Freedom              Not Freedom

Malama               Slavery
5 freedoms           prison, jail
responsibility       constraints
happiness            Punishment
law                  hopelessness
legal systems        compulsory schooling
creativity           social conventions
feelings             narcissism
fairness             coercion
security             insecurity
rights               hierarchy
strength             helplessness
speech               authority
knowledge            ignorance
rules                domination
wealth               poverty
equality             autocratic
spontaneity          obedience 
friends              obligation
home                 homeless

We are already free, we just don't know it!


Inspiration to revise this webpage comes after reading the following quote describing the philosopher and teacher Michel Foucault:

"His ability to teach readers to transform their lives is due, among other things, to his refusal to prescribe a set of universal paradigms for truth, power or self and to his relentless belief that people are free." (Brown, pg 1)

I really like the phrase "relentless belief that people are free," because I believe this's just that we don't know it!


So how come we don't know we are free? From a very early age, most of us are taught that we are not free, despite words to the contrary. Instead we are taught to be obedient. that we don't have choices. Parents like to teach obedience usually through punishment since it seems to make children more manageable. John Taylor Gatto has written many essays about how the hidden curriculum of obedience continues in our schools, not only to make classroom management easier, but also to supply obedient and easily controlled soldiers, workers, and civil servant,s for our armed forces, industry and government.

The expectation of obedience arose with the rise of hierarchical societies and domination systems. Institutions having hierarchical structures include governments, corporations, church, state, and even families. The expectation of obedience in our society is so pervasive, and has continued for such a long time that it is embedded into the very structure of our language, and so we use it without awareness. Nonhierarchical societies (hunter gatherer) do not have this expectation, and it is reflected in their language, as illustrated on my webpage on Bood. Bood means "I don't feel like it" in the Semai language (The Semai are an aboriginal group known for their nonviolent ways). If a child says "I bood." The matter is closed. The adults do not try to force the child to do anything. Since Semai adults do not force each other to do things, they don't have any hierarchy, no chiefs, no government, no judges.

Marshall Rosenberg, in this interview, reflects on the first time that he realized how our language limits our freedom and the choices we make:

"I first got the idea that we always have choices from the psychologist who examined the top Nazi war criminals. What he found was that they were pretty normal, nice people. But I noticed as I was reading through the interviews how often a language was used by these people that denied choice:

In Hannah Arendt's book, "Eichmann in Jerusalem," Eichmann was asked, "Was it difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people to their death?" And Eichmann answered very candidly, "To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy."

His interviewer asked what that language was, and Eichmann said, "My fellow officers and I coined our own name for our language. We called it amtssprache - 'office talk.'" When asked for examples, Eichmann said, "It's basically a language in which you deny responsibility for your actions. So if anybody says, 'Why did you do it?' you say, 'I had to.' 'Why did you have to?' 'Superiors' orders. Company policy. It's the law.'"

If you are free, then you would not say "I have to...." Rather you would say "I choose to......" and act according to your values and needs. If you are free, you would not say you are doing something because "the boss said so." Instead you would say "I choose to do what the boss said because I need .......)

The question of moral responsibility

If you have freedom and free will, do you have moral responsibility? Initially, I wrote yes, but then as I was researching the topic, I found out that it is a really BIG philosophical question. Interestingly, just as I was writing this, I was asked in an email for an operational definition for SIN. My reply was this (and I was not trying to be the devil's advocate):

"I don't believe in SIN, as I don't believe in right or wrong. Remember the Taoist farmer? Yin Yang, everything comes in pairs, In the "I Ching" (Book of Changes) a very short book, incidentally, the phrase "no blame" appears no less than 69 times! I am not a Determinist. I believe in free will. If you are a libertarian, then you would say free will goes with moral responsibility. If you believe like Bruce Waller, then you believe people have free will but no moral responsibility, because "no one ever justly deserves blame, praise, punishment, or reward." (Waller, pg 5). I like Bruce Waller's argument, but I differ in that I believe in moral responsibility regarding choices, but once the choice is made according to ones values and needs, there is no further blame, praise, punishment or reward regarding the choice. I value nonviolence so my choice would be to solve the problems nonviolently."

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

Let me expand upon the above so you can see how I reached these conclusions, but first let me sketch a small diagram which I find to be quite amazing:

 Free will  morally responsible  libertarianism
 Free will  morally not responsible  no fault naturalism
 Determinism  morally responsible  soft determinism
 Determinism  morally not responsible  hard determinism

This table illustrates all possible combinations of free will/determinism with or without moral responsibility, and it turns out philosopher's have been scratching their heads so much on this question, sometimes for centuries, that each combination has a name associated with it. (I do not consider the case where everything is completely predetermined, as this is called fatalism.) The combination that has been least studied, but which I like the most is Bruce Waller's concept of no fault naturalism. Some of his ideas were summarized by Clayton Tucker-Ladd:

"Waller says one reason for a culture keeping the concept of "free will," a common notion which has never been scientifically explained, is so society (and each of us) can hold the actor "morally responsible" for his/her actions. Our system of punitive control of bad behavior is mostly built on this assumption. We think: the murderer deserves to die. The rapist should be severely punished. The drug dealer and chronic criminal should just be locked up, perhaps forever."

