What is existential freedom?

Earlier this year, historian Mary Beard got involved in a Twitter spat after she suggested that it was not all that shocking that Oxfam workers had used prostitutes, while on a disaster relief mission in Haiti. She noted that people often behave badly in extreme situations and suggested that it might be a mistake to judge them too harshly. There was a predictable outraged backlash. Writing about the controversy afterwards, Beard reflected that people often have unrealistically high moral standards, even of themselves. She gave the example of a discussion she’d had with a group of students, about Nazi-occupied France. She’d asked what they thought they would have done in those circumstances. “They all said they would have joined the Resistance,” she recalled, before noting, “The truth is to judge by any statistics you can get that most of them would have been collaborators or keeping their heads down.”

It’s a salutary point, and I don’t dispute it, but, at the same time, there would have to be something seriously wrong with anyone who answered the question by saying, “Well, statistically speaking, I’d probably have helped the Nazis.”

In a more profound sense than Mary Beard seems to have intended, such a person would have been answering the wrong question. Because when we ask ourselves “What would we have done?” or “What would we do?” we are always implicitly asking, what should we do? That is what it means to be a moral agent: to see oneself not as a statistic, but as morally responsible for one’s actions—not an object to be manipulated, but a subject capable of agency. That goes to the heart of what I’ll call existential freedom: i.e. the inner freedom to choose, even when your choices are externally constrained.

For example, you might say, after the fact, “I had no choice! I had to collaborate with the Nazis because otherwise they were going to shoot me.” A severe existentialist could always answer, “That was your choice. You could have chosen to get shot rather than collaborate.” Existential freedom is not always easy, but the point is that we always have it. It’s the prisoner’s freedom—not to come and go as he pleases, but to choose how he deals with life in prison.

The key thing is that existential freedom cannot be denied or withheld, only disavowed. It is disavowed when we refuse to acknowledge that we have a choice and insist that our actions are determined by our circumstances, whether these are external or even just part of our own background. We’re all familiar with the kind of psychological determinism satirized in the musical West Side Story, in which a group of teenage hoodlums mock a policeman by singing:

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke
Ya gotta understand
It’s just our bringin’ upke
That gets us outta hand
Our mothers all are junkies
Our fathers all are drunks
Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks!

The Flight from Freedom

Indeed, addiction itself is perhaps best understood as a flight from existential freedom. It is often confused with chemical dependence, the condition of requiring more of a drug to avoid the physical symptoms of withdrawal. But addiction as a form of behavior—which is demonstrably very real—cannot be reduced to a medical condition. A real addict relapses, often repeatedly, after successfully kicking a physical “habit,” or compulsively engages in behavior that does not engender chemical dependence at all. To understand why, you need to look less at the object of the compulsion than at the life of the addict. Addiction is at its root an existential plight.

In his thought-provoking book, The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction, Matthew Crawford writes about compulsive gamblers and sex addicts (i.e. men who compulsively use prostitutes):

[S]ex addicts report that they often seek out a prostitute not out of sexual desire, but in order to put to rest the question of whether they will or will not be with a prostitute today. Once they submit to the compulsion, the question is settled, and the will is relieved of its burden. For this person, as for the gambler, the real relief lies in being spent. Only then can there be a moment of repose. We might view this as an exhausted response to the heightened burden of self-regulation that we bear in a culture predicated on freedom.

Crawford is referring to the fact that, in the contemporary West, freedom is often experienced as a cross to bear: too much choice, too little to take for granted, the constant question of what to do next. Even working at a dead-end job and replicating the drudgery of work by spending night after night slumped in front of the TV is a choice, whether or not we want to admit it.

Again, the point is not that it would be easy to find a more stimulating way of life. What Crawford calls “a culture predicated on freedom” is an aspect of what others condemn as “neoliberalism.” This is the tendency to see individuals as fully responsible for their choices even when their options are hopelessly limited—a kind of privatization of social circumstances. But, while it is wrong to blame individuals for having been dealt a bad hand, social critique does not preclude the recognition of such personal responsibility as remains. Indeed, the opposite extreme is a kind of privatization of social critique—a fatalistic resignation to the idea that one has no real choice, because of capitalism. This is another source of repose, or to use Sartre’s term, another form of bad faith.

This is important, not only because it is a flight from existential freedom, but also because, as such, it is a disavowal of the possibility of changing one’s circumstances—whether through individual action or political organization. Existential freedom itself is a kind of responsibility, and one for which we can be held accountable.

