The Failure of Freedom: Clive Hamilton’s Freedom Paradox

14 03 2009

“The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.” –  Thucydides

Why, after two centuries of unprecedented expansion of wealth and liberty in the Western world, are so many of us left feeling unfulfilled? Were not these liberties meant to unshackle us from oppressions of mind and body and allow us to flourish according to our own unique capacities?


At least, that was the idea. Yet people today are on average no happier than their parents or grandparents, despite possessing many times more wealth. Major depression is also on the rise in developed nations, peaking in the United States, the very paragon of a free society. Odd.

This conundrum is the topic of Clive Hamilton’s latest book, The Freedom Paradox (unmistakable in its shockingly Spartan red cover), which I finished, and thoroughly enjoyed, reading recently.

Hamilton seeks to establish a ‘post-secular ethics’ – an endeavour that deserves much more attention than it currently receives – care of a re-imagining of the metaphysics of Kant and Schopenhauer. But while his analysis of contemporary popular culture is insightful, and his perspective on metaphysics refreshing, I feel his attachment to Kant to be a hindrance to his ultimate end. In fact, were it not for the taint of Kant, his views are strikingly similar to my own.

The first part of the book is devoted to the apparent paradox that we now enjoy more freedoms than ever before, yet we’re no generally no happier than we were 50 to 100 years ago. In fact, in some ways, we’re even less happy – afflicted by self-doubt, status envy, a lack of meaning in our lives and an inability to achieve genuine wellbeing.

Hamilton puts this down to a misinterpretation of what it means to be free; not all freedoms are created equal, and we’ve been worshiping at the wrong idol all this time. Hamilton draws on American psychologist, Martin Seligman’s, three-fold conception of wellbeing to frame this discussion. These are:

  • The pleasant life – characterised by material and sensual pleasures
  • The good life – characterised by maximising one’s capabilities through endeavour and achievement
  • The meaningful life – characterised by a sense of connectedness to a greater whole

Hamilton posits that the original conception of individual freedom was intended to allow each person to pursue their own ends, thus giving them the opportunity to find their own happiness – ultimately reaching the meaningful life. However, while greater wealth and freedom have certainly allowed us to experience the pleasant life more than ever, it has come at the cost of the good life and the meaningful life. As a result, we’re told we’re free, but we’re living a hollow existence filled with temporary pleasures without satisfying deeper needs.

This is because of a classic pincer movement that has warped liberty. On one hand has been the erosion of an external moral or social compass – such as the church might have been a century ago. This has left it up to each individual to determine their own values and pursue them at their leisure.

The second has been the startling success of consumer culture in appealing to our more base pleasures. So, in lieu of any institution warning us from over indulgence or encouraging us to look beyond transient pleasures, advertising and marketing has stepped in to fill the void. Yet the values that are represented by consumer culture are typically not those that lead to the good or meaningful life.


Adding my own spin to Hamilton’s diagnosis of our problems, I don’t think it’s any surprise that mainstream culture has become embroiled in the pursuit of earthly pleasures. For buried deep within human nature is a set of buttons that evolved to encourage us to seek certain things and avoid others. Sex, sweet and fatty foods, status, popularity, fear of outsiders and many other buttons dominate our lives far more than we might acknowledge. For while we might justify that purchase of a new luxury car by referring to its safety record or we might choose a certain pub to drink at because it has a nice atmosphere – in actuality, under the surface, our status and sex buttons are being pushed, encouraging us to do what we do.

These buttons have not gone unnoticed by advertising and marketing companies either. It’s no accident sex sells. In fact, it has been one of the unheralded triumphs of psychology in the 20th century – marketing companies know more about how to motivate our behaviour than we might give them credit for. They just don’t publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals.

Thus we have the conundrum in which we find ourselves. Greater freedom hasn’t led to people moving on from satisfying ‘base needs’ to satisfying ‘higher needs’. On the contrary, greater freedom and wealth has led to us becoming lost in the world of transient sensory pleasures under the mistaken impression that these will lead to true happiness.