"Moreover, we think the person who doesn't "help himself" deserves what he gets. The drunk who refuses treatment is responsible for his behavior; he is "weak willed" or wants to drink and fall in the gutter. The 15-year-old girl who becomes promiscuous and then pregnant "should have known better" and deserves to be a poor, uneducated, ostracized mother. The abused woman, who knows there is shelter and help available but stays with her abuser, is "making her own choice" and is "morally responsible" for her own pitiful condition. The unmotivated worker or student is "lazy" and has to assume responsibility for his/her being fired or failed. They are getting their "just rewards." The anxious person who has lots of physical problems the doctor can't understand is "neurotic" or "sick" or "crazy" or "all messed up." Even the psychotic homeless person sleeping under cardboard on the street is assumed to be to blame for his/her condition, at least "no one else is to blame!" Our explanatory labels given to these people convey no deep understanding of the origin of their problems. Our thinking simply uses "free will" to blame the victims. "

Now, the above is the libertarian point of view. Bruce Waller, in his book "Freedom without Responsibility" reexamined the linkage between free will and moral responsibility, and gives his no fault naturalism point of view:

"No-fault naturalism is the view that our natural world is quite compatible with individual free will but is fundamentally incompatible with moral responsibility. It insists that individuals can be and often are free, but denies that anyone is ever morally responsible: no one ever justly deserves blame, praise, punishment, or reward."

"The arguments of this book are intended to sever the supposed links between freedom and moral responsibility: freedom (including free will and autonomy) will be retained and celebrated, while moral responsibility is banished."

I believe in free will, and I also believe very strongly that "no one ever justly deserves blame, praise, punishment or reward." On my discouraging words webpage, I have described language that uses blame, praise, punishment or reward as violent and life-alienating, and preferentially not to be used if we wish to affirm life. This is not to say I believe in immorality. I simply believe at any given moment in time, with the knowledge on hand, we all make the best choices we can in accordance with our values and needs. I believe human beings to be fundamentally compassionate given the right context, and that most would not deliberately go out to live a life of selfishness and debauchery, even if moral responsibility were not upheld. I have heard in aboriginal cultures, when such deviations in behavior occur, the interpretation is that the person is not himself, is disconnected, and the response is for everyone to gather around that individual, showing their love and concern, until the lost member feels again connected with the group.

On the other hand, what if you don't believe in free will, but believe in determinism, i.e. : "accepting all behavior, thoughts, and feelings as being the inevitable--lawful--outcome of complex psychological laws describing cause and effect relationships in human behavior." According to Tucker-Ladd:

"If I knew all the laws that are influencing your behavior, I would understand you perfectly. I would see that given your genes and physical condition, given the effects of past events and your memory (perhaps distorted) of past experiences, and given your view of the present situation, I would do exactly what you are doing, no matter how saintly or how evil. " If true, that is an awesome statement or belief.

If a person can learn to think this way, i.e. that all human feelings and actions are caused by psychological laws, then all behavior becomes, in a sense, "acceptable" because it is, at the moment, unavoidably lawful. The truth is everything is lawful, so far as science knows. Thus, all behavior, your's and everyone's, is the natural, inevitable outcome of the existing causes. No other outcome was possible given the circumstances (causes and laws). Such an attitude leads logically to tolerance of yourself and others --of all that has happened in the past. Moreover, a deterministic orientation offers hope that scientists and other careful observers, including you, will discover more and more useful knowledge ("laws") for changing the future. Accept yesterday, influence tomorrow. "

I bring in this viewpoint, because I believe there exists a continuum from determinism to free will. It takes knowledge in order to know one's choices, and thus to exercise free will. Keep in mind this continuum as I consider the malady effecting all of us, depression.


According to Ernest Becker, depression is a state of "cognitively arrested alternatives." People become depressed because they are unable to conceive of other alternatives of behaving. Their self-talk is full of internal conflict. I should be doing this, but then I should be doing that. This conflict paralyzes them mentally. They are stuck at an impasse and don't know how to free themselves. In domination systems, this happens a lot because so many people are trying to tell you what to do, how to behave, etc., so no wonder it is confusing and paralyzing.

