Marx, Freud, and Freedom

This is part seven of a seven part series, with a new post each day. Each post will be linked to the preceding post. The essay in its entirety can be found on the “Page” titled “Politics and Social Philosophy” which will be posted on 2/12/08.           

       My own view is that the philosophical and the moral and ultimately the psychological are the base of everything in this sphere. And I’ll give just one concluding example of the psychological. When people think of the disintegration and deterioration of a semifree society such as we’ve had, they think of Marx as a very negative influence, which of course he was. They are much less likely to appreciate the relevance of a man from my own profession, Sigmund Freud.            What could Freud have to do with the welfare state? My answer is, plenty. It was Freud and his followers who were most responsible for introducing into American culture and spreading the doctrine of psychological determinism, according to which all of us are entirely controlled and manipulated by forces over which we have no control, freedom is an illusion, ultimately we are responsible for nothing. If we do anything good, we deserve no credit. If we do anything bad, we deserve no reprimand. We are merely the helpless pawns of the forces working upon us, be they our instincts or our environment or our toilet training.          Freud, whatever his intentions, is the father of the “I couldn’t help it” school. (Perhaps credit should be shared with behaviorism, the other leading school of psychology in this country, that propounds its own equally adamant version of determinism.) The inevitable result of the acceptance of determinism, of the belief that no one is responsible for anything, is the kind of whining, blame shifting, and abdication of responsibility we have all around us today. Any advocate of freedom, any advocate of civilization, has to challenge the doctrine of psychological determinism and has to be able to argue rationally and persuasively for the principle of psychological freedom or free will, which is the underpinning of the doctrine of self-responsibility.  

           My book “Taking Responsibility” addresses the task of showing the relationship between free will on the one hand and personal responsibility on the other as well as exploring the multiple meanings and applications of self-responsibility, from the most intimate and personal to the social and political. And that I see as the much wider canvas and much wider job still waiting to be done: to provide a philosophical frame so that people will understand that the battle for libertarianism is not, in essence, the battle for business or the battle for markets. Those are merely concrete forms. It’s the battle for your ownership of your own life.

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7 Comments on “Marx, Freud, and Freedom”

  1. Ralf Wilmes Says:

    Dear Dr.Branden, I totally support the libertarianisms philosophical frame but see that the society is still a long way from having absorbed this principle when I judge media, education and daily experiences at work. By what means do you see the goal of providing this philosophical frame to be achieved best?

  2. Alasdair Cameron Says:

    When I first read The Psychology of Self-Esteem many years ago (as well as Ayn Rand’s work), I assumed that the argument for free will, philosophically speaking, was done and dusted. It was with the inevitable anxiety of realizing that a cherished world view might be in question that I, many years later, recognized that, actually, the issue of free will was still debated furiously (and, in my opinion, rightly so) by the world’s leading philosophers, with the line seemingly drawn between the ‘compatibilists’ and ‘incompatibilists’. I wonder, Dr Branden, what your current thinking is on this issue? (I do recognize that this philosophically tortuous idea is probably less relevant to psychological growth and development.)


  3. Alasdair,

    I still stand by the view of free will I first wrote about in “The Psychology of Self-esteem.”

    You cannot have a moral system or a legal system without the assumption of individual responsibility–and what would self-responsibility mean without free will? This does not “prove” free will, of course, but it should give us something to think about.

    Philosopher John R. Searle is not a champion of free will but he does illuminate very persuasively the problems entailed by denying some form of psychological freedom. See, for instance, his books “Freedom and Neurobiology” and “Mind, Language and Society.”

  4. Ralf Wilmes Says:

    I share Alasdair’s anxiety when free will gets questioned, and just realized that at the moment I tend to see almost every action as my volitional choice. As prove for myself I noticed that a higher level of awareness definitely makes me see more options before making my choices. What I would like to know is if you think if there is objective evidence of free-will apart from the consequences you describe?


  5. Dear Ralf

    I cannot do better than to suggest that you read or re-read my discussion of free will in “The Psychology of Self-estem” and, perhaps, also check out what I write in “The Six Pillars of Self-esteem.”

    In addition, you might do a Google search and see what you can come up.


  6. Dear Alasdair

    Please read what just wrote to Ralf regarding the problem of free will.

  7. Ralf Wilmes Says:

    Thank you. I really appreciate your answer, and will buy those books as I only have the audio versions right now. Have a nice day.


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