Two months ago, I read Harry Browne's How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, a long out-of-print work of pop philosophy, once prominent in libertarian and objectivist circles. I often find myself thinking about Browne's ideas, many of which are unsound (e.g. his consequentialist morality), but others which seem rather revolutionary to me. Not that he is the first to espouse them -- but that they seem particularly insightful to me at this time.
Browne is principally concerned with the mental 'traps' that people find themselves in. These are self-imposed and inaccurate limitations that people maintain in their minds, like the proverbial elephant held in place by a weak chain.
The identity trap is the belief that you must be someone other than yourself; that you must adopt and conform to pre-existing identities, rather than invent one of your own. I remember as a young man identifying with geek subculture and intentionally trying to develop a taste in anime, which was much in vogue with local geeks. It never took, no matter how much money I spent. There are other, more serious identities that I have tried to nurture: American, Christian, evangelical, librarian, among other masks that I have wished myself to have and to project. But I don't have to impress anyone. I can just be myself.
The morality trap is that I must conform to an externally-provided moral code, instead of creating my own. No one has authority to dictate my moral code to me. I reject all authority over my life, for I am a sovereign individual. This was quite a reversal for me, for the "spiritual formation" processes of ministry and seminary directly taught and advocate submission to earthly authorities as a lifestyle. Richard Foster's discipline of submission is a good example of this line of thought. I'm contemplating Harry Browne's book in this very manner. Instead of thinking "How can I let this wise person influence and mentor me?", I'm asking "What's good in here? What's bad?" and tossing out the bad without a second thought.
Which brings us to one of the government traps; that there is a moral duty to obey the law -- any law. Browne rejects this notion, and so do I. The law and morality may overlap, but nothing is morally mandatory simply because it is legally mandatory, and vice versa. I might obey the law because it is moral, or I might obey it because I fear the consequences of disobeying it, but I need not obey it simply because it is the law. Now this is a trap that doesn't really effect me, as I had no plans to break any laws. This was not a barrier that ever really existed in my mind, as I never strongly attributed morality to government. But Browne explained clearly what was for me hazily intuitive.
A fourth trap was the unselfishness trap -- that I have a moral duty to help others. Now I think that Browne goes too far on this one, but it is helpful that he attacks selflessness at the conceptual level. It is a critique that, to my knowledge, does not exist outside of objectivism, and all assumptions should be questioned. I still think that it is good to be generous to those in need, if for no other reason than an awareness that at some point, each of us is flat on his back and in need of a hand up (which I suppose is not really an argument for selflessness, but selfishness). So I'm unsure of what to make of this trap, but for the moment, I think that it's important that when I am selfless, it is because I desire to do so, not because I feel a moral duty imposed by others to do so.
Related to this trap is the burning issue trap/utopia trap, which is that there is some immediate social, moral, political issue which requires collective action and sacrifice in order to make the world a better place. I don't think that there is. Right now, I think that I'll take care of myself and my family, and let the world burn down around me, if need be. This is because I'm not convinced that there really are any hobgoblins to fight (to apply H.L. Mencken's perspective more broadly). Also, as Browne points out, crusaders tend to end up exhausted with little to show for it. Certainly I have spent much of my life in various causes, and have not accomplished much, for myself or anyone else.
Browne's insight was that there was no issue or cause greater than himself. I like that idea. Browne takes it too far. In his desire for 'freedom', he abandoned his wife and, worse, his daughter. I see myself as obligated to my wife, as I chose to marry her, and to my daughter, as I chose to bring her into the world. And, for that matter, neither have ever acted in a way unworthy of my obligation. So I would tentatively say that there is no cause greater than myself and my family, which is a far smaller circle of obligations than I have ever imposed on myself than before.
I may occasionally talk about political issues here, and at other fora. But I'm very intentionally avoiding any movements because my focus should be on myself and my family, and nothing else. I do not give money to any cause nor march in the streets for any controversy.
Now let's flip the concept of 'obligation' on its head and proceed to another trap that Browne describes: the rights trap. This was particularly hard for me to accept (although the first time I read it, I knew that it was true) because it was very counter to how I have envisioned the world as long as I can remember. What Browne means is this: rights don't exist. At all. You either have something, or you don't. If someone steals the fresh milk bottles off your porch in the morning (Browne wrote this book a long time ago when there was still home milk delivery), you may get angry at the thief. You may deliver eloquent speeches from your front porch about the evils of thievery, and how this person has violated your right to property. But none of this will bring your milk back.
Having a sense of one's rights necessarily brings one into unhappiness because one cannot always take and hold those rights. Here's a personal example: I think that the Church has wronged me, and therefore must compensate me in various ways in order to have me back. This is a different statement from saying that I think that the Church has wronged me, and therefore must compensate me for its violation of my rights. I can write long, angry speeches, letters, or blog posts about the wickedness of the Church, and incessantly present demands to the Church about its obligation to pay me back, and harangue Church leaders to repent, but none of these things will actually result in justice. The Church is very unlikely to respond to anything other than force, and as I have no force to bring to bear, I'm better off trying to avoid getting suckered in the future, rather than demanding that the world conform to my view of my rights. Now if I ever, say, acquire pictures of Bishop Timothy Whitaker having sex with a chimpanzee (especially a male chimpanzee) then I would have some force to offer and could probably extract said compensation. But I can't even envision a scenario in which that would happen.
You have what you have because you have it, not because it is your right to have it. You can get what you can get not because it is your right to get it, but because you can get it. 'Rights' have nothing to do with reality.
Wheh! That was a long explanation. But that's because my mind has long been attuned to issues of right and wrong, nobility and wickedness, and just and unjust causes. It's part of my personality.
Lastly, there is the despair trap. Browne writes about how to find freedom in an unfree world. It'd be nice if each of us could be completely free from all impingements upon our freedom to rule our own lives. But this is pretty much impossible. Browne himself admits that he is not completely free. But he writes that a lot of people, because they cannot be completely free, do nothing to become freer. Because they cannot have perfection in this life, they do not try for improvement. For example, a person may feel crushed by a poisonous marriage and a toxic job, but because she does not think that she can be free of both of these problems, she does not to relieve herself of one of them. The hypothetical perfect becomes the enemy of the realistic better.
That's what I'm trying to do: become freer. I'll graduate from seminary in December (I'm in now only because I'll bump up on my employer's payscale when I graduate; enough money to make it worth my while). I intend to celebrate, in traditional Asbury Theological Seminary fashion, by getting roaring drunk. I may even get out my hookah and smoke some tobacco. I may not become completely free in December, but I would have crossed one master off my list. And that's a damn good thing.