“Freedom” is an idea that seems straightforward but only if you don’t think about it very much. To illustrate, let’s consider the essential Motorcycle Freedomelements. From a layperson’s point of view, there is something you wish to do. However, there is also a restraint on behavior that circumscribes your actions to an undesirable extent. When you become “free,” you release yourself from these fetters. Picture a prisoner chained to a wall. When the chains are unlocked, he is set free. Stated more generally, there are two forces pulling in different directions – (1) a restraining force that seeks to limit your movement and (2) an internal or “you” force that seeks to purse some goal or activity. When you can follow your internal goals, you are free. When you cannot follow your goals, you are constrained.

This little definition probably does a good job of summarizing the commonsense view of freedom. Nevertheless, I have a concern with it. There is a questionable assumption built into the definition. The aforementioned characterization suggests that our internal desires function as the source of our freedom. The external restrictions that we encounter are the things that take freedom away.  If you accept this point of view, then to be free you should follow your desires. If you do otherwise, then you have compromised your personal autonomy. I’m skeptical. I believe we are missing an important part of the story.

Wise thinkers throughout history have taken the opposite point of view. Some have argued that our desires take our freedom away from us. Gautama Buddha tells us that our desires ensnare us: “Those who are slaves of desires run into the stream of desires, even as a spider runs into the web that it made.” There is corroborating western tradition as well. In this Discourses, Epictetus the Stoic asserted that “Freedom is secured not by the fulfillment of one’s desires, but by the removal of desire.” On the Buddha’s and Epictetus’ view, our internal desires are what limit our freedom.

goldfish.balloonPerhaps an example would help to illustrate their point. Let us consider an alcoholic. We might say, reasonably enough, that a person’s alcoholism makes him a slave to the drug. In one sense, the external agent (strong drink) controls his actions. Yet, in another sense, the person’s desires are the source of the problem. The alcohol does not exert control by physically binding him to a wall. Rather, his body, and perhaps his mind as well, wants to drink.

If you think about it, the Buddha and Epictetus are suggesting that there is a very different way to lose your freedom. In the chained-to-the-wall example, the prisoner desires to go one way and the shackles hold him back. The shackles constrain freedom. In the alcoholism example, the individual desires drink, and the alcoholic beverage fulfills that desire.  In the former case, an external agent took our freedom from us. In the latter case, internal desires take away our freedom, at least in part.

I suppose that none of this is terribly profound, but I have been reflecting on this idea since I completed On Desire, a 2006 book authored by the philosopher, William B. Irvine.  Let me present some of this book’s central ideas, though with the understanding that I am going to have to simplify them quite a bit.

Based on the writings of David Hume, Dr. Irvine argues that there are two sources of desires – an emotional mechanism and an intellectual (or cognitive) mechanism. Each produces desires but not necessarily the same type.

The emotional mechanism creates terminal desires. We have terminal desires for things that make us feel good (or at least avoid feeling bad). On.DesireThese are “terminal,” in the sense that they require no further justification. Dr. Irvine calls this affectively-based, desire-producing mechanism, the “biological incentive system” (BIS). Many of these desires produced by the BIS are evolutionarily hardwired into us (e.g., status, sex, etc.).  The intellect mechanism usually (though not always) produces instrumental desires. These are “instrumental,” in the sense that achieving them helps to fulfill a terminal desire. To state the matter another way, the intellectual mechanisms tells us how the dictates of the BIS can be gratified. For example, the BIS might pursue status (a terminal desire). In order to achieve this objective, the intellectual system might desire admission to a prestigious university. Notice that both are desires, but the latter is a means for achieving the former.

I promise to add to this analysis in a moment, but let’s pause and examine the implications of Professor Irvine’s analysis thus far. Emotion-based, terminal desires direct many of our behaviors. The intellectual system is the rational tail wagging behind the affective dog. When the BIS wants something, the intellectual system often lacks the willpower to say “no.” In this way, our desires compromise our freedom. Like the alcoholic in our earlier example, we may be overwhelmed by our terminal desires, doing things that we know full well are bad for us. In this way, the interplay between the BIS and the intellectual system causes people to pursue things that they know are destructive, such as fatty food and adulterous relationships.

This observation brings us to another intriguing feature of Dr. Irvine’s analysis. This proximal source of the problem is not the stimulus in the environment that causes temptation (e.g., a bag of money, an available romantic partner, or a low status person to bully). Rather, much of the problem originates inside of us, with the things that we want. It is not, say, the existence of fattening food that takes away our freedom. Rather, it is our desire for the fattening food that creates our travails (and widens our girth). This same analysis holds true for many, if not all, of our terminal desires. In principle, we could withhold our ascent to them. We can train our will to say “no,” though this won’t be an easy thing to do.

