Blackmailed by Your Own Conscience

June 25, 2016

Sitting in the audience at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, at Juilian Baggini’s talk where he promotes his latest philosophical book, “Freedom Regained”, I began to wonder. He argues the fact that free will does exist. If you think about it, the answer to the age old debate, of whether free will exists or not, has huge implications on our legal system, science, religion, neurology and the answer to what makes us human.


What struck me most about his talk, was not the fact that free will exists, because I firmly believe it does, but instead the story Baggini relays about Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a Rwandan hotel during the 1994 genocide. Ruseabagina, despite no food, water, electricity, and the constant threat of being slashed to death by machetes, sheltered 1268 people, saving them from the massacre. Baggini, asks the audience what is it that made Rusesabagina choose this option, because logically if one was asked to choose between guaranteed self-preservation or risking one’s life with only the slim chance of saving more than a thousand others, then guaranteed self-preservation would be the obvious less risky choice. So why did Rusesabagina do it? Rusesabagina’s answer was that he had no choice, that he couldn’t live with himself any other way.


This led me to ask, ‘How do we become freer?’


If we look at the freedom of physical movement, there is a way in which we operate to gain optimal physical freedom. For example we move a lot faster if we use our feet to run, as opposed to our hands. This is dictated by physiology, skeletal structure and gravity.


I wonder if the same could be applied to the moral realm. Can we find a certain moral code that enables us to function at an optimal level, hence making us freer? Looking at experience I would argue there is. For example if you choose to lie, then in my experience you are less free, as you need to keep a track record of what you have told people, re think everything you say, and not to mention the weight of your conscience. Thus the moral code would dictate you are freer if you do not lie.  The same could be applied to other vices such as murder, stealing and cheating. I would suggest that the moral code that would allow us to be most free, would point us to do what is good. Is this really freedom, as in order to be free we have to do what is good?



Of course you can choose to be bad, but we have to live with the consequences, - which in this argument means dealing with the consequence of being less free. It’s as if we are being blackmailed by our own consciences. It would seem that Rusesabagina certainly experienced this, as he felt as if he didn’t choose the heroic “good” option, his conscience would plague him, hampering his freedom to the point where he thought he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.


You cry out I don’t want to be a slave of my conscience, but just like the fact that we can’t run faster on our hands, we can’t dull the voice of a good healthy conscience. We were made like that, just ask Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.


I was lucky to ask Baggini about this paradox during his talk. He agreed with me. He explained that perhaps we would be freer if we didn’t care about hurting other people’s feelings, but aren’t we glad we do care if we hurt others? Baggini concluded saying that yes sometimes our freedom can be hampered by what is right and good, but ultimately we are grateful for it, and I have to admit, there is that inescapable feeling we get from it.

What do you think?





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