Freedom’s Just Another Word for Not Doing What You Want

Schopenhauer is lots of fun. Why did nobody tell me this?

He says the following about free will:

every one believes himself a priori to be perfectly free, even in his individual actions, and thinks that at every moment he can commence another manner of life, which just means that he can become another person. But a posteriori, through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but subjected to necessity; that in spite of all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning of his life to the end of it, he must carry out the very character which he himself condemns, and as it were play the part he has undertaken to the end.

The idea is that the Will is eternal, unchangeable, noumenal, and that the will-in-time is only will as perceive. If you look back at your history, all of the decisions you make will look like they were made of necessity, the necessity of one’s own character. Try as you might, you can’t change it.

I don’t think Schopenhauer is right-or, at least, I have some doubts. As Duns Scotus said, those who doubt that there is contingency in the universe should have fire applied to their feet until they admit the possibility that the fire could be removed.

But even if he’s wrong, he’s right. Most of your decisions will appear to you on reflection as coming from necessity. It will be like a river running downstream, that can’t ever run upstream. This seems phenomenally true. It’s what it feels like, when you find yourself doing the same old things again and again.

Is there such a thing as free will? I think so, and I think it can be experienced in the moments when you step out of necessity, which will be experienced as pain or discomfort. You aren’t free when you merely do what you want. Pigs do as much. They always do exactly what they want and yet are not free. To be free, one must do what one doesn’t want.

That time you didn’t take the job you really wanted because you had to take care of your family–that is freedom. The time you chose not to respond in anger even when the jerk had it coming: Freedom. Even the time you went to the gym when you didn’t want to–this is a habitual exercise of freedom.

Schopenhauer would probably accuse me of mixing the noumenal pure free will and the phenomenal, and he may be correct, but I only used his quote to bring up my own thought, which is that freedom is experienced primarily in the domain of the ethical and is experienced not as freedom, but as restriction. This is paradoxical but still true. The pig experiences no restrictions because he is not free. He cannot grasp the Good and model his actions to it instead of to his desires. But you can. You can realize that you shouldn’t do the thing that you really want to do, and sometimes you actually succeed in not doing it. That’s freedom.

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