Freedom and Accountability

I’ll illustrate this with a story about a legendary trade union organizer, who operated in Manchester in the 1970s and 80s. He was speaking at a union meeting on the shop floor, arguing forcibly for strike action, but some of the workers were reluctant. Rather than voicing his opposition directly, however, someone said, “We can’t take strike action without a democratic vote.”
“Good idea,” the organizer said, and pointed to a distant corner. “Everyone who doesn’t want to go on strike, go and stand over there!”

It’s clear what he was doing there. He was organizing a vote in such a way as to exert moral pressure on everyone to support the strike, by forcing those opposed to visibly separate themselves from the rest. This is very different from the democratic norm of the secret ballot, which leaves each voter alone with his or her conscience when he or she casts a vote. But, considered in terms of existential freedom, it is arguably a more authentic form of democracy.

It says, “If you genuinely believe it would be wrong to go on strike, don’t hide behind a call for a ballot. Have the courage of your convictions and make your case. Own your decision and be prepared to live with the consequences.” In the right circumstances, that is a better model of political engagement—though I don’t propose we abolish secret ballots as the democratic norm any time soon.

We saw how the ideal of existential freedom as responsibility can be used against itself after the votes for Brexit and Trump, when some commentators suggested—usually half-jokingly, but sometimes in earnest—that voters should have to demonstrate a basic level of knowledge or education before casting their ballots, effectively that they should have to justify their votes to someone else. This is a serious threat to democracy itself.

Members of a trade union have certain basic goals in common. They have joined the union to pursue their interests as workers, and it is in those terms that they can be expected to make the case for or against a particular course of action. Wider society is not like that. People have different interests and ideals. They cannot be expected to justify themselves in terms that will satisfy everyone. And this is a particular problem since certain social groups have more influence and cachet than others. Their ideas tend to dominate, even when they are not as widely shared as they imagine.

In the face of an overwhelming consensus among influential people for settled ways of thinking or doing things—a phenomenon J.S. Mill calls “the despotism of custom”—it is important to be able to say, “I have no confidence in my ability to change your mind, or even to articulate my thoughts in a convincing manner. But I’m going to vote as I see fit, so leave me alone with my ballot.” That too is a kind of existential freedom, provided one is willing to live with the consequences. That is the crucial test, the real meaning of responsibility.

Implicit Responsibility

This more muted form of existential freedom is even more important in the private sphere. One of Sartre’s famous examples of bad faith—of a refusal to take responsibility as a moral agent—concerns a woman on a date. At some point, the woman sits down with her date and the man she is with takes her hand in his. It is an obvious attempt to take their intimacy to the next level, but she’s not yet sure what she thinks of him, or how intimate she wants to be. So she faces a dilemma. If she pulls her hand away, she’ll break the spell and ruin the atmosphere. But if she acknowledges his action by squeezing his hand back or smiling too obviously, she’ll be assenting to this new level of intimacy. So what does she do? She pretends not to notice what’s happened. She lets her hand sit inert in his, while she ponders the situation.

Sartre called this bad faith, but it’s probably not a good idea to take dating advice from Sartre, since he was a serial philanderer and not exactly known for his respect for women. For many, if not most, people, ambiguity plays an important role in sexual relationships, especially in the early stages. That’s why the issue of consent is so vexed and why attempts to insist on “affirmative consent” are doomed.

It is an appealing idea that someone is always either sexually interested in someone else or not, and that a healthy sexual encounter will always involve two people equally enamored of one another and equally unafraid to say so. This is the model assumed by those who have suggested a “consent app,” a cellphone app that can be used to record consent before sex, protecting both parties from any subsequent accusations of abuse. It’s a terrible idea for all sorts of very practical reasons, but on a more fundamental level, it’s based on a gross simplification of how sexual desire and consent work.

The model of sex assumed by affirmative consent has no room for someone who prefers to yield to advances somewhat passively—perhaps because they haven’t made up their mind about them, or perhaps because they enjoy being pursued, without having to state loudly and clearly that they hereby enthusiastically consent to whatever happens next. In fact, the idea of affirmative consent fails to acknowledge that people might enjoy certain things sexually that they’d rather not put into words, let alone have documented. They might prefer to retain plausible deniability. In that case, the last thing they will want is someone reminding them that they did indeed give explicit consent via an app: “You even gave it five stars!”

