On Philosophy

March 20, 2007

Freedom From Other People

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Having a goal, or preferences of any kind, make us susceptible to being controlled by other people. Specifically they can put themselves in a position where they can prevent us from reaching our goals or having things go as we would like, and then use that ability to get us to do as they wish by coercion. Thus the possibility of being manipulated by others is unavoidable. However, it is probably in our best interests to minimize the likelihood of our goals being used against us in this way as much as we are able.

But why should we care if other people have some leverage over us? After all to keep that leverage they probably have to give us something that we want occasionally. Well for starters it limits our options. In situations where we aren’t subject to coercion we can balance our goals by devoting our resources proportionally to each to see that it is reached. But when someone is using that goal to extract something from us it means that we have to devote at least some fixed amount of effort to achieving that goal, giving the person what they want, or give up on it. And this may not be an acceptable trade-off. Our optimal choice may be to devote some smaller amount of effort to that goal. Either option in the trade-off may thus leave us unhappy. If we meet that person’s demands then we won’t be able to devote as much effort as we would like to our other goals, and hence will be unhappy. Or we will have to set aside that goal completely, and thus will be unhappy.

But, on the other hand, we have to make trade offs on occasion even when other people aren’t trying to coerce something from us, so perhaps that isn’t too bad. A more serious problem is that what that person wants may conflict with our other goals. Obviously conflicts between our goals are something that must be avoided. As mentioned previously such conflicts lead inevitably to unhappiness, and thus must be prevented by choosing goals that don’t conflict. But, because we can rationally choose our goals this problem can be avoided, for the most part, with a little foresight. But conflicts caused by someone else’s demands are not so easily dealt with. Since the conflicts don’t arise from the nature of the goals themselves they can’t be predicted, and hence are harder to do away with.

Given that other people and their demands can be a problem there are basically three ways to deal with the issue, although not all are equally successful, and none of which will seem like a desirable solution to everyone. Perhaps the least desirable solution, to modern eyes, is complete servitude. Someone who chooses this solution decides to make the goals of the person who has the most power over them their goals. Since they are trying to accomplish the goals of the most powerful person anyone who attempts to block them from reaching those goals will be opposed by the more powerful person, since the goals being frustrated are their goals as well. And thus they are never put into a position where the power of other people over them leads them to have to do something contrary to their goals. In ancient times this was an acceptable way of life, and certain societies idolized this ideal. But in modern times it finds less purchase, since people tend to put a greater emphasis on individual freedom, and the structure of society is not quite so hierarchical.

The second possible solution is to become the most powerful person, or at least powerful enough that being coerced is exceedingly unlikely. We might characterize this solution as Machiavellian or Nietzschian. The benefits of this solution are obvious, but it has two major downsides. First this solution won’t work successfully for everyone, many people won’t become that powerful, and so while they may be in a better position then where they started from they still haven’t gotten rid of all their problems. Secondly, not everyone has this kind of will to power, or desires to have it. Really having it would mean adopting it as a goal, which would mean diverting energy away from your other goals in order to reach it. Which again may seem like a Pyrrhic victory, since we have only achieved the freedom to pursue our goals by choosing not to pursue our goals.

The third solution is to give up the goals that generally lead to being controlled by other people. As I mentioned to begin with any goal, or at least most goals, could possibly give other people leverage. But some goals are exploited more easily than others. Goals that rely on something that other people must give you, like titles, recognition, possessions, ect are the most easily exploited in this way. Just as we must give up some of our goals because they are contradict each other we must also give up goals that are too easily exploited, because they too can lead to frustration and unhappiness. Of course the goals that remain may still be occasionally exploitable, but hopefully not enough to prevent life from being good. Of the three solutions this is my favorite, but it may still seem unappealing to some, because it asks us to give up some of the things we want, or at least modify them, and this may seem unacceptable if they are strongly desired.