"In Becker's view, the lion's share of the evil which forms the narrative of human history stems directly from the unconscious and uncritical allegiance to the symbolic meaning systems which the various cultures and societies have developed. Human beings gain their sense of safety and worth by blindly following the internalized modes of power and authority which were presented by parents, family, social group and nation during the socialization process. Rather than becoming a center of rational free choice, the individual blindly fights to protect those internalized models of power on which his life has come to depend.(11)

Helping individuals to gain understanding of what they have uncritically accepted during the socialization process, and therefore allowing at least for the possibility of renewal and change, which is essentially an educational job, is the task of psychoanalysis at its best. But psychoanalysis is too time consuming and too easily derailed to be the basis for a social movement or for species transcendence. In Becker's view, that is the task of education. This forms the background for his philosophy of education."

So Becker's treatment of depression is basically a job of education, of providing information, and knowledge of other choices you have, thereby enhancing your freedom. It is about retraining your thinking, getting rid of all the shoulds, the judgments in your life, and getting back to the basics of listening to your feelings, and meeting your needs. The more information you have, the freer you can become.

There is an old adage that "knowledge is power" and the common belief that "power leads to freedom." But is this really true? If you are in a power struggle, locked in conflict, you are expending energy to maintain a certain state of affairs that you believe should be so. This is a loss of freedom. Prove this to yourself the next time you are in an argument or conflict. Do you really feel freer or do you feel more constrained? Recently, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz published a paper estimating that the real cost to the US for the war in Iraq, both direct and indirect, could top two (2) trillion dollars! This does not include the cost to the other side. Two trillion dollars of wasted economic output is where the real loss of freedom occurs. How many lifetimes of unwanted drudgery does this represent? And the Iraqi people certainly do not view us as liberators.

I would like to promote the idea that there is the more direct relationship: "knowledge is freedom," or "knowledge will set you free." The more knowledge I have, the more choices I am aware of, and thus the more freedom I have. Just go directly from knowledge to freedom, and skip that energy wasting step of seeking power. Dispel the idea, or at least reexamine it, that you are somehow going to gain more freedom by seeking power. If only the US knew more about the state of affairs in Iraq.

At this point, the thought emerges here that all the difficulties philosophers have had in deciding between the assumptions of determinism or free will, is because it cannot be decided either way. Rather, maybe there is a continuum from determinism to free will and freedom, and knowledge is the catalyst.

Under construction, random notes to expand upon

Freedom to express feelings and needs:

On my webpage on "domination systems" the "suppression of self," meaning the suppression of feelings and needs, occurs in people embedded in such systems, which can be likened to being in a very giant machine. Imagine working on an assembly line, where you are performing the same repetitive task on constant stream of items brought before you by a conveyor belt. Such as system does not care if you have feelings or needs. All the boss wants from you is for you to do your job. In such a system, if you are obedient, then there is no need to express feelings or what you want, and you are trained not to. This is what is meant by the "suppression of self."

As a child growing up in such a system, you are trained not to express your feelings and needs. I have always marveled at how easily children laugh and play, and wondered why I don't do the same. They say the typical child laughs hundreds of times each day and the typical adult only gets a few chuckles.

As an adult, after reading Virginia Satir's Five Freedoms, it was a revelation. I was always free to express my feelings and needs, but I just didn't know it. Why do I not know? I started to answer this question on my discouraging words webpage.


One way we lose our freedom is by the process of "learned helplessness." Even though the dog in the shuttlebox is free to jump over the fence, it does not do so because it learned that the shocks are unavoidable. Instead of shocks, we humans use punishment , or discouraging words to mold a child's behavior. But it is out of awareness, so much so that we may not even be aware of how grotesque our world has become as illustrated in this commencement address entitled: Molding Men

Kinds of knowledge to seek

In one sense, children have less freedom, because they know less of the possible choices they can make. On the other hand, they have more freedom, because they are not constrained by custom as adults are. What kinds of knowledge can we teach in order to enhance future generations?

Methodology of acquiring this knowledge

Nonviolent communication

Johari window

What is truth, who has it, who can say it? Parrhesia

This is the contents of my original webpage on freedom:

1. Which would you rather be: a well fed horse tied to a stake in the ground, or a freely roaming horse, who does not know where his next meal may be?

Most of us find ourselves in the first situation, but not out of choice. And many of us are scared of the second option. We are caught in a trap of our own making. We have constructed a society where coercion is woven into its very fabric like mohair. Yet it is possible to make the break. Erdos did with illustrious results. Even some animals try to make the break. Some years ago, a circus elephant escaped onto the streets of Honolulu where I live. Apparently, he had not been trained as well as is described on my webpage on training circus elephants. Unfortunately, his freedom was shortlived. He was shot dead on Ward Avenue, a relief in a way, after what must have been a most terrifying experience of being chased by police sharpshooters in an unfamiliar world outside the circus tent.

