposites of one another.

All of this deliberation has led to the conclusion that the issue of whether or not one is free seems to revolve around what motivates one’s choices, rather than on the ability to choose without being compelled to do so, which is absurd. Now, if all of our choices are compelled by something or other, and if it is precisely those compelling motives and their nature which determine freedom, how can self-betterment take place? Or, to put it more bluntly, how are we ever to escape patterned behaviour, in other words, our habits? It is clear that this can only take place with a changing of the motives. These very motives only derive their efficacy from some underlying goal or aim that the agent desires. Whichever choice is seen to bring the agent closer to his/her aim will be the one which carries the greatest motivation behind it. So, perhaps the key to all of this is the changing of the underlying aim; a switch from will-affirmation to will-denial will lead to the reduction of the motivational force behind choices which would have traditionally been very alluring and which Buddhism would say stem from greed, hatred, and delusion. And how can this switch be made? Well, I daresay that it can only be made when the agent has seen clearly the causal link between will-affirmation and suffering.

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