A Framework For Thinking About Freedom, Choice, and Responsibility

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between freedom, choice and responsibility.

A couple of months ago, I read Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision Of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse, a profound philosophical book that talks about game theory in the context of politics, religion, art, sex, and every other area of life. It often brings up the concepts around sovereignty and choice. It was a book that came recommended by Daniel Schmachteberger and Jordan Greenhall, who are two of my favourite podcast guests on Future Thinkers.

In a recent tweet storm I summed up my own understanding of these ideas, which I’m putting together as a blog post below for easier reading (with just a few minor edits for better flow).

Now, before we get into this, I have to say that these ideas may be upsetting to some. I don’t believe in content warnings, but if you do — this is it.

The more freedom you have, the more responsibility you have to take.

The Western civilization prides itself on its freedoms. But its freedoms are limited to certain domains, constrained by laws and social expectations, and defined by external boundaries.

Like characters in a videogame, people in this system can choose from a limited number of moves, and are not even aware of being inside a game.

This is not true freedom, it’s only the illusion of freedom.

True freedom is realizing that the limitations and boundaries enforced by civilization are illusory.

They may be useful for keeping social order and cohesion, but they are not real in any deep sense.

Now, this does not mean that all the boundaries and limitations should be abolished. Nor does it mean that they can or should be broken without consequence.

What this does mean is that choices are limitless, but all the different choices have different consequences.

So what you are really doing by choosing is selecting the consequences you assume you want, consciously or unconsciously.

Different aspects of you want different things.
Your genes want to replicate.
Your animal nature wants to eat, fuck, and ascend the dominance hierarchy.
Your prefrontal cortex wants to make sense of things.
Your soul wants divine cosmic union and self-transcendence.
Etc.

Rationality is over-emphasized in Western society, as it is often seen as the best or only mode of choosing. This is limiting.

People are expected to take responsibility for what their rational mind chooses, but rarely for what the other parts of their being choose.

When a murder is pre-meditated, the punishment tends to be more severe than when it is spontaneous. Same choice, but coming from a different part of being.

Many choices that you make are not rational and not conscious, but they are nonetheless choices that have consequences.

You may think that you didn’t have a choice in certain situations, but the reality may be that you are simply not consciously aware of the part of you that was making the choice.

And by the way, not choosing is also a choice — a choice to surrender.

You often choose to give up your freedom in exchange for other things.

Sometimes you make choices that reduce your freedom and optionality because you do not want the risk and responsibility that comes with having that freedom.

When there is someone telling you what to do, you have less freedom but also less responsibility.

An example of this is working a job instead of starting your own company.

Less freedom can mean more safety.

Sometimes you make choices that reduce your freedom because the consequences of choosing otherwise can mean violence, ostracism, or the withdrawal of resources.

This is why people stay in crappy jobs and abusive relationships, or live in societies and not alone in the woods.

When you take the role of a victim, you willingly (though sometimes not consciously) absolve yourself of the responsibility in the situation, thereby giving up your freedom.

Victimhood is submission. When you act submissive, you are seen as less of a threat. Sometimes, not being threatening can mean avoiding violence or even death.

You can sometimes also willingly risk or give up your freedom for a greater purpose, as is the case with mothers or revolutionaries or war heroes.

The reward in this case is a form of immortality. Something lives on after your body dies.

To be truly free, take full responsibility for all of your choices, conscious and unconscious.

This means accepting the consequences of all your actions, especially when they are undesirable.

This also includes responsibility for the times when you chose to give up your freedom for one reason or another.

To become more aware of the origins of your choices, you bring the unconscious into the conscious.

Once you observe yourself choosing, the choices become easier to accept.

You can get better at this awareness through practices like psychedelics, psychotherapy, or meditation. Meditation is probably the most stable of these practices in the long term.

You can also reframe the above thread from the mystical perspective of “no self”. In this view, choices can be seen as various natural processes optimizing for various outcomes.

P.S. The deep truth here is that you have always been free. You were just conditioned to believe that you weren’t free or had limited choices, and you didn’t know otherwise.

This is just one framework for thinking about choice, freedom and responsibility. It is not meant to be complete or definitive.
For more on this subject, read Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse, listen to my Future Thinkers interviews with Daniel Schmachtenberger and Jordan Greenhall, and study the work of Jordan Peterson.
Krishnamurti has also spoken extensively about true freedom, although his view on choice is framed differently.