Monday, June 11, 2012


I love walking in the mountains, because it reminds me what an illusion freedom is. Walking along a mountain path, I feel free, but when I reflect on how much choice I actually have to go this way or that, my choices are severely restricted. The contour of the land will allow only a few limited options, and the vegetation on the land restricts those options even further. My age and physical condition furnish more restrictions. When all that is taken into account, I find I have the freedom to continue going forward where progress is possible or to turn around and go back pretty much the way I came. There is no real alternative to following the path I am on, a path that has been worn into the landscape by countless human beings traipsing over the land for the past four thousand years or so, those human beings having followed the paths worn by animals, who followed the route of water, which went where it went because of the declivity and the placement or rocks strewn along the escarpment some forty thousand years ago by a volcano. The feeling of freedom is undeniably joyful, but it is almost entirely a figment of my imagination. And realizing that, I can't help wondering whether it is a vain imagining, one that could be discarded without much effect. And I can't help wondering to what extent the illusion of freedom while walking in the mountains is an example of freedom being largely an illusion in most other areas of life.

People go where animals have gone, and animals go where water has gone, and water goes where it can go. This metaphor has been used for years by moral philosophers. Every action makes a path, like water running down a hill, and once the path is made or deepened, it increases the likelihood that future actions will follow a similar course. The deeper an arroyo becomes, the less likely it is that water will flow anywhere else but in that arroyo, and the more deeply entrenched a habit becomes, the less likely it is that the owner of the habit will act otherwise. If one becomes a saint (or an arhant in Buddhism), the good habits are said to be so deeply entrenched than acting sinfully (or in Buddhism unhealthily) becomes impossible. It is also said that people can become so deeply habituated to unhealthy actions that they can no longer even aspire to act wholesomely. The very idea of freedom in such cases becomes meaningless, or at least inapplicable.

Even in the vast area between the extremes of the perfect saint or the complete sinner, freedom may well be either an illusion or an excuse. None of us wants to think of our actions being motivated by factors largely out of our control, so we prefer to think of ourselves as free. When others act in ways we find annoying, the itch to retaliate arises, but we feel it would be unjust to retaliate against someone whose actions were motivated by factors beyond his control, so we invent his freedom to justify our treating him in ways we would not want to be treated. The invention of freedom makes it possible to regard others as criminals, as evil-doers who have chosen to act in ways that land them in prison or, in extreme cases, in the hands of an executioner. Rather than thinking of those whom we label as criminals as people who have fallen victim to circumstances beyond their control, the tendency is to see ourselves as the victims of deliberately bad people who have chosen to torment us with their behavior. Seeing others as beings who have a very limited range of choices and who are pushed into conduct by forces they poorly understand and over which they have no control would frustrate our longing to seek revenge on those whose conduct is annoying. And so we imagine their freedom and then insist the imagined is real.

Selling people the illusion of freedom is highly profitable. Manufacturers of products spend vast sums of money convincing the public that their lives would be better if they owned a product or partook of a service, and then they say “We are simply providing people what they want to have.” Manufacturers of environmentally destructive automobiles say they are merely providing people with the kinds of automobiles they want to have. Makers of health-destroying processed foods claim they are providing people with the what they like to eat and drink. Providers of tobacco and other addictive drugs say they sell the products that people want to buy. All these providers of bads (which they misleadingly call goods) claim that to interfere with the process of selling people products and services that worsens them would be limiting people's freedom. The idea of freedom has become an absolute. Limiting freedom (of anyone except those whose behavior we label as criminal) must be seen as an evil. The economy depends on seeing freedom as an absolute and the abridgment of freedom as an evil.

How free is any of us? How much do we really want to be free? How many of us would like to be free of the prisons we build for ourselves by owning property and dwellings and modes of transportation? How many of us would like to free ourselves from the slavery that takes the form of selling our labor to people who use it to provide unnecessary products and services to others? Who would like to be free of the social obligations they create by accepting help from others? How many people are living exactly the life they have always dreamed of living? One person in ten? One in a hundred? One in a million? And of those who are living the life they have dreamed of living, how many would still want to live it if they knew the consequences their way of living has on others? How much knowledge of reality could they endure before their fantasies of freedom became unsustainable?

People who speak of freedom frighten me. People who imagine that the countries in which they live offer the most freedoms alarm me as much as any delusional person alarms me. Delusional people are unpredictable. Unpredictable people act in ways that I find annoying. But logic gives me no choice but to accept their unpredictable behavior. They are not free to think of themselves as anything but free, and I am not free to condemn them for being deluded.

Perhaps there are a few trivial and meaningless ways in which people are free. I don't know for sure. I suspect, however, that hardly anyone has more than one percent of the freedom she would like to think she has.

Feel free to disregard everything I have said. I had no choice but to say it.