In a curious twist – one only glanced at by Hamilton, but of deep interest to me – it appears both socialism and liberalism were chasing the same dream of human flourishing based on contrary false assumptions. Both held the idea that once each person is unshackled from subsistence labour – either through sharing the means of production to ensure equal share of the wealth, or through removing the barriers to personal endeavour and the generation of wealth – we would somehow ‘evolve’, transcending the trivial sensory pleasures and seeking higher pursuits – art, philosophy, culture. With security, comfort and wealth would come benevolence, patience, and a care for common man. Both Marx and Smith allude to this end.

And yet both ideologies were wrong. Liberalism failed by assuming we would move beyond our base urges towards ‘higher’ pursuits. Socialism failed in this way, but also in its belief that collective enterprise could unshackle each of us from daily toil.

So it turns out both were fundamentally flawed. Yet liberalism, and to a lesser extent socialism, are still the dominant ideologies promoted today as being the models for society. With what can we replace them? This is what Hamilton moves on to next.


Now that Hamilton has analysed the conundrum of contemporary society, he seeks to present an alternative perspective on freedom – one that directs us towards true happiness not its vacuous shadow.

To do this Hamilton delves into metaphysics – specifically Kant and Schopenhauer. He spends some time drawing the distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds – a cornerstone of Kant’s philosophy.

The phenomenal can also be thought of as appearance – those things that present themselves to the senses. Contrasting this is the noumenal – those things-in-themselves from which phenomena spring. This is only a cursory description, however, and there are many caveats and details to the theory of the phenomenon/noumenon that Hamilton touches upon.

One detail that I think Hamilton gets right is the way he treats knowledge of the noumenal. Earlier Greek conceptions of the noumenal characterised it as ‘that which is thought’ in contrast with the phenomenal, which was ‘that which is perceived’. Thus the ideal abstract triangle existed in the noumenal world, while every rough example we see exists in the phenomenal world. As such, we can have knowledge of the noumenal through thought alone.

However – and Kant makes this point – this is an incorrect characterisation of noumenal as ‘things in themselves’. Under this conception, noumenal things can never be perceived, and we can never have knowledge of them. Except in one special circumstance.

Here Hamilton takes a very welcome detour into Eastern philosophy and draws on some insights from which I think many Western philosophers could learn. There is one way in which we can have knowledge of the world-in-itself. Briefly, this is because we are in the world-in-itself. We are just as much a part of it as anything. As such, we can have direct experience of the noumenal – with some caveats. The main one is as soon as we think about the noumenal, it collapses into the phenomenal, for any object of thought is inevitably abstracted from the noumenal into the phenomenal realm.

Hamilton parallels this with the descriptions of nirvana and satori that populate Eastern philosophy – those moments when all becomes clear, when we see beyond the fragmented world of phenomena and ‘see’ the whole, undivided noumenal world, of which we are a seamless part.


What’s this got to do with freedom? Hamilton goes on in Part 3 of his book to suggest that true freedom comes from making contact with the noumenal in this way. We see beyond the phenomenal to ‘reality’.

When we do touch the noumenal, we dissolve into the universe. All distinctions erode and are seen as artificial – things we impose on the world rather than being part of the world itself. And in doing so we can have access to some kind of universal knowledge – a knowledge from which we can derive universal moral principles. For universal moral principles cannot possibly be derived from the phenomenal world, it being fickle, illusory and unreliable. Kant is famous for his derision of moral psychology as being simply describing our flawed moral thinking rather than prescribing the moral universals that we should follow.

Hamilton goes on to elaborate some of these universal moral principles at length, one being compassion. Hamilton suggests that when we see our ‘true’ selves, our ‘noumenal’ selves, we acknowledge that the distinction between us and the rest of the universe – including other people – is illusory. As such, we should see them as we see us – extensions of a greater whole. Compassion then comes readily, for concern for others is just the same as concern for ourselves.

There are others that Hamilton characterises, but I’d like to pause on his concept of compassion as derived from our noumenal self to see if it is the best characterisation of its origin.