Obviously because of this problem everyone is better off when people are prevented, as much as possible, from exploiting each other, as it allows people to lead the life they want by making fewer compromises. Of course it really isn’t ethical to exploit people, so this is simply a version of the conclusion that an ethical society is the better for everyone. However coercion will never completely disappear because no society will ever try to eliminate it completely. The rulers of a society need the ability to coerce people to stay in power, and an economic system demands that people can be rewarded for certain behaviors (meaning that the rewards, money, must be needed or the rewards wouldn’t be motivational, and if money is needed then clearly people can be coerced by threatening to withhold their rewards, say by firing them). Thus on a practical level adopting one of the three partial solutions mentioned here is probably the best bet, since fixing coercion by changing the rules that govern everyone is unlikely.



  1. You seem to overlook a large subcategory of the third type of goals: religious goals. Religious goals by their nature cannot be disturbed by the imposition of others. No man can steal my virtue, influence my standing with God, &c. Boethius and others highly recommend the pursuit of such goals for exactly that reason.

    Comment by Carl — March 21, 2007 @ 1:15 am

  2. In Reply to Carl,

    If you, by implementing a time travel device, can somehow go back into the past and undo what the Spaniards did to the People of the ‘New World’, then I will be more than happy to except such a difinitive idea: “Religious goals by their nature cannot be disturbed by the imposition of others.”

    Moreover, religion is at first a practice; any goal or goals contrived and found important by an individual or community fostered by way of religious practice is arbitrary as far as i understand it—with the exeption of ideological Christianity: The goal of christianity is to convert others, and that in itself, throughout many instances in History, has always appeared to me to be a most intrusive “imposition” of the severest kind.

    I am not in any way impuning your conviction that “No man can steal my virtue” and your constitutions that “influence my standing with God”; I am merely pointing out that you are inadvertantly on the right track when considering “religious goals” as a sub-category.

    That’s exactly what it is and where in goes!


    Comment by Robert Darrell — March 23, 2007 @ 3:21 pm

  3. Reply to Carl—Post Script:

    When i was a devoted christian for a number of years, i discoved there are good people with virtuous convictions just like yours. But no matter where you go and what you do, it is all about give and take, control and be controled.

    All told, and for the record, Peter’s artical says it all in generality.


    Comment by Robert Darrell — March 23, 2007 @ 4:13 pm

  4. If you want to suggest that there’s a better word than “religious” to describe the internal goal of being virtuous, then I’ll take that criticism and use whatever word you want to suggest in replacement for it. Certainly, I agree that as it stands the term “religious” also covers a large number of practices and beliefs that I’m not talking about here.

    However, if the question under consideration is, “Are there desires that we can have which are free from the possibility of external interference,” then I continue to maintain that such a category of desires exists, and that this category is sometimes called “religious” in at least one sense of that term.

    Comment by Carl — March 23, 2007 @ 8:52 pm

  5. Dear Carl,

    To associate virtuousness along side “religion” suggest to me that the particulars of say-religion have evolved toward that idealistic attribution, save for hypocrisy; and I say ‘evolved’ because, Carl, when I imagine religion, where all its many different origins are concerned, I do not see virtue as the spark that made it all happen, but rather, I see the ancients pondering with wonder…; in time, the religions evolve. They developed their own formalities.

    Virtue is, among other things, at least a state of mind.

    The desire to me virtuous is a quality that blossoms well when you know how to love; but it is also a quality that some believe they cannot afford—or unable to perceive.

    —I almost forgot to mention that your response nearly knocked me off my chair! There is no angle to your reply that warrants criticism. Quite the opposite! You made your point well. (If I had the ability to transform your reply into an XP HotFix Patch, I would be the envy of each and every pampered Microsoft Dignitary Executive there is!)


    I submit, while your reply has me thinking, I can only assume, that, at least for me, having desires “…which are free from the possibility of external interference” is definitely an accommodation to be desired!

    Your Friend,


    Comment by Robert Darrell — March 23, 2007 @ 11:31 pm

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