But, according to the enthusiastic consent model, anything less is a form of coercion and people are encouraged to reinterpret occasions on which they perhaps surprised themselves as incidents for which they were not responsible at all. Crucially, this is not simply a question of individual bad faith, but of increasingly institutionalized bad faith.

The most egregious example is the insistence in some campus codes that anyone under the influence of alcohol is incapable of consenting to sex. This comes from an understandable attempt to develop an objective standard of competence, but it is woefully out of step with reality. Someone who confides in a friend that they slept with someone they wish they had not might now be told that, if alcohol was involved, it was by definition rape. And if they accept this, the consequences could be disastrous for all concerned.

Deciding by Doing and Choosing to Belong

Of course, much of the time we look back on things we have done and think, “I never really decided to do that.” But that’s because sometimes we decide by doing. After all, you did the doing, not someone else. And, even when we do make a conscious decision, how far back do we have to trace the reasoning behind that decision before we will accept it as our own and not simply as a whim that could have gone either way? Ultimately, the decisions we really feel are our own are those that could not have gone any other way. They are in some sense “given.”

As Sartre put it in Existentialism is a Humanism:

[W]hat we usually understand by wishing or willing is a conscious decision taken much more often than not—after we have made ourselves what we are. I may wish to join a party, to write a book or marry—but in such a case what is usually called my will is probably a manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous decision. If however it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is.

In other words, we are responsible for what we have made of ourselves. If we are lazy, cowardly or compulsive, it is not ultimately because of our genes or our upbringing—even if those things have put as at a disadvantage—but because we have trained ourselves to be that way. Of course, if it is to be meaningful, existential freedom must include the ability to escape even ourselves, to change our ways. The point is that we can only do that by acknowledging our freedom, the fact that we are always making choices, even when we choose not to change.

If we make ourselves by making choices that are shaped by who we have already made ourselves, do we really have a choice? Yes. Because we contain multitudes. The crucial decision is which parts of ourselves we choose to accept as definitive, and which we choose to shed or ignore. It will often seem to others, and even to ourselves, that our choices reveal rather than make our true selves, but the point is that at the moment of choosing, we cannot defer to an objective, essential self. We must choose.

Existentialism is often associated with a yearning for authenticity. It is as much a refusal of identity as an assertion of it—a rejection of unchosen identities, such as those provided by religion, class, or nationality. But existential freedom also includes the right to choose to affirm those identities.

In his book Puzzling Identities, Vincent Descombes describes how Enlightenment thinkers believed human beings would throw off unchosen identities, replacing given social bonds with a rationally chosen social contract between individuals. But that is not what happened, or, at least, it’s not the whole story. The modern individual more often embraces certain givens, especially nationality:

By representing his human bonds as components of his identity, he makes plain that his right to subjective satisfaction as an individual authorizes him to include the fact of his contingent individuation within his definition of himself.

In other words, most people do not want to make themselves from scratch. As Descombes puts it, “An individual searching for her own identity does not merely ask, ‘What are my works?’ She also asks, ‘Of what history am I the work?’” This need not mean embracing a reactionary, blood-and-soil nationalism. It does mean acknowledging that it is not only individuals who face existential questions. To conceive of oneself as a member of a community not of one’s choosing—and to be a citizen of a territorially-defined state is inevitably that—is to take responsibility for a situation not of one’s making. And yet it is only by doing so that one can claim a degree of agency in more than individual terms.

Why Existential Freedom Matters

Of course, to have agency in political terms, we need more than existential freedom. We need the right to participate in our own government—not just “a say” but a vote, which is to say authority as citizens. And this in turn requires mutual recognition of citizenship, an implicit respect for the authority of our fellow citizens. Existential freedom matters because it underlies that authority. To impugn the competence or integrity of fellow citizens and question their right to vote is an affront to their existential freedom: even if they are stupid or pliable, that does not take away their right to vote as they see fit.

Like existential freedom, political freedom can also be disavowed by denying it is meaningful, by insisting in bad faith that the system is rigged, or that voting never changes anything. Both aspects of freedom require us to take the fullest responsibility we can, even as we recognize genuine limits to our freedom. Ultimately, though, existential freedom comes first: it is a necessary precondition for politics—or, at least, for democratic politics. It is only by asserting ourselves as independent moral agents, responsible for our thoughts and actions, that we can claim the right to be treated as subjects rather than objects.

So perhaps we do have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others. We do not always do what we think we should do. But the point is: we could.

First published on Areo.

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