On one hand, I agree with Hamilton’s metaphysics – that in reality the distinction between things, including us and other people, is illusory. However, I disagree with Hamilton – and Kant’s – rejection of the phenomenal being the source of morality.

Hamilton himself uses terms like ‘moral intuition’, and these aren’t necessarily intuitions stemming from the noumenal. They are intuitions that are somehow part of our human nature. On page 147 he even suggests that people who violate their moral principles see themselves as betraying their nature – they become ‘less human’.

But their human nature is phenomenal. These intuitions are phenomenal. They are not universal, rational guiding principles, but intuitions that roughly guide behaviour, encouraging us towards certain things and away from others – like the evolutionary buttons I mentioned above.

One of these buttons is empathy. We have evolved a button that triggers feelings of empathy in certain circumstances. And when triggered, we are more likely to behave in such a way as to assist the object of our empathy even to the detriment of ourselves.

This is not based on some universal law. This is an intuition that evolved to encourage pro-social behaviour, and thus benefit our survival. And that’s all phenomenon.

This doesn’t diminish the fact that a noumenal perspective might also encourage empathy or compassion by identifying others with us – but I would strongly suggest that the vast majority of compassionate acts are motivated by our evolutionary button rather than a noumenal insight.

In fact, if anything, I’d suggest the noumenal world is amoral. Morality, like other phenomena, are things that we project into the phenomenal world – “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. Things in the noumenal world are. Only things in the phenomenal world should be. And only from the perspective of a phenomenal entitiy.

Let’s take the example of death. In the noumenal world death is neither good or bad, it’s simply a part of the way things are. Yet if, in the phenomenal world, we were to consider death trivial, then we may not work to preserve the lives of ourselves and others. Were this the case, then any patterns of behaviour that are inherited – whether through genes or memes – would disappear over time.

On the other hand, if we considered death to be something worth avoiding, we might work to preserve our lives and the lives of others. If that’s the case, then any behaviours – or intuitions, or evolved buttons – that encourage survival might live on through the generations. Intuitions that promote pro-social behaviour, for example. Moral intuitions.

But, so too, would other intuitions that promoted survival, perhaps self-interested intuitions, kill-or-be-killed intuitions. And it could be the interplay and tension between these self-interested and pro-social intuitions that characterises morality as we know it. All this is incorporated into evolutionary intuitive ethics, which I’m developing for my PhD thesis.


So where does this leave The Freedom Paradox? I think Hamilton has done an excellent job of detailing the reasons why many of us feel unfulfilled today, despite our bountiful freedom and relative wealth.

I also applaud his excursion into the phenomenon/noumenon distinction, especially tying it in with Eastern philosophy. Should more philosophers take such a perspective on metaphysics, I believe many of the existing metaphysical problems would show themselves as false dead ends, hardly worthy of the thousands of man-hours that are wasted on them today.

However, I think Hamilton’s jump from the noumenal to the moral is a leap too far. Even with the examples Hamilton cites, I believe alternative views, such as evolutionary intuitive ethics, offer a better description and explanation of them – and can even offer a solution to Hamilton’s original conundrum.

For we have many evolved intuitions – many evolutionary buttons. Certainly sex, food, status, fear etc are strong – and they’re preyed upon by consumer culture mercilessly. But they’re not the only evolved intuitions. We also have empathy, compassion, fairness, justice, love etc. These might not sell as many tubs of anti-aging cream, but they are just as potent as the other intuitions.

If we could somehow construct a post-secular ethics that acknowledges the existence of these intuitions, and encourages their promotion; something that gives each of us an external moral compass, such as that cooperation benefits everyone; something that warns against the inappropriate pushing of other buttons, such as the ‘fear of the outsider’ to generate quick political points; something that uses a deep understanding of psychology to tell us what will really make us happy; and to warn us from pursuing transient pleasures that will only leave us less content; to warn us from believing the hype – and values – promoted by consumer culture; something that can be shared by all humanity without resorting to superstition or religion; then that’s a post-secular ethics to which I’d subscribe. And I’d work to my dying day spreading the word.

