Authentic Desires and Internal Constraints

Photo Credit: Sandi Billingsley[1]

By: Kaini Li

There is an intimate tie between desires and constraints in terms of defining freedom. It is particularly significant to distinguish the authentic desires from the desires that might become internal constraints when freedom is discussed in the political context. Those who are brainwashed or addicted to alcohol or drugs are subject to social repair because they are not free in the intuitive perception. However, it is also hazardous to completely surrender “Akrasia”, Greek word “weakness of will”, to the sovereign power because the arbitrary mending, or the social coercive repair (e.g. by laws) might lead to the problem that the majority dominates the social rules.[2] Thus, in an attempt to define freedom, Isaiah Berlin in his book, Two Concepts of Liberty has made the distinction between negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom is defined as the absence of constraints on the agent imposed by other people; Positive liberty is defined as both to pursue willed goals and to achieve autonomy or self-mastery.[3] As it will be noted later in the article, Charles Taylor categorizes them as opportunity-concept freedom and exercise-concept concept.[4]

Some writers resist the two concepts based definition—positive and negative freedom and declare that there is only one single concept of freedom. As a firm believer of one concept of freedom, MacCallum claims that to distinguish positive and negative freedom is to simply group together different substantive views on defining freedom. Although the triadic relation proposed by MaCallum—X is free from Y to be/do Z—is criticized for its failure to be explanatory enough and exclusiveness of the positive freedom, the formula signifies the close relationship between desires and constraints.[5] In addition, the external constraints to freedom seem to be self-explanatory, while the internal constraints are always disputable. This is because of the ambiguous boundary between authentic desires and instinct desires as well as the precarious consequence of eliminating internal constraints by ruling out instinct desires. Also, other issues like the “totalitarian menace” will be involved in this controversy when the territory of negative freedom is invaded by internal constraints liberalization.[6] Historically, the attention shift from negative freedom to positive freedom is clear and inevitable for Berlin in his famous essay shows his position as a negative freedom defender that “freedom is the absence of obstacles to the fulfillment of a man’s desires.”[7] He is a strong defender of negative freedom, the external space created to be immune to others’ interference, based on the argument that it is only meaningful and practical for us to discuss freedom in negative freedom sphere because positive freedom has too much to do with internal mechanism of individual, further the metaphysics. Also the danger of connecting political coercive force with positive freedom might overweigh its merit since it is dealing with people’s internal desire problem. Therefore he grounds his position on negative freedom and refuses to cross the Maginot Line to positive freedom. However the unheeding usage of subjective “man’s desires” in his definition for negative freedom becomes the bone of contention.

Thomas Hobbes’ view on freedom is quite straight forward. He argues that liberty means the absence of external impediments to any physical movements possible, with emphasis on it being physical impossibility to move in space. He excludes the internal constraints from his premise that people behave according to rigid mechanisms out of fundamental desire to pursue self-preservation and self-interest. All human beings operate and follow determinist law. The absolute cause-and-effect relations explain all objects or events that are tightly bound by causality in such a freewill-vacuum concept that any state of an object or event is completely determined by prior states. The mere survival drive, in other words, the law of nature maintains that we keep a peaceful existence, otherwise we are all prone to fight with each other for our survival and interests. Therefore, sovereign power is justified in this case because it is the best outcome. Whether we can rationalize it or not, people will massacre each other due to being driven by the natural desires for self-interest. In this logic vein, people’s authentic desire conquers all. Hobbes’ argument is heavily contingent on objective moral rules and a natural state of humanity independent of complicated social context.

Distinctively different from Hobbes’ absolute negative freedom defense, the ancient Stoics and Epicureans went to another extreme. They believed in eliminating all the inaccessible desires to achieve the absolute freedom. To be perfectly free, they argued, is always to be able to do what you actually want to do at that moment. To gain this freedom, “one must either be powerful enough to bend the whole world to one’s will, or flexible enough to adapt one’s will to what must inevitably happen.”[8] This Stoic abjection has always been paralleled with the happy slave paradigm (a slave can be defined as a free person if and only if he is fully content with everything), raising the doubt that simply by oppressing the desires, we can achieve the perfect liberty regardless of the outside restriction. However, this typical approach to freedom by internal practice is not prevalently accepted. Isaiah Berlin, among most of the opponents of Stoic abjection, argues that the philosophy of Stoics enable freedom to be completely self-inflicted by eliminating the unfulfilled desires. It leads to the conclusion that freedom can simply be achieved by an individual suppressing ability of his desire. In this way, there will not be any outside obstacles that could potentially limit people’s freedom, thus rendering no necessity for politics in terms of improving freedom level in our physical outside world. Stoics seem to be blind to the physical outside world and completely focuses on the reverse side, the emotional and spiritual internal world.

