Thursday, 8 April 2010

The freedom to be imprisoned

Leaving inside the intricacies of meta-ethics, there's something instinctively attractive about freedom. Whenever we find it, we like it. It's the rush of joy as we escape from a place that makes us unhappy, the thrill of choosing to do otherwise than society dictates, the pleasure of making a choice from one of a whole variety of attractive options.

I do not believe we can ever be truly free. Sartre argued that whenever we chose to follow a dictat of another, we ceased to exist (in the sense of being in bad faith). We merely became the creations of another's reality, rather than our own. His theory was beautiful and terrifying in equal measure. It promised utimate freedom but total responsibility: hence, existentialist angst.

I think Sarttre's vision of existentialism can help us enormously, in making us break down barriers which inhibit our freedom and hold us back from creating what we otherwise would have created. But there are limits, and it is these I have been thinking of for some time.

I am currently a sugar addict. I frequently indulge in far more sugar than my muscles and organs require to function optimally, simply because the rush it gives me is very pleasant. I was telling a friend the other day that I plan to break this addiction, to free myself from this self-destructive urge. As we discussed it, I mentioned to her that I do not really get pleasure from much else that I eat. Everything else I eat in order to avoid collapsing with exhaustion or some form of malnutrition. Sugar is the only food that gives me a real thrill. She told me she found it worrying that I was planning to cut out the one part of my diet which actually makes me feel pleasure.

And so it dawned on me that I am at the mercy of more than one controlling influence here. On the one hand, I have a psychological addiction to sugar, which puts great pressure on me to eat the stuff and makes me make choices I often look back on with regret and guilt. But on the other, I long to obey society's rules about sugar and eat only the small amount I am told I can get away with. And the language I use to describe these choices, weirdly, is the language of morality: regret, guilt, obey, get away with.

I think I know what Sartre would say here. I think his answer would be that it does not matter that one path is that of addiciton and the other that of society's preferred course. What matters is that I freely choose to follow one and do not simply drift down a channel, without ever consciously opting for one or the other. That is the message of existentialism. It is about creating choice in a world where there is never a need to choose. It is about consciously opting rather than drifting, being carried along by the currents that flow so freely around us.

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