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What’s freedom anyway?

Are you free? Most people who are free from outside oppression would answer this question with an emphatic ‘yes’. As long as nobody tells us what to do, we consider ourselves free. Nonetheless, there are plenty of examples that question this assessment:

  • How many people do you know who simply can’t get themselves to act on the things they need to do?
  • How many people do you know who, when someone cuts them off in traffic, simply have to get angry?
  • How many times have you heard someone who was trying to lose weight say that they simply couldn’t resist eating an entire pizza without being hungry?

Even though we are free from outside oppression, there are plenty of examples when we don’t seem to be free in our decisions at all. There seems to be a second dimension to freedom that comes from inside and has nothing to do with outside oppression.

Philosophers have recognized this problem. Famously, Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who considered inner freedom just as important as outer freedom, wanted us to employ the categorial imperative to achieve inner freedom. Kant argued that humans have certain urges and instincts, much like animals, but are able to control those instincts through reason. Inner freedom according to Kant means freedom from our own urges and instincts. If our lives were controlled by our animalistic drives, we would have to do what these instincts tell us – we would enslave ourselves to reflexes and not be free at all. The categorical imperative was Kant’s instrument to achieve this freedom: We should always act in a way that our actions could become a universally binding rule for everyone. This means:

  • We should always be honest, because we want to live in a world where honesty is a binding rule for everyone.
  • We shouldn’t kill, because we wouldn’t want to live in a world where killing is not a universally binding rule for everyone.

Kant put great faith in his concept of a categorical imperative, even making it the basis for his social and political concept. According to Kant, if the categorical imperative would cause us all to act in ways that could became universally accepted rules, just government was the manifestation of these rules into laws, thereby solving the age-old problem of limiting our possibilities of action without limiting our freedom: In Kant’s vision of just government, we would be forbidden to do some things, but those would be the things we wouldn’t want to do anyway. Therefore, laws would not limit our freedom, they would ensure our ability to live by the rules we gave ourselves. An easy example for this principle would be murder. We don’t want to murder anybody, but knowing that a law prevents other from murdering us helps us live our lives in more freedom, not in less.

Of course, Kant overestimated our own self-awareness, the purity of our motives, the purity of the law making process, and the unmanageable complexity of legitimate but conflicting human interests. If a bar owner forbids smoking in his bar, he might be perfectly fine with this decision becoming a general law. Smokers, however, would have a legitimate interest to keep smoking in other bars, and they wouldn’t mind having a general law that allows smoking in all bars. Both interests are equally valid, and it is hard to see how just government could make a decision in favor of one point. Moral isn’t universal, which makes universally binding moral rules impossible.

Even though Kant’s vision of government is unrealistic, his basic goal remains perfectly sound and valid: Achieving free will by enabling us to react to any situation in a reasonable way that helps us create the outcome we desire while at the same time benefiting – or at least not hurting – the common good. We could all profit from having a philosophy that helps us . To adapt Kant’s ideas to our modern knowledge, we must answer three questions:

  1. Does modern psychology agree with Kant’s basic diagnose of a flawed mental process that?
  2. If so, which main problems does modern psychology diagnose?
  3. How can we solve these problems? Can outside factors such as government regulations and rules aide us in this process?

To answer these questions, let’s take a close look at what modern psychology has to say about free will, self-awareness, and managing our inner mental process effectively.

What does modern psychology say about inner freedom?

Psychologists recognize the same problem as Kant. John Bargh, one of leading researchers of subconscious processes, argues that most of our behavior is controlled by automatic processes. While these processes don’t necessarily violate Kant’s categorical imperative, they can trick us into doing what hurts and others and can’t possibly become the basis of a universally accepted rule:

  • We can drive on the highway for hours without ever consciously focusing on steering the car, on reading street signs, or on changing lines. Our conscious mind can use the time to ponder financial issues, listen to an audio book, or plan the upcoming weekend. This autopilot is not necessarily bad, but it can cause us to speed, take somebody’s right of way, or run a red light – all actions that endanger us and others.
  • We can live years without ever thinking about our lives. We go to work, stay in a relationship, and spend our free time on auto pilot. While this behavior is not necessarily bad, we might wake up some day and find that we spend our lives trying to please or impress other people and that we are deeply unhappy. We might try to overcompensate and do things that are self-centered, hurt others, or at least do not provide the help to others that we could have given easily.
  • We can vote for decades without ever consciously thinking about it. We might like a party’s catchphrase, their general vague promise, or the candidates face. While this behavior is not necessarily bad, we might allow our country’s political system to slide to populism or extremism without even noticing it.

Our ability to accomplish even highly complex activities without consciously thinking about it has aided us well in our evolutionary environment. During these times, however, decisions were simpler, had less far reaching consequences, and gave us an immediate response to the quality of our decision. When we ate something and got sick, we learned to avoid this type of food. Automating this process was essential to scan our environment for food quickly and served us well.

