What is freedom?

Nonlinearity rules our world, and human minds are often too simplistic and shortsighted to comprehend it fully. People in general will agree that happiness is a (if not the) goal in their lives. However it is ironical that in spite of aspiring for happiness, they still wouldn’t be honest with themselves to pursue that goal single-mindedly. Why honesty and authenticity is important in life? Well, that’s a different post altogether, but briefly speaking, in the face of our inherently meaningless lives, why will anyone prefer a dishonest life over an honest one is beyond me. At least, one should be honest with oneself, if not with the entire world.

An example of such dishonesty is the utter ignorance of what freedom is and why happiness cannot be ensured without freedom.

What really is freedom anyway? I’m talking about freedom in a very broad sense. Doing work for someone else, having a job or loving someone has nothing to do with freedom. Freedom is NOT doing whatever the heart desires right now. Freedom is the possibility of doing whatever the heart desires right now. Freedom is the possibility of breaking free, if and when needed. Freedom is the confidence of not being chained in an unhappy state. Pursuit of freedom is to continuously ensure that one is not relenting control of life to any person or any sort of circumstances.

No one but you has any right on your life.

What limits freedom?

Inherently, everyone is free. Slowly, society and its associated conditioning creeps in and binds one to behave in certain paradigms. For example, freedom is easily limited by the following:

Moral commitments about the future. If you promise someone about something, you ought to stick to it, even if it means restriction of your freedom. Why morality and future commitments take precedence over freedom is an important topic and it deserve a fuller treatment in an another post. Briefly speaking, in order to maximize happiness for everyone (hence to maximize your own happiness, averaged over a lifespan), expectation of reciprocity is what should drive our world. If I deviate from my commitments, I should not expect other people to stick to their commitments. However, if other people’s commitments and honesty is important to my happiness, I cannot and should not renege on my commitments.

This means that one should be careful about the future. Promising someone about something far in future is not a good idea because closer to the present a commitment is, more confidence you have to fulfill it without impacting much of your happiness. Who knows which commitments of yours conflict with your future. When such a conflict appears, at that point you don’t want to run away from your commitments just because you didn’t have foresight not to promise things you can’t fulfill.

Government, state and the law. Perhaps the gravest limitation on your freedom is from the laws your don’t agree with. Due to facticity, this is especially interesting because you don’t choose the country you are born in. You are simply thrown into a set of laws that you are required to obey. Your only hope is that in the country you are born in, freedom is a value that is vigorously defended. For example, if you happen to be born in Indonesia and you don’t believe in God, you’re in big trouble because being an atheist is a punishable crime there. In such case, what do you do? Do you lie about your beliefs? I say no, you should NEVER lie if you uphold authenticity in life as a key value. So, there are really two actions you could take: a) Don’t speak up and refuse to talk about your beliefs (apparently, even that is not possible in Indonesia. You have to choose among one of the five state “sanctioned” religions.), or b) fight for your freedom, even at the extent of getting executed for blasphemy and other such nonsense.

Photo by Peter Szabo

States and governments have infinite more power as compared to the individual, so if one’s freedom conflicts with their rules, his only option is to defend his freedom and absorb a lot of discomfort that arises from this conflict. As long as one goes down fighting for his ideal, I think it is honorable and totally worth it.

This is also why we should promote and talk about freedom as much as possible. Governments should understand the concept freedom better than anything else, otherwise they don’t deserve to remain in power.

Respect and love trumping rationale and logic. I’m sure many of us have been in situations where our own happiness and freedom conflicts with people we love and respect. But sacrificing one’s freedom and feeling unhappy about it, simply to avoid a conflict with people we love is just very wrong. Nobody but the individual himself/herself has the right on his/her life and freedom. That’s why I say disrespecting parents is the mark of a thinking man, and one should be ready to ditch relationships (if one hasn’t committed unconditionally), and why we should not have heros in life.

I’m not saying that we should not love or respect other people. We should be as kind hearted and full of love as we can. However, we should have a very clear awareness that we love ourselves more than anyone else, and if others intrude on our freedom, we should be ready to break ties and let go without many emotional hangups. Whenever there is conflict, we should listen to arguments that others put up, but if we don’t agree with their rationale and logic, just out of respect or love, we should NEVER do something that restricts our freedom.