We are socially constructed, if not determined by the organic whole society—structures, institutions, norms, rituals, and etc. Thus, the society is held accountable for increasing the holistic freedom level, in other words, lack of liberty is subjective to social repair. In keeping with the argument that human beings are social beings, Aristotle declares that he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.[9]

The representative of locating individual freedom into social context on the modern terrain is Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s Theory of Freedom tracks speculatively how artificially adaptable people are when he or she feels innately inferior to others. And this corrupted social order and differentials propel people to internalize the inequitable social structure. Hence, true freedom can only be achieved by rearranging the social structure with equal participation in that shaped social structure.[10]

Given that the above analyses are based on a properly functioning social mechanism, Nancy J. Hirschimann casts doubt on whether the social fabric itself is in need of repair. She agrees that the concept of ‘selves’ are socially constructed. She refers to the social constructivism as the window to see through “how social institutions, practices, cultural values, and roles create the pictures of reality and languages for interpretation.”[11] Those constructed reality and languages highly influence individual behaviors and self-understanding. The issue of ‘self’ prominently stands out in modern period due to the fact that materials, ideologies and other factors mold the social structures, which put us on “voluntary position” involuntarily. She has provided a series of examples to exemplify that the seemingly free choice is not free actually. One impressive example is about a woman who turns back to her abusive husband for the sake of her child’s benefit and due to financial pressure. This example leads us to reconsider whether the optimal choice was made in that situation, and to rethink the “free” decision-making process with the continuum of official power being exercised over us. Hirschmann emphasizes this dilemma, by pointing out, “We have failed to recognize the relationship between freedom and responsibility, that the freedom to choose entails taking responsibility for our choices.”

Additionally, she further questions the American military invasion with the freedom banner, “It may be fair to say that our foreign policy does not really care about the freedom for Middle Eastern people—‘exotic others’ who may not even be seen as fully human subjects entitled to liberty…For us, it seems, the ‘subject’ of liberty is an American”.[12] She formulates the concern that any worrisome unjustified intrusion can be implemented under the umbrella of freedom. In other words, we construct freedom for the pursuit of other values. It is crucial to note that we “create and participate in these constructions in more or less active and conscious ways.”[13]

In regards to the individual level of freedom from the social perspective, Kant negates the idea to fix social order. Instead, he argues that it be rearranged to where people can wish by their own discretion. He emphasizes that an entity’s value of desires and authentic desires in his philosophy align with the ‘categorical imperative’, the moral law, or the morality which declares the ultimate commandment of reason and explains obligation.[14] However, according to Hegel and Spinoza, the defense of self-realization is vital to freedom in terms of breaking through the internal constraints by natural reasoning capacity of human. To a certain extent, a person is not free to make mistakes. For instance, presume he or she made a mistake, he or she must have not acted according to the better judgment, and instead was influenced by the alternative temptations or unauthentic desires. Knowledge or truth therefore liberates us not only by offering more open possibilities but also by preserving us from the frustration of attempting the impossible.[15]

Charles Taylor takes another approach to unpack relations between the authentic desire and internal constraints. He argues that an impulsive act is symbolic of the internal constraint in that emotions are importantly attributed to factual behaviors. The capability to internalize the true value leads to freedom, or otherwise one cannot be free when one reflectively thinks of the choice one made and repudiates it later.[16] However, the self-realization understanding of liberating people from inner constraints is not invincible. One primary skeptical voice comes from the “second-guess problem,” which doubts the plausibility that other people know another individual’s authentic desire better than the individual knows oneself.

But nonetheless, I think it is progressive to involve the discussion of authentic desire and internal constraints regarding to the issue of freedom, even though it is debatable to some extent. The fact that those who are addicted to alcohol, drugs or anything they do not reflectively choose are not commonly perceived as free people. Therefore, this gives us good reason to count internal constraints as an obstacle to freedom. However, it is precarious to single out desires just for the reason that they are not authentic and are part of the internal restraints. A value hierarchy conclusion can be deduced by this arbitrary ruling-out that other acknowledged values are inferior to the supreme authentic desire, including but not limited to dignity, justice and self-esteem. The trade-off among plural values exists in diversified forms, such as people might trade freedom to rest for economic welfare, or people might forsake freedom to refuse testifying in the court for justice. In my perspective, value pluralism is adaptable in political context, namely that an array of values are equally important.


Kaini Li is a second-year graduate student in the master program of International Affairs at Penn State University. She speaks English, Mandarin Chinese and is familiar with German. Combining the in-depth training of finance, economics and analytical statistical modeling, with a solid command of fine arts, art history and a deep engagement with artistic practices, she is particularly interested in philosophy and aesthetics in the context of international dynamics.


[2] Akrasia, Ancient Greek ἀκρασία, “lacking command (over oneself)”), occasionally transliterated as acrasia, is the state of acting against one’s better judgment.

[3] Berlin I (1958) Two Concepts of Liberty Oxford University Press.

[4] Taylor C (2006) What’s wrong with negative liberty? In: Miller D (ed.) The Liberty Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] MacCallum G Jr (2006) Negative and positive freedom. In: Miller D (ed.) The Liberty Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[6] Taylor C (2006) What’s wrong with negative liberty? In: Miller D (ed.) The Liberty Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[7] Berlin I (1958) Two Concepts of Liberty Oxford University Press, p. 7.

[8] Epictetus (1983) The Enchiridion, VIII. Handbook of Epictetus, trans. Nicholas P. White, Hackett Publishing Company.

[9] Barker E (1995). The Politics of Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[10] Bertram C (2003) Rousseau and The Social Contract. London: Routledge.

[11] Hirschimann N (1992) A Feminist Method for Political Theory. Cornell University Press.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kant I (1998) Critique of Pure Reason. trans. and ed. by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood Cambridge University Press. p. 8-9.

[15] G. W. F. Hegel (1977) Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller Oxford: Clarendon. p.139-211.

[16] Taylor C (2006) What’s wrong with negative liberty? In: Miller D (ed.) The Liberty Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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