These wants and desires pose an unfortunate predicament for those of us who seek a modicum of freedom. I don’t want to be bound by my sweet tooth any more than I wish to be ensnarled in a nicotine addiction or chained to a wall. All of these things compromise my ability to choose the best course of action for my life. If we want to be free, we will need to control our desires.

But then again, there is an interesting response to Dr. Irvine, the Buddha, Epictetus, and me.  Why get so hung up on desire? An alternative worth considering is to accept our situation, following our bliss and pursuing our pleasures as nature (i.e., evolution) meant for us to do. If we were of a psychodynamic mien, we might go so far as to celebrate the pursuit of terminal desires. A closer look at human evolution should make it clear that the idea of giving into our desires is a non-starter. The BIS didn’t evolve to make us happy or fulfilled. Rather, it came about to maximize reproductive fitness in our ancestral environment. The BIS’s dictates may be sound advice for an Australopithecus that only wishes to reproduce, but it falls short in our contemporary world. For instance, we evolved a desire for sweet tastes because possessing this preference guided our ancestors to healthy fruits. In our modern world of tooth-rotting processed sugar and Type II diabetes, a weaker desire for sweetness might be a good thing. The BIS is not a reliable guide to the good life, nor did nature intend for it to be. In this 2001 book, Buddhism: Pure and Simple, Master Hsing Yun gets right to heart of things, when he encourages us to “Realize that excessive desire causes suffering.”

If Master Yun is correct, and evolutionary science seems to be on his side, then we will need to control many of our desires. Roy Baumeister Willpower.Baumeister.Tierneyand John Tierney review the scientific evidence in their 2011 book, Willpower. According to these authors, people who can organize their behavior, resist temptation, and persevere in the face of difficulty tend to be more successful than others. Alas, these are not easy things to accomplish. According to Baumeister and Tierney, the will functions in a way that is analogous to a muscle. If we overuse it, it will become weary, making behavioral regulation a greater challenge.  There is some good news, however. If our mind is like a muscle, then our willpower can improve with practice. If we work hard and stay focused, we can get better over time.

So far, we have seen that freedom can be threatened by our own desires, much as it can be taken away by the vicissitudes of circumstance. Controlling our powerful terminal desires is an important part of having a healthy life. We do so by using our intellect, as Dr. Irvine puts it, though acquiring the necessary willpower is not easy and takes practice. This might have been a good place to close this essay, but there is one issue that is still bothering me. As I have discussed matters so far, our intellect is primarily reactive. The BIS demands something, our reason has the option of declining. In this view, our intellects have veto power, but how do they know which desires to veto? Even Buddhists and Stoics don’t say that you should resist every single desire. Which are the ones that most need reining in?

This is a serious practical question. To illustrate why, consider the case of a young woman who subjects herself to unhealthy dieting, perhaps acquiring an eating disorder, just so she can starve herself into a pointless societal stereotype of “thinness.” Her asceticism might rival the self-control of a monk, but we would all agree that it is misdirected.  This individual may be free of (certain) desires, but it would be preferable if she “gave in” to her hunger and had a good meal.

According to Baumeister and Tierney, we can learn to control our desires. The Buddha and Epictetus would agree, and would add that it is best to do so in the service of some positive life goals. Toward this end, it is helpful to have a blueprint that allows us to distinguish the problematic desires from those that are worth heeding. To control our desires in a positive way, Professor Irvine calls this blueprint a “life plan” or, as he also puts it, “a personal plan for living.” Once the intellect crafts the life plan, it can then be laid over the BIS. Doing so points out the desires that work against the plan, and hence should be restrained, and those that reinforce the plan, and hence should be expressed.

A life plan is a personal thing; no one can tell you exactly what should go into yours. But I think that we can safely say that our life plans should do more than celebrate willpower for its sake, and they should certainly do more than accommodate the demands of the BIS. We manage our desires because doing so allows us to pursue other goals. Your life plan might aim for such things as your family’s well-being, personal tranquility, or spiritual growth. Any of these worthwhile objectives, and many others, can be derailed by a lack of self-discipline. This is why wise people throughout history have encouraged us to resist temptation. Restraining our desires does not guarantee happiness, but at least it provides an opportunity.

Butterflight to Freedom