Ego combined with shortsightedness. Freedom dissolves entirely when someone else sets the rules of the game and one follows him/her blindly, out of ego or peer-pressure. Such confused actions do not constitute freedom. That’s slavery to the universe. A simple example is probably related to money and work. If your friends are pursuing an MBA and you do the same just because you think you might get left out if you don’t enroll in an MBA program as well, and you fear that your friends may start making more money than you in that case. So out of fear induced by your friends’ actions, you do something you never wanted to do. Would you call it a free choice? Your friends are setting the rules, and you are just following those rules unquestionably.

In business context, same is with competition. In my startup, the reason I consciously avoid looking at the competition and then do things they are doing is because I do not want someone else to dictate how I run a business. Even if I don’t act on what I observe, the mere act of knowing what the competition is up to creates a subconscious bias. If competition raises funding, does that mean out of fear we raise funding too? If raising funding was an independent decision, I’d be happy but if it were done in response to some events you I don’t control, that is simply relenting my life and freedom to others.

Why people are happy if they make poor choices related to their freedom?

This is interesting. Actually, the relationship between freedom and happiness is probabilistic. You could be chained, yet the point of unhappiness may never appear. Many chains of love, respect and commitments in fact usually cause a lot of happiness. However, when things go worse, only then such chains are noticed and cause extreme amounts of unhappiness because one wants to break free yet one cannot do so without being dishonest to oneself and to the world. And dishonesty and inconsistency of one’s value system is what causes incurable unhappiness. In other words, if things are going good, freedom takes a backseat. However, we should always be concerned about absolutely the worst case to ensure in those dark and trying times that we have always chased freedom, so we have been authentic to ourselves, it is just that now circumstances have gone sour. This thought alone gives a lot of happiness and confidence in the worst of periods in life.

How to ensure freedom?

One ensures freedom by taking decisions that ensure if at any moment in future one decides to do whatever the hell one wants to do, one is able to do that without being dishonest and without failing at any past commitments. So, commitment becomes an expensive currency that should be thoughtfully used, if at all. For example, following situations ensure freedom:

  • If you are working for someone, this means being ready to quit at any moment without any notice or with a minimal notice (if you have committed to that)
  • Future is as uncertain as it can get, so this means not signing up for something that won’t let you change direction if that seems to be the most appropriate one in future
  • Having courage to even stake your life if freedom is intruded by state or others. Many freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh understood the concept of freedom very clearly and, even though they died in the process, they were actually free within themselves while others lived (probabilistically) unhappily or happily, but forever chained. And those chains could any time cause immense amount of unhappiness. Is a chained life really worth living?

What does freedom ensure? Why is it a value worth dying for?

What freedom ensures is that you, and only you get to decide about your happiness. It detaches you from external, could-have-been-controlled factors that cause most amount of regret. Freedom ensures you a regretless life, which gives confidence to be happy even in the worst of circumstances. Freedom lets you become an individual capable of conquering the world, all by himself.

Freedom is self-confidence in the face of complex present and uncertain future.

Actually, anyone can be free by saying any time fuck-it-I-don’t-care without doing any deep thinking about future commitments. However, that is not moral. Morality is a higher ideal as compared to freedom. Morality is a given.

Many decisions that relate to freedom ultimately end up being counter-intuitive to what society expects. For example, striving for freedom means probably failing at trying to do a startup than taking up a nice, cozy job. It also means disagreeing with people you love and respect, even at the expense of leaving them. It means maximizing possibility of future freedom (remaining bootstrapped) by letting go of short-term happiness and comfort (raising VC funding). However, being able to say fuck-it-I-don’t-care while still remaining true to your commitments, value system and morality is the greatest source of joy!

Since the effect of freedom on happiness is probabilistic, all we can hope for is to maximize it and leave the rest to uncertain and complex turn of future events. Future may bring happiness or unhappiness. However, we will always have the comfort of having made the right decision of ensuring we are free and hoping it leads to happiness.

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9 Responses to “What is freedom?”