2. What limitations would you accept to maximize freedom?

Without question, everyone values having freedom. Freedom is correlated with happiness, and in a just and fair society, every attempt is made to maximize it for all its citizens. Yet, it is a paradox, that in order to gain freedom, one must give a little up. For example, in order to maximize our freedom of travel, we all agree to limit our freedom to drive only on one side of the street. In a classroom, students raise their hands and allow recognition by the teacher before speaking. Otherwise there would be a cacophony of voices, none of which can be heard. In a public forum, similar procedures are followed, such as Robert's Rules of Order, to regulate debate, and enable everyone an equal chance to be heard. However, often teachers and students do not adequately understand this concept of limiting freedom to maximize it. The end result is that a teacher may enforce strict discipline, with the undesired effect of teaching blind obedience, and since a teacher cannot wholly be fair in the attention he or she gives to each student, but is necessarily unconsciously biased, this generates an undercurrent of resentment in the classroom. The effect is magnified when protests by the students are not recognized or heard. It is also very tiring for the teachers!

Indeed, the enactment of laws, and entire legal systems, has as an end purpose, at least theoretically, to maximize the freedoms we enjoy. It is our responsibility to understand the intent of these laws, and abide by them with such understanding. It is also our responsibility to challenge and change laws that unfairly limit the freedoms of one group of individuals while granting unjustifiably greater freedoms to another group of people For example, wealth has always been associated with greater freedom, and people of wealth have consciously and unconsciously enacted laws to limit the freedoms of those less well to do. Two notable examples are "detainer" laws governing landlord-tenant relationships, and "at will" employment laws governing worker relationships to large employers. A friend of mine did an economic analysis of what would happen if detainer laws were revamped, and found that the GNP would literally explode and usher in a new era of stability and prosperity.

Another law that needs to be reexamined is the United Nation's guarantee of reproductive freedom. The world's population continues to grow exponentially. While liberals in the United States and other countries with large land assets argue at least for free choice, China has already enacted a one child per family policy that rewards those who limit the size of their families. Why wait until there is a population crush (and a ratio of ~100 ?sq. ft of arable land/person)? Hardin coined the term: tragedy of the commons and argued for its repeal. But the real question is whether the law can satisfy the tests of fairness.

And there are many other more subtle games being played here. Enforcement of this law weakens China's power because of its already crushing population burden, while apparently increasing the power of the less populated countries. The Vatican appears convinced that its policy on abortions and birth control increases its power, since an increased membership base would arguably increase the number of offerings it gets, enabling it to further glorify God on that small but glittering site in Italy. Even the food companies have a hand in this, arguing that babies should be weaned as soon as possible, so that they can consume formula and enrich their coffers. These companies know that nursing mothers have a much lower chance of getting pregnant, it's called lactation amenorrhea, but why isn't this knowledge disseminated more freely. It's because they much prefer that another child be born as soon as possible to consume their highly profitable mix. For profit companies always try to sell you on the advantages of their product, and actively suppress any information that may adversely you, the buyer (or at least let you know in print that is awfully small and technically hard to read). Yet they argue that you have the freedom of choice. True freedom and free choice comes only when you know both sides of the story equally well. When you also know the motives of the persons or companies that say that they are informing you. Knowledge gets destroyed for a reason.


Becker, Ernest (1964) "Revolution in Psychiatry, The New Understanding of Man, NY, The Free Press

Brown, Alison Leigh (2000) "On Foucault: A Critical Introduction," Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. pg 1.

Champion, James (2000) Lecture Review from May 2000: Liechty on Wink and Becker and 'The Powers That Be",

Hardin, Garrett (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, v162,pgs1243-1248

Liechty, Dan (19??) "Ernest Becker and the Science of Man",

Liefer, Ronald (1997) Legacy of Ernest Becker Psychnews International, July-Sept, v2(4)*

Rosenberg, Marshall and van Gelder, Sarah (1998) The Language of Nonviolence,"Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures"

Robbins, John W. (1986) Molding Men, commencement address

Satir, Virginia () Five Freedoms

Stiglitz, Joseph and Bilmes, Linda (2006) Economic Costs of the Iraq War: An Appraisal Three Years after the Beginning of the Conflict

Tucker-Ladd, Clayton E. (1996) Psychological Self-Help:Determinism,

Waller:, Bruce N.(1999) "Freedom Without Responsibility," (Philadelphia:Temple Univ. Press), review

Wilhelm, Richard (translator) I Ching (Book of Changes) ancient Taoist text

Wink, Walter (1992) Engaging the Powers:Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Last updated 7 February 2006

Copyright © 1999-2006 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.