In the mean time, The Freedom Paradox is well worth a read. Even if, like me, you don’t subscribe to a neo-Kantian ethics, Hamilton makes great strides in considering the plight of modern society, and any discussion of its improvement will surely be of benefit to all.




6 responses

17 03 2009

In the ideas of freedom and liberty, there are two closely akin but distinct concepts. One is liberty from restraint. It is the subject of, inter alia, John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”. It is the my liberty which ends where I infringe your liberty. The other concept is the freedom to attempt something. A prior and necessary condition of that freedom is liberty from restraint preventing the attempt; but the additional necessary condition of exercising that freedom is willingnes to consider exercising it. For convenience, I depart from the overlap of common usage; and refer to liberty and to freedom respectively in those two distict senses.

We are creatures who learn (could the most relevant aspect of philosophy, that subject where we forever ‘pass out through that same door by which in we went’, be that it teaches us to learn?). Once we acquire liberties, we need time to lrearn to use them for those exercises of our freedoms which we will find more and more satifactory. We need time to identify the freedoms most worth attrempting to exercise, and we generally identify them by a process of trial and disappointment. That time tends to be measured in generations.

One set of liberties is that provided by increasing wealth. It is a common observation that ‘old money’ gets greater lasting satisfaction from its wealth than ‘new money’. The newly monied mostly respond first to the more urgent of their urges (the more prominent of the buttons that evolution and history have programmed into us). Those accustomed to wealth learn – slowly – that these initial responses deliver benefits that do not satisfy for long. They therefore explore the possibilities to find more satisfying freedoms to exercise. (For individuals, it is possible to short circuit the learning process. As a poor youth, I noted that ‘old money’ got better value from what they had than ‘new money’. I therefore conciously copied old money attitudes when i did not have the money. I recommend the resulting improvrment in quality of life.)

Through a similar process, I judge that societies which ahave long generalised other liberties have usually learnt how to exercise the resulting freedoms to greater benefit than those for whom he liberties are still new. But this is no more than an impression. Testing the hypothesis against systematic observation could be a potentially useful, if demanding, exercise for social scientists. (Ways and means for speeding up the learning process for such societies could be very valuable, should the hypothesis hold up.)

How does this viewpoint differ from Hamilton’s perspective? I guess the main differences can be expressed in Seligman’s categories. Hamilton and I take similar views on what has been achieved in reducing the unpleasantnesses of life. I would say that the evidence already shows that people are using their new freedoms to develop their capacities and achievements more fully than ever before: more and more of us are living rather more of whatSeligman would call the good life. I would also say that we are still at the beginning of exploring the freedoms we now have to choose, and create, greater wholes and our ways of connecting to them (is this a reflection on the development and potential of online communities?).

I appreciate your perspective on the distinction betwen noumenal and phenomenal. It is fresh, I think.

18 03 2009
Tim Dean

Interesting comments. I like your distinction between liberty and freedom – on my old blog I actually wrote about something similar after seeing American historian, Eric Foner, give a speech here in Sydney:

Although I don’t know if I can agree that the evidence shows people living more of the good life these days. Certainly, there is strong encouragement for each of us to achieve as much as possible, starting in school.

However, I think this suffers from the ‘Michael Jordan Effect’, where famous and successful people repeat the sentiment that ‘with a lot of hard work, you too can be a champion’, which is plain false. A lot of people without Jordan’s genes put in a lot of hard work and they didn’t become champions. Or people with Jordan-quality genes and hard work took risks, and they didn’t pay off.

I feel the good life has been promoted poorly – with the result that many of us feel as though we’re not achieving as much as we should. We envy the rich, famous and successful without appreciating our own lives. The good life should be more about maximising our potential in a psychologically fulfilling way rather than about material achievements. But I digress.

Ultimately, I think freedom is desperately misunderstood and overrated. In my eyes, freedom should be more about being able to ‘do what you choose’ rather than ‘choose what you do’. The former is psychologically satisfying, the latter – the popular conception – is often psychologically taxing.

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