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The Freedom Trap

In Coaching, Counselling and Personal Development by Craig HassedLeave a Comment

This article is based on Craig’s book, The Freedom Trap, which is an exploration of what freedom means politically, psychologically, legally, ethically and philosophically. The book asks questions that encourage us to think again and more deeply about what it means to be free and the implications for a happy, cohesive and just society.


A strange paradox confronting those of us who live in most of the world’s affluent democracies is that, on the one hand, we have more wealth, comfort, sophisticated healthcare, domestic security, and freedom of choice than at any time in our history, but, at the same time, we are experiencing escalating levels of mental health problems, chronic lifestyle-related illnesses, multiple addictions, broken families, social isolation, cyber-crime, economic injustice and inequality in the distribution of wealth. These are surely not the signs of an increasingly free, just, cohesive and happy society. Although these are complex problems, are there any insights we can gain as to what might be behind them so as to be less encumbered by them?

Can we be wrong about what freedom is?

Freedom is taken by most people to be universally good, as are other things like happiness, wisdom, love and justice. Some would say, as Plato did millennia ago, that the secondary or worldly goods like health and wealth are dependent on the universal goods. We all want these universal goods and assume that we know what they are. But just as we have widely divergent ideas about what constitutes happiness and where it comes from – such as happiness as pleasure, a drug-induced high, close relationships, inner peace, fulfilment in work, a meaningful life or happiness as a spiritual state – so too do we have widely divergent ideas about what constitutes freedom. Can we be wrong about what happiness is? Can we be wrong about what freedom is? If, individually or collectively, we misunderstand the nature of what true freedom is, then do we potentially risk producing the exact opposite of what we desired and expected? Although the allure of some forms of freedom may be sweet and seductive, do they also hide a trap we do not see coming? Are these the traps throughout history into which many individuals and civilisations have unwittingly and repeatedly fallen? Is this a possible contributor to many of the social and health-related problems we are currently facing?

There are many questions we could and need to ask ourselves in relation to freedom. Is it, for example, merely an outer state where an individual has few if any external demands or limits placed upon them socially, legally or morally? Is freedom at heart really an inner state regardless of external circumstances, and yet an inner state happily able to accommodate reasonable external demands and limits? Is true freedom a total lack of discipline or rather a highly-disciplined state of self-mastery? Can true freedom be found by giving license to individual desires no matter what they might be, or is it found, as many wisdom traditions maintain, through being free enough of desire to give expression only to those that deserve the assent of wise discernment and prudence? Is humanity left up to its own devices, as it were, free to make up its own laws, or are we irrevocably bound by natural laws which form the template for the social, legal and moral limits that a free, wise, just, stable and happy society should set for itself? Is true freedom whatever the individual and/or society thinks it is, or can the individual and/or society be wrong about what constitutes true freedom, like mistaking fools’ gold for real gold? Is freedom a worldly state, a state of mind, or a spiritual state? How could we tell?

The shadow side of freedom

There are important implications for accepting one or other idea about what freedom is. If we see it merely as the removal of external limits, then it produces a kind of apparent freedom, but one that may come at a cost. Indeed, we may get what we want, but are we prepared to have what comes with it? For example, living a life of excess is a kind of freedom, but lifestyle-related illnesses are the heavy cost that individuals and societies are having to increasingly deal with. A child who has no limits put on their screen-time, gaming and social media use enjoys a kind of freedom, but one that soon comes with the costs of high rates of ADHD, poor sleep and mental health, poor academic performance and vulnerability to bullying, cyber-crime and addiction to technology. A very deregulated economic system enjoys a kind of economic freedom but is also one that is vulnerable to greed, inequity and economic injustice.

A law unto ourselves

We do really need to take pause and not necessarily assume everything that flies under the banner of freedom will actually make us freer. Is it possible that, like the Pied Piper, some champions of freedom may be leading us with a sweet-sounding tune that takes us somewhere unexpected and unwanted? To illustrate, the most important ruling principle these days in ethical terms is autonomy otherwise known as ‘self-rule’ (from auto – self and nomos – law), i.e. that a person should be a law unto themselves. It is natural for us to want to live our own life in the way that we want to, although we would probably all agree that a person shouldn’t be a law unto themselves to the point that they should be able to harm others. Yet we are drawing fewer limits on personal choices, even to the point of assuming that we should be autonomous to the point that we can harm ourselves. But the question is rarely asked, “What part of the ‘self’ should we be ruled by?”

Did Plato have it tabbed?

There are different parts of our psyche that often conflict with each other with regards to the choices they would have us make. We all have the so-called ‘human condition’, but the world’s great wisdom traditions have always had warnings, advice and precepts aimed at helping us to govern ourselves more wisely. For example, two and a half thousand years ago Plato outlined his conception of the human psyche and described what he called the higher (wisdom, reason), lower (appetite) and middle (emotive) notes of the scale. Whether for a society or an individual, he said that these needed to be in the proper order for us to be harmonious, healthy, happy and just. The higher or wiser part of the psyche should rule and regulate the others if we are to make sound decisions and not be ruled by greed, excess or destructive emotions. Botticelli, the Renaissance painter, was profoundly influenced by Platonic philosophy, and this theme is illustrated in his painting, Pallas and the Centaur, where Pallas is the Goddess of Wisdom and she is taming the Centaur who represents the two lower parts of the psyche.

Plato must have been an astute observer of the human condition because modern neuroscience and psychology have come to a similar conclusion. We just give these aspects of the psyche different names like higher executive functioning operating through the prefrontal cortex, emotions operating through the limbic system, and appetites operating through the mesolimbic reward system. The happy, healthy and civilised person needs to learn to regulate (not suppress) the lower emotive and appetitive centres as well as regulating attention. This is what we call emotion regulation, appetite regulation and attention regulation. These are vital parts of emotional intelligence – leading a healthy lifestyle and being mindful.

Which part rules you and your life?

For example, a person may have already had enough to eat after a three-course meal but wants to keep eating for the sake of the pleasure associated with another serve of dessert. One part of the psyche noisily protests that it wants the taste of more sweets, and almost compels us to do it. Meanwhile another part of us quietly recognises the need to stop eating. One part of us wants to ruminate on anger and vengeance and another part of us recognises this is destructive. One part of us may feel tempted to put a needle in the arm in order to numb emotional pain or a fill a deep sense of emptiness in our life while another part of us recognises that course of action as being both dangerous and a superficial solution to deeper problems. One part of us may prefer to procrastinate and endlessly surf the net rather than get on with an assignment whereas another part of ourselves recognises that now is time to get on with the work. In every case, an inability to regulate ourselves well leaves us vulnerable to poor emotional and physical health, dysfunctional relationships, addiction, wasted time and resources, and short attention span.

So, which part of the ‘self’ should we be ruled by, and how do we strengthen that better, more discerning part of ourselves? Wisdom traditions recommend things like discipline, mindfulness, moderation and being free of desire. This is otherwise known as self-mastery, but, in this predominantly materialistic world, our modern popular ideas of happiness are far more hedonic (happiness as pleasure) than they are eudaemonic (happiness as meaning). Despite the modern penchant for excess, materialism and pleasure-seeking, and an aversion to discipline, discretion and limits, all the world’s great wisdom traditions have warned against giving too much latitude to the pleasure-seeking part of ourselves. It’s not that that part of ourselves is wrong or bad – it’s vital for survival and enjoying life – it’s just that it’s not meant to govern our life and decisions at the expense of wisdom and natural laws. Seeking pleasure as if it were the same as happiness winds up about as satisfying and healthy as drinking seawater. It may give temporary relief but it merely leaves us thirstier than we were before.

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