34. Personal Freedom
Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism; the way you play it is free will.
Jawaharlal Nehru (Indian statesman)
When we talk about freedom we usually have in mind physical or political freedom (e.g. freedom of movement or freedom of speech). Personal freedom or autonomy is different – it is psychological freedom from drives and restraints within us. We can never be completely free from them (nor it would be desirable), but we can turn these determinants into influences over which we have a degree of freedom. Let’s see how to do it.
Why personal freedom matters
Personal freedom is freedom of your mind from what determines your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It is based on our ability to exercise choice. Although some circumstances may be more favourable for acting autonomously, choice is always possible regardless of circumstances. Lazarus, a renowned psychologist, asserts that ‘a person chooses rather than the environment, and sometimes this choice operates against the usual environmental pressures.’(1) Even people in the prison or the concentration camp have a choice (e.g. to despair or hope, to co-operate with their captors or not). But why does it matter? Wouldn’t we be more carefree without it? Wouldn’t our lives be easier if somebody or something else (e.g. a super-computer) told us what to choose and do (e.g. which socks to put on, what to eat, what programme to watch on TV, who to date, etc.)? Perhaps, but this is what makes us human – without personal freedom we wouldn’t be much different from machines; so the value of autonomy is not just instrumental but intrinsic. Think about how you feel when somebody is telling you what to do. She may have good intentions and her advice may be sound; yet you may feel almost irrational resistance – this is because you are trying to protect your autonomy. Just remember in such situations though that what actually limits your personal freedom is inside, not outside you.
How do I know if I am free or not?
Some of your thoughts, feelings, behaviour, values or attitudes may indeed be pre-determined. A usual sign of this is that you always act in some situations in the same way for no good reason or even against your better judgement. For example, you inevitably get defensive and snap when you feel criticised. If you suspect that this may be the case, ask yourself ‘do I have to act (think, feel) in this way, or I am free to do otherwise?’ If you believe you are free – test it next time, prove it to yourself. If you feel that you don’t have a choice and it bothers you, you may want to do something about your inner determinants.