  1. Divyanshu Asopa
    13. May 2013 at 13:12

    No-nonsense article on the concept of happiness and freedom and you have penned it so beautifully. Haven given so much thought on it, wrote few small articles, talked about.. But the was you presented in with a sensible touch is amazing. Somehow I am more of a storyteller and can never imagine to write something like this. Good job, sir! :)

  2. Butifanu
    13. May 2013 at 13:59

    Very touching article and very truthful. Cheers Paras!

  3. Hani
    13. May 2013 at 14:38

    This is a surprisingly childish and immature article. You basically define freedom as ‘do whatever you want, regardless of the cost’. Only the young and naive can have such a monochromatic view of freedom. You’re clearly not in a committed relationship nor do you have children or any serious responsibilities.

    Yes, ‘responsibilities’ shackle freedom. It’s a choice we make, we take on a little bit of dissatisfaction for a net benefit for more than just ourselves, or even for our long term gain.

    Sure, a parent should sacrifice the immediate comfort of their family if they want to pursue their individual freedom. The reason to do so however is *not* ‘I want to have Freedom’, it should be because ultimately it leads to the greatest overall happiness for you *and* your dependents.

    Likewise any enduring relationship requires individuals to give up various manifestations of freedom for the greater good. I’d be stunned if you could find a statistically significant number of functional adults who can honestly say they’re true to your form of freedom while in a committed relationship.

    On the other hand, maybe you mean the typical ‘we love freedom’ jingoist crap that’s prevalent in the US. In which case, you should have just said up front ‘I’m going to make up a bunch of bullshit reasons to show how much my arbitrary and entirely lucky situation is in fact the result of some personal effort and striving’.

    Being born a minority in the US almost always curtails your freedom in some way. Being born in a shitty school district affects your ability to grow and become someone who can intelligently recognize freedom. Being born with shitty parents will likely turn you into another chest thumping freedom loving zombie. Being born a woman means you likewise are restricted in ways men are not, by society. Of course you can strive against these environmental factors, but you’re starting with a handicap that some others don’t have.

    So yeah, bash away at Indonesia and other countries’ lack of religious freedom. Just grow up enough next time to realise that that’s a fairly trivial manifestation and low hanging fruit. Next time pick something that might actually make your readers think, instead of this saccharine immature tripe.

  4. Paras Chopra
    13. May 2013 at 15:00

    @Hani: you have missed the entire point of my article. Responsibilities is what you choose by yourself, so it is immature to crib about freedom once you accept the responsibilities. If kids limit your freedom, remember that you chose to have kids yourself. And I don’t know why you feel obligated to do activities (like entering into a relationship) that society feels is ‘normal’. It’s okay to have kids or enter into a serious relationship, but only if you are ready for it and only if your moral sense allows you to unchain from those commitments at any point in life. My moral sense does not allow me to say fuck-it-i’m-leaving-you, so I am more careful about my commitments. That’s all.

  5. yuvraj
    13. May 2013 at 16:44

    Hi Paras,

    very interesting article

    But I differ at some points, moral commitment in a relationship is a very important for the very existence of the relationship. People don’t commit in a relationship by seeing the time frame or the pros and the cons they just do it coz they love the other person – This can bring serious restrictions to anyone, but I feel there will be a state of anarchy without any such social and moral restriction.

    This is sure that freedom brings happiness but there should be a limit to it also.

    Anyways its always a delight to read what you write.

  6. Paras Chopra
    13. May 2013 at 18:25

    @Yuvraj: my point is not about suddenly giving up on relationships. My point is about communicating well to your partner how important freedom is to you and actually choosing a partner in the first place who respects your freedom.

  7. Aparna
    13. May 2013 at 23:43

    Hi Paras, interesting article! Thumbs up!
    It’s given me more things to talk to you about — when we meet next! :-)

  8. JeanHuguesRobert
    14. May 2013 at 06:22

    Freedom, at the minimum, is the reason to held people responsible of their actions in order to limit their freedom when society so desires. Yes, it’s tautological. Some people believe that “minimum” is superfluous.

  9. Siddharth Goyal
    14. May 2013 at 13:40

    Interesting perspective on freedom. Not sure how you can say for sure that the effect of freedom on happiness is probabilistic (but I am guessing you must have done your study).

    I like your take on raising funds though. I do hope it’s really not the ego thing which is forcing you not to raise funds. (Woh kar rahe hain toh main toh nahi karoonga) :)

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