In our modern times, we still share the same tendency to automate complex processes once we get used to them. We automate driving our cars, voting for a party, and making health decisions such as whether to keep smoking. Since these decisions have far reaching consequences but do not offer a quick response, we might keep making a bad decision for a long time before we realize the excruciating consequences we have brought upon ourselves.

Luckily, our ability to do things on autopilot isn’t the only mental capacity we have. We also have the ability to let our conscious mind interrupt and steer our inner autopilot. Some psychologists even argue that this is the main reason why we have conscious mind at all.

We can use our conscious mind to picture ourselves in situations we do not experience, to plan the future, and to evaluate the past. This system can help us to avoid some of the negative effects our autopilot can cause. For example, when we drive through a city we have never been before, we can consciously study the traffic signs and the drivers around us, thereby avoiding speeding and cutting somebody off.

Unfortunately, this system isn’t flawless either. To go back to our example with smoking, the reason why people start smoking in the first place is that their conscious mind interrupts their autopilot. Nobody ever woke up one day and thought that they wanted a cigarette. We have been tricked into this behavior by our conscious mind that wants us to look cool, to impress others, and to be considered easy going and that thinks that smoking could be a way to achieve these goals. Only later, smoking becomes an automate response to certain stimuli.

Even more significantly, when somebody is in a happy relationship without ever consciously analyzing why they love their partner, learning most people consider a sense of humor an important criteria for a good partner might reduce this person’s satisfaction with the relationship even though their partner’s lack of humor has never been a problem for them. Sometimes, we can’t understand the criteria our subconscious mind applies to a situation, and trying to rationalize our decision can lead to a worse outcome.

Most psychologists assume that our conscious mind creates more problems than it solves. It might, however, be very possible that the problems that we can solve by thinking them over are the most significant: Which job to choose, whom to vote for, and how to invest our money are issues of great importance that could easily be improved by giving them some thought – if it’s the right kind of thought. If we think about which job to choose only in terms of job security, we might choose a career we hate based on our attempt to predict a future we can’t possibly predict. If we think about which job to do in terms of how to do what we love in a way that suits our strengths, however, we can improve our choice. It is not enough to know when to switch on our conscious mind, we also need to know how to use it.

Additionally, studies have proven that an increased self-awareness reduces our mental capacity to focus on the tasks at hand. When people fail under pressure it is largely due to the increased self-awareness the high stakes bring to an activity they usually perform without thinking about it. Therefore, we not only need to know when to switch on our conscious mind and how to use it, we also need to know when to switch it off.

Considering these challenging criteria, one might wonder how we can ever make a good decision. There is a need for a philosophy of life that helps to make sense of the mess in our heads, a philosophy of life that serves the same purpose as Kant’s categorical imperative. Without this philosophy, our inner mental process can easily trick us into doing what hurts ourselves and others. When we are constantly on autopilot, we might, without noticing, act in ways that hurt others or that can’t satisfy our long-term needs. While we can use our conscious mind to overwrite our subconscious autopilot, doing so will make most situations worse, not better.

How can we achieve inner freedom?

Unfortunately, achieving inner freedom is a more complex task than simply doing what we would want to become a universally accepted rule, as Kant suggested. As we have seen, even steering our behavior to do what we know is best is a difficult endeavor that requires us to switch between different mental processes at the perfect time and in the perfect way. Kant’s categorical imperative is an oversimplification.

Most importantly, we have to conclude that, while understanding our own mental process is difficult, understanding another person’s mental process is impossible. Therefore, a philosophy of life that helps us achieve inner freedom can never be institutionalized into laws. While we can all follow a similar process to achieve inner freedom, the end result will always be specific to each of us individually. Turning any of these specific individual outcomes into universally binding roles would force everybody to follow some rules that contradict their own definition of inner freedom. Achieving inner freedom is an individual process that can neither be aided nor forced from the outside.

In future articles, I will elaborate this topic further. If you prefer some immediate insight into life philosophy that can help you achieve inner freedom, I recommend my book Overcoming Self-Help Myths: Creating a scientific philosophy of life to guide us to happiness, success & fulfillment. In this book, I generate a life philosophy of life that could replace the categorical imperative with scientifically sound modern concepts.


  1. Freedom has two dimensions: Outer freedom (freedom from oppression) and inner freedom (freedom from ourselves).
  2. On its own, either of freedom’s two dimensions is worthless. Only when we achieve outer and inner freedom we are truly free.
  3. Inner freedom is a complex issue that requires us to manage the multitude of different processes in our mind effectively. This task has to be solved by each of us individually. It’s too complex to solve it with a one-line statement, and it can neither be forced nor aided by outside factors such a political